Yes, what may be old news for those of you brushed up on your ancient history came as a bit of a surprise to me. As we all learned in school while we we’re picking our noses and pulling each others ties, the Aryan race was hailed by Adolf Hitler as the ‘master race’- a section of the gene pool who were German and had, among other traits, blonde hair and blue eyes.
However, what you may not know is that the Nazi’s stole the name from an ancient civilisation. Speakers of a language called Old Indo-Aryan settled in India around 2000 BC, coming from Afghanistan. They called themselves araya, meaning ‘noble’ or ‘honourable’.
Old Indo-Aryan is the mother of many modern day Indian languages; certain civilisations are also descended from the Aryan‘s- the word Iran is etymologically related.
“But how did Aryan get to equal blonde hair and blue eyes?” I hear you ask, while someone throws a pencil across the classroom. Well, a man called William Jones put forward a theory in 1786 that all Indic, Iranian and European languages had one common mother tongue, called Proto-Indo-European.
However, though the evidence seems to back him up, we’ve never discovered proof of this language. And this is where all the trouble seems to start. According to heritage-key.com, it took about 100 years for Western scholars to transform the Aryan race into a blonde-haired, blue-eyed ‘master race’.
Frederic Schlegel linked the word ‘arya’ to the German word ‘ehre’ (meaning honourable) in 1808, first establishing a direct link between the Germans and the Aryans. From then, Karl Penka developed a theory in 1886 that the Aryans we’re, in fact, descended from a race of Nordic people from Scandinavia. It was believed they cruised across Europe into Asia on fancy chariots, remaining racially ‘pure’ the entire time. More recently, heritage-key argues, the theory of a Nordic people moving to India without mixing with other races has been disproved.
Certain scholars in the late 19th and early 20th century argued that it was the job of this pale skinned race to rule over all others. Of course the tragic irony is that the Aryans really were black and under Hitler’s Germany any people of a non-Caucasian ethnicity were persecuted, and sometimes placed into a concentration camp, along with Jewish people and Gypsies.
This gives us a unique glimpse into the way history can, and still is, warped by present day ideologies to gain power and justify actions.
As for Hitler, I have no idea whether he knew the Aryan race were really black. Personally I hope it kept him awake at night.
Rachel Dwyer, What Do Hindus Believe? (Granta Books, London 2008)