Untermensch (German for under man, sub-man, sub-human; plural: Untermenschen) is a term from Nazi racial ideology used to describe supposedly inferior people, especially "the masses from the East," that is Eastern European Jews and Soviet Bolshevists (with the two groups often described as being less or more congruent in Nazi propaganda).
The origins of the term "Untermensch"
Although usually considered to have been coined by the Nazis themselves, the term "under man" in (less or more) the above mentioned sense was actually first used by American author Lothrop Stoddard in the title of his 1922 pamphlet The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under Man. It was later adopted by the Nazis from that book's German version Der Kulturumsturz: Die Drohung des Untermenschen (1925). The German word "Untermensch" itself had been used earlier (not in a racial sense), e.g. in a 1899 novel by Theodor Fontane. Since most writers who employ the term do not address the question of when and how the word entered the German language (and therefore do not seem to be aware of Stoddard's original term "under man"), "Untermensch" is usually back-translated into English as "sub-human." A leading Nazi attributing the concept of the East-European "under man" to Stoddard is Alfred Rosenberg who, referring to Russian communists, wrote in his Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (1930) that "this is the kind of human being that Lothrop Stoddard has called the 'under man.'" ["...den Lothrop Stoddard als 'Untermenschen' bezeichnete."] Quoting Stoddard: "The Under-Man -- the man who measures under the standards of capacity and adaptability imposed by the social order in which he lives.
However, it is possible that Stoddard constructed his "under man" as an antipode to Friedrich Nietzsche's Übermensch (or superman) concept. Stoddard doesn't say so explicitly, but he refers critically to the "superman" idea at the end of his book (p.262). Wordplays with Nietzsche's term seem to have been used repeatedly as early as the 19th century and, due to the German linguistic trait of being able to combine prefixes and roots almost at will in order to create new words, this development was even somewhat logical. For instance, German author Theodor Fontane contrasts the Übermensch/Untermensch word pair in his novel Der Stechlin (1898, see Chapter 33). As a matter of fact, even Nietzsche himself used "Untermensch" at least once in contrast to "Übermensch" (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft , 3rd book, Chapter 143) but this bears no resemblance to the Untermensch in later thought. Earlier examples of "Untermensch" include Romanticist Jean Paul using the term in his novel Hesperus (1795) in reference to an Orangutan (Chapter "8. Hundposttag").
Stoddard's book-long diatribe dealt with the recent takeover of power by the Bolsheviks in Russia, arguing that that country was now ruled by the most degenerate people on the Earth. He thought that the combination of the alleged inherent racial inferiority of Russian Slavs, the idiocy of a political creed that appealed to the vilest human instincts (e.g. jealousy towards the more gifted and the more affluent) and the supposed fact that the Communist Party's rank and file consisted of "born criminals" in the most conventional sense of the word necessitated a completely new term to describe this phenomenon: "the under man." In this sense, for Stoddard, the October Revolution was the battle cry for an upcoming, unavoidable clash of the civilized nations with the "masses of the east." If the white race was intent upon winning that confrontation with the "under man," so the message went, it had to turn away from ill-conceived liberal ideas and adopt drastic changes of policy instead, e.g. by introducing far-ranging eugenics programmes.
The available literature on Nazi Germany would not support the claim that Stoddard's writings were more to the Nazis than a neat summary of racial, social, and political theories that already were or would soon become part and parcel of the Nazis' ideology.
The "Untermensch" in Nazi propaganda and policy
Nazis believed that Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, Altaic peoples or Africans, and asocial element, as well as the mentally or physically disabled, homosexuals, criminals, prostitutes, beggars, tramps, liberals, political dissidents, Jehovah's Witnesses and so-called morally degenerates were subhuman.
The term "Untermensch" was utilized repeatedly in writings and speeches directed against the Jews, the most notorious example being a 1935 SS publication with the title "Der Untermensch" which contains an antisemitic tirade sometimes considered to be an extract from a speech held by Heinrich Himmler. In the pamphlet The SS as an Anti-bolshevist Fighting Organization, Himmler wrote in 1936: We shall take care that never again in Germany, the heart of Europe, will the Jewish-Bolshevistic revolution of subhumans be able to be kindled either from within or through emissaries from without.
One more example for using the term "Untermensch," this time in connection with anti-Soviet propaganda, is another brochure, again titled "Der Untermensch" and edited by Himmler. Published in 1942 after the start of Operation Barbarossa, it is around fifty pages long and consists for the most part of photos casting an extremely negative light on the enemy (see link below for the title page). Historian Robert Jan van Pelt writes that for the Nazis, "it was only a small step to a rhetoric pitting the European Mensch against the Soviet Untermensch, which had come to mean a Russian in the clutches of Judeo-Bolshevism."
The concept of the Soviet "Untermensch" in particular served the Nazis as justification for their genocidal policies and especially their aggression against the Soviet Union in 1941 in order to conquer Lebensraum. Early plans of the German Reich (summarized as Generalplan Ost) envisaged the displacement, enslavement, and elimination of no less than 50 million people who were not considered fit for Germanization from territories it wanted to conquer in Eastern Europe. .See also Genocides in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe.
- Domenico Losurdo, “Toward a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism”, Historical Materialism 12.2 (April 2004), p.25-55, here p.50.
- Alfred Rosenberg, Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts: Eine Wertung der seelischgeistigen Gestaltungskämpfe unserer Zeit, München: Hoheneichen, 1930, here p.214.
- Lothrop Stoddard, The Revolt against Civilization: The Menace of the Under Man, New York: C. Sribner's Sons, 1922.
- Robert Jan van Pelt, "From Architect's Promise to Inmate's Perdition," Modernism/Modernity 1.1 (1994), p. 80-120, here p.97.
Lothrop Stoddard, The Revolt against Civilization: The Menace of the Under Man, http://users.mo-net.com/mlindste/revltciv.html