Slavic Genealogy: Anti-Slavic Perceptions — Not only in America
When I think back to my early science classes and if I recall correctly it was Socrates who made the observation and uttered the now ubiquitous statement “nature abhors a vacuum”. It seems in all areas of life this is true and so it was with the Slavs.
In his 1919 book Who Are the Slavs? Dr. Paul Radosavljevich illustrates this point very well for us. Dr. Radosavljevich notes in his Introduction that in the literature of the day there was very little written about the Slavs. Unfortunately only one group of writers seemed to actively work to fill this void.. So as with any vacuum something rushed in to fill it.
Unfortunately what filled the vacuum was not positive, but largely negative and were active in their condemnation of the Slavs. It should be noted that Dr. Radosavljevich’s book was published in 1919 during World War I so anti-German sentiment was running high, however he makes some excellent observations that go beyond simply being anti-German.
Dr. Radosavljevich points out that since Charlemagne (742-814) anti-Slav sentiment had run high among the Germans and they were the primary ones who wrote about the Slavs. One German scholar, Theodor Mommsen, said “Czech skulls do not understand reason, but hey understand blows. It is a matter of fighting for life and death.” Prince Von Bülow (1849-1929), who happened to be the Chancellor of the German Empire from 1900 to 1909, called the Poles “an inferior people to be trodden under foot.” Others referred to Slavs as ‘born slaves’. A German Congress made a resolution to wipe out the Czech people from the face of the globe.
Radosavljevich also says:
“The German scholars made it their business to lay stress on the ‘Slav barbarism’ wherever possible, to obscure the bright and glorious pages in Slav history, to emphasize everything that can be taken as proof of savagery and arrested development. Unfortunately, no one has written at such length about the Slav question, or attached so much importance to it, as the German scholars, with the result that other European nations have derived their view form them – so much so that one might almost say that German opinion on the Slavs has become the opinion of Europe.”
So the vacuum was being filled with anti-Slav sentiment and this apparent animosity was being applied to Slavs no matter if they were Russian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Czech, Serb, etc. So the fact that Russia covers roughly 1/7th of the earth’s landmass and ranges from the Baltic to the Pacific, with the eastern portions lying in Asia and the western portions covering half of all Europe these Slavs are all the same across their lands – and be the same as Slavs in other nation states? It would do us good to remember as Rudyard Kipling said “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
And there was not always a positive view of the Slavs here in the United States.
Negativity, stereotyping, prejudices, and more were being heaped on the Slavs as a people and nowhere was this more evident than in the undertakings of the Joint Commission on Immigration in the U.S. where years of hears would result in the passage of highly regressive laws barring many Slavs (and others) from immigrating to the United States.
While prejudices were apparent for all minorities and immigrant groups (other than WASPs perhaps) there was little to fight them with the Slavs. As Dr. Karel Bicha points out in his article “Hunkies: Stereotyping the Slavic Immigrants, 1890-1920” (Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Fall, 1982) pp. 16-38)
“But Slavic materials were poorly represented in the European literary corpus, and few non-Slavs acquired the competence to read them. The Slavic world was a submerged and silent world. Its occupants, as an American critic phrased it, ‘far from the vertical beams of civilization’.
We were curious to learn who the ‘American critic’ was Dr. Bicha quoted. A quick phone call and Dr. Bicha was more than happy to help. He told us it was none other than Professor Edward A. Ross, at that time teaching at Stanford University, and that we might find it ‘interesting’ to look into Professor Ross and his background. We followed Dr. Bicha’s suggestion and found one of the most vehemently anti-immigrant American writers of the time. So vehement and harsh was Dr. Ross’s views that he became the basis for one of the most famous academic freedom cases in the count.
The phrase quoted by Dr. Bicha was penned by Professor Ross in his book The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People (New York: The Century Company, 1914). It also turns out that Dr. Ross had quite a bit more to say about the Slavs than this! The full sentence is as follows:
“In the dim east of Europe, far from the vertical beams of civilization, lies the melancholy Slavic world, with its 150,000,000 of human beings multiplying twice as fast and dying twice as fast as the peoples of the West.” (Chapter VI, ‘The Slavs’, page 120)
Dr. Ross continues in this chapter to define the Slavs as people with a temper ‘soft and yielding’, with ‘less of the fighting, retaliating instinct than the Britons and the Norsemen’, ‘depraved and perverse’, ‘the bulk of the Slavs remain on a much lower plane of culture’, and he peppers his chapter with words such as ‘ignorance’, ‘illiteracy’, ‘superstition’, ‘priestcraft’, ‘subservience’, ‘the great Slavic invasion’, and inflammatory statements such as the following:
“…while in Texas Bohemian cotton-growers are so numerous that in some localities even the negroes (sic) speak Bohemian!”
“Among the South Slavs “every married man strikes his wife black and blue at least once a month, or spreads a box on the ear over her whole face…”
“…a big parish school, using only Polish and teaching chiefly the catechism, a high illiteracy and a dense ignorance among lads born on American soil, crimes of violence rather than crimes of cunning, horror of water applied inside or outside, aversion to fresh air, barefoot women at work in the fields, with wretched housekeeping as the natural result, saloons patronized by both sexes…”
“…the women usually lose their attractiveness early, and therewith their power to exercise a refining influence upon their men-folk.” (Editor’s note: My Bohemian grandmother would have had quite a bit to say on this to Professor Ross!)
Dr. Ross didn’t let it go there either. His chapter on the Slavs contains such headings as “Excessive Alcoholism Among the Slavs”, “Slavic Brutality and Reckless Fecundity”, in which he complains mightily about the childbearing of the Poles and ‘…the Slovak women bear a child a year – always either bearing or nursing’, “Slow Assimilation”, which begins with “Eastern Europe is full of half-drowned nationalities…”, and finishes with “The Alarming Prospect of Slavic Immigration”.
Not to leave anything to the imagination regarding his position, Dr. Ross adds “So the tide from Slavland may well and the superfecund Slavs may push to the wall the Anglo-Americans, the Irish-Americans, the Welsh-Americans, the German-Americans, and the rest…”
If all this were not enough, the Professor includes this in his final chapter:
“To the practiced eye, the physiognomy of certain groups unmistakably proclaims inferiority of type.”
“It is reasonable to expect an early falling off in the frequency of good looks in the American people. It is unthinkable that so many persons with crooked faces, coarse mouths, bad noses, heavy jaws, and low foreheads can mingle their heredity with ours without making personal beauty yet more rare among us than it actually is.”
Not surprisingly, at least to me, Professor Ross’s anti-immigrant screeds are couched in terms of his love of America. America…’love it or leave it’ or better yet, don’t come in at all.
But still thankfully our ancestors, determined to find a better future, did come!