Camillo Berneri and the Racist Delirium, by Luciano Nicolini (n°103)
(translation by Coopit)
An essay, “The Racist Delirium”, edited by Alberto Cavaglion, has recently been published. It appears in a collection of articles by Berneri entitled “Mussolini grande attore. Scritti su razzismo, dittatura e psicologia delle masse”. (1)
Frequently overlooked by Berneri scholars, and even more frequently by anthropologists, the text was written in Paris in November 1934 and appears, on the whole, extraordinarily modern, especially when one considers that, during the same period, Italian anthropology was leaning more and more towards racist theories and that only a little later, at scientific congresses, it would begin to talk of “the unchangeable mental inferiority of coloured citizens, linked to racial causes, with which it would be dangerous to contaminate oneself”(Cipriani, 1938).(2)
Camillo Berneri launches himself against such xenophobia with fervour, not only on the basis of ethical and political considerations, but also employing all the scientific knowledge available at the time, thereby demonstrating an unusual familiarity with the subject.
The essay begins with a brief introduction on the establishment of racist views in Germany: the date is, as already stated, 1934; shortly before, on 25th March 1933, Goering, the Reich’s Minister for Internal Affairs, had proudly declared that “Antisemitism clearly belongs in the National Socialist party manifesto and the way in which it has fashioned the storm troopers demonstrates that each member of these units can look at Professor Einstein and feel racially superior”. Mussolini, however, at that time was still sniggering, stating that “There is no pure race. The funny thing is that not one of the believers in the pure German race was German: Gobineau was French; Chamberlain English, Woltmann Jewish”.
But there would shortly be little to laugh about. As Berneri pointedly observes, “If antisemitism should become a necessity for Italian fascism, Mussolini, who is worse than Machiavelli, would support Gobineau, Chamberlain and Woltmann”. Which, predictably, is exactly what happened.
Berneri then goes on to examine the myth of Arian superiority, highlighting its inconsistencies; Pan-Germanism, with its absurd intellectual contortions (“in German schools, pupils are taught that Jesus was born of a blue-eyed, blond-haired mother and a German soldier who had joined the Roman army”); and the systems of human population classification most commonly used in his time.
It is here that Berneri shows a remarkable knowledge of anthropology and of the debate which had accompanied its progress; he claims, quite rightly, that all populations, European populations in particular and the Jewish population perhaps more than any other in Europe, are not biologically homogenous: “A survey conducted in German schools produced the following results: 31.8% pure blond with blue or grey eyes; 14.1% dark, with dark hair and eyes; 54.1% of mixed type. The purest Frisian stock included 18% dolichocephalic, 38% medium and 49% brachiocephalic. The Nordic type is spread across the whole of Europe and, in Germany, does not constitute a possible basis for the purification of the race”.
“The myth of race defined as a homogenous ethnic unit – he goes on to state later - at the same time as causing foolish Arian pride, has led to racial antisemitism”: what is classed as “the Jewish race” in reality consists of a remarkable variety of racial types.
Berneri supports this primarily by the use of historical and morphological data, but he is not slow to remind us that: ”all comparative blood tests show that there is no “Jewish blood” or “German blood” or any other national blood”. He agrees with the great geographer Elisée Reclus (3) when he observes that Jews (and not only Jews) make up a nation “in as much as they have an awareness of a collective past of joy and suffering and the social cement of identical traditions, such as the conviction, illusory or not, of common ancestors”. This, too, is a decidedly modern claim.
The central part of the essay is dedicated to the concept of race. With this aim, Berneri takes his lead firstly from Buffon, according to whom “there is only one human species, of differently-coloured skin according to the land and the climate” and “the internal differences within the species correspond to the types of wild animals and the breeds of domestic animals”, and continuing with Blumenbach, Cuvier and Broca. Rather than race, following on from Broca’s studies, we should talk about anthropological types since human populations are, in reality, a mixture of human types, or rather, of individuals with intermediate characteristics. And if this is true at a morphological level, it is even more true with regard to blood characteristics. In fact, as Berneri shows, “at the XIX International Congress of legal and social medicine, Dr. Dujarric De la Rivière and Dr. Kossovitc demonstrated, on the basis of the results of 400,000 tests carried out on over 400 population clusters with political and social autonomy, that there was an enormous mixture of bloods in each”.
Moreover, he notes that Günther himself, “the racist pope of the Third Reich, recognises that ‘people are mixtures of races and not races’”.
The essay concludes with a tragicomic description of the xenophobic delirium developing at the time in Germany (and not only within its borders), and here the author returns forcefully to the political debate, ensuring that every statement is documented, aware that human ignorance can only beget monsters.
(1) Camillo Berneri: Mussolini grande attore. Scritti su razzismo, dittatura e psicologia delle masse. (A cura di Alberto Cavaglion), Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Edizioni Spartaco, 2007.
(2)Citato in Giovanna Tomasello: La letteratura coloniale italiana dalle avanguardie al fascismo, Palermo, Sellerio, 1984.
(3)Federico Ferretti: Il mondo senza la mappa. Elisée Reclus e i geografi anarchici, Milano, Zero in condotta, 2007.