Featured article: Andrew Evans on photography, beauty contests, and race science

Andrew Evans’ article, “‘Most Unusual’ Beauty Contests: Nordic Photographic Competitions and the Construction of a Public for German Race Science, 1926-1935,” appears in the June issue of Isis. The article is free to all readers for a limited time.

Alex Cagle, the Isis manuscript assistant, interviewed Dr. Evans about his research.

CAGLE: Your essay highlights how both German scientists and the German public helped create and shape the new field of race science or Rassenkunde in part through these beauty contests. How do you think your article might contribute to the global conversation happening right now in the wake of protests speaking out about racialized violence?

Dr. Andrew Evans
Dr. Andrew Evans

EVANS: The current protests denounce systemic racism, the maintenance of social and institutional structures that perpetuate discrimination and inequality. The protests have drawn much-needed attention to how the structures of racism were built. We need to bring science into that conversation, because it played a key role in creating and maintaining systemic racism.

The essay gives us a chance to consider how scientific institutions and everyday people interacted to create racial categories and racist iconography. I analyze a series of mail-in photographic contests in the 1920s and 1930s designed to select the most representative examples of the so-called Nordic race. Prominent German anthropologists and race scientists, including Eugen Fischer, Hans F.K. Günther, and Otto Reche, served as the judges for these competitions. In the interwar period, these men were central figures in the creation of Rassenkunde or “race science,” a new scientific field dedicated to the racist proposition that race and culture, biology and ability, were linked. Entrants mailed in photographs of themselves, and these experts picked and analyzed the winners, which were then published as archetypal faces of the Nordic race. The audience and the judges, in other words, collaborated in the production of racial imagery and in drawing the boundaries of “us” vs. “them.” It should perhaps come as no surprise that they created racial knowledge that benefitted themselves. The contests produced an image of Nordic racial belonging that was overwhelmingly male and upper and middle class, the very groups to which the judges and entrants belonged. The contests also presented the superior Nordic race as the most important racial element in the German people, thus infusing the nation itself with racial meaning.

One thing that strikes me about the current moment is the role of photography. The essay analyzes the ways in which entrants and judges alike used photography to create Nordic racial imagery. In the contests, the camera functioned as a tool of racial definition and exclusion. In the current protests, however, photography has become a tool for social justice that documents and reveals racial violence. Cell phones have democratized photography and video; today you don’t need a fancy camera or access to a traditional media outlet to disseminate an image. The camera was used to create racial categories, but it can also be used to combat racial injustice.

The German public competing to be the most Nordic certainly was a most unusual contest. How did you come across these episodes in your research, and when did you realize you had something unique on your hands?

I was researching a book on German anthropology during World War I when I came across the first contest. I was doing something basic: tracking down published pieces by prominent anthropologists in the 1920s for a chapter on the postwar period. The first article I found was the announcement of the winners of the 1926 contest for the “best male and female heads of the Nordic race” in the popular race science journal, Volk und Rasse. The material was just so bizarre: a mail-in photographic racial beauty contest with cash prizes? It seemed like an anomaly. But the article was written by Eugen Fischer, perhaps the most prominent anthropologist of the interwar period in Germany, and the other judge in the contest was Hans F. K. Günther, the author of the best-selling book, Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes (Racial Science of the German People). These were big names in interwar German race science. But still, it was one contest. I realized I had something unique on my hands when I discovered two other such contests in the same journal: the competition for the “Best Nordic Family Tree” in 1927 and one for the “Best Racial Heads of the Most Important Races Represented in Germany” in 1934. These also involved professional anthropologists. This gave me three racial beauty contests in which participants collaborated with scientists by creating racial portraits, selecting what they considered the most representative photographs, suppling and even analyzing data, and serving as consumer for the results. Taken together, the contests offered the opportunity to analyze a process of knowledge co-production in science that involved both scientists and their audience.

You mention that the judges’ ideal of searching for a masculine Nordic essence made it difficult for them to capture the ideal Nordic woman. Did the women who submitted portraits of themselves also find it difficult to envision the perfect Nordic woman? How aware were they that they were in part contributing to a backlash of the “New Woman”?

It’s exceptionally difficult to get at the motivations of the women who participated in the contests. We have the images that they submitted and little else. The venue for the contests, however, can perhaps tell us something. The journal in which the contests appeared, Volk und Rasse, was a mouthpiece of the völkisch movement, a diffuse group of right-wing theorists and critics who reacted to modernity with horror. They believed that industrialization and modern forms of life were destroying German culture; the only antidote was a radical German nationalism based on notions of racial superiority. Chief among the ills of modernity, in their view, was the “New Woman,” the media image of young, independent working women who wore their hair short, smoked cigarettes, and dressed in androgynous clothing. Volk and Rasse favored a traditional view of women associated with the home, family, long hair, conventional dress, and buttoned-down sexuality. The entrants in the contests were either readers or subscribers to the journal, which suggests that they shared this ideological orientation. Moreover, none of the women who submitted photographs of themselves matched the image of the “New Women.” Because of the journal’s ideological emphasis, we can speculate that the women who entered the contests were well aware that they were contributing to a backlash against the “New Woman.” Did they find it difficult to imagine the perfect Nordic woman? If they submitted photographs of themselves, they likely believed that they somehow fit the bill. The male judges, however, disagreed. In the 1926 contests, Fischer and Günther refused to award a first prize to the women and handed out three second-place awards in the female category instead.

How did the judges of the contests, Lehmann, Günther, Reche, Schultz, and others, handle the defeat of the Nazi Regime led by the supposedly superior Nordic Race?

Lehmann died in 1935. The other figures in the article went through the denazification process after World War II, but none suffered severe consequences for their work in racial science or their associations with the Nazi regime. Their defense was that they had been engaged in science, not politics. Fischer retired from his position as the head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics before the war ended, in 1942. He escaped denazification with a fine of 300 marks and continued to publish as a Professor Emeritus at the University of Freiburg until his death in 1967. Günther was arrested at the end of the war and interned in the French occupation zone until 1948. At the end of a denazification process, he was declared a “lesser offender” and banned from holding a university position. He refused to renounce his earlier writings, however, and continued to publish on marriage and eugenics until his death in 1968. Denazification barred Otto Reche from teaching in the postwar period, but he was allowed to retire with emeritus status. In 1965, the year before his death, he was awarded Austria’s highest honor for scientific achievement, the Österreichisches Ehrenkreuz für Wissenschaft und Kunst. Bruno Schultz found a position at the University of Münster in the Institute for Human Genetics after the war. In general, these scientists expressed no regrets about their work in racial science, and the defeat of the Nazi regime in 1945 did not drastically change their views.