Modern antisemitism emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the Enlightenment religion began to lose its grip on at least the intellectual elite. However, their opposition to the Jews did not diminish. Voltaire, the towering thinker of the 18th century, expressed his animosity to the Jews: “I would not be in the least surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race.” The old theological antisemitism of Latin Christendom that depicted Jews as Christ-killers meant little to modern thinkers and statesmen. Socioeconomic-based antisemitism still persisted, but more so in Eastern Europe, where millions of impoverished Jews resided than in comparatively Judenfrei Western and Central Europe, where antisemitism was more ideological.
In the Imperial Age of the late 19th century, a race-based antisemitism developed from Social Darwinian ideas about the “survival of the fittest” and from early genetic theory. Consequently, Jews (and other races deemed inferior) were defined by their blood, not religion or culture. This non-Aryan blood was a pollutant that had sapped Europe of its pristine greatness through miscegenation, the original sin for any racist thinker. Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau’s views on the inequality of the races applied biological evolution to civilizations. Houston Stewart Chamberlain (pictured), an Aryan theorist and one of Hitler’s heroes, specifically related the cosmic struggle of civilizations to a contest between Jews and Aryans in his widely-read book, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century:
Let us attempt a glance into the depths of the soul. What are the specific intellectual and moral characteristics of this German race? Certain anthropologists would fain teach us that all races are equally gifted; we point to history and answer: that is a lie! The races of mankind are markedly different in the nature and also in the extent of their gift, and the Germanic races belong to the most highly gifted group, the group usually termed Aryan.
In the days of yore a persecuted Jew might have had the option of converting to Christianity. Such a public act would not end the misery of humiliation, shame and discrimination, but at least it could stave off an auto-de-fé. Racial antisemitism, however, offered no redemption to the Jew. It took its darkest form under the Nazis. For Hitler and Himmler, to be a Jew was to inherit racial characteristics; only extermination, not conversion, could solve the Jewish Question and protect the Aryan race.