March 1, 2024

German interest in racial theories foreshadowed in WWI

The strange adventure of an Aboriginal Australian in a WWI POW camp

Although the interest of some German scientists in now-discredited racial theories is best known as a World War II phenomenon, archivists have discovered that at least one POW camp in World War I was also a centre for racial research. According to a feature on Australia’s ABC, an Aboriginal soldier, Douglas Grant, was captured at Battle of Bullecourt in April 1917. Eventually he ended up at Wünsdorf, a POW camp south of Berlin.

The POWs of Wünsdorf were an extraordinary bunch, for they were mostly Muslims. One of the more bizarre schemes of their German captors was to whip up fervour for jihad among Muslim POWs and send them back to India and the Middle East to stir up trouble for the Allies. The 5000 POWs were given luxurious treatment and an elaborate mosque was built in the camp. It was Germany’s first.

With captives from around the world, German researchers also realised that this was a golden opportunity to investigate racial differences. Grant was a full-blood Aboriginal from the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland who had been adopted by a white couple from Sydney.  “He was measured all over, and upside down and inside out,” Grant told an historian later.  According to the ABC:

While the scientists argued there was a scientific basis to these studies, there was also a clear agenda to create a picture of German superiority and racial purity. It was the beginnings of attempting to prove that Germans were the “master race”. One German scientist argued that the POW camps were “a Völkerschau [people show] without comparison”…

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racial stereotypes
racial theories
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