The Perils of Race-Thinking

A Portrait of Aleš Hrdlička
$65.00 / €62.00 / £53.00
Publication date: 
228 pages

Eugenics and scientific racism are experiencing a resurgence, and an understanding of the ideas of Aleš Hrdlička can help combat them. Today, the racial science of the early twentieth century is both untenable and contemptible. This book is about an arch figure of that period: Aleš Hrdlička served as Curator of Physical Anthropology at the prestigious Smithsonian Institution from 1910 to 1941. Although his ideas about race are today considered pseudoscience, the uncomfortable truth is that he was an internationally respected scientist in his own day.

The Perils of Race-Thinking advances a bold new interpretation of modern racial ideology by exploring Hrdlička’s intellectual world. Using previously untapped Czech-language sources, Brandon irrevocably alters the discussion about this important figure by placing Czech nationalism at the center of his racial thinking. Defying disciplinary categories, Perils of Race-Thinking joins critical analysis of this key American anthropologist with an incisive revisionist perspective of interwar Czechoslovakia to unearth transnational racial presumptions lurking behind the worst crimes of the twentieth century.

At the center of Hrdlička’s race beliefs was his commitment to Czech and Slovak unity and independence. From this center, his next level of concern was what he believed to be a millennial racial struggle between Germans and Slavs. On a global scale, he viewed the Slavs, and especially the Soviet Union, as a eugenic bastion of White strength holding off the “rising tide of color.”

Step by step, Perils of Race-Thinking mercilessly dismantles Hrdlička’s racial system and exposes it as mysticism dressed up in the language of science. Convinced that human individuals belonged “naturally” in racial groups, Hrdlička embraced a revolutionary program of reordering the globe according to a harrowing morality of “Darwinist” struggle. Yet despite a lifetime of measuring body parts, even Hrdlička could not decide how many races there were or how to tell them apart.

Chapter I. What are the Czechoslovaks Racially? 
Chapter II. “Public Opinion is a Powerful Weapon” 
Chapter III. The Secret History of the Hrdlička Museum of Man
Chapter IV. The Last Great Reserve of the White Race 
Chapter V. Race Divination 
Chapter VI. How the Czechs Became White 
Chapter VII. Eugenics 
Chapter VIII. The Faith of Aleš Hrdlička 

“In The Perils of Race Thinking Mark A. Brandon intricately interweaves the life of Aleš Hrdlička, the father of physical anthropology in the United States, with global geopolitics, making clear that Hrdlička’s devotion to Czech nationalism and his unwavering faith in science lay at the heart of his racial theorizing. While acknowledging Hrdlička’s lasting scientific contributions to forensics and anthropometry, Brandon uses archival documents never before comprehensively considered to lay to rest the popular image of Hrdlička as a champion of racial equality.”
“Mark Andrew Brandon’s The Perils of Race-Thinking is a marvelously researched study that for the first time makes full use of Hrdlička’s text written in Czech. Rich in detail, well documented and an excellent read, Brandon provides a concise and lucid insight into the leading anthropologist’s racialized, yet very original world view. According to Hrdlička, the Slavic race did actually serve as a reservoir for the declining Indogermanic stratum of the ‘white race.’ He, thus, thought of his own academic, scientific research always in terms of race and racialized hierarchies. With his excellent interpretation of this ideology, Brandon provides an excellent and sound basis for further research in the field.”
“Hrdlička is a central figure of the international anthropology of the early twentieth century who, until now, has defied book-length treatment, notably by a biographer who can make full use of his extensive Czech-language archive. Brandon’s book skillfully places Hrdlička’s Czechoslovakian political commitments and efforts as an ‘anthropologist for Czechoslovakian nationhood’ at the center of a narrative that connects the European and American sides of his career. It offers new insights into the theorization of race in the early twentieth century and the way in which racial arguments were mobilized into nationalist causes.”