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Anti-Semitism as Skill: Rudolf Virchow's Schulstatistik and the Racial Composition of Germany

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2008

Andrew Zimmerman
Columbia University


One of the major events in the history of German anti-Semitism has been, if not entirely overlooked, then misunderstood and misrepresented. In the 1870s, the professor of medicine, liberal politician, and anthropologist, Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902), directed a study of the skin, hair, and eye color of 6,758,827 German school children, a study that marked “Jews” and “Germans” as racially different and trained a generation of Germans to perceive these differences both as real and as of political significance. Historians have been virtually unanimous in viewing this study as a blow against anti-Semitism, as a demonstration that there was neither a Jewish nor a German “race.” This interpretation has survived, I believe, because it supports and rests on a commonly held conception of racism as primarily an intellectual phenomenon, as a set of more-or-less explicit propositions held in the minds of individuals. Virchow, a well-known opponent of political anti-Semitism, was never motivated by hostility to Jews in conducting this research. Indeed, he understood his focus on Jews as simply a race (rather than as a religion or a culture) to indicate that the study was not anti-Semitic. Paradoxically, the study that Virchow designed and oversaw may have unintentionally provided an important practical basis for German racial anti-Semitism. By considering anti-Semitism as a set of skills rather than a philosophy, as hands-on practical knowledge more akin to riding a bicycle than to philosophical exposition, I hope to offer a new explanation of both Virchow's study of race and the place of that study in German history.

Copyright © Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association 1999

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1. The only historian to recognize that Virchow believed the study proved Germany to be racially “Aryan” is Léon Poliakov. See Poliakov, , The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe (London, 1974), 264–66Google Scholar. George L. Mosse also recognized the equivocal nature of this study, although he did not discuss Virchow's own conclusions about the German and Jewish races. See Mosse, , Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (New York, 1978), 9093Google Scholar. Otherwise, historians have generally coordinated their presentation of the school survey with Virchow's well-known liberalism and opposition to anti-Semitism, and assumed that Virchow's study disproved the existence of German and Jewish “races.” The earliest presentation of the study as a blow against racial notions of Germany is in Posner, Carl, Rudolf Virchow (Vienna, 1921), 67CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Ackerknecht, Erwin Heinz, Rudolf Virchow: Doctor, Statesman, Anthropologist (Madison, 1953), 212–16Google Scholar; Smith, Woodruff D., Politics and the Sciences of Culture in Germany, 1840–1920 (New York, 1991), 103Google Scholar; Weindling, Paul, Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism, 1870–1945 (Cambridge, 1989), 4849Google Scholar. The conventional account of Virchow's study is also presented in Efron, John M., Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (New Haven, 1994)Google Scholar. Efron does an excellent job, however, of situating the study in a wider context of German discussions of Jewish racial separateness. Sander Gilman notes with Mosse that Virchow categorized Jews and Germans separately, although both Gilman and Mosse maintained the view that the study undermined the notion of a physically distinct Jewish race. See Gilman, , “The Jewish Nose: Are Jews White? Or, The History of the Nose Job,” in his The Jew's Body (New York, 1991), 169–93, here 177Google Scholar. While the present article contradicts Gilman's brief account of the school survey, it has been aided and inspired by Gilman's work.

2. Virchow used the term “Rasse” and referred to Jews as a “Rasse” throughout his reports of the study. “Rassen” were each associated with a physical “Typus,” although several races could have the same “Typus,” for example Jews and Walloons. I will not place quotation marks around every instance of the words “race” or “racial” in this article. I use these terms simply as actors' categories and do not mean to impute any biological reality to the idea of “races.” Indeed, I hope the present article further problematizes any notion of “race” as a biological category.

3. However, Virchow's opposition to anti-Semitism, as heroic and important as it was, should not be exaggerated. Werner Kümmel is, as far as I know, the only historian to deal with the subtleties of Virchow's relation to Jews. As Kümmel shows, Virchow's attitude was a fairly typical liberal one: Jews were in Germany to stay and were capable of being assimilated into mainstream German society. As Virchow declared to the Prussian House of Deputies on 21 March 1890: “The Jews are simply here. You cannot strike them dead.” (“Die Juden sind einmal da. Sie können sie nicht totschlagen.”) This position did not tolerate cultural and religious difference between Jews and non-Jews, but rather advocated eliminating this difference. It was only after Adolf Stoecker began attacking him in the 1880s that Virchow came to be regarded as an unequivocal enemy of anti-Semitism. See Werner, Kümmel, “Rudolf Virchow und der Antisemitismus,” Medizinhistorisches Journal 3 (1968): 165–79.Google Scholar

4. East German scholarship viewed Virchow as a “humanist” and the German Democratic Republic honored him as a kind of cultural hero. The classic East German work is Kurt, Winter, Rudoff Virchow (Leipzig, 1956)Google Scholar. In the West Virchow was honored as a radical liberal, a possible alternative to Germany's illiberal path. The standard postwar Western account of Virchow is Ackerknecht's biography. The German translation of Ackerknecht was and still is also the principal German language source in the Federal Republic.

5. On Virchow's understanding of the permanence of race and species, see Virchow, , Menschenund Afenschädel (Berlin, 1870)Google Scholar. On Berlin anthropology, see my “Anthropology and the Place of Knowledge in Imperial Berlin” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, San Diego, 1998).

6. One of the most common interpretations of the German Anthropological Society's study has been as a response to the assertion of the French anthropologist Armand de Quatrefages in La race Prussienne (Paris, 1871) that German troops behaved barbarously in the Franco-Prussian war because Prussians, who led the attack, were not German at all, but rather Finns. Quatrefages asserted that a Prussian-dominated unified Germany was therefore “une erreur anthropologique” (p. 104) that “menaced all of Europe with a second Thirty Years' War” (p. 1). However, although opposition to Quatrefages's theory may indeed have added zeal to the work of pro-Prussian and anti-French anthropologists, the physical anthropology of the Germans was a project central to German anthropologists even before Quatrefages's attack, as the articles in the Archiv für Anthropologie (AA), from its founding in 1866, indicate. Furthermore, Virchow, to his own satisfaction at least, had already demolished Quatrefages' account on methodological grounds before he began his own study. See Virchow, , “Über die Methode der wissenschaftlichen Anthropologie: Eine Antwort an Hrn. de Quatrefages,” Zeitschrift für Ethnologic (ZfE) 4 (1872): 300–20Google Scholar. When the study was finally completed, Virchow's reports mention only in passing that it disproved Quatrefages' hypothesis.

7. For the turn of German physicians toward race and other social questions, see Weindiling, Health, Race and German Politics.

8. This was also the case in the study of non-European races. For example, when considering whether the people of the Sudan were more closely related to inhabitants of the Middle East than to inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa, their skin color was intentionally disregarded. Although, Virchow pointed out, Sudanese skin color resembled that of sub-Saharan Africans, the shape of their head and face demonstrated they were really more related to inhabitants of the Middle East. See Verhandlungen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte (VBGAEU) 10 (1878): 333–55, 387–407. In no case that I am aware of did color or any other obvious feature take precedence over head and face shape in deciding racial questions.

9. Robert, Hartmann, “Untersuchungen über die Völkerschaften Nord-Ost-Afrikas,” ZfE 1 (1869): 2345; 135–58, here 33.Google Scholar

10. Hermann, Welcker, “Kraniologische Mittheilungen,” AA 1 (1866): 89160, here 93–94.Google Scholar

11. The members of the commission in charge of the study were Alexander Ecker, Wilhelm His, Wilhelm Krause, Hermann Schaaffhausen, Albert Kölliker, Gustav Lucae, and Hermann Welcker, as well as Virchow. See anon., “Protocoll über die 1. Sitzung der 2. allgemeinen Versammlung der Deutschen Anthropologischen Gesellschaft zu Schweren, am 22. September 1871, im Saale des Schauspielhauses,” Correspondenz-Blatt der Deutschen Anthropologischen Gesellschaft (CBDAG) 2 (1871): 41–80, here 59. See also Virchow, report on the statistics of the skull form, in “Die Vierte Allgemeine Versammlung der Deutschen Anthropologischen Gesellschaft zu Wiesbaden,” attached to CBDAG 4 (1873), 28–30.

12. Virchow, , “Berichterstattung über die statistischen Erhebungen bezüglich der Farbe der Augen, der Haare und der Haut,” CBDAG 7 (1876): 91102.Google Scholar

13. Virchow, , “Die Ziele und Mittel der modernen Anthropologie,” CBDAG 8 (1877): 17.Google Scholar

14. Die Sechste Allgemeine Versammlung der Deutschen Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in München, , attached to CBDAG 6 (1875): 4750.Google Scholar

15. Virchow, report on the statistical study of skull form, “Die Vierte Allgemeine Versammlung der Deutschen Anthropologischen Gesellschaft zu Wiesbaden,” 28–30. This was not the first time Jews had been excluded from statistical surveys. Hermann Hölder excluded Jewish and French subjects from his “Beiträge zur Ethnographie von Württemberg.” Ian Hacking notes that in 1769 Prussia separated Jews from non-Jews in its statistical surveys, resulting in the General-Judentabellen and Provinzial-Judenfamilien-Listen. See Ian, Hacking, The Taming of Chance (Cambridge, 1990), 23Google Scholar. Of course the eighteenth-century Prussian statistics did not include surveys of racial characteristics. In the nineteenth century, Prussia ceased to count Jews separately in its censuses. The anti-Semitic petition presented to Bismarck in 1882 demanded a restoration of the special census for Jews, as well as the exclusion of Jews from public positions and the end of Jewish immigration. See Peter, Pulzer, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria (1964; London, 1988), 91.Google Scholar

16. The question of a separate Jewish race had interested physical anthropologists since the late eighteenth century, although this question had never before been pursued on the grand scale of Virchow's study. On the question of a Jewish race in German anthropology, see Annegret, Kiefer, Das Problem einer “Jüdischen Rasse”: Eine Diskussion zwischen Wissenschaft und Ideologie (1870–1930) (Frankfurt am Main, 1991)Google Scholar. Kiefer's discussion of Virchow's study of school children (pp. 26–31) gives a conventional account of it as a challenge to anti-Semitism.

17. CBDAG 6 (1875): 32–36. Michael B. Gross shows how liberal opponents of the Kulturkampf themselves associated anti-Catholicism with potential anti-Semitism. See Gross, , “Kulturkampf and Unification: German Liberalism and the War against the Jesuits,” Central European History 30, no. 4 (1998): 545–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18. The ability of states to order teachers to participate in this study was made possible by the 1872 School Supervision law, part of the Kulturkampf laws, which decreased church control of schooling and increased the state's influence in education. See Marjorie, Lamberti, State, Society and the Elementary School in Imperial Germany (New York, 1989).Google Scholar

19. See, for example Alexander Ecker to Rudolf Virchow, 8 February 1876, in Christian, Andree, Rudolf Virchow als Prähistoriker (Cologne, 1976), 2:8384Google Scholar, and Adalbert, Falk (Kultusminister) to the Berlin Anthropological Society, 10 August 1874 and 12 October 1874. printed in CBDAG 6 (1875): 3236.Google Scholar

20. Virchow, , CBDAG 6 (1875): 23, here 3.Google Scholar

21. Oscar, Fraas, CBDAG 6 (1875): 3637.Google Scholar

22. VBGAEU 7 (1875): 90. See Georg von Mayr, Report on the school statistic in Munich, “Die Sechste Allgemeine Versammlung der Deutschen Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in München,” 50–55.

23. This story was first reported by Tylor, E. B. in his “Address to the Department of Anthropology of the British Association,” reprinted in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 9 (1879): 235–46, here 245–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar. It was then cited in Haddon, Alfred C., History of Anthropology (London, 1910)Google Scholar. Finally it was cited in Ackerknecht, Rudolf Virchow, 213.

24. A copy of this pamphlet, Der Vorstand der deutschen anthropologischen Gesellschaft an die Lehrer der höheren Unterrichtsanstalten and der Volksschulen, exists in the Rudolf Virchow Papers, folder 2642, Archives of the Academy of Sciences, Berlin.

25. I draw this conclusion from the fact that eye color was the only color anthropologists recommended be measured comparatively and was the first category given in each of the eleven combinations.

26. Mosse is surely correct in observing that “the survey must have made Jewish children conscious of their minority status and their supposedly different origins.” Mosse, Toward the Final Solution, 91.

27. Jack Goody shows how lists organize thought, action, and objects and are thus a kind of cosmological representation. See Goody, , “What's in a List,” in The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge, 1977), 74111.Google Scholar

28. Board of Directors of the German Anthropological Society, minutes of discussion on the statistical survey of the anthropology of the Germans, AA 7 (1874): 137–38; Der Vorstand der deutschen anthropologischen Gesellschaft an die Lehrer der höheren Unterrichtsanstalten und der Volksschulen.

29. Rudolf Virchow, ”Berichterstattung,” 101.

30. See anon., “Cassenbericht,” “Die Sechste Aligemeine Versammlung der Deutschen Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in München,” 21–22. Hamburg never conducted the survey. As Mosse notes, the Hamburg government explained that the survey conflicted with ideas of personal liberty. (One Jewish school from Hamburg did complete the survey and sent it to Virchow.) See Rudolf, Virchow, “Gesammtbericht üher die von der deutschen anthropologischen Gesellschaft veranlassten Erhebungen über die Farbe der Haut, der Haare und der Augen der Schulkinder in Deutschland,” AA 16 (1886): 275475, here 283–84.Google Scholar

31. See the tabulation for Altenburg, Saxony, in Virchow Papers, 2644.

32. These maps were by the cartographer Daniel Gottlob Reymann. Some copies survive in the Virchow Papers, 2644, as well as in the Archive of the Berlin Anthropological Society, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Berlin.

33. Virchow gives some information on his map coloring in his “Berichterstattung,” 101. More finished versions of these maps appear in Rudolf Virchow, “Gesammtbericht,” AA.

34. “… also ein recht respectabler Gegensatz gegen die wirklichen Germanen.” Virchow, “Berichterstattung,” 102.

35. Rudolf, Virchow, “Gesammtbericht über die Statistik der Farbe der Augen, der Haare und der Haut der Schulkinder in Deutschland,” CBDAG 16 (1885): 89100, here 91.Google Scholar

36. The third explanation had recently been put forward in the Berlin Anthropology Society's journal and seems to have been the most commonly held among German anthropologists at the time the survey results were evaluated. See Richard, Andree,” Rothe Haare,” ZfE 10 (1878): 335–45Google Scholar. Virchow cites James, Cowles Prichard'sResearches into the Physical History of Mankind, (1844), 4: 597Google Scholar as the source for the view that Jews took on the physical characteristics of the population into which they assimilated.

37. Virchow, “Gesammtbericht,” CBDAG, 91.

38. Virchow, “Gesammtbericht,” AA, 368.

39. Virchow,” Gesammtbericht,” CBDAG, 92.

40. Virchow, “Gesammtbericht,” AA, 299–300.

41. Such newspaper reports survive the Virchow Papers. See for example, Nichtpolitische Zeitung (Munich), 13 August [probably 1874]; Victor, Böhmert, “Die sächsische Erhebungen über die Farbe der Haut, der Haare und der Augen der schulpflichtigen Jugend (Aus dem statistischen Bureau des Köngl. Ministeriums des Innern),” Wissenschaftliche Beilage der Leipztger Zeitung, 23 11 1876, 581–85, Virchow Papers, 2644.Google Scholar

42. While I have found no direct evidence of popular memories of this study in Germany, there is evidence of such memories in Austria, where a similar survey was conducted several years later. An 1890 article in the Wiener Familien Journal begins: “Our younger readers will certainly still remember that one day in school they were examined to find Out what kind of hair and eyes they had and if their skin was whitish or brownish: in short if they were blond or brunet.” Falkenhorst, C., “Von Blonden und Brünetten.” Wiener Familien Journal 8 (1890)Google Scholar. In Virchow Papers, 3003.

43. I estimate that 81 percent of all children in Germany between the ages of 6 and 14 participated in the survey. I arrived at this figure using German census data from 1871 and 1880. Since the age group measured by anthropologists was 6–14, while the census included groups from 5–9 and 10–14, I took 1/5 from the 5–9 age group to reflect the absence of five-year-old children, because I assumed that there were an equal number of children of each age. I thus calculated as follows (figures are in thousands):

I then averaged the total population of 6–14 year-old children for 1871 and 1880 to estimate the number of children in this age group at the tune of the study, in the mid-1870s, to arrive at the following estimated population of 6–14 year-old children in Germany during the time of the measurement: 8392. The number measured was 6759, or 81 percent of the relevant age group. This figure does not reflect the teachers also directly involved in the study and the parents indirectly involved. For the statistics, see Mitchell, B. R., European Historical Statistics, 1750–1970 (London, 1975).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

44. I do not mean to assert that the survey of German taces itself caused German ann-Semitism. Indeed, studies of hair, eye, and skin color were conducted in Belgium, Switzerland, and German speaking Austria before 1885, although there is no indication that these studies also excluded Jews or of how they were conducted. Virchow used the results of these studies to holster his assertion of the peculiar blondness (and therefore whiteness) of the population of Germany. See Virchow, , “Die Verbreitung des blonden und des brünetten Typus in Mitteleuropa,” Sitzungsberichte der Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin 5 (1885): 3947, here 39–40.Google Scholar

45. On tacit knowledge, see Michael, Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, 1958)Google Scholar; Gilbert, Ryle, “Knowing How and Knowing That,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 46 (19451946): 116.Google Scholar

46. This is not to deny the importance of explicit ideologies. but rather to draw attention to what Oakeshott called “the liquid” in which “moral ideals were suspended:” Michael, Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (New York, 1962), 136, here 36Google Scholar. The classic studies of these “moral ideals” are Mosse, Toward the Final Solution, and Fritz, Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Berkeley, 1961).Google Scholar

47. I do not mean to assert that there were no ideological tracts opining in favor of racial anti-Semitism in Germany before the school statistic. Indeed, Wilhelm Marr's seminal 1867 Der Sieg des Judentums über das Germanentum vom nicht konfessionellen Standpunkt aus betrachtet established an anti-Semitic discourse almost ten years before the school statistic. However, one cannot speak of a popular anti-Semitic movement existing before the study, as it did after 1878 with Adolf Stoecker's Chrisnan Social Workers' Party aod after 1893 with the Conservatives adoption of the anti-Semitic Tivoli Prograni. See Pulzer, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism.

48. Johannes, Ranke, “Somatisch-anthropologische Beobachtungen,” in Alfred Kirchhoff, Anleitung zur deutschen Landes- und Velksforschung (Stuttgart, 1889), 329–80, here 332–39.Google Scholar

49. Julius, Kollmann, “Die Verbreitung des blonden und des brünetten Typus in Mitteleuropa,” CBDAG 16 (1885): 3335.Google Scholar

50. See Virchow, “Gesammtbericht,” CBDAG.

51. While Nietzsche does not specify that “the more careful ethnographical maps of Germany” to which he refers are Virchow's, he does name Virchow in that passage. The contemporary anthropologist Otto Ammon also identified the maps to which Nietzsche referred as Virchow's (see n. 52, below). Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 1:5, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York, 1967). Kaufmann and Hollingdale translate “ungeheuern Nachschlag” as “tremendous counterattack.” However, Nietzsche's association in this paragraph of primitive races and socialism suggests that “monstrous atavism” renders his meaning more accurately. Nietzsche actually claims to use Virchow's map against the view, which he attributes to Virchow, that the brown people were of Celtic origin. Virchow, however, never presented a definite view on the origin of the non-Jewish brown type. At one point he did argue against the view (held by Quatrefages) that the non-Jewish brown type was Slavic in origin and suspected instead a mixture of Celts, Romans, Illyrians, and Rhaetians. See Rudolf Virchow, “Die Verbreitung des blonden und des brünetten Typus in Mitteleuropa.”

52. Otto, Ammon, Die Gesellschaftsordnung und ihre natürlichen Grundlagen: Entwurf einer Sozial-Anthropologie zum Gebrauch für alle Gebildeten, die sich mit sozialen Fragen befassen (Jena, 1895), 173–74.Google Scholar

53. Donald MacKenzie indicates the political importance of tacit knowledge in his study of nuclear missiles. Producing these missiles required not just engineering plans hut also a repertoire of skills transmitted within local scientific communities. MacKenzie speculates that if communities cease to transmit these skills, nuclear missiles could be “uninvented.” See Donald, MacKenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance (Cambridge, 1990)Google Scholar; Donald, MacKenzie and Graham, Spinardi, “Tacit Knowledge, Weapons Design, and the Uninvention of Nuclear Weapons,” American Journal of Sociology 101 (1995): 4499Google Scholar. Perhaps Germans could have similarly uninvented racial anti-Sensitism—and indeed, perhaps they have been doing so since 1945.

54. The cataclysmic break historians of German anthropology have perceived between the supposedly antiracist anthropology of Virchow and others in the nineteenth century and the more racist anthropology of the twentieth century appears less clean when racism is viewed as a set of practices rather than an ideology. For accounts of twentieth-century German racist anthropology as a cataclysmic break from nineteenth-century anthropology see Robert, Proctor,” From Anthropologic to Rassenkunde in the German Anthropological Tradition,” in Bones, Bodies, Behavior: Essays on Biological Anthropology, ed. Stocking, George W. (Madison, 1988), 138–79Google Scholar; Benoit, Massin, “From Virchow to Fischer: Physical Anthropology and ‘Modern Race Theories’ in Wilhelmine Germany,” in Volksgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition, ed. Stocking, George W. (Madison, 1996), 79154Google Scholar. Weindling and Smith also have similar views of the history of Gernaan anthropology.

55. As Stephen Turner has written, “… we may manipulate experiences in ways that form habits—this is after all what education is—without understanding what habits we are producing and how they will later manifest themselves.” Stephen, Turner, The Social Theory of Practices: Tradition, Tacit Knowledge, and Presuppositions (Chicago, 1994), 105.Google Scholar

56. A mistakenly cognitive understanding of anti-Semitism, I believe, accounts for the flaws in the quite important questions posed in Goldhagen's, Daniel J.Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York, 1996)Google Scholar. Studies of practice and tacit knowledge will, I propose, allow historians better to answer questions about continuity and discontinuity in German history. Indeed, Christopher R. Browning, examining much of the same material Goldhagen did later, demonstrates the importance of understanding even Germany's genocidal anti-Semitism primardy in terms of practice rather than in terms of peculiar beliefs. See Browning, , Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York, 1992).Google Scholar