In 1942 Ross professed to follow the Nazi party line in his new conception of race. But throughout his career he actually shifted his position frequently on this topic, between the poles of genetics (or Blut) and environment (or Raum) or between those of innate primitiveness and the acquisition of Western skills.
It is tempting to take the one time when Ross wrote avowedly and unapologetically that there was no reason why one race should be superior over another as some sort of benchmark, as a statement somehow truer than everything else he wrote with regard to this concept.1 But to do so would be an appropriative act to ‘save’ Ross and bring him more into line with today’s norms and values.
His statement should really be judged by taking into consideration the context in which it appeared, viz. a rather abstract essay published in what was then viewed as a scientific periodical, the Zeitschrift für Geopolitik. Although the piece was unquestionably based on his travel experiences, notably in Africa, East Asia, and the United States, it purported to sketch the consequences of the crumbling of colonial empires and the increased political and economic role of emancipated, non-Western nations. In other words, it was not an eyewitness report such as Ross used to send to a large number of newspapers and magazines while en route.
In those reports, of course, reality, however rhetorically distorted, took center stage. It was in encountering real situations and events all over the globe that Ross decided on a position, often inconsistently, at times even fully contradictory. A journalist rather than a scientist, let alone a philosopher, and a bit of an opportunist, too, Ross had no standard policy or principle. Rather he seems to have molded his stance according to what he was presented with along the way. And besides these apparent changes of opinion, his vacillation was also a function of the audiences he hoped to reach in terms of media (readers, listeners, spectators), ideology or location after he returned from these encounters.
Nico de Klerk
The struggle for Africa
The threat of transferred education
1 Colin Ross. Amerika und das schwarze Weltproblem. In: Zeitschrift für Geopolitik: 1934 July; 11 (2, Halbband, H. 7); 399-409. See Library.
Ross doesn’t subscribe to biological racism, but uses Weltanschauung to claim the supremacy, albeit temporary, of the “white race”.
For Colin Ross, race and space are symbiotically linked. It is not just that he sees specific landscapes affecting the world views of the populations living in them, but that geopolitical conflict is always envisioned in terms of continentally grouped racial amalgamations fighting against each other over living space (the internal diversity of each group is erased through Ross’s use of signifying colors, i.e. Europeans are “white”, Africans are “black”, and Asians are “yellow”). For Ross, the white race was always threatened at the continental level by other populations differentiated by skin color.
What is surprising, however, is Ross’s understanding of the nature of the “racial” difference between “whites” and, for example, “blacks”. Ross is not racist in the sense that he believes blacks to be biologically inferior to whites, indeed he argues frequently against any such idea: blacks and whites are born with the same intellectual capacities, and physical differences merely reflect adaptations to different climates. More importantly, white colonial domination over black people is only the result of arbitrary circumstances related to the fact that, over the centuries, these two different populations developed vastly different Weltanschauungen. Children born into each of these “civilizations” were socialized within different worldviews, leading to different ways of being in the world.
Yet, while Ross claimed equality of the races in terms of natural endowments, he was profoundly racist in his willingness to create and maintain race-based hierarchies of power as a means of determining the distribution of land and natural resources. A profound German and European chauvinism leads Ross to completely disregard the humanity of racialized others and accept purposeful exploitation and subjugation as a matter of course.
Even though Ross’s lectures regularly touch upon the problem of racial conflicts, this topic was usually integrated in a wider framework of ethnographic, economic or historical descriptions and, from the 1930s on, more emphatically in the framework of colonial administration or contemporaneous geopolitical and ideological issues.
By varying its contexts Ross could use the term “race” for different purposes. For his 1928 book Mit Kamera, Kind und Kegel durch Afrika, for instance, he used it to demonstrate how the “Farbenschranke” (color barrier) obstructs the professional advancement of black people and, at the same time, how it establishes solidarity among the white people. The racial tensions determined by economic arguments were the tenor in Ross’s first Africa book (Die erwachende Sphinx, 1927), too. However, the lectures based on this book that Ross and his proxy speakers delivered in Germany and Austria turned out to be orchestrated in different ways to match the expectations of the audience. Thus the problem of race was outlined differently according to the location (see The weak white and The African “Wacht am Rhein”).
Ever since 1933, Ross used the notion of race more emphatically in a propagandistic context. For example, in his 1936 lecture before the Anglo-German Fellowship in London, economic determinants were attenuated for the sake of white hegemony in National Socialist racial politics (see “The co-existence of white and colored”).
While Colin Ross hardly ever made outright claims to an inherent superiority of Caucasians, racially charged descriptions and judgments still pop up throughout his travel reporting around 1930.
Some of this imprecision is already baked into the framework of German geopolitics that Ross uses. Historian David Thomas Murphy has argued that a distinction between geopolitical arguments, as based on geography, and racialist or volkish notions anchored in biology can be drawn “in an abstract sense”, while in practice both lines of reasoning were wed by German expansionists without hesitation.1
Similarly, Ross may acknowledge the sophistication of Aborigine technology or the academic acumen of Maori descendants in New Zealand’s city life, but he still insists that “primitives” would need centuries of westernized life to be able to start creating, rather than aping, civilization.2 In his vivid portrait of Chinese city life in Achtung Australien! Achtung Asien! (1930), assertions about social inequality and cultural values are hard to pick apart from racializing stereotypes of Chinese resignation to fate and pitilessness: “No Chinese helps another one.” (See: “Compassion is unknown”) In Ross’s writing and filmmaking, the racial stereotypes often do their work underneath the veneer of his more explicit geopolitical self-positioning.
1 See: David Michael Murphy. [Excerpt from] The New Weapon: Geopolitics in Weimar Culture and Politics. In: The Heroic Earth. Geopolitical Thought in Weimar Germany, 1918-1933. Kent (Ohio)/London: Kent State University Press; 1997; 60.
2 See: Colin Ross. [Excerpt from] Das Weltgefühl des primitiven Menschen. In: Der Wille der Welt: eine Reise zu sich selbst. 1. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1932, p. 79–80. See Library.
In his writings on America in the 1930s and early 1940s Colin Ross frequently reflected on the ethnic history and composition of America’s population, and if and how a United Peoples of America would arise from the country’s palette of immigrants. Dismissing nurture as being too superficial, he favored race as an explanatory term. Yet Ross wavered between conceptions of race rooted in heredity, in the shaping forces of the environment or shifting combinations of the two.
From Ross’s dismissal of nurture, or education, followed his repudiation of the hallowed American concept of the melting pot. Debunking it as hardly worthy of the term nurture, he unmasks the melting pot as a mere matter of adaptation, through dress and language, to render the waves of turn-of-the-twentieth-century, mostly southern and eastern European immigrants, into semblances of America’s Nordic inhabitants.1 As such, then, the term was a fig leaf for the need of their cheap labor in a rapidly industrializing country. Ross, therefore, proposes to replace it with the notion of American race, a term that in his definition is reminiscent of historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s term American character.2 In Ross’s spin on the term, it is a race shaped by the land and its ‘spirit’ rather than by the self-serving needs of a transient, Anglo-Saxon minority, whose rule of the country, pace Ross, is about to end.
Nico de Klerk
1 “Nordic” is here meant in the sense of a European race living in the countries around the Baltic and North Seas. This concept became popular in the 1910s with eugenicist Madison Grant’s 1916 book The passing of the great race; or, The racial basis of European history.
2 Frederick Jackson Turner. The problem of the West. In: The frontier in American history. New York: Dover; 1996 ; 206 (orig. publ. in 1896).