When a statue of François-Marie Arouet was dramatically removed from outside the Académie Française in Paris this month, it was by no means only members of the far-right who expressed their outrage.
On the contrary, self-styled moderates of all political persuasions said the prolific 18th-century writer best known by his nom de plume, Voltaire, should be untouchable. They were incensed when anti-racist graffiti kept being sprayed on the stone depiction because of his links with the slave trade.
Voltaire, who was 83 when he died in 1778, was a man of his time, say his apologists. So what if he invested in a company involved in transporting enslaved humans to plantations? France was entitled to compete with other imperial powers and especially Britain. If this meant the brightest and the best having to dabble in an economic system that included a colonial slave sector, so be it, unyielding Voltaire defenders would argue.
According to sacred myths, the only Voltaire theories that are important to humanity are those that informed the Enlightenment—the period of history that elevated science and reason above the superstition and obscurantism of religion and royalty. Individual freedom is the cornerstone of secular France, and names such as Voltaire are now shorthand for rational and liberal thought.
To far too many armchair supporters, Voltaire is thus just like those sitting inside the Académie Française, the august institution made up of immortals (yes, that is the word they use) who rule on matters pertaining to the French language; he is a reassuring establishment intellectual whom people might not know much about, except that he is never meant to be questioned.
This is a cynical and lazy position—the kind that should shame a modern republic that tries to live up to the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Voltaire, in contrast, was devoted to ideas, including ones that have had a pernicious effect on the minds of historical players throughout the ages. His virulent hatred of religious groups was easily enough to incite violence against them, while his biological racism maintained that there were gradations of life forms and that Black people came somewhere near the bottom, just up from “monkeys.” In Les Lettres d’Amabed (1769), Voltaire portrayed Africans as “animals” with a “flat black nose with little or no intelligence!”
Voltaire was also an obsessive anti-Semite, using multiple texts to place Jews well outside the great civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome that he admired—and indeed beyond redemption. For example, writing about Jews in his Letter of Memmius to Cicero in 1771, Voltaire opined: “They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair.” In an essay the following year, Voltaire adjudicated on Jews with the words: “You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny.”
Unlike the usual motivations for anti-Semitism—irrational fear combined with ignorance—Voltaire’s chilling beliefs were based on quasi-scientific reasoning.
This was typical of Enlightenment philosophers, who provided disturbing justifications for the hatred of racial and religious groups. In Of National Characters, David Hume wrote: “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites.” Immanuel Kant called Jews a “nation of cheaters.”
This systematic racism created a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of life. It ensured that the thinkers were inextricably intertwined with the imperialists who wanted to conquer and oppress supposedly lesser races.
Such Enlightenment wickedness was not marginal to the work of these ideologues. Their writings were widely read across Europe, including by Voltaire’s great friend, King Frederick II of Prussia. Voltaire traveled from Paris to join the monarch’s court at Potsdam in 1750, at a time when Frederick II embraced his live-in Frenchman as a mentor.
The historical line between Voltaire’s anti-Semitism and a fanatically nationalistic Germany intent on murdering enemies it considered to be subhuman is not hard to draw. Adolf Hitler certainly became a keen student of the discussions between Frederick the Great and Voltaire as he formulated his plans for the Third Reich.
Frederick II ostensibly promoted the ideas behind such works as Voltaire’s 1763 Treatise on Tolerance while issuing anti-Jewish decrees and focusing on militaristic nationalism and the kind of unthinking discipline that supported Nazism.