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
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.
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."
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
"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"
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.
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