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In Search of "Aryan Blood." Serology in Interwar and National Socialist Germany.

In Search of "Aryan Blood." Serology in Interwar and National Socialist Germany by Rachel E. Boaz. CEU Press Studies in the History of Medicine Series. New York, Central European University Press, 2012. x, 245 pp. $50.00 US (cloth)

Adolf Hitler and his followers were preoccupied with blood. Visions of sanguinary purity pervaded the Third Reich, and laws to protect the racial makeup of the Volk were steeped in the language of blood. It is fair to say that historians possess an exhaustive knowledge of these bio-medical obsessions, so it comes as a surprise that Rachel Boaz has identified a new and rewarding angle on this theme. What, she asks, did the Nazis and their predecessors say not about blood in a metaphorical sense but about real blood?

In her engaging study, Boaz presents her findings through a focus on serology, namely the study of blood types (A, B, O, etc.). In the years after World War I, practitioners in this field and in the subfield of seroanthropology sought to trace the diffusion of blood types throughout the world. Was there a correlation, they asked, between race and blood? The pursuit of an answer, Boaz shows, was an international project, as scientists throughout Europe and the United States sought knowledge of blood types not only to improve the efficacy of hospital and battlefield transfusions but also to enhance existing anthropological classification. Boaz deftly charts the fine line between value-free science and politically charged inquiry. In Germany the quest to find a dominant Nordic or Aryan blood type landed some scholars squarely in the political camp of the volkisch right. Others who had little taste for racial polemics were still wedded to a hierarchy with whites at the top and darker peoples successively lower.

There were obvious affinities between racism and serology, but Boaz wisely positions these first inquiries in a broader, pre-1933 intellectual milieu, where there was great optimism that studies of race and blood could enrich science and enable more progressive public health measures. But serologists of all ideological stripes encountered a fundamental problem: they simply could not establish connections between blood type and race in a scientifically meaningful way. For example, they claimed to have discovered a link between the A blood type and the peoples of Northern and Western Europe, but they were flummoxed by the appearance of B types in seemingly unadulterated Western European populations such as in rural communities with little exposure to foreigners. They were also confused by comparable distributions of A, B, and O types in populations far removed from each other. Such frustrations led to more fieldwork, and armed with syringes and their own biases, seroanthropologists fanned out across cities and towns to gather data.

Despite these persistent efforts, by the time we arrive at the Nazi years, we see a scientific field riven with doubt: seroanthropologists were simply unable to establish the links they had hoped to find. Given the precarious state of the enterprise, it is not surprising that the Nazis found little use for serology. Nazi racial "scientists" relied instead on the seemingly more tried and true (but, of course, equally suspect) methods of physio-anthropology--measuring skulls, assessing eye and skin color, and researching twins and other "anomalies." Of course, sanguinary speech was everywhere in the Third Reich, especially in laws about miscegenation, and the Nazis harboured a lingering suspicion that blood transfusions between races could force, say, a Jewish blood donor's racial traits into the body of an unknowing Aryan recipient. But for the most part, "blood" was a stand-in for "heredity," and serologists found little state and institutional support in Nazi Germany.

On the whole, this book is a valuable addition to the scholarship of early twentieth-century Germany and the history of science. Despite a vexingly short index and opaque citations of primary documents, it is marked by judicious analysis and brisk writing. And Boaz rightly closes the book with reference to key non-German developments, such as the wartime American Red Cross's shameful segregation of the US blood supply according to race. Yet I found myself wanting more discussion of whether these early serologists' findings have been useful to successive scientists. Today, one can find on the Red Cross website a statistical breakdown of blood types by ethnicity; for instance, Hispanics have higher instances of the O type while Asians display higher cases of the B type. To quote the Red Cross: "not all blood is alike" [ Accessed January 30, 2013.] Such wording is not framed by the strident racialized language of the last century, but prima facie it is provocatively close. Two questions thus remain: to what extent does the early project of seroanthropology live on, and is it a morally compromised enterprise? Today, as scientists map the human genome, as amateur genealogists send off their DNA for ethnic analysis, and as Japanese matchmakers pair up people with similar blood types (and supposedly similar dispositions), we cannot help but notice the similarities between now and the interwar years. Boaz has no doubt thought about these parallels, and she hints at them in the conclusion. But without a longer meditation, the book remains suspended in mid-thought, with little indication of the lingering scientific and ethical questions that attend the historical ones. Still, In Search of "Aryan "Blood achieves much by guiding us down fascinating and heretofore under-researched avenues. As we continue to encounter racially charged assertions about the links between genetics, intelligence, and ethnicity, it remains to be seen where these roads will ultimately lead us.

S. Jonathan Wiesen

Southern Illinois University Carbondale
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Author:Wiesen, S. Jonathan
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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