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Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Friday, October 23, 2009

Conference takes scholarship on Nazi Germany 'Beyond the Racial State'

Oct. 23, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Over the past 20 years or so, scholars have delved deeply into the racial ideologies that became influential in the early 1900s and helped facilitate the rise of Nazi Germany.

But has the pendulum swung too far? A conference this weekend at Indiana University Bloomington will examine the limits of the "racial state" model in explaining Germany's Third Reich and explore the role of other factors, such as nationalism and ethnic and class issues.

"Over the last couple of decades," said IU faculty member Mark Roseman, "we have rediscovered how much the interwar world took race and eugenics seriously, but at the price of almost turning them into absolute priorities -- whereas for the Nazis and their followers there were strong national and popular elements that were only peripherally concerned with race."

Mark Roseman

Mark Roseman

The working conference, titled "Beyond the Racial State: Rethinking Nazi Germany," takes place today through Sunday and brings together leading experts from Australia, Canada, Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S. It is open to participants and to those who arranged in advance to attend.

Roseman, a professor in the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Pat M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies, organized the conference with Devin Pendas of Boston College and Richard Wetzell of the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C.

The conference includes panels and prepared papers on the relationship of race to empire, Nazism, science, German society, World War II and other topics. For more information, see

Roseman pointed out that concepts of racial superiority went far beyond Germany in the early 1900s, and eugenics, the idea that humanity could be improved by weeding out undesirables, was part of respectable opinion. It was in Indiana in 1907 that the first law was introduced calling for sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce. The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica celebrated the idea that "the average physical mental status of the race will be raised immeasurably through the virtual elimination of that vast company of defectives which today constitutes so threatening an obstacle to racial progress."

Given that ideology, Roseman said, the Nazis found doctors, psychologists and others willing to eliminate "races," first through sterilization and then by mass murder.

But later history, including recent episodes of civil war and ethnic cleansing, has shown that narrow biological thinking isn't necessary for genocide to take place. Roseman said the conference will explore how Nazism drew not only on race but on the desire to build a strong nation, which was seen as having been undermined from without by Allied treaties and from within by class conflict and failed policies.

Funding for the conference comes from the German Historical Institute, the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung in Germany, the German Academic Exchange Service, and IU's Borns Jewish Studies Program, Center for Arts and Humanities, West European Studies Program and Office of the Vice President for International Affairs.