The Rydberg Religion, pt. I

The Rydberg Religion, pt. II

The Rydberg Religion, pt. III

Scholars on Rydberg

Rydberg and Race



Rydberg and Race

It is no surprise that Viktor Rydberg’s 19th-century "Aryan" fantasy, Undersökningar i germanisk mythologi (UGM) is promoted today on white nationalist and "folkish" (i.e., völkisch) web sites and discussion lists. But was UGM inherently a racist tract, and would the author himself be considered a racist if he were writing today?

Rydberg’s modern-day apologists advance three mutually inconsistent arguments in response to charges of racism. First, they contend, Rydberg’s obsession with an "ancient Aryan race," its imagined northern European homeland (urheimat) and its fictive mythology was innocent of any racial overtones, since the author supposedly used the term "Aryan" merely as a synonym for "Indo-European." Moreover, his followers point out, Rydberg was considered to be a Christian liberal humanist, and persons aligned with the political Left cannot be racists, by definition. Finally, they have been known to assert, everyone in 19th-century Europe was racist, and Rydberg was no worse in this regard than anyone else. None of these defenses holds up under scrutiny.

Just as Rydberg himself did, his modern acolytes fall into the error of interpreting the past through the lens of their own culture. In Europe and America since World War II, anti-Semitism and other forms of racism have been associated almost exclusively with right-wing political views. For much of the 19th century, however, no such correspondence existed. As Marvin Perry points out in his 1994 study of racial nationalism and antisemitism, "[i]n the first half of the nineteenth century, nationalism and liberalism went hand in hand" (Perry: 244). Race theory, the conceptual division of humanity into a variety of racial categories, which are then ranked according to the evaluator’s standards of merit, had only emerged in the first half of that century, and radical Leftists such as Proudhon and Bakunin were among the fiercest European anti-Semites. In Rydberg’s time, race theory was still widely embraced by elements of the Left, and his own writing would help contribute to the "racial hygiene" movement that would lead to Sweden’s horrific program of forced sterilization for politically disfavored elements of society – a program that would be implemented not by any of the country’s three National Socialist parties, but by the welfare-state Social Democrats. (See Broberg & Tydén, Dotti; Eckerwald; Itzkoff & Lynn; Pedersen.)

Initially, racial groupings were based on commonalities of culture, history, and especially language. The modern conception of race as biologically determined gained prominence only toward the end of the 19th century, helped along by Rydberg’s paeans to the imagined nobility of Aryan blood, skulls, and physique. Language, in particular, was viewed by nineteenth-century philologists as an ethnic trait, the Volkstimme. The character of a language was believed to match the character of those who spoke it. Thus, comparative philology was originally seen as the key to racial-national origins and affinities. (See Day: 14.)

It was in this spirit that the terms "Indo-European" and "Indo-Germanic" were coined, as early as 1810, to describe the hypothesized speakers of the reconstructed common ancestor of modern European languages. (Id.) Yet outside the academy, the popular imagination was captured, as was Rydberg’s, by the notion that the ancient language must have been spoken by a particular race, and that this mythical race, being the progenitor of modern, white Europeans, must have been noteworthy for its nobility. From this flawed premise sprang the concept of an "ancient Aryan race" (from a PIE root designating nobility), which Rydberg came to associate first with Roman descriptions of the physical characteristics of the Germanic tribes, then with Nordic physiology, and finally with Swedes.

Even as Rydberg wrote, scholars like Saloman Reinach were explaining to all who would listen that a proto-Indo-European language "may well have developed without its speakers having racial homogeneity; and even if an Aryan race did exist three thousand years ago, nobody could say that it does now, after numerous racial crossings" (Day:38). Similarly, the pioneering comparative philologist Max Müller could have been speaking of Rydberg when he forcefully repudiated the growing, academically uninformed belief in "Aryan blood and skulls." But academic opinion on this subject carried little weight with Rydberg, whose introduction to UGM meticulously sets out the distribution of "Aryan skulls" in Europe, and hails Scandinavia as the land where Aryan blood remained largely unpolluted by less noble racial strains. (Rydberg:18-19).

To be sure, Rydberg invented none of this. The writer’s confusion of language with race was typical of the European racial nationalism that emerged in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, and the imaginary Aryan race had begun to be linked to Nordic traits in the 1870s, in the writing of Gobineau and his peers. (Day: 17). Even Rydberg’s placement of the ancient Aryan homeland in Scandinavia was anticipated as early as 1842 by the English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (albeit the latter’s work was admittedly fictional). (Day: 34.) "The idea that there are superior Nordic virtues is common in Swedish tradition and is rooted in the classics and in Viking history and Gothic traditions" (Broberg & Tydén: 81). In some ways, this aspect of Scandinavian racial nationalism is reminiscent of Olaf Rudbeck’s Atlantica, which claimed that Swedish was the original language of mankind, rather than Hebrew, as was then generally believed.

Racial nationalists of Rydberg’s time "erected a cult of ancestors and a mystique of blood, soil, and a sacred national past. In these ancestral traditions and attachments, the nationalist found a higher reality akin to religious truth" (Perry: 245). Moreover, the creative impulse behind UGM, the appropriation of Old Norse mythology, imaginatively revised, for the "Aryan race," was inescapably racist in conception. As Heather O’Donoghue points out, "Norse mythology – not on account of its actual subject matter, but simply as a subject in itself – was (and is) held in high regard by those who want(ed) to claim a Nordic ethnic origin, and this in itself is a racist impulse." (O’Donoghue: 146.)

By expressly rejecting the widely accepted terms "Indo-European" or "Indo-Germanic" as descriptive of his project, and persistently identifying his fictive mythology with an equally fictive "Aryan race," Rydberg was sending his readership an unambiguous message. "In general parlance, ‘Aryans’ stood for white Gentiles, as opposed to ‘Semites,’ which stood for Jews" (Day: 36). The Aryan myth that Rydberg promoted in UGM "enabled race-thinkers and anti-Semites to view the Jews as alien in race, language, religion, and civilization, and as unbridgeably separate from Europeans" (Perry: 248). As Rydberg himself put it, comparative philology had shown European Aryans and Semites to be separated "by a chasm so broad and deep that it is hardly possible to bridge it" (Rydberg: 4). While Rydberg was carefully copying into UGM the latest tables of "Aryan" versus "non-Aryan" skull measurements, clear-visioned writers like Lapouge warned that "in the twentieth century millions would be slaughtered for having their cephalic index wrong by one or two degrees" (Id.).

The anti-Semitism that is implicit in UGM sometimes boiled to the surface in other of Rydberg’s works. The most striking example is his use of the "wicked Jew" motif in his poem, Prometeus och Ahasverus, which contrasts the nobility of the Aryan fire-giver, Prometheus, with the craven Jew, Ahasverus. In late 19th-century European literature Ahasverus was a stock figure, "the wicked or wandering Jew . . . who, without compassion, sped Jesus along to his crucifixion. For his deed, Ahasverus is condemned to rove aimlessly and eternally, country to country" (Brustein: 56).

As Mosse explains, "the legend of the wandering Jew exemplified the curse laid upon that race by Christ himself. ... The medieval tale of the "wicked Jew" (as Ahasverus was often called) did not fade in the nineteenth century, but instead became symbolic of the cursed fate of the Jewish people" Mosse: 196).

In Rydberg’s poem, Ahasverus tempts Prometheus to compromise his nobility by begging Zeus for forgiveness. "Rydberg presents Ahasverus as a cynic who has made himself subject to worldly power and who hates Jesus, the god of eternity, since the latter fights to create a better world for the oppressed" (Arvidsson: 103-104 n.11). This work exemplified 19th-century Christian anti-Semitism, which portrayed a "distorted image of the Jew as at once a contemptible creature and a dangerous power" (Perry: 241-42).

Notwithstanding such glimpses, Rydberg’s racism is, to a large extent, shrouded from modern view by shifting terminology. In the writer’s day, an important manifestation of racial and cultural intolerance was expressed in the supposed superiority of "Hellenic" culture over "Orientalism." As Harry G. Carlson points out:

"New theories of social evolution encouraged the racist assumption that Asian and African civilizations were lower on the evolutionary scale than Western civilization. Artists and intellectuals took sides in a clash of attitudes that continues more than a century later. The difference is that today terms like ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Hellenism’ have been replaced by ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘Eurocentrim,’ expressing the conflict between those who advocate a greater emphasis on the diversity of contributions to human culture and those eager to protect the integrity of uniquely European traditions from this perceived threat."

(Carlson: 229). In this clash, Rydberg was a vociferous champion of Hellenism. Indeed, "Rydberg also revealed some of the political and even racist overtones of the issue. The preface to his popular 1859 novel The Last Athenian describes the principal feature of the ‘Oriental type’ as ‘a pious submissiveness to external authority’" (Id.: 230). Carlson goes on to recognize:

"Of course, Rydberg was only expressing in politically idealistic terms what was basically an arrogant, widely accepted attitude about the right – even responsibility (‘the white man’s burden’) – of Caucasians to dominate Asians."

Rydberg’s fervid advocacy of Hellenism reached its apex in his last publication, the incendiary essay, Den hvitarasens framtid ("The Future of the White Race"). This work was written as an introduction to the Swedish edition of Benjamin Kidd’s popular exposition of Social Darwinism, Social Evolution. Both Kidd and Rydberg believed, like mainstream Social Darwinists, "that nations and races were engaged in a struggle for survival in which only the fittest survive and deserve to survive" (Perry: 245). This belief fueled Kidd’s argument that the "advanced European peoples" were thoroughly justified in their exploitation and enslavement of the "backward races," since by exposing the latter to greater "social efficiency" – and particularly, to more advanced religious beliefs – the Europeans were ipso facto "elevating" the "inferior races" (Kidd: 318-27).

In particular, Kidd argued that

"the difference between the ‘restless, aggressive, high-pitched life’ of the white races and that of the ‘careless, shiftless, easily satisfied negro of the United States or the West Indies’ was indelible and only growing larger (p. 56). Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, was in full agreement, and his response documents how convenient this sort of ideology could be. ‘I was greatly delighted with the treatment [in Kidd’s Social Evolution] of the "nigger problem," and to be fortified in my faith that our occupation of India and Egypt is only "a part of the cosmic order of things which we have no power to alter"!’"

(Gay: 545 n.34).  That Rydberg thought it important to introduce Kidd’s book to a new, Swedish audience speaks for itself with respect to Rydberg’s orientation on questions of race.  In this essay,

"Rydberg envisioned European culture being overthrown by the Chinese. He predicted that the downfall would come in the very near future and would come about because of moral degeneration, demographic conditions, and the ensuing defects in the population"

(Broberg & Tydén: 79). In contrast to Kidd’s comparatively upbeat theme of the civilizing force of white Europeans, Rydberg foresaw only calamity, with white culture being swamped under the onslaught of teaming hordes of Asiatics. (See Dotti: 58.)

"The Future of the White Race" featured a preoccupation with moral and physical racial degeneration that resonated strongly with Rydberg’s readers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and helped spark the "racial hygiene" movement in Sweden, particularly through the intermediary of Herman Lundborg. (See Pedersen: 26, 41, 94.) Lundborg, as director of Sweden’s State Institute for Racial Biology, directly tapped into Rydberg’s racial themes in promoting a comprehensive program of eugenics, including the forced sterilization of those classified by the government as unfit for the nation’s racial stock. At the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, Lundborg proudly set forth the institute’s mission under a banner quoting one of Rydberg’s poems: "To Aryan blood, the purest and noble, was I wed by a friendly Norn" (Pred: 137; Dotti:78). (This was actually an abbreviated version of Rydberg’s original verse, which drove home even more bluntly the racial-nationalist point that the "Aryan blood" which the poet celebrated was specifically that of Swedish Aryans.)

Beginning just four years after the summer when Rydberg’s paean to Aryan blood was displayed at the Exposition, Sweden under the Social Democrats conducted 63,000 forced sterilizations. (Ekerwald: 3.) Endorsed by leading left-wing personalities of the time and drawing its inspiration in part from Rydberg’s writing, this policy of social hygiene led to the forced sterilization of a greater proportion of the "non-Aryan" Swedish population than the Nazis were able to accomplish within Germany. (Itzkoff & Lynn, 2001: 28.) Ultimately, this doctrine "provided the ‘scientific’ and ‘ethical’ justification for genocide" (Perry: 245).

Taking the long view of European racial ideology from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries, Rydberg’s work falls squarely on a trajectory leading from Herder to Hitler. This is not to say that Rydberg was, at any point in his career, an intellectual leader or diving force in the racial-nationalist movement. However, he assimilated racist themes and worldviews (as exemplified, e.g., in his tables of "Aryan" cranial measurements, his anti-Semitic poetry, and his despairing essay on the white race’s prospects of survival), integrated them into his work, and passed them on to admirers like Lundborg, who took a more "hands-on" approach to restoring and preserving the health of the racial stock.

The on-line racist and neo-Nazi venues that promote Rydberg’s fictive "Aryan mythology" today may know little of this historical background, but they instinctively recognize that Rydberg’s work resonates with their concerns for upholding the purity and nobility of "Aryan" culture.  The modern-day White Supremacist or National Socialist does not need to probe very deeply to find comfort and support in Rydberg’s work.  On the other hand, UGM and derivative "essays" by Rydberg’s acolytes are also featured on a number of websites that engage in astonishing rhetorical evasions to maintain a pretense of non-racism.  Whether these advocates are simply being disingenuous, or honestly lack the historical awareness to understand the significance of the material they promote, is a question that can only be answered with time and learning.


Works Cited:

Arvidsson, Stefan (2006). Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science (Sonia Wichmann, trans.).

Broberg, Gunnar, and Mattias Tydén (1996). "Eugenics in Sweden: Efficient Care," in Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland 77-150 (Gunnar Broberg & Nils Roll-Hansen, eds.).

Brustein, William I. (2003). Roots of Hate: Anti-Semitism in Europe Before the Holocaust.

Carlson, Harry G. (1996). Out of Inferno: Strindberg’s Reawakening as an Artist.

Colla, Piero (2002). "Race, Nation, and Folk: On the Repressed Memory of World War II in Sweden and Its Hidden Categories," in Culture and Crisis: The Case of Germany and Sweden (Nina Witoszek & Lars TrägDrdh, eds.), pp. 131-54.

Day, John V. (1994). "The Concept of the Aryan Race in Nineteenth-Century Scholarship." Orpheus, vol. 4, pp. 13-41.

Dotti, Luca (2004). L’utopia eugenetica del welfare state svedese, 1934-1975.

Eckerwald, Hedvig (1999). Sweden and Sterilization. A Review of a Dissertation in History.

Gay, Peter, The Cultivation of Hatred: The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud (1993).

Itzkoff, Seymour W., and Richard Lynn (2001). Eugenics: A Reassessment.

Kidd, Benjamin, Social Evolution (1894).

MacMaster, Neil (2001). Racism in Europe, 1870-2000.

Mosse, George L. (2000). "The Jews: Myth and Counter-Myth," in Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader 195 (Les Back & John Solomos, eds., 2000).

O’Donoghue, Heather (2005). From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths.

Pedersen, Helge (2003). "Gud har skapat svarta och vita människor, jäfvulen derimot halfnegeren." En komparativ analyse av Jon Alfred Mjren og Herman Lundborgs rasehygieniske ideer i Norge og Sverige ca. 1990-1935.

Perry, Marvin (1994). "Racial Nationalism and the Rise of Modern Antisemitism," in Jewish-Christian Encounters over the Centuries: Symbiosis, Prejudice, Holocaust, Dialogue (Marvin Perry & Frederick M. Schweitzer, eds.).

Pred, Allan, Recognizing European Modernities: A Montage of the Present (1995).

Rydberg, Viktor (1889). Teutonic Mythology.

(c) 2007.  All rights reserved.