“Circus” and the Portrayal of Racism in the West

“Circus” is an exciting, dramatic movie from the 1930s. The main character, an American named Marion Dixon, escapes from America (specifically the South) during the era of Jim Crow laws, as she gave birth to a black child. Working in a circus in the Soviet Union, she conceals the knowledge of her child from almost everyone. In one of the final scenes of the movie, her manager (a German), storms into the ring with her child, attempting to disgrace her. His plan backfires, though, as the Soviet people welcome the baby with open arms, declaring that they love all children, no matter what their skin color.

Without a doubt, the director intended for the film to be propagandistic. Though it’s certainly possible to laugh at the scene where the child is being passed about (for trying not to be racist, and failing by modern standards), more interesting is the critique on the Western world. The movie criticizes the backwardness of America and Europe. The man who attempts to disgrace the American dancer/circus performer (who escaped her own country due to persecution) is a foreigner, from the Western world. The characters who appear progressive throughout this movie are Soviet people. The foreigners, on the other hand, either come from a nation which is portrayed as not being progressive, or are bigoted themselves.
The hypocrisy in the scene, though, comes from a Soviet minority which is not included. Though the Soviet Union championed itself as a progressive country, anti-Semitic sentiment still existed throughout. Despite Jewish people living in the Soviet Union, they are noticeably absent from the scene. They appear to be one of the ethnicities or groups which cannot be brought into the fold, raising the question of how progressive the Soviet Union actually was.

Frameworks of Social Engineering

How can we truly go about with categorizing populations? In the case of Stalin’s USSR and Nazi Germany, populations were categorized by class and race respectively. Chapter 6 of Beyond Totalitarianism, Christopher R. Browning and Lewis H. Siegelbaum examine the different “radical recategorizations” of the populations in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. <Christopher R. Browning and Lewis H. Siegelbaum, “Frameworks for Social Engineering: Stalinist Schema of Identification and the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft,” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Shelia Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)> Browning and Siegelbaum discuss both the Stalinist schema of identification and the Nazi ideal of Volksgemeinschaft and conclude that the need to reach a utopian and ideal society, justified imposing categorizations to better identify “enemies of the state.” In order to categorize populations, identification plays in big role in make categories that have to do with race and class. According to Browning and Siegelbaum,

“The Bolsheviks, without much controversy, identified the landless (batraki) and poor (bedniaki) among the peasantry as proletarians even if many of them did not identify themselves as such.”

This passage struck me the most because it demonstrates the power of the state and its capability to play the role of the “identifier.” In addition, this passage brings many things into question. How do was a proletarian defined as? Better yet, what if many did not identify as such? Similar to Nazi Germany, who was Jewish and who identifies as such? In terms of race, to what extent was someone of Aryan descent or how far can individuals trace back to the Jewish traditions of their families? One important point that I would make about this passage is the idea of human agency. Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to act in the world. When it comes to identity, it is difficult to categorize individuals in an effort to create a utopian society, because human agency will always exist. Although the state may assume the right to inscribe identity and place the population under categories, does order within these authoritarian societies have the potential to prevail?

Eugenics in Interwar Europe

“Eugenics is the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage,” states Francis Galton in his article, Eugenics: It’s Definition, Scope, and Aims in July 1904. Eugenic ideas spread through out Europe following the First World War. While eugenics is supposed to be about race quality, it became prevalent in interwar Europe mainly due to fear, and the need to transfer blame.

In National Self-Sufficiency, John Maynard Keynes states that England’s vast trading network was “the explanation before man and the justification before Heaven of her economic supremacy.” This statement reflects the views of most European countries; their respective races were superiorto all others. After WWI, Europe began to lose control of its colonies. For example, the British were facing resistance to their rule in India. In addition to this, natives of those colonies were immigrating to the mother nations; there were Algerians in France and Chinese in England, to name a few. To nations that had been mainly of homogenous race up to this point, this immigration was a shock and an unwelcome change. Fear began to spread among whites of these people with different skin color, culture and language. Whites needed a way to establish themselves as the superior race and to keep their race pure. Thus, they turned to eugenics.

Not only was Europe physically destroyed by WWI, the global economic crisis of 1929 ruined its still weak economies. A general sense that someone needed to be blamed was felt through out the continent; who better to blame than these new races or less superior races within European nations? Especially in Germany, who shouldered the majority of the blame, according to the Treaty of Versailles, for WWI, this need was felt; the blame was placed mainly the Jews. During WWI, Jews held the majority of the seats in German parliament, and were the ones who agreed to a cease-fire. After the war, German officers came forward and said that they could have won if it weren’t for the armistice. This fueled hatred for the Jews. Eugenics became popular as a scientific way to justify this hatred. In this German eugenics propaganda poster, Germans are being told that they must take the burden for degenerates and those who are not as genetically fit. Taking these attitudes into account, it is not surprising that the Holocaust occurred.

Eugenics was a recognized science in Europe during the interwar period. Eugenists and those who supported eugenics were not extremists, but were close to mainstream thought. Eugenics was driven by fear and the search for an outlet for blame, and was itself an underlying factor in the Second World War.

source for picture: http://www.disabilityhistory.org/dd_camp2.html


British Eugenics: Race Versus Class

This eugenicist poster presents the differences between different African faces, highlighting the features of the so-considered “criminal” and “civil insane.”  I found it to be a good demonstration of the belief within eugenics that someone’s facial features could be used to determine their personality type.  Eugenicists believed that one’s personality could be determined by their appearance.  Having a “shorter, broader, higher head” for example could classify one as a criminal according to this poster.  Biology and anthropology were used as both logical proof and a moral conscience for these claims.  It was thought processes like this that allowed for racism to flourish from eugenics in interwar Europe.

Another interesting aspect of this poster is the fact that it comes from Britain, where eugenics were supposedly based more in social class than in race.  It helps to prove Stone’s argument in Breeding Superman that racial eugenics were more prominent in Britain than the nation’s eugenicists preferred to lead on.  After the atrocities committed by Germany that used eugenics as their logic were exposed, Britain claimed that their eugenics programs were based around preserving the traditional class system that had been becoming obsolete.  However, as an empire that spanned almost all the continents of the world, as well as the peoples of different races that resided on them, Britain felt it necessary to assert its dominance over the natives of their colonies.  Therefore, eugenics was used to “prove” white supremacy.  This poster shows how the British did this by using the reasoning that Africans were naturally savages who would disrupt the social order with their “natural” tendencies toward violence.  Documents such as this could have easily manipulated the mindsets of the middle class through its fear tactics.

After having become aware of how British eugenics were based around similar ideals as those in the more extreme Nazi Germany, it fascinates me how one country used these ideas to justify a mass genocide, while the other fought against these actions.  Could Britain have eventually reached a tipping point that would have caused the nation to undertake similar actions as Germany?