The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk: Was H.P. Blavatsky a Nazi?

Printed in the Summer 2015 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: SmoleyRichard."From the Editor’s Desk: Was H.P. Blavatsky a Nazi?" Quest 103.3 (Summer 2015): pg. 82.

By Richard Smoley

Richard SmoleyIt's probably time to revisit an old and touchy issue: did H.P. Blavatsky's ideas about race inspire the Nazis?

If you pore through the Internet, you may go away thinking so. Here's one example: "[HPB's] saddest and most horrifying accomplishment was being the spiritual impetus for the Nazi regime, decades after her death. . . . Many German occultists and racists embraced Blavatsky's idea of being descended from Aryan god-men and her anti-Semeticism" [sic].

So let's take another look at this controversy.

In the eighteenth century, scholars began to see that Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, among other languages, shared so many common roots that they all had to be descended from the same language. Modern linguists call it Proto-Indo-European, or simply Indo-European. In the nineteenth century, however, this ancestral language was given another name, from the Sanskrit word arya, meaning "noble." This language started to be called "Aryan."

Scholars then concluded that the people who spoke this language were a distinct race, from which Europeans, Iranians, and Indians were descended. (This may or may not have been the case, and cannot be proved with the evidence we now have.)

The next step was to assume that this "noble" Aryan race was superior to all the others. Particularly in Germany, this took the form of claiming that the pure Aryans were the white, blond, blue-eyed specimens. These were superior to the darker peoples, as well as to the Jews — who, as Semites, were thought to come from a different stock. In the resurgent nationalism of late nineteenth-century Germany, this theory inspired a cult of a pure-blooded race, free from the taint of weaker humans. From this ideology, Nazism was born.

How did Blavatsky come to be identified with this movement? She and her teachers did speak of an Aryan Root Race, the Fifth Root Race, a primordial stock that goes back a million years. The Mahatma Koot Hoomi writes: "The highest people now on earth (spiritually) belong to the first sub-race of the fifth root Race, and those are the Aryan Asiatics [i.e., the Indians]; the highest race (physical intellectuality) is the last sub-race of the fifth — yourselves the white conquerors" (Mahatma Letters, chronological edition, 312; emphasis in the original here and in other quotes).

It sounds as if the Aryan Root Race, "born and developed in the far north" (Secret Doctrine, 2:768), is the Caucasian race, which would include most of the Indians of Asia as well as white Europeans and their descendants. It's probably no coincidence that these peoples mostly speak Indo-European languages.

The concept of Root Races does include views that today seem uncomfortable — for example, the idea that certain races are "fallen, degraded specimens of humanity," as Koot Hoomi puts it (Mahatma Letters, 312). But then all of us are products of our time. This was true of HPB, it was true of the Mahatmas, and it is true of us today. And in that period — the late nineteenth century — most of the world was ruled by a few European powers. So the white race may have seemed superior, at least in material achievement.

Today it looks different. The twentieth century showed the consequences of racism all too brutally. Furthermore, intellectual opinion today now inclines toward relativism — meaning that no race or culture is inherently superior to another, if only because there is no absolute or objective way to determine what this superiority might consist of. In any case, the Europeans are no longer in the ascendant worldwide.

Actually, according to Theosophical teaching, the Fifth Root Race will in its turn suffer decay and decline. Eventually it will be replaced by the Sixth Root Race, supposedly evolving in America. In fact, whatever people or nation or race is on top at present, it too will decay. "Thus," HPB concludes, "the reason given for dividing humanity into superior and inferior races falls to the ground" (Secret Doctrine, 2:425). This process of rise and fall takes place in a larger cycle of evolution that includes a descent into matter followed by an ascent out of it.

As for Blavatsky's alleged anti-Semitism, it's true that she criticizes Judaism, particularly for its claim that its one God is the supreme power in the universe rather than, as she insisted, merely one of the heavenly hierarchy. She writes: "Admit that your Jehovah is one of the Elohim [gods], and we are ready to recognize him. Make of him, as you do, the Infinite, the ONE and the eternal God, and we will never accept him in this character" (Secret Doctrine 1:492n). Present-day scholarship is coming to see some truth in this picture. (See my article "God and the Great Angel" in Quest, Winter 2011.)

Nevertheless, Blavatsky generally speaks of the esoteric line of Judaism — the Kabbalah — with the highest respect, and she often makes use of its insights. Her pokes at Judaism are aimed as much, if not more, at mainstream Christianity. As for the Jews as a people, unlike the Nazis, she claims that they are an "Aryan race" (Secret Doctrine, 2:471).

In any event, neither HPB nor her followers have ever, to my knowledge, taught or practiced racial discrimination. As we've just seen, she herself rejected the notion of superior and inferior races. And the Society's First Object is "to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color" — an ideal that Theosophy, as far I can see, has always tried to fulfill.

Neither Blavatsky nor Theosophy is above criticism. No one is. But they are entitled to an appraisal that is fair and honest. To call them racist is neither.