The Hobbit vs. Hitler

How does one best respond to ideological coercion? J.R.R. Tolkien knew.

By Brandon Aldinger Published on May 22, 2024

In late 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien published The Hobbit, the landmark novel that first introduced Britain to the world of Middle Earth. An American version was released soon after, and initial runs of several thousand copies quickly sold out.

Having met with unexpected success, Tolkien was being pressed for more material “concerning Hobbits.” Although it would take him another two decades to complete The Lord of the Rings trilogy, his resulting masterpiece would transform the fantasy genre. But that was still to come.

In 1938, Tolkien’s publisher, Allen & Unwin, negotiated the publication of a German translation of The Hobbit. Supporting a family of six on the salary of an Oxford professor of English language left Tolkien perpetually short of ready cash. The royalties from the German market would be most welcome, indeed.

There was just one catch: The infamous “Aryan Paragraphs,” passed in 1933 by Nazi Germany, prohibited Jews from participating in many aspects of government, education, and the arts. Before sealing the deal with the German publisher, Tolkien was first asked to declare whether or not he was of Aryan (arisch) origin.

Tolkien rankled at the question, grousing to his British publisher, “Do I suffer this impertinence because of the possession of a German name, or do their lunatic laws require a certificate of ‘arisch’ origin from all persons of all countries?” He wrestled with how to respond, almost deciding to “let a German translation go hang,” but ultimately drafted two letters for his publisher to choose between.

Although Tolkien’s brush with Aryanism occurred almost 90 years ago (read the full exchange in this volume), there are striking similarities between his circumstance and the enforcement of ideological conformity at modern universities.

DEI Statements for Staff

Many top-tier American universities require aspiring teachers to submit a statement professing solidarity with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies — a variant of critical theory in which Marxism is expanded to include divisions of race, sexuality, gender, or other “oppressed” classes. The applicant must then explain how he or she will further the goals of DEI if awarded the job. It is impossible to gain the most coveted posts without conforming to leftist political values; unless they compromise their convictions, conservatives or skeptical thinkers are wholly excluded.

At first glance, these DEI requirements appear similar to statements of faith at religious universities. So what’s the problem?

The difference is that secular universities claim to be apolitical, nonreligious institutions where all viewpoints are welcome. In addition, the DEI requirement is widespread among elite universities, cordoning off a large sector of academia behind an ideological wall. Ironically, the DEI requirement itself acts to limit diversity and inclusion: Just as Jews were excluded from participating in German society, many Christians and other dissenters are being marginalized in the halls of academia.

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But there is hope. The 2023 Supreme Court decision Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard effectively overturned Affirmative Action, a core tenet of DEI. While the effect of this decision has thus far been limited, it opens the door for lawsuits concerning many aspects of race-based discrimination. More recently, conservative states such as Florida and Texas have defunded their university systems’ DEI departments through legislation.

Coming into the Light

Thankfully, even some former proponents are now recognizing the contradictory, strongarm nature of DEI statements. Harvard Law School Professor Randall L. Kennedy, a self-described “scholar on the left,” wrote a thoughtful op-ed opposing mandatory DEI statements for applicants. He points out that

“DEI statements will essentially constitute pledges of allegiance that enlist academics into the DEI movement by dint of soft-spoken but real coercion: If you want the job or the promotion, play ball — or else.”

Just a few weeks ago, MIT confirmed that it will no longer require DEI statements from applicants, making it the first elite university to do away with this ideological constraint.

So how did Tolkien ultimately handle his dilemma in 1938? In the extant letter (the missing draft was likely sent to the German publisher), he starts off by pointing out that “Aryan” actually refers to Indo-Iranian ancestry, not German. He follows up with a sarcastic jibe at Hitler’s racist policy:

“But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”

Just for good measure, he rebukes the publisher, saying that “if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.”

Ancestry Has No Bearing on Work

Tolkien’s letter concludes with a paragraph that extends the German publisher the benefit of the doubt, since it may just have been following laws. He ends with a statement that the publisher’s question about his ancestry has no bearing on the quality of his work and should not affect the decision about publishing The Hobbit.

There are lessons to learn from Tolkien’s response to Hitler’s law. As a devout Roman Catholic, Tolkien possessed the moral grounding to discern right from wrong. His indignation at the Aryan question elicited a stern response that also showed grace. Even though it would have been personally remunerative to “just play ball” and simply answer the question, he pointed out its wrongness, risking the loss of revenue he badly needed. With the arrival of WWII, it would be 1957 before The Hobbit was finally translated into German.

Whether through DEI statements, preferred pronouns, or being forced to provide services for same-sex “weddings,” the pressure on Christians to conform is growing. Just being silent is no longer good enough; the dominant culture demands acceptance and celebration of its values — or else.

When those instances arise, perhaps we can draw encouragement from the time The Hobbit defied Hitler.

 

Brandon Aldinger is a chemist with a doctoral degree who works in an industrial research laboratory. He’s had lifelong interest in issues of science and faith, and he is passionate about training fellow Christians to think clearly about and stand firm on their beliefs within a hostile culture.

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