Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Paul Weindling, “A Virulent Strain: German bacteriology as scientific racism, 1890-1920”

Race, Science and Medicine, 1700-1960, Waltraud Ernst & Bernard Harris, eds. London: Routledge, 1999.  218-34.

This book is a collection of essays centering on the issue of race in science and medicine.  This particular chapter is arguing that bacteriology became racialized as a reaction to transmigrants crossing from the East in the 1890s.  This racialization of disease became even more pronounced during the German occupation of eastern territories during World War I.

By the time of the 1892 cholera outbreak in Hamburg, epidemics were seen as belonging to a more primitive time, when Europeans were considered to be more or less on the same cultural level as the ‘colonial’ races.  But even as outbreaks of cholera were becoming increasingly rare, bacteriologists were aware of other ‘Asian’ diseases that were threatening the European races.  Leprosy was on the rise on the Baltic fringes of Germany, and there were fears about the importation of typhus, small pox and the plague by transmigrants from the East traveling to Ellis Island.

As bacteriological knowledge increased, the identification of pathogens with diseases resulted in a more objective specificity, but it also opened the door for the possibility that susceptibility to a pathogen was a racial attribute.  If this could be shown, it could be used to give an objective scientific basis to the notion of different human species.  In cases where the animal vector (such as the louse) was identified before the pathogen, anyone infested with the animal vectors were considered a threat to the overall population, and it was easy to conflate the ethnicity of the carriers with the contagion.

In response to the threat of disease from transmigrants, medical stations were set up on Germany’s eastern borders that inspected and disinfected transmigrants.  These stations did not, however, have a consistent policy for such cleansing, nor did they necessarily have adequate facilities.  Policies could be quite draconian and dehumanizing, and the attendants were often coarse and ill-mannered.  Women and men were separated, breaking up families, and sick children were often removed to distant hospital facilities, with no information provided to the relatives, and no visitation by family members allowed.  Although there was no official interest in religious background (religion was not generally recorded) the German and American press sensationalized the idea that Eastern European Jews were importing infections.  Public prejudice against Russian Jewish refugees increased during the 1890s, and the stereotype of Eastern Europeans as living in filth and squalor was reinforced.

With German and Austro-Hungarian occupation of eastern territories during World War I, the situation only worsened.   Occupying troops enforced sanitation standards upon the population, often targeting specific groups within that population (e.g., Polish Jews, Serbian Muslims).  Anti-lice pamphlets were prepared in Yiddish, with the help of Rabbis, that urged the cutting of hair, the shaving of beards, and the burning of (infested) wigs of Orthodox women, but they were not effective.  Some considered this lack of effectiveness as being due to the ‘primitive’ religious culture of the Jews.  In turn, the local communities resented this intrusion into their private lives and viewed the delousing installations with hatred, even burning some down.  The Germans compiled lists of Jews that were to be forcibly washed and deloused every week, and closed shops if their owners refused to be deloused.

Labor shortages during the harvest led to the importation of large amounts of Eastern European workers into Germany.  Although the workers were deloused, the delousing was not effective and in 1917 there was a severe typhus epidemic in Warsaw, which aroused further racist hostility towards Jews.

In contrast to the attitude of German and Austrian medical officers in Poland, the Austrian medical officers in Serbia prided themselves on respecting local religion.  They used Serbian women to inspect Muslim women for typhus.  They viewed themselves as “apostles of civilization” (p. 230) and the overall tone of their actions was more moralistic and religious, than racial.

Unfortunately, by 1918 the prejudice of German and Austrian authorities against Polish Jews as carriers of typhus had increased to the point that refugees arriving in Vienna were held in concentration camps, under atrocious conditions that caused deaths among the inmates.  Medical officers believed that Polish Jews constituted an epidemic risk, and the Reich authorities closed the borders to these workers.  They were vilified as immoral, lazy, opportunistic, dirty and unreliable.

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