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Measuring the Master Race

Jon Røyne Kyllingstad


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1The notion of a Germanic or Nordic race was a linchpin of Nazi ideology. The Nazis believed that this ‘superior race’ had the right to extend their Lebensraum (living space) at the expense of others, and they put this idea into practice with brutal efficiency. It was not the Nazis, however, who invented the concept of a superior Nordic-Germanic race. In the early twentieth century, it was common practice to rank humanity into inferior and superior races, and many saw the Nordic-Germanic race as the pinnacle of humankind. This belief was particularly widespread in nations that were considered to be of Germanic origin, such as the U. S., England, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. In all these countries there were racial ideologues who held that humankind’s progress would come to a halt unless the presumed master race was protected from racial mixing and allowed to expand at the expense of ‘inferior’ races.

2One important reason why these ideas were taken seriously by so many was that they claimed foundation in scientific fact. For centuries, European scholars believed that the Germanic-speaking nations of northern Europe could trace their roots back to the Germanic tribes described in ancient Roman sources. During the nineteenth century this historical notion of a Germanic people was transformed into a scientific concept of race. In numerous scientific publications, the Germanics were defined as a distinct type of human being, one characterised by a specific set of inheritable bodily traits such as blond hair, blue eyes, a tall stature and an elongated head shape. While this race was commonly referred to as ‘Germanic’ throughout the nineteenth century, after the turn of the twentieth the label ‘Nordic’ was usually favoured.

3Scandinavia was generally seen as the heartland and cradle of the Nordic race. In contrast to the region’s peripheral geographical and political position, therefore, Scandinavia was of primary importance in the worldview of those advocating Nordic racial supremacy, especially German nationalists including the Nazis, who proved to be deeply fascinated by all things Scandinavian. Among Scandinavians themselves, the idea of Nordic racial superiority had a significant impact upon notions of national identity, and in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Scandinavian scholars played an important role in creating and perpetuating the concept of a Nordic race. By imbuing the idea of the Nordic race with scientific legitimacy, these scholars also advanced its international recognition and acceptance.

4Measuring the Master Race focuses on the involvement of Norwegian academics in the development of a scientific concept of the Nordic race. The book charts the emergence of this idea and its scientific credibility in Norway during the nineteenth century. Individual chapters explore the shifting theories and preconceptions upon which the concept was based, how it affected national narratives and notions of national identity, and how it finally lost academic credibility in Norway during the years leading up to World War II.

5From the late nineteenth century and into the interwar years, Norwegian scientists undertook numerous studies of the racial composition and biological history of Norwegians. They conducted extensive surveys of the living national population, gathering data on bodily traits such as arm span, height and head shape, and comparing these measurements with similar data obtained from anatomical studies of human bones from ancient graves. Working with these comparisons, scientists developed theories about prehistoric migrations, the mixing and settlement of various primordial races, and the eventual rise of the Norwegian people. Although these researchers voiced different ideas concerning the origin and racial composition of the national population, they all agreed on the ‘fact’ that the Norwegian people belonged to the ancient blue-eyed, long-skulled and tall Nordic race.

6In retrospect, as the notion of racial superiority has lost scientific and political credibility, and the very concept of race itself has become highly controversial, these research activities may seem perplexing and preposterous. No present-day scientists claim credibility for prewar traditions of racial science, and racial classifications based on skull measurements appear to be a flawed, racist, pseudo-scientific relic of the past. Nevertheless, the Norwegian scholars who set out to explore the racial roots of the nation with the help of calipers and rulers were actually mainstream scientists operating within the established scientific discipline of physical anthropology and working alongside colleagues from all over the Western world. Driven by the aim of charting human biological diversity and evolutionary history, physical anthropologists observed, measured and compared the exterior features of human bodies, and then used this data to classify humans into races in much the same way as zoologists classified animals into families, genera and species.

7At the peak of physical anthropology’s popularity, academics working in this discipline were considered to be the leading experts on race. If one wished to speak authoritatively about race, it was a great advantage to be an anthropologist or at least to be able to invoke the support of anthropological expertise. In order to understand how the concept of a superior Nordic race gained and lost scientific credibility, therefore, it is necessary to explore how physical anthropology became a discipline of recognised authority on racial issues. Moreover, it is important to study the changing ways that anthropologists have drawn the boundaries between science and non-science in their field of research, and to attempt to understand how this has affected the scientific legitimacy of the concept of a Nordic race. How can we explain that for a long period the Nordic race was considered to be a real entity that physical anthropologists could delineate, identify and describe scientifically? How and why did that same concept subsequently come to be perceived as a dubious ideological notion based on weak evidence and pseudo-scientific reasoning? This book helps to shed light on these questions by examining the activities of Norwegian anthropologists in their national and international historical contexts.

8The history of physical anthropology was characterised by processes that took place both within nations and across borders. Anthropologists in Western Europe operated on the international stage: they were connected with each other through personal and professional networks, and they presented their research findings in anthropological journals, textbooks and conferences aimed at international academic audiences. The actual research, however, was usually carried out within a national context, was often financed by national funding bodies and conducted by national research institutions, and had the principal aim of studying the racial composition and history of the national or colonial population. Thus, although the history of physical anthropology was affected by the interplay of national, transnational and international processes and contexts, the scope, subject matter and societal role of physical anthropology varied between nations. Hence the discipline’s development in one country was related, but not necessarily identical, to its development in other national contexts. Facts and viewpoints that were considered scientifically valid among anthropologists in one country, for example, might elsewhere be deemed controversial or unacceptable. In the case of Norway, the rise and eventual fall of the concept of the Nordic master race was affected but not determined by shifts in its status within the international scientific world.

9In order to understand these processes it is important to bear in mind the unique character of academic life in a small country like Norway. The Norwegian ‘community’ of professional anthropologists never amounted to more than three or four people, and these individuals had to go abroad to undertake training, obtain research materials, publish their research, attend conferences and participate in scientific debates. Simply because they came from a small country, Norwegian anthropologists had a particularly strong international orientation, and therefore the history of Norwegian physical anthropology and its engagement with the idea of a Nordic race must be understood in an international context. This book is not, however, a systematic comparative study, nor is it a general account of the international history of physical anthropology. Instead, Measuring the Master Race limits itself to exploring important historical connections between physical anthropology, racial science and the concept of a Nordic race in Norway and in other countries with links to the Norwegian academic community.

10Since there were so few Norwegian anthropologists, they worked closely with Norwegian colleagues in related disciplines. The anthropological exploration of the nation’s racial identity and origin was strongly interconnected with research being carried out in other disciplines relating to Norway’s history and culture (e.g. archaeology, philology, history). And all this research was entwined with ongoing academic, political and cultural tugs-of-war over Norwegian national identity. Measuring the Master Race traces some of these interconnections. The book examines how physical anthropological race theories, and the idea of a Nordic master race in particular, shaped the national narratives advocated by Norwegian philologists, historians, archaeologists and public intellectuals; it offers an analysis of the influence wielded by these academic debates and ideological struggles over national identity on Norwegian anthropology.

11Physical anthropology was also closely related to eugenics, which emerged as a significant international movement in the early twentieth century. Eugenicists feared that the biological evolution of humankind had been arrested by anti-selective forces in modern society, and they called for an interventionist population policy in order to protect superior elements from being outnumbered by inferior ones. Eugenicists generally turned their attention towards individuals and families carrying those genetic traits assumed to be inferior. Some eugenicists, however, maintained that the primary goal of eugenics was to protect the superior races — first and foremost the Nordic race — against miscegenation and to help them expand at the expense of supposedly inferior races. According to these eugenicists, physical anthropology was highly relevant to eugenics, since the anthropological mapping of inferior and superior racial elements in a population was regarded as a way of assessing its genetic quality. This book elucidates the relationship in Norway between eugenics, anthropology and the concept of a superior Nordic race.

  • 1 Jon Røyne Kyllingstad, Kortskaller og langskaller: Fysisk antropologi i Norge og striden om det No (...)
  • 2 Per Holck, Den fysiske antropologi i Norge. Fra anatomisk institutts historie 1815-1990 (Oslo: Ana (...)
  • 3 Audhild Schanche, ‘Saami Skulls, Anthropological Race Research and the Repatriation Question in No (...)
  • 4 Bjørg Evjen, ‘Measuring Heads: Physical Anthropological Research in North Norway’, Acta Borealia, (...)

12Measuring the Master Race is the first broad and contextualised account of the history of Norwegian physical anthropology to be published in English. In addition to the Norwegian edition of this book, Kortskaller og langskaller,1 a descriptive overview of the history of Norwegian physical anthropology was published in Norwegian in 1990 by the anatomist Per Holck.2 Holck’s account was an important starting point for this book. In addition to Holck various scholars have addressed specific issues in the history of Norwegian physical anthropology. Of particular importance has been the history of early twentieth-century physical anthropological research on the Sami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. This research included the excavation of a substantial number of human skulls from Sami graves in northern Norway, skulls still stored in the anthropological collection at the University of Oslo. The Sami grave excavations are today generally perceived as a racist undertaking characterised by a lack of respect for the affected Sami communities; there is an ongoing debate about the future of the skulls, some of which were reburied in 2011. The topical relevance of this issue has led to a number of historical inquiries into the physical anthropological research carried out in this period. This includes work by the archaeologist Audhild Schanche addressing the controversial Sami grave excavations both in relation to her own research on prehistoric Sami burial costumes and as part of her involvement in the official assessment of the University’s collection of ancient Sami bones.3 The historian Bjørg Evjen has also explored late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century anthropological research in northern Norway, with a specific focus on the Sami and on how anthropologists classified groups in northern Scandinavian into races.4

  • 5 Torgeir Skorgen, Rasenes oppfinnelse: rasetenkningens historie (Spartacus: Oslo, 2002).
  • 6 Per Haave, Sterilisering av tatere 1934-1977: En historisk undersøkelse av lov og praksis (Oslo: T (...)

13The history of Norwegian physical anthropology is also touched upon by philologist Torgeir Skorgen in his general introduction to the history of racism,5 and in a number of works on the history of eugenics in Norway. The most comprehensive of these works are those written by Per Haave and Nils Roll-Hansen, and my account of Norwegian eugenics is greatly indebted to them. However, neither Haave nor Roll-Hansen have specifically turned their attention to the relationship between physical anthropology and eugenics, which is one of the focuses of my research.6

14The significance of physical anthropology’s relationship with other disciplines, particularly eugenics, emerges as I chart the development of the concept of the Nordic master race. The book begins with a short account of some key events in the rise of the scientific concept of a Germanic race. In the 1830s and 1840s, Scandinavian anatomists, archaeologists, linguists, historians and ethnographers put forward a grand theory claiming that a succession of different races had migrated to Europe in prehistoric times and had given rise to the various European nations. According to this theory, a Germanic race existed that could be scientifically delineated and identified. This race was tall, blond, blue-eyed and had an elongated head shape. It was assumed to have settled in Europe during the Iron Age, established itself as a ruling caste over the previously settled populations and ushered in the development of an advanced European civilisation. This theory achieved great international acclaim and went on to have long-lasting effects on academic debates about history and national origin in Europe.

15Chapter 2 argues that Norwegian historians writing in the 1830s and 1840s were inspired by the idea of the superior Germanic race. These historians traced the roots of the nation back to the invasion of a Germanic Iron Age tribe and praised Norwegians for being the principal bearers of Germanic virtues. This national myth of origin was widely believed and endorsed by Norwegian historians, philologists and archaeologists in the mid-nineteenth century, but beginning in the late 1860s it was overthrown by the views of a new generation of scholars. These scholars dismissed the theory of a Germanic invasion and refused to see the nation’s history as the unfolding of psychological characteristics inherited from a Germanic race.

16Chapter 3 describes the establishment of a Norwegian tradition of physical anthropological research from the late 1880s onwards, and argues that the first generation of Norwegian physical anthropologists was influenced by a German and French school of research — anthroposociology — which embraced the idea of a superior Nordic race and saw the struggles between inferior and superior races as the key to interpreting history and society. This led to a revival of Norwegian ideas of nationhood based on racial determinism and Germanic racial superiority, and in chapter 4 I argue that such ideas had a significant, but not pervasive, impact on the prevailing concepts of nationhood among the Norwegian academic elite. Around the turn of the century it was conventional to think that Norwegians had their prehistoric roots in a Germanic race; however, it was not commonplace to explain Norwegian culture and history as predominantly determined by inherited Germanic virtues.

17Chapter 5 deals with the rise of eugenics during World War I and shows that leading Swedish and Norwegian eugenicists were strongly inspired by the notion of a Nordic master race, holding that one of the principal goals of eugenics was the purification and propagation of this race. Chapters 6 and 7 present the leading Norwegian anthropologists of the 1920s and 1930s, and argue that they all supported eugenics but had different views on the relationship between eugenics and anthropology. Halfdan Bryn, the foremost Norwegian anthropologist of the 1920s, saw eugenics as a tool for the protection and expansion of the superior Nordic race, and claimed that anthropology was highly relevant to eugenics since it could help identify inferior and superior (Nordic) racial elements in the national population. His colleagues, the married couple Alette and Kristian Emil Schreiner, favoured a style of eugenics that focused on the propagation of healthy individuals rather than on protecting the purity of the Nordic race. In line with this aim, their anthropological research was not primarily legitimated as part of a eugenic enterprise, but was instead linked to archaeology, ethnography and the investigation of the prehistory of the Norwegians and the Sami.

18In spite of their different ideas on eugenics, Bryn and the Schreiners cooperated closely in the early interwar years, and chapter 8 is a detailed study of the huge collaborative project they launched just after World War I — an anthropological survey of a total cohort of Norwegian military conscripts, meant to provide deep insight into the racial composition of the Norwegian people. After many years of work, the project ended in an irresolvable quarrel over the interpretation of the data collected on arm length, eye colour, height and other physical characteristics. This disagreement over seemingly petty details was, however, connected to a deep ideological controversy over the Nordic master race. While chapter 8 deals with the scientific content of the controversy and elucidates how the scientists involved strove to justify their differing views with the help of empirical evidence and scientific reasoning, chapter 9 turns towards the political and social context of the conflict between Bryn and the Schreiners.

19From the mid-1920s onwards, Halfdan Bryn became increasingly involved in a network of German right-wing nationalists and physical anthropologists who favoured the protection and expansion of the Nordic race and who, in the late 1920s, won growing support within German physical anthropology for their ideas. These scholars became even more influential during the Nazi period, when their academic careers flourished along with the political success of the concept of the Nordic race. Halfdan Bryn died in 1933, the year of the Nazi takeover in Germany, but by that point his scientific reputation was already on the rise in Germany. In contrast to his academic success in Germany, however, Bryn’s prestige in Norway declined significantly during the last years of his life due to his advocacy of the Nordic race. Although the notion of a superior Nordic race had been acknowledged as a scientifically sound idea since the 1890s by the Norwegian academic community, by the time Bryn died in 1933, the idea had lost much of its scientific credibility and was about to be cast aside as a pseudo-scientific concept.

20The relationship between science and racism is a recurrent theme in Measuring the Master Race, and throughout the book I have used the term ‘racism’ to denote a specific set of attitudes, ideas and actions. I have mainly used the term to denote the basic idea that humankind can be divided into biologically distinct races, and that these can then be ranked in a hierarchy and assigned unequal moral worth due to perceived differences in intellectual abilities. This idea was commonly held in the Western world at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, and it was often assumed to be scientifically sound. The term ‘racism’, however, is also used in a more restricted sense, namely to characterise explicitly formulated ideologies which turned belief in racial inequality into the basic building block of a comprehensive worldview.

  • 7 According to George M. Fredrickson (in his Racism: A Short History [Princeton, NJ: Princeton Unive (...)

21Even though I use the word ‘racism’ to denote two partly overlapping notions, I have tried to distinguish throughout the text between their meanings. The distinction is important, since many of the participants in the academic and public debates who were staunchly opposed to specific racist doctrines — such as the idea of Nordic superiority — nevertheless based their scientific reasoning and their worldview on the (often implicit) notion of a hierarchy of races. I am fully aware that the use of the term ‘racism’ in a historical study is problematic. It is a politically-charged word with an ambiguous meaning, and it may seem anachronistic to use it to denote ideas and actions that were current prior to the 1930s, when the term was first introduced into public and academic debates.7 However, the aim of this book is not only to study ideas and actions, but also to make past events comprehensible and relevant to present-day readers. To this end, it is necessary to take into account the concept of ‘racism’, which is probably the most important point of reference for the present-day reader when he or she deals with issues of race.

22The fact that ‘racism’ is a normative concept should not prevent us from using it as a conceptual tool in our study of the past or the present. Racism is the negation of human equality and universal human rights. It is a threat to these basic values upon which any society should be founded. There is no better cause, then, for trying to understand what racism is and has been. One of the reasons racist ideas have been able to thrive and influence is the fact that they were once considered to be scientifically sound. This book is a contribution to the growing literature on the history of racial science, and it is my hope that it will also be a small contribution to a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon we call ‘racism’.


1 Jon Røyne Kyllingstad, Kortskaller og langskaller: Fysisk antropologi i Norge og striden om det Nordiske herremenneske (Oslo: Spartacus, 2004).

2 Per Holck, Den fysiske antropologi i Norge. Fra anatomisk institutts historie 1815-1990 (Oslo: Anatomisk institutt, University of Oslo, 1990).

3 Audhild Schanche, ‘Saami Skulls, Anthropological Race Research and the Repatriation Question in Norway’, in Cressida Fforde, Jane Hubert and Paul Tumbull (eds.), The Dead and their Possessions. The Repatriation in Principle, Policy and Practice (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 47-58; Graver i ur og berg. Samisk gravskikk og religion 1000 til 1700 e. Kr. (Ph. D. thesis, University of Tromsø, 1997); ‘Samiske hodeskaller og den antropologiske raseforskningen i Norge’, appendix to I. Lønnig, M. Guttor, J. Holme, et al. (eds.), Innstilling fra Utvalg for vurdering av retningslinjer for bruk og forvalting av skjelettmateriale ved Anatomisk institutt (Oslo: University of Oslo, 1998); ‘Rase, etnisitet og samisk forhistorie: et forskningshistorisk tilbakeblikk’, in Jan Eivind Myhre (ed.), Historie, etnisitet og politikk (Tromsø: Institutt for historie, University of Tromsø, 2000), pp. 3-18.

4 Bjørg Evjen, ‘Measuring Heads: Physical Anthropological Research in North Norway’, Acta Borealia, Vol. 14, no. 2 (1997); ‘Kort-og langskaller: fysiskantropologisk forskning på samer, kvener og nordmenn’, Heimen, Vol. 37, no. 4 (2000), pp. 273-292.

5 Torgeir Skorgen, Rasenes oppfinnelse: rasetenkningens historie (Spartacus: Oslo, 2002).

6 Per Haave, Sterilisering av tatere 1934-1977: En historisk undersøkelse av lov og praksis (Oslo: The Norwegian Research Council, 2000); ‘Zwangssterilisierung in Norwegen — eine wohlfahrtsstaatliche Politik in sozialdemokratischer Regie?’, NORDEUROPAforum, Zeitschrift für Politik, Wirtschaft und Kultur, Vol. 11 no. 2 (2001), pp. 55-78; ‘Sterilization Under the Swastika: The Case of Norway’, International Journal of Mental Health, Vol. 36, no. 1 (2007). Nils Roll-Hansen, ‘Norwegian Eugenics: Sterilization as Social Reform’, in Gunnar Broberg and Nils Roll-Hansen (eds.), Eugenics and the Welfare State: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland (Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1995); ‘Den norske debatten om rasehygiene’, Historisk tidsskrift, Vol. 59 (1980), pp. 259-83; ‘Geneticists and the Eugenics Movement in Scandinavia’, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 22, no. 3 (1989), pp. 335-46; ‘Eugenics Before World War II: The Case of Norway’, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Vol. 2, no. 2 (1980), pp. 269-98; ‘Eugenics in Scandinavia after 1945: Change of Values and Growth in Knowledge’, Scandinavian Journal of History, Vol. 24, no. 2 (1999), pp. 199-213.

7 According to George M. Fredrickson (in his Racism: A Short History [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002], pp. 151-61), the term emerged for the first time in the early 1920s but started to be used more widely only in the 1930s.


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