Imperial Decline and Fall in National Socialist Racial Ideology

Presented as part of a virtual lecture series for Ukrainian students entitled ‘Empire, War, Identities: Ancient Lessons for the Present Day’, 13 June 2022.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the idea that the destinies of races, nations and empires were universal and biologically determined (wherever and whenever in human history they existed) was the preserve of a minority of racial theorists and academics. However, within a few decades, such ideas came to dominate National-Socialist thought, and were propagated in ideological and educational material throughout the Third Reich.

Using a variety of examples drawn from these racial interpretations of history, concerning both the ancient and the modern world, the paper argues that this inculcation of a particular racial historical framework follows very closely the model of ‘schematic narrative templates’ devised by the sociologist James Wertsch. Wertsch’s work has shown that a crucial element in the formation of collective identity is provided by forcing historical occurrences to fit into a consistent, immutable narrative framework, which can be used both to justify and to legitimise the actions of the nation or ruling power in question. This paper explores the development of this phenomenon, and analyses the ways in which schematic narrative templates of race came to dominate German intellectual and historical thought during the 1930s and 1940s.

An article based on this paper, entitled Blüte und Zerfall: “Schematic Narrative Templates” of decline and fall in völkisch and National Socialist racial ideology’ has been published inThe Persistence of Race: Continuity and Change in Germany from the Wilhelmine Empire to National Socialism, ed. Lara Day, Oliver Haag (Oxford 2017).