The "Aryans" of Jean-Paul Sartre

Totalitarian Categories in Western Writing

By Werner Cohn


From Encounter, vol. LVII, no. 6, December 1981, pp. 86-91. The present version is shortened and contains a few minor stylistic changes.

© 1981 By Werner Cohn


"The purpose of NEWSPEAK was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of INGSOC, but to make all other modes of thought impossible ...." George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)


I have a friend who was recently able to leave Hungary, where he had been a dissident, and who has since devoted himself to the scholarly study of Eastern Europe. When he first arrived he would frequently refer to Communist countries as "socialist", especially when contrasting them with the West. I remarked on this habit, and it emerged that he in fact shared my view that the word "socialist" in this context is inappropriate. The problem is that the term originally implied some form of democracy ("the producers possess both political power and the means of production", in the words of the dictionary)_, and it is still used to describe such democratic movements as German and Scandinavian social democracy. When the term is used by Communists as self-description, it is with the propagandistic purpose of ascribing democracy to Communist regimes; and my friend had unthinkingly fallen into the trap of adopting his opponents' propagandistic terminology. Such habits develop imperceptibly and perhaps inevitably in people subjected to totalitarian rule for any length of time.

But not all those who fall into similar traps have lived under Communism or Nazism. Totalitarian categories and modes of thinking have insinuated themselves into Western writing since the beginnings of totalitarian rule. One important mechanism by which this has been achieved is ambiguity of viewpoint. A literary style variously labeled style indirect libre or Free Indirect Speech, but which I will here call free indirect citation, has generally been the carrier of this ambiguity (1). Using neither direct nor indirect quotation, it consists of an equivocal attribution of thought or vocabulary to a named or unnamed other. In the example of my Hungarian friend, "socialist" may be interpreted to stand for "what the Communists call 'socialist'". But it could also be read as "what I, the writer, call socialist." Hence the ambiguity.

The inherent equivocation of free indirect citation can be a very effective device in fiction, but when used in scholarly or interpretive essays it leads to intellectual chaos. I shall try to show how this chaos has helped the cause of totalitarian movements in the West.

Sartre is a good place to start.


It is 35 years since Sartre published, immediately after World War II, his brilliant dissection of anti-Semitism and the Jewish condition, Reflections sur la Question Juive (1946) (2). The little booklet has gone through a number of editions, has been widely reviewed, and is still undoubtedly among Sartre's most famous works.

As one would expect in the case of a controversial writer, a number of reviewers had important criticisms. If Sartre's analysis had striking insights, some of his assertions were remarkably naive. He thought that "socialism" would do away with anti-Semitism. He was preoccupied-occupied with rabid anti-Semitism but gave little thought to the perhaps more prevalent genteel hatred of Jews. Many Jewish reviewers felt that he short-changed "Jewish self-consciousness" by asserting that anti-Semitism is the only basis for it. We now know, from Sartre's own words a few weeks before his death (3), that at the time of writing his book he had been incredibly ignorant, and willfully so, of all things Jewish:

J.-P.S.: ... Most of the significant things about the Jews are written in foreign languages -- especially in Hebrew, sometimes in Yiddish.

B.L. (the interviewer): You could perhaps have overcome that obstacle ... when you wrote your book surely you had put together some documentation ?

J.-P.S.: No

B.L.: What do you mean, no ?

J.-P.S.: None. I wrote without any documentation, without reading one Jewish book. ... I wrote what I thought.

Nevertheless, Sartre was a man much listened to, as he is still today after his death, and his writings were given close attention. But there is one peculiarity of his style which, as far as I know, has not been noted, and which is illustrated in the final words of his book:

The cause of the Jews would already be half won if only their friends found in their defense a little of the passion and the perseverance that their enemies devote to their destruction. To awaken this passion, it is useless to appeal to the generosity of the Aryans because even among the best of these this virtue is disappearing. But it may well be pointed out to each of them that the fate of the Jew is his own fate. No Frenchman will be secure as long as a Jew, in France or elsewhere in the world, has reason to fear for his life.

Who are these "Aryans" of Jean-Paul Sartre ?


The word "Aryan" has a long and generally disreputable history in European thought. (4) It is true that some perfectly legitimate linguists have used it to describe the Indo-European group of languages. Professor Carleton Coon and perhaps some other anthropologists refer to West Asian invaders of India as "Aryans." But when used to designate European non-Jews in contrast to Jews, the term -- at least since the early 1920's -- has been used only by Nazis and by those under Nazi influence.

Nazi usage itself was self-contradictory, having been constructed from the disparate elements of pseudo-scientific pedantry and hysterical hatred; but it would be tedious and depressing to go into the details. (5) In any case there is a single authoritative source, Hitler's Mein Kampf, from which we can derive the meaning of "Jew" versus "Aryan" in Nazi usage:

1. "Jews" are "racially" distinct from "Germans"; the latter are "Aryans"; "Jews" are not. Similar distinctions hold in other West European countries, so that, for example, Frenchmen are "Aryans" and French Jews are not.

2. Religious distinctions are not relevant to racial distinctions. "Jews" can never become "Aryan", even if they convert to Christianity.

3. "Jews" are physically, intellectually, and especially morally inferior to "Aryans." They are, in fact, sub-human.

4. "Jews" constitute a mortal danger to "Aryans" and must be destroyed.

So much for the "Aryans" of Adolf Hitler. but who are those Jean-Paul Sartre ? Since Sartre was neither a Nazi nor an anti-Semite -- since he was, in fact, an enemy of the Germans and a defender of the Jews -- it is easy enough to dismiss any possibility of an anti-Semitic intent in his work. But his repeated use of the Nazi category "Aryan" involves an ambiguity which he never resolved. Just what did he wish to convey when he wrote this word ? There are at least two possible ways in which we can interpret him:

1) Sartre does not accept the category as his own but reports, perhaps with satirical intent, as Nazi usage;

2) Sartre does use the category as his own, although in that case he surely could not have had all the Nazi implications of the word in mind.

I counted seventeen instances in which Sartre uses the word "Aryan" in his book. In five these (pp. 68, 100, 110, 112, 117 in the English edition), there are quotation marks, and thus a clear attribution to anti-Semitic usage. These are not examples of free indirect citation. But in six cases (pp. 23, 33, 68, 101, 102, 113) it is impossible to decide what Sartre had in mind. And in the six final instances (three on p. 51, one each on pp. 40 and 103, and the passage from p. 128 cited above) it seems most likely that Sartre, for whatever reason, adopted this essentially Nazi term as his own.

The overall impression is one of ambiguity and uncertainty. Sartre was a professional writer of considerable skill who must be presumed to have known how to convey precise thoughts when he had them, the most persuasive hypothesis in the resent case is that he lacked them. And what impressions will his readers get, especially those too young to have been directly confronted with Nazism ? Will not at least some of them be led to think that there indeed are "Aryans" in this world as distinct from mere Jews ?


Sartre was not alone with his kind of "Aryan." The 1941 journal of a Jewish teacher in Breslau (now Wroclaw) was recently published by members of his family in Israel. (6) The second entry (dated January 2, 1941) reads as follows:

... again 13 degrees below today, a hard winter. Many people have no coal, even among the Aryans ...

And the index of this little book, obviously supplied by its Israeli editors, has a listing for a Studienrat Dr. Freund with the explanatory label "Non-Aryan."

Kurt Jakob Ball-Kadury's well-known report on the situation of German Jews in the year 1933 (published in German in 1963) attempts to reproduce the moods and the vocabulary of Jews in the first year of Nazi rule. (7) It reports, for instance, on the state of Jewish sports organizations:

The Makabi clubs could still participate in the indoor sports festivals in Berlin and competed in a number of events with the Aryan clubs.

At was not only in Germany that Hitler's vocabulary was used in those years. Robert Ross, reviewing the manner in which US Protestant periodicals reported on the Nazi persecution of Jews (8), finds that the word "Aryan" was commonly used in Hitler's sense, although the professed point of view of these journals was, of course, sympathetic to the Jews. Sidney Hook recounts that he was once asked to join something called The Society to Help Non-Aryan Christian Refugees. (9) So not only was Hitler's word used, but Hitler's racial categories formed the basis for the institutional practice by people who considered themselves to be, and in many ways were, thoroughly anti-Nazi.

I scholarly writing dealing with the Nazi period is is, unfortunately, routine to find a mindless use of Nazi categories. Three small examples, all concerning "Aryans," must stand for the many other I could cite.


One of the earliest serious analyses of Nazism was the widely-praised Behemoth by Franz L. Neumann. He saw fit to contrast Jews to "Aryans" throughout. (10) A more recent German work by Helmut Genschel, dealing with the exclusion of Jews from the German economy during the Hitler period, does the same thing, although the author sometimes uses quotation marks to attribute this usage to the Nazis. (11)_ Finally, a recent article in a scholarly journal (one of many which could have been chosen) discusses an aspect of education under the Nazis. It talks about "non-Aryans" casually and mindlessly, as Hitler might have, although the context make clear that the author had no intention of promoting the Nazi viewpoint. (12)

With this usage so established among certain scholarly writers, it comes as no surprise to see it in the less formal literature. A recent issue of Canadian Jewish periodical contains an article on Poland. (13) We read about Warsaw

During the liquidation of the Ghetto, many had fled to the cemetery, on the Aryan side, and lay down amongst the dead....

In short, anyone who reads much of the literature concerning the Hitler period will find an ambiguous use of "Aryan" in perhaps more than half the material. This is as true of scholarly as of popular writing, of contemporaneous journals of Jewish victims as of description by others, of work published today just as of 30 or 40 years ago.


Mao Tse Tung died in September 1976, and a few months later Problems of Communism, the US government's journal on Communist affairs, carried as its lead article a remarkable review of his life. (14) The author, Professor Michel Oksenberg of the University of Michigan, was later to enter the administration of President Carter as one of the United States' chief policy-makers on Chinese affairs. The article is remarkable -- considering the academic and political nature of its source -- both for its hagiographic conclusions and the extraordinary ambiguity of its point of view.

In the very beginning of his essay, Professor Oksenberg is quite explicit about the point-of-view problem:

... there are many ways to judge a political record. the most important choice is whether to appraise the record in terms of Mao's goals .. or in terms of the evaluator's preferences .. for this paper, our criterion is whether, in retrospect, Mao concluded that a given policy commitment was well conceived and achieved the objective he wished.

So notice is quickly given that the article will present not the author's viewpoint but that of the subject, Mao himself. This disclaimer might be considered a rebuttal to the charge of hagiography. But is it a credible disclaimer ? (15) In his concluding judgment, Professor Oksenberg writes:

Did he move China in the overall directions he sought ? The answer would have to be 'yes.' He left a more unified, wealthier, stronger, and more equitable society than he had found. He sought to restore national dignity, to terminate a century of foreign privilege, and to give China a voice in world affairs; he and his generation succeeded.

Whose views are these ? Those of Mao himself, as promised at the outset ? Is it only Mao, and in no way the author of the article, who finds that Mao had "left a more unified, wealthier, stronger, and more equitable society than he had found' ? The author's style here is ambiguous to the point of doublethink.

The principal vehicle for the pervasive equivocation in this article, as it was in Sartre's work, is free indirect citation. Communist propaganda phrases are cited without attribution to heir source. Here is a very incomplete listing of the device in this article: "he encouraged ... land reform"; "he ...pressed for ... socialist transformation"; "building of a socialist society"; "educating the populace..."; "socialist organization of agriculture"; "sustaining socialist development." From whose point of view can Communist policies be thought of as "reform" (which, according to the dictionary, involves improvement) ? From whose point of view is the Communist organization "socialist" (i.e., involving ownership by the producers rather than by a ruling group) ? From whose point of view is Communist indoctrination "education" (the process of imparting knowledge) ? Professor Oksenberg's text leaves all such questions unanswered.


The discussion of free indirect citation by literary critics concerns almost exclusively works of fiction. Here is a fairly typical example of this style, from the second chapter Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility:

Mrs. John Dashwood did not at all approve of what her husband intended to do for his sisters. To take three thousand pounds from the fortunes of their dear little boy would be impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree. She begged him to think again on the subject. How could he answer it to himself to rob his child, and his only child too, of so large a sum ?

There are no quotation marks anywhere to announce the voice of Mrs. John Dashwood, nor are there signs of indirect quotation ("Mrs. D. said that..."). Strictly speaking, then, it is the author, Jane Austen, who tells us about the dear little boy, etc. But it seems clear here that Miss Austen intended us to hear Mrs. Dashwood speaking. The "dear little boy, the "most dreadful degree" are meant to evoke Mrs. Dashwood's turn of speech. And these are evoked by way of ironic mimicry; no similar effect could have been achieved through either direct or indirect citation.

But mimicry and irony, like satire, are frequently misunderstood. Every teacher who has asked students to read Michael Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy, say -- or Swift's A Modest Proposal for that matter -- has been distressed by the sizable numbers who read these pieces "straight." Further, we frequently think we have discovered an author's ironic intent only to learn from him subsequently that he had no such intent at all; this can be as true for the highly sophisticated reader as for the innocent (16).

The very nature of free indirect citation leaves the question of ironic intent in question. The style may be used with or without such purpose. Some of our Sinologists who write about the "liberation" of 1949 may indeed be skeptics, but how is the reader to know ? Professor Pascal entitled his study of free indirect citation The Dual Voice to indicate the ambiguous relationship between the author and some background personage (who may or may not be cited). And while all commentators agree that free indirect citation can be very effective in fiction, Pascal sternly warns against it in scholarly writing.




1. Almost all discussion of this matter deals with fiction. For a recent review, see Roy Pascal, The dual Voice: Free Indirect Speech and Its Functioning in the Nineteenth-Century European Novel (1977).

2. An excellent English translation, by Erik de Mauny, was published in 1948 under the title Anti-Semite and Jew.

3. Benny Levy, "The Last Words of Jean-Paul Sartre," Dissent, Fall 1980.

4. See Leon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe (1974).

5. Such detail is furnished by Max Weinreich, Hitler's Professors: The Part of Scholarship in Germany's Crimes Against the Jewish People (1946).

6. Willy Israel Cohn, Als Jude in Breslau -- 1941 (1975)

7. Kurt Jakob Ball-Kaduri, Das Leben der Juden in Deutschland im Jahre 1933 (1963)

8. Robert W. Ross, So It Was True (1980).

9. Sidney Hook, "Reflections on the Jewish Question," Partisan Review, May 1949

10. Franz L. Neumann, Behemoth, Second edition, 1963, pp. 113, 116, etc.

11. Helmut Genschel, Die Verdrängung der Juden aus der Wirtschaft im Dritten Reich, 1966, pp. 96, 157, 218, etc.

12. Jill Stephenson, "Girls' Higher Education in Germany in the 1930's," Journal of Contemporary History, 1975, p. 49

13 Sidney Du Broff, "The Jewish Ghost Returns to Poland," The Canadian Zionist, November-December 1980

14. Michel Oksenberg, "Mao's Policy Commitments, 1921-1976," Problems of Communism, Nov. - Dec. 1976

15. Some passages in the article are critical of Mao in certain respects. I find the tone as a whole to be hagiographic, as it surely is in this citation.

16.Wayne C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony, 1974, finds that "there is reason to believe that most of us think we are less vulnerable to mistakes with irony than we are."


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