London, Palgrave, 2016, ISBN: 9780230363199; 484pp.; Price: £60.00
London School of Economics
Date accessed: 29 November, 2023
The emergence of racial classification in conjunction with the Enlightenment Science of Man in the 18th century is a well-known chapter in the history of European ideas. Far less understood are the ways in which this scientific project carried into the 19th and 20th centuries, the investigation of which is Richard McMahon’s purpose in The Races of Europe. He seeks to illustrate not only how the race sciences operated across Europe from c.1839–c.1939 (though the book is sensitive to the long prehistory of modern racialism), but how ‘national identities’ and nationalist discourses were constructed within them. Obviously the aim is an ambitious one, but McMahon succeeds in providing a useful survey of European race science, punctuated with novel findings from his methodology and case studies. Crucially, the book treats race science on its own terms, historicising the contributions of its practitioners rather than reading them through any particular theoretical lens – postcolonial or otherwise – as has been popular in recent decades.
The book is split into two halves, the first of which provides a kaleidoscopic account of the European network of race classifiers, their interactions and techniques, and the political implications of their work. Case studies of Ireland, Poland, and Romania comprise the second half of the book, and serve to reinforce the interpretation of the overall European picture painted in part one. McMahon presents his work as a ‘transnational history of national identity’ (p. 1), describing how race scientists aimed to reveal the ‘“true” identities of European nations’ through biological racial classification. Despite this framing, the book is not easily classifiable, repeatedly crossing scholarly boundaries, both disciplinary and geographical; this approach should be welcomed as it mirrors the multi-disciplinarity of McMahon’s international subjects, as 19th-century racial classification was spread across various academic disciplines (as they exist today) and most of the European continent.
In part one, McMahon is largely concerned with establishing a geography of racial classification in Europe, where the three ‘core’ nations of Britain, France, and Germany spurred most racial research. However, as the 19th century wore on, classificatory race science expanded outwards from this core, though the three nations remained dominant. Here the author should be commended for going beyond the normal comparative framework of Britain, France, and Germany, instead aiming to provide a true European picture – supported by case studies of the refreshingly novel choices of Ireland, Romania, and Poland. Most intriguingly, as outlined in chapter two, McMahon has constructed his geography through a quantitative database of 126 source texts, from what he identifies as the ‘elite’ of racial classifiers. Aware of the subjective imperfection of his method and of quantitative limitations more generally, McMahon does not rely on the database overmuch. This may be because it seems to prop up findings already more or less known, or at least suspected. For example, few familiar with the field will be surprised that Paris is confirmed by the data to have been the 19th-century racial classification capital (p. 50). More interesting is McMahon’s use of transnational comparison to contribute to the Sonderweg debate, suggesting that German anthropology was more monogenist and egalitarian than the contemporary (Robert Knox-inspired) London Anthropological Society or the Parisian anthropologicals (p. 57). The geographical picture – made clearer by the useful inclusion of 24 maps in the appendix – established early on helps to frame McMahon’s findings through the rest of the book.
A timeline for race science is also established in part one, with an obvious increase in the complexity of racial classification as well as its adaptability through different intellectual paradigms. The most significant change within race science was the shift in the middle of the 19th century from the long-established ethno-linguistic understandings of race to more hard and fast physiological distinctions between nations. Here the established geography repeatedly provides the context for a clash between the waning currents of Enlightened universalism and local national imperatives. Although the community of racial scientists remained internationally focused throughout the 19th century, by the fin de siècle any notion of a common project had collapsed as nationalism overshadowed scientific objectivity. However, for superior races there had to be inferior ones, so to some extent racial classification was always transnational and comparative. In the 20th century European geographical classifications came to replace long-established racial delineations. For example, ‘Nordicism’ encompassed the Germanic-speaking peoples as the Indo-European, or Aryan, idea was set aside in these countries (pp. 171–2).
McMahon explores the relationship between race science and politics in the fourth chapter of the work, foregrounded as a ‘central theme’ in his introduction (pp. 1–2). An obvious factor here is that scientists more or less relied on politicians – via the state – to fund their research, which had implications for the racial narratives they created and against which nations they directed them. But most scientists were also nationalists to varying degrees and so a tension between local imperatives and international scholarly objectivity was also evident across Europe. As the 19th century wore on, universalism mattered less and less as nationalist dimensions took over. The most striking example included here came when the French anthropologist Paul Broca found that his data forced him into the inconvenient conclusion that the majority of Frenchmen were brachycephalic rather than dolichocephalic (round-headed as opposed to long, narrow-headed), the opposite of common assumptions. What could Broca do? Fudge the data? Or reorder craniological hierarchies? Remarkably, he chose the latter, turning the established sequence of craniological prestige on its (broad) head, so that brachycephalic became perceived as the most prestigious skull shape in French racial science. This had wide ramifications as the Slavs were also thought brachycephalic. The French therefore suddenly found they had Celto-Slav relatives, at the same time as the great power politics of France and Russia aligned.
In part two, titled ‘Peripheral case studies’, McMahon seeks to bolster his geography of the three ‘core’ classifying nations in northwest Europe, by showing how ‘peripheral’ race science largely mirrored the established categories and narratives of European race science, forcing their way into European consideration rather than establishing their own racial narratives and traditions. I will here focus on Ireland as it is the case with which I am most familiar, but the case studies of Poland and Romania show similar themes of tension between a reliance on racial ideologies constructed in the three core nations and a nationalist desire to cast their own race as certainly equal and perhaps superior to those in the core nations.
The Irish case study is notable for several reasons, not the least of which – as McMahon points out – is that there is no study of 19th-century Irish race science. A survey of the (few) Irish race scientists – including William Wilde (Oscar’s father) – shows that they essentially transposed a British anthropological framework on top of their origins traditions. But painting a picture as lucid as McMahon’s is no easy task, not only due to a dearth of 19th-century anthropological source material relative to other nations, but because Irish origin stories are a jumbled mixture of native mythology, sacred history, and ideas of descent from the Celts, Scythians, and Phoenicians that were popular across Europe. Mythology continued to shape ideas of the early Irish – particularly the Fír Bolg and Túatha Dé Danann, the ‘gods’ of Irish mythology – through the 19th century. Race scientists were forced to confront these popular myths, and in a sort of national euhemerism tried to discern who these populations were and whence they came. This is emphatically not a story of early Celtic inhabitants being conquered by Anglo-Norman invaders in the 12th century that a reader unfamiliar with Irish origins stories might suppose. Nor was there a straightforward equation of all native Catholic Irish with the ancient Celts, as racial classifiers sought to determine which parts of the population could be physically linked with the numerous invaders. Compounding the fractured picture of Irish race science were Ireland’s close intellectual links to Britain and Germany, all of which McMahon suggests led to Ireland’s racial focus on a vague, spiritual Gaelicism rather than a traditional superior-race narrative.
The book is meticulously researched and, though he makes no claims to be comprehensive, McMahon has gone some way to giving us a much clearer picture of the landscape of European racial science in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, there are some problems. Because of the large amount of synthesis necessary to constructing a clearer account of race science over the entirety of Europe, McMahon relies quite heavily at times on secondary sources, some of which (1) have been challenged and heavily qualified in recent years. McMahon has also had the considerable challenge of finding a vocabulary able to describe a perpetually shifting discipline, operating in different languages across the entire European continent over two centuries. Unfortunately, a phrase like ‘Enlightenment period assumptions of White global racial superiority’ (p. 171) might make sense to modern ears, but was emphatically not the idiom of ‘the’ Enlightenment, where ‘race’ was largely still linked to ethnic descent. The overarching concern of Enlightenment anthropology – most of whose practitioners were Christian and therefore believed in the unity of humanity – was to explain why certain tribes/nations reached a higher level of civilisation than others; in this context, the idea of original racial difference was tentatively floated by a few heterodox thinkers, but the influence of climate remained the salient consideration into the 19th century. ‘Romantic’ and ‘romanticism’ also do a considerable amount of linguistic work, and while every reader will perhaps have some idea of what is meant, it is never quite clear how romantic ideologies changed race science. Finally, given how wide-ranging the book is, a few more dates could perhaps have been given (i.e., the birth and death years of each scientist discussed).
While these shortcomings should be borne in mind, it must be emphasised that the importance of the work as a whole far outweighs any deficiencies. It will sit alongside classics like Leon Poliakov’s Le mythe aryen (2), and add a level of technical sophistication – literally, as McMahon shows the physical construction of racial narratives through data collection and physical measurements – on top of the standard understandings of Celtic, Teutonic, Indo-Germanic, Aryan, Nordic etc. racial narratives. McMahon ranges across the 19th-century disciplines of racial science – philology, ethnology, anthropology, history, and folklore – but seems most at home in the realm of anthropology and the technical discussions of race science. Happily so, as the debates in the latter half of the century are some of the most confused and abstruse; McMahon’s syntheses will therefore aid those familiar with the history of race science as well as newcomers to the field.
The Races of Europe is a unique work that makes a valuable contribution to the histories of ideas and science, while also linking them to the cultural history of national identities. This review can neither do justice to the amount of information corralled nor to the skill involved in weaving widely differing theories into a coherent picture of European race science in a series of intellectually manageable chapters. Scholars interested in the history of race science and racialism more broadly will find it particularly useful, but it will appeal to others across a wide variety of related fields. McMahon ends with an epilogue setting out some of the risks related to the study of genetics and its potential for biological essentialism, warning scientists that how their research is appropriated beyond the academy is largely out of their hands. I think there is also a lesson for the humanities here: as McMahon’s examples repeatedly show, national identity construction from biological evidence was highly subjective and historically contingent, though its practitioners claimed it proved immemorial racial truths. This should be a powerful reminder to those scholars who, though purporting to illuminate the oppression of subalterns, have cast certain ‘identities’ and the power dynamics around them as immemorial without realising the ways in which they echo the racialised discourses they aim to combat.
- L. P. Curtis, Anglo-Saxons & Celts: A Study of Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England (Bridgeport, 1968).Back to (1)
- Leon Poliakov’s Le mythe aryen (Paris, 1971).Back to (2)
I’m very grateful for Ian Stewart’s kind review of my book. He highlights elements and arguments within it that I also see as important and his observations and criticisms are trenchant. As he suggests, I did indeed use my quantitative data with a light touch because I am very aware of the subjective choices that I had to make while collecting it. Nevertheless, I would encourage other historians to attempt quantitative experiments of this kind. It suggested some very interesting features of international race anthropology, such as its exceptional unity in the 1870s around a canon of authoritative works. I also fully endorse Stewart’s conclusion that approaches such as post-colonial studies should take care to avoid constructing new essentialised identities.
In this response, I will confine myself to enlarging on two points that he critiqued, as I think they raise extremely interesting broad issues.
Curtis and post-colonialism
Stewart correctly notes that L. P. Curtis’s 1968 book, Anglo-Saxons & Celts: A Study of Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England (1), which I use as an important secondary source on racial representations of the Irish, has been heavily challenged in subsequent literature However the criticisms of this and other works by Curtis, which stimulated lively historiographical controversies in the early 1990s and again in 2005, raise fascinating issues about the political use of race and how historians study it. These issues are central to my own book, which therefore contributes to the historiographical controversy surrounding Curtis and the racialisation of the Irish. I attribute much of this controversy to both sides disputing it almost entirely within a post-colonial framework. This reflects the very understandable interest of scholars in the roots of current concerns surrounding race. However I argue that the racial classification of the Irish also requires contextualisation in the related but distinct project of racially narrating national identity, which is the subject of my book. The Races of Europe also offers a useful perspective by focusing on society’s preeminent race scientists rather than just the most publically prominent racial identity narratives.
Central issues in the critiques of Curtis by writers such as Peatling (2) and Sheridan Gilley (3) concerned whether 19th-century British representations of the Irish were racialised and whether the Irish experience of racialised oppression can be compared to that of ‘nonwhite groups’. Curtis supplies evidence for the ‘internal colonialism’ thesis of Michael Hechter (4) and others. This links the political and scientific domination of imperial European powers over weaker neighbouring peoples and over overseas colonial subjects. Curtis’s critics counter that prejudices towards the white Irish and people of colour were of an entirely different order of magnitude. Curtis strenuously denies that he sought moral equivalence between anti-Irish and anti-black racism but continues to defend his 1968 argument that the Irish were narrated in racial terms.(5)
I, like Curtis, would be one of the historians that Peatling accuses of drawing ‘substantive connections’ between the situations of the Irish and non-white subject peoples.(6) My research certainly found that less powerful European peoples like the Irish were cast as racial inferiors. In this sense, they can be placed on the same spectrum of oppression as non-whites in the 19th century, if by no means at the same point on that spectrum. As Curtis notes (7), British race anthropologists frequently linked the Irish with overseas colonialism by locating them on a continuum of what one of their number, John Beddoe, called ‘nigrescence’ (8), or dark pigmentation. Race scientists identified a population of inferior racial Iberians or ‘Black Kelts’, especially among the poor of Ireland’s west and gave them ‘Africanoid’ origins, via the Berbers of North Africa.(9) In eastern Europe, the scientifically dominant Germans and Swedes tended to connect Slavs and Finns to non-Europeans by a different route, attributing ‘Mongoloid’ racial connections to them.
Historiography itself creates another substantive connection between Ireland and former colonies outside Europe. In both cases, the defence of nationalist and post-colonialist or internal colonialist theses against ‘revisionism’ has long been a touchy and contested subject.(10) The debates about Curtis and the 19th-century discussion of Irish racial identity can both therefore be framed within a centuries-long controversy about the narration of Irish identity and who has the right to discuss it. G. K. Peatling thus legitimately accuses Curtis of reproducing the nationalist reasoning of a century ago (11), though this does not, as Peatling claims, invalidate Curtis’s arguments.(12)
By bracketing race accounts of the Irish with the classification of other politically and scientifically weaker European peoples, such as the Basques or Finns, research like mine may offer an escape from what Daniel Wilson calls the ‘competitive victim culture’ (13) of comparing the oppression of the Irish and of non-European subject peoples. My book emphasises that the project of investigating the national identity, national history and national character of Europeans was at least as important in race science as colonial anthropology was and had a significantly different character. Its primary aim, like that of much contemporary historiography and the emerging social sciences, was knowledge of one’s own nation. This meant that race scholars racialised themselves. Irish authors of various stripes engaged with race accounts to define Irish national identity (14, 15, 16). Even the Iberian racial origin theory drew in part on Irish myths of previous centuries which asserted Mediterranean racial origins in order to claim roots in ancient civilisation and kinship with Continental Catholic allies against England. This exemplifies the complexities of Irish identity narratives that Stewart’s review highlights.
Rival nations were certainly belittled, but unlike in the representation of non-white people, this was restrained by the need for transnational collaboration in a pan-European scientific project. Whereas race ideologues like Robert Knox (17) represented the Irish Celts as an alien Other therefore, against which to define the Anglo-Saxon British, other British writers, like Malcolm Arnold (18) and John Lubbock (19), saw them as an important strand of British racial identity.
The role of the Irish in influential Aryan race narratives can similarly be contextualised in both colonial and European terms. Some narratives bunched the Irish with the Basques as pitiful vestiges of native European primitives, conquered and driven to the social and geographical margins by the prehistoric invasion of superior Aryans. The parallels with colonial hierarchies are clear. However my research also found very European entanglements between class, race and national identity narratives. Anthropologists identified small dark pre-Aryan racial inferiors among both the English urban working class and the Irish. This partly answers Roy Foster’s criticism (20) of Curtis for emphasising racial over class tropes in anti-Irish prejudice (21).
Skin colour differences are therefore by no means a prerequisite for racism. The Irish certainly suffered racial discrimination. Michael de Nie argues (22) that Curtis’s critics do not recognise this because they project the current largely biological definition of race back onto the 19th century. Race then had the broader meaning that the term ‘ethnicity’ still retains. My focus on nations, which were then widely seen as bodies of both cultural and biological descent, underlines the flexibility of this early definition of race.
Turning to another of Stewart’s criticisms, I think that I could indeed have been clearer about what I mean in The Races of Europe by ‘romanticism’, ‘romantic’ and associated ideologies. This is especially so because writing this book has suggested to me that romanticism has a key role in the history of modernity.
The primary understanding of romanticism, both popularly and academically, is as a broad artistic movement, which flourished in the late 18th century and first half of the 19th. Its timing and impact varied greatly in different parts of Europe and from literature and music to the visual arts. William Wordsworth, Victor Hugo, Caspar David Friedrich and Ludwig von Beethoven are often identified as prominent romantics.
Academics widely associate romanticism with certain political positions. Romantic veneration for nature, including the naturally emerging characteristics of particular cultures, made ethnic nationalism a central romantic idea, with an important impact on race anthropology. Ethnology’s mission to understand nations as natural biological communities therefore emerged in the Romantic period. This programme continued into the race anthropology of the mid to late 19th century, but was increasingly tempered by the rationalist ideologies of political liberalism and scientific positivism.
At the end of the 19th century however, I encountered a phenomenon which seems to be extremely significant but not widely appreciated. A populist, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-modern and anti-intellectual right-wing nationalism emerged across much of Europe, drawing heavily on the romantic tradition. Romanticism rooted peoples and their cultures in the deep past of specific localities. This could encourage conservative ideologies of defending tradition against modern universalism and foreign influences. Romantic veneration of emotionality supported anti-intellectual, populist politics. Historians often recognise individual national manifestations of this cultural wave, and especially Germany’s völkisch movement, but there is little systematic recognition of the strong commonalities and borrowings of political and stylistic elements between different countries.
There does not even appear to be a commonly accepted name for this genuinely transnational movement in the sphere of cultural and politics. I therefore term it neo-romanticism, a name adopted by a number of disparate artistic movements around this period. In order to help establish its transnationality on the intellectual map, I plan to research the discipline-by-discipline and country-by-country battle between racist nationalists and liberal positivists for control of the complex of disciplines that collaborated to classify races.
It seems to me that transnational neo-romanticism merits acknowledgement as one of Europe’s major common cultural experiences, alongside the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic Period. Aside from its transnational contemporary significance, neo-romanticism had crucial longer-term impacts. The völkisch movement is widely recognised as the cultural seedbed of Nazism. Exploring transnational neo-romanticism and race anthropology’s role in it can help us appreciate the wider European cultural roots of fascist racism rather than seeing it purely as a German phenomenon. Neo-romanticism may also provide insights into the current international populist right-wing cultural wave, exemplified by support for figures like Trump, Duterte, Orban and Le Pen.
- L. P. Curtis, Anglo-Saxons & Celts: A Study of Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England (Bridgeport, 1968).
- Gary K. Peatling, ‘The Whiteness of Ireland under and after the Union’, Journal of British Studies 44, 1 (2005): 115–133.
- Sheridan Gilley, 'English attitudes to the Irish in England, 1789-1900', in Immigrants and minorities in British Society, ed. Colin Holmes (London, 1978), pp. 81–110.
- Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism: the Celtic Fringe in British National Development (Abington, 2017 [originally 1975]).
- L. Perry Curtis Jr., ‘GK Peatling,“The Whiteness of Ireland Under and After the Union.” In this issue’, Journal of British Studies, 44 (2005), 134–45, p. 136.
- Peatling, ‘Whiteness’, p. 115.
- Curtis, ‘Peatling’, p. 139.
- John Beddoe, The Races of Britain: A Contribution to the Anthropology of Western Europe (London, 1971 ), pp. 1–2.
- Ibid, p. 11.
- e.g. Mairtin Macan Ghaill, ‘The Irish in Britain: the invisibility of ethnicity and anti-Irish racism’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 26, 1 (2000), 137–47, 138.
- Peatling, ‘Whiteness’, p. 124.
- David A. Wilson, ‘Comment: whiteness and Irish experience in North America’, Journal of British Studies, 44, 1 (2005), 153–60, 154.
- Ibid, p. 153.
- James L. MacLoughlin, ‘The Race-Type in Celtic Literature’, New Ireland Review, 5, 2, 81–94; 6, 1, 26–38 (1896).
- Sophie Bryant, Celtic Ireland (London, 1889).
- Standish O’Grady, History of Ireland: The Heroic Period (London, 1878).
- Robert Knox, The Races of Men: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Influence of Race over the Destinies of Nations: A Fragment (London, 1850).
- Matthew Arnold, Lectures and Essays in Criticism (Ann Arbour, 1962)
- John Lubbock, ‘The Nationalities of the United Kingdom. Extracts from Letters to the “Times”’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 16 (1887), 418–22
- Robert Fitzroy Foster, Paddy and Mr. Punch: Connections in Irish and English History, (London, 1993).
- Michael De Nie. ‘“A Medley Mob of Irish-American Plotters and Irish Dupes”: The British Press and Transatlantic Fenianism’, Journal of British Studies, 40, 2 (2001), 213–40, 216.
- Ibid. p. 234.