Beyond Heroes and Villains: Reassessing Racism in the German Enlightenment

In post-1945 German culture the Enlightenment has generally been a source of celebration. Since at least the publication of Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947), however, intellectuals have considered the possibility that Enlightenment philosophy may have contributed to twentieth-century totalitarianism.

Yet it is the competing vision of the Enlightenment as progressive, cosmopolitan, and intellectually open that has generally won out.1 Much of this work has, of course, been of a high standard, and scholars have not remained wholly uncritical of the period. Nevertheless, this view of the Enlightenment has sometimes become aggressive and intolerant of dissent. Perhaps most notably, W. Daniel Wilson was attacked from all corners of the German press for revealing Goethe’s complicity in a range of (what would now be termed) human rights abuses.2 This shattered the myth of a heroic, liberal, and Enlightened Goethe. In a particularly shocking scene, Peter Hacks proposed that Professor Wilson should be drowned.3 For the most part, however, accounts of the period have simply avoided or skirted around the darker corners of the German Enlightenment.

Portrait of Christoph Meiners by Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Younger, c. 1772. Artwork in the public domain, provided by Wikimedia Commons.

In this context, Christoph Meiners (1747–1810) has proven particularly difficult to digest. A professor at Göttingen and prolific writer on virtually every domain of Enlightenment thought, Meiners is notorious today for his theory of race. He was a vociferous advocate of the transatlantic slave trade and coined the use of term ‘Caucasian’ to refer to White Europeans. Meiners divided humanity into two primordial ‘chief lineages’ (Hauptstämme)—‘Caucasian’ and ‘Mongol’—with each Hauptstamm further subdivided into various races.4 Caucasians (called simply the ‘beautiful races’ in later work5) included ‘Celtic’ peoples (that is, most western Europeans) and various, supposedly inferior ‘Slavic peoples’ (including Slavs, Arabs, Jews, Brahmins, and several other groups). Beneath these, the Mongols (later described as the ‘ugly races’) encompassed all other peoples of the earth, with Indigenous Americans and Black Africans placed at the very bottom of the racial hierarchy. According to Meiners, racial groups are inherently unequal in physical, moral, and intellectual terms. In one notorious essay, he wrote that ‘Jews and Blacks, so long as they are Jews and Blacks’ cannot expect ‘the same rights and freedoms’ as the ‘Christians and Whites among whom they live’.6 Meiners’ words are shocking, and it is unsurprising that Nazi intellectuals ‘rediscovered’ him as a predecessor to their own thought.7

Since the 1980s, scholars both within and beyond Germany have paid increasing attention to Meiners. As far as I’m aware, no one in academia has sought to ‘rehabilitate’ him. There has been a tendency to present him as intellectually isolated, however. His rejection by the period’s ‘heroes’—such as Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottfried Herder, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, and Georg Forster—is frequently cited.8 Treated as a villain, it is taken for granted that Meiners could not be a representative of Aufklärung more generally. A German historian once told me that ‘Americans today read Meiners far more than his contemporaries ever did’. This is, unfortunately, untrue. His work on the history of inequality was widely read and endorsed by German authors into the nineteenth century.9 He was privy counsellor to the Hanoverian court, university rector, and a member of many of contemporary Europe’s most prestigious learned societies. In the final years of his life, the tsar hired him to recruit German intellectuals for Russia’s university system.10 As late as 1822 he was hailed as ‘one of the greatest philosophers of his time’, and Peter K. J. Park has emphasized his lasting impact on perceptions of African and Asian philosophy.11

A properly historical understanding of the German Enlightenment must recognize his positive reception beyond the narrow gallery of ‘great men’ mentioned above.

Equally, studies of key Aufklärer have sometimes omitted more troubling aspects of their subjects’ work. For example, Martin Espenhorst’s 2003 biography of the Göttingen historian, linguist, and journalist August Ludwig Schlözer (1735–1809) is, in general, highly sympathetic towards the professor. Despite his various foibles, Schlözer emerges as an expansive and compassionate critical thinker. Espenhorst emphasizes the distance between Schlözer’s views and Meiners’ racial thought.12 The biography does not, however, discuss Schlözer’s views on Jews. Schlözer supported the expulsion of Göttingen’s Jewish population.13 He mocked the belief that civic emancipation would enable Jews to become industrious members of German society.14 Equating Jews with extortioners (Wucherer), Schlözer blamed high birth rates for their poor living conditions. If Jews were allowed to leave their designated ghettoes, he claimed, they ‘would undoubtedly be a great burden on the legitimate citizens’.15 At a moment when Jewish emancipation was being taken seriously by many of Germany’s most prominent intellectuals, such comments demand that we reconsider Schlözer’s position in the pantheon of Enlightenment heroes.

Portrait of August Ludwig Schlözer, engraving by Carl Ermer, 1809. Artwork in the public domain, provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1827) has also been treated sympathetically by scholars. Another Göttinger, Eichhorn was a pioneering biblical scholar who coined the term ‘higher criticism’ and produced some of the period’s most sophisticated accounts of the ancient near east. He was, alongside Schleiermacher, Germany’s foremost theological thinker following the death of Herder. Giuseppe d’Alessandro’s ground-breaking study of Eichhorn emphasizes his rigorous textual analysis and cautious refusal to project modern, Eurocentric assumptions onto earlier contexts. As a consequence, we are told, Eichhorn had a sceptical disposition towards ethnic chauvinism that was fundamentally incompatible with racial essentialism.16 And yet Eichhorn also wrote that the ‘morals, disposition, and nature’ of Indigenous Americans reflects their ‘Mongol’ physiology. As a result of innate characteristics, they are cruel, ‘physically weak, lazy . . . cowardly, despondent’, ‘averse [to] all prolonged work’, ‘unacquainted with sympathetic feelings, and empty of noble social inclinations’.17 The achievement of ‘civil society’ in Mexico and Peru could thus only be explained by an (otherwise unexplained) influx of supposedly superior racial stock.18 These comments are a long way from high-minded scepticism about the sources of cultural difference.

My goal is not to castigate either Espenhorst or d’Alessandro. I have benefited immeasurably from their scholarship in my work on these figures’ political thought.19 The passages cited above were found in some of the less obvious corners of two very extensive oeuvres and I have no reason to believe that these passages were omitted intentionally. Moreover, such omissions are not uncommon in modern studies of the German Enlightenment. They do, however, suggest the need for much greater caution and thoroughness when we consider past discussions of marginalized groups. The Enlightenment is of central importance in the emergence of modern racism. Those of us working on the period are therefore in a position to offer valuable historical perspectives on contemporary racism. This necessarily requires us to step outside academia and engage directly with public debates around racism and its history. However, our capacity to respond meaningfully to such debates depends upon a clear-sighted view of the past.

Practically, this also requires changing how we relate to the Enlightenment in public and institutional settings. A sign at Burg Plesse near Göttingen notes an important visit to the site by Goethe and ‘the philosopher’ Christoph Meiners. Meiners certainly produced works of philosophy, just as he produced works across a variety of intellectual fields. But he was, and remains, best known for his writings on race. Schlözer’s hometown—Kirchberg an der Jagst—has both a street and school named after him.20 Countless towns and cities have streets, squares, and buildings named after Kant, Goethe, and many others whose views and actions we recognize as reprehensible. Within academia, the University of Göttingen hosts the teacher-training programme Schlözer-Programm-Lehrerbildung, taking as its namesakes both August Ludwig and his daughter. The Seminar für Arabistik/Islamwissenschaft (Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies) has webpages on both Johann Gottfried Eichhorn and Johann David Michaelis, the latter of whom notoriously suggested that ‘Asiatic’ Jews would be better suited to working on plantations in the tropics.21 Neither webpage mentions their views on race. Perhaps most infamously, the University of Greifswald dropped ‘Ernst Moritz Arndt’ – a nationalist whose ethnic chauvinism and antisemitism are well established – from its name only in 2018. These are, of course, just a handful of examples.

For the most part, historians have little say in naming streets and schools, but we can address our institutional relationships to—and presentation of—the past. In some cases, this may simply mean adding contextual information to teaching materials and public-facing documents. In others, it will involve renaming long-established institutions, public spaces, and more. It probably also means relocating some statues to museums or, at the very least, amending the information they appear alongside. A common criticism is that, as so few would pass muster today, such proposals require a radical reassessment of the whole venerable tradition of memorializing Enlightenment ‘heroes’. But perhaps it’s time we did just that.


10/02/2021, 19:50: Added that the University of Greifswald dropped Ernst Moritz Arndt from their name in 2018.


The featured image shows a copper plate etching of the Göttingen university library by Georg Daniel Heumann (1691–1759), artwork in the public domain, provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  1. This view came to prominence with Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophie der Aufklärung (Leipzig, 1932), but has remained commonplace to the present. []
  2. W. Daniel Wilson, Das Goethe-Tabu (Munich, 1999). []
  3. On the response to Wilson’s work, see Susanne Kord, ‘Etikette oder Theater? Kindsmörderinnen auf dem Schafott’, in Gaby Pailer (ed.), GeschlechterSpielRäume: Dramatik, Theater, Performance und Gender (Amsterdam, 2011), 307–8. []
  4. Christoph Meiners, Grundriß der Geschichte der Menschheit, 1st edn. (Lemgo, 1785), 16–80. []
  5. Christoph Meiners, Grundriß der Geschichte der Menschheit, 2nd edn. (Lemgo, 1793), 3–6. []
  6. Christoph Meiners, ‘Ueber die Natur der Afrikanischen Neger’, Göttingisches Historisches Magazin, 6 (1790), 386–7. []
  7. See Britta Rupp-Eisenreich, ‘Des choses occultes en histoire des sciences humaines: le destin de la “science nouvelle” de Christoph Meiners’, L’Ethnographie, nos. 90–1 (1983), 131–83. []
  8. See e.g. the disputes described in Sabine Vetter, Wissenschaftlicher Reduktionismus und die Rassentheorie von Christoph Meiners: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der verlorenen Metaphysik in der Anthropologie (Mainz, 1996); Frank W. P. Dougherty, ‘Christoph Meiners und Johann Friedrich Blumenbach im Streit um den begriff der Menschenrasse’, in Gunter Mann and Franz Dumont, Die Natur des Menschen: Probleme der Physischen Anthropologie und Rassenkunde (1750–1850) (Stuttgart, 1990), 89–111. []
  9. See my ‘Bourgeois Modernity versus the Aristocracy in Christoph Meiners’s Political Thought’, Historical Journal, 62/4 (2019), 943–66. []
  10. On these positions, see Vetter, Wissenschaftlicher Reduktionismus, 157–9. []
  11. (Anonymous), Archiv für Standes- und Grundherrliche Rechte und Verhältnisse, Geschichte und Statistik, alter und neuer Zeit, II:1 (Karlsruhe, 1822), 145; Peter K. J. Park, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780–1830 (Albany, NY, 2013), 69–96. []
  12. Martin Peters, Altes Reich und Europa: Der Historiker, Statistiker und Publizist August Ludwig (v.) Schlözer (1735–1809) (Münster, 2003), 199, 234. Peters adopted the surname ‘Espenhorst’ in 2011. []
  13. Rainer Sabelleck, ‘Juden in Göttingen (1648–1866)’, in Ernst Böhme and Rudolf Vierhaus (eds.), Vom Dreißigjährigen Krieg bis zum Anschluss an Preußen: Der Wiederaufstieg als Universitätsstadt (1648–1866) (Göttingen, 2002), 649–51, vol. ii of Dietrich Denecke et al. (eds.) Göttingen: Geschichte einer Universitätsstadt, 3 vols. (Göttingen, 1987–2002). []
  14. Comart and Ditterich [first names unknown] (trans.), ‘Untertänigste Vorstellung der Gemeinde zu Strasburg’, paraphrased in August Ludwig Schlözer (ed.), Stats-Anzeigen, 15/60(1790), 459. Schlözer comments on these texts in footnotes. []
  15. Ibid. 461–2. []
  16. Giuseppe d’Alessandro, L’Illuminismo dimenticato: Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1827) e il suo tempo (Naples, 2000), 225, 233–7. []
  17. Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, Geschichte der drey letzten Jahrhunderte, 6 vols. (Göttingen, 1803), vi. 371–2. []
  18. Ibid. 375. []
  19. Most recently, ‘The Limits of the Enlightened Narrative: Rethinking Europe in Napoleonic Germany’, History of European Ideas, 46 (2020), 197–213). I discuss their racial thought in my Ph.D. thesis ‘Contemplating the Revolution: Ethics, Culture, and History in German Political Thought, 1789–1815’ (University College London, 2020), 167–216, online at: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10091049/ (accessed 4 Feb. 2021). []
  20. There is also a Schlözerstraße in Lübeck, though this probably refers to his daughter, Dorothea. []
  21. On Michaelis’s proposal see Jonathan M. Hess, ‘Johann David Michaelis and the Colonial Imaginary: Orientalism in the Emergence of Racial Antisemitism in Eighteenth-Century Germany’, Jewish Social Studies, NS 6/2 (2000), 56–101. []

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Morgan Golf-French

He is a Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Oxford. Before moving to Oxford he was a research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Centre for the Study of the European Enlightenment (IZEA) at the University of Halle-Wittenberg. He completed his doctoral research on German historical thought at University College London and was a visiting researcher at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg Institute of Advanced Study in Göttingen (funded by the German Historical Institute London and the DAAD).

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