Roots of a Murderous Idea

06 October 2022 - 16:29

IISH Research Paper 55 – now online

Leo Lucassen wrote a new research paper on ‘replacement’ thinking in the Atlantic world since the early nineteenth century: Roots of a Murderous Idea: ‘Replacement’ Thinking in the Atlantic World Since the Early 19th Century.

In mid-September 2021, US media turned their attention to an increasing number of Haitian migrants seeking protection at the border in Del Rio, Texas. Fox News host Tucker Carlson provided his own theory as to what was happening at the border, saying that current US border policy was designed to “change the racial mix of the country. ... In political terms this policy is called the ‘great replacement,’ the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.”

The current discussion about the “replacement” conspiracy theory was triggered by Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik’s killing spree in 2011 and a dozen of terrorist attacks that followed in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Germany. It tends to focus largely on recent ideological developments in Europe’s neo-Nazi and white supremacist circles and on the postwar immigration from Islamic countries. The structure of today’s replacement theories as embodied by the “Eurabia” frame, however, goes much further back in time and is rooted in the mass immigration of Europeans to the United States starting in the 1830s.

For Americans who conceived of themselves as a white Protestant nation, the settlement of groups that were seen as fundamentally different, either religiously or racially, proved a hotbed of xenophobic conspiracy ideas. These notions were fueled by a mix of long existing fears for Catholic world domination, the abolition of (internal) slavery and its consequences, and – from the 1890s onwards – the threat of a worldwide Jewish plot and especially scientific racism and eugenics, which pitted North-West Europeans as the superior “Nordic” race, threatened by the suicidal mixing with inferior European and Asian races.

What all of these have in common is the belief that globalist elites (from outside or from within), are behind the (mass) immigration of dangerous outgroups. And that, in turn, these “invaders” seek to take over society and destroy the native ingroup and their culture. The outsiders are mostly perceived as inferior and dangerous migrants, but can also include groups within, such as established Jewish (or Catholic) communities, descendants of enslaved Africans whose emancipation erodes racial boundaries, or indigenous peoples who are considered a stumbling block for an ethnically and religiously homogenous nation state.

Three leading questions guide Lucassen’s paper. Firstly, where did the replacement ideas, embraced so enthusiastically by the far-right in Europe, North America, and Australia since the beginning of the twenty-first century, originate? Secondly, how did they develop over time in the North Atlantic? And, finally, why and under what conditions do such ideas blossom?

By concentrating on four key characteristics of current replacement thinking (Nativism, Racism, Siege and Conspiracy), Leo Lucassen shows how various forms of replacement ideas have influenced – and partly shaped – the American self-image already since the 1830s. Furthermore, he demonstrates how these ideas have been linked to European variants since the 1960s, reaching the mainstream in the 1990s via the American Clash of Civilizations frame, finally breaking through after the 9/11 attacks, when the discussion about the integration of children of migrants from other continents was increasingly conducted in terms of unbridgeable chasms, with Muslims as an existential threat. Finally, his analysis shows that, whatever form this replacement thinking adopts, the root cause is always the ingroups’ fears about losing their privileged position to outgroups, which they deem inferior or less worthy.

Download IISH Research Paper 55 here.

IISH Staff | Leo Lucassen | Photo by Martin van Welzen