World War II Propaganda and the Birth of Ethnic Stereotypes Out of the Spirit of Racial anti-Discrimination

Stefan Bargheer, Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies

The notion of ethnicity has frequently been interpreted as a corrective to scientific racism and its political consequences. It was in particular the experience of World War II and the Holocaust that discredited race as a biological category. In order to escape notions of biological determinism and racial hierarchy, scientists suggested to replace the term race with the expression ethnic group and to identify differences between people as cultural rather than biological. This notion of ethnicity did subsequently proof vital to postwar programs of affirmative action that were intended to correct for the ills of racial discrimination of the past. Looking at the example of the United States based on archival sources, I argue that this process of replacing race with ethnicity was less seminal than often assumed. Scholars working throughout the immediate postwar period stressed the homogeneity of ethnic groups, their boundedness in space, and stability over time, three characteristics previously associated with a typological or essentialist concept of race that was now considered unscientific and marked as racist. The essentialist notion of ethnicity that emerged was moreover not motivated by an attempt to abolish racial discrimination at home. What was instead crucial was the mobilization for total war and the creation of a cultural distinction between friend and foe, i.e. Allies and Axis forces. Racial categories were unsuitable for the task, since they facilitated social unrest and race riots at the home front. Ethnicity did not merely fill the gap left by race, but it also allowed for creating cultural hierarchies by ranking foreign groups based on their proximity to American culture. This essentialist and hierarchical notion of ethnicity became further institutionalized throughout the Cold War by means of translating it into the cultural distinction between democracy and totalitarianism, i.e. democratic and totalitarian national cultures.

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 Presented in Session 160. Racial Identities and Meanings in Flux