More than half a century after the end of World War II, there are still plenty of unsolved Nazi mysteries—including those about the dozens of war criminal Nazis who were never caught—but one enduring mystery has been solved: why did the Nazis call themselves Aryans? The Aryan myth dates back to the nineteenth century, when European scholars invented a conquering white race that spread civilization across Eurasia. There’s only one problem: none of it is true.
The real Aryans were nomadic people from Central Asia. They settled in India and Persia starting around 1500 BCE, influencing the development of these major world civilizations. The Aryans carried the world's oldest religious texts, the Rigveda, and brought new gods and social systems to India. But they were not invaders or conquerors.
Of course, this is very different from the origins of Aryans according to the Nazis—and Nazis in the US operating today. Hitler himself said the Aryans—by which he meant the Germans—were responsible for all the world’s greatest advances. But the Nazis were completely wrong about their “master race” claims. The linguistic history of the term "arya" in Hindi shows the true significance of the Aryan peoples—and it has nothing to do with Hitler’s racist plot for world domination.
Hitler's Party Took The Term 'Aryan' From India And Iran
The word “Aryan” conjures images of white, blond, blue-eyed men in SS uniforms, but it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, before the nineteenth century, the word meant something completely different. The term was linked with India and the Sanskrit script. In fact, the word comes from the Sanskrit word ārya, which was used to describe early settlers who arrived in India around 1500 BCE. Later, Indo-Iranian tribes would use the term to refer to themselves.
So how did it transform from a term referring to an ancient Indian civilization to a word associated with white supremacy? And what, exactly, did it mean before the twentieth century? To understand, we have to start a few thousand years ago.
Northern India Was Populated By Aryans As Early As 1500 BCE
Who were the ancient Aryans? They were different from the ancient civilization of the Indus River Valley, which flourished as early as 5500 BCE. By the time the Egyptians were building the pyramids, the Indus had become a major urbanized power, on the level of the Egyptians and Babylonians.
They were relative newcomers to the Indian subcontinent when they first migrated across the Kush Mountains around 1500 BCE. They came from central Asia, where they had been nomadic cattle herders. They brought the Sanskrit language with them to India, where they settled permanently, creating a new civilization that would dominate northern India, particularly between 1500-500 BCE. It was known as the Vedic civilization, as shown in this map.
They Were Incredibly Influential In India, Shaping Society For Millennia
The Indo-Aryan civilization was incredibly influential. The roots of Hinduism have been traced to the Aryan settlers who date back to 1500 BCE in India. They carried an ancient religious text, called the Rigveda, with them, which had a long oral tradition. These texts were written in Sanskrit and the Vedas are the oldest known religious texts in the world. Many of the gods in the Vedas were adopted in India, later becoming central to Hinduism.
They also introduced a caste-like system in India that would shape society for millennia.
Ancient Persians Also Called Themselves Aryans Over 2,500 Years Ago
The Indo-Aryan people shared a link to Persia - by the sixth century BCE, Persian emperors called themselves Aryans. Darius I, who was crowned King of Persia in the 5th century BCE, proclaimed, “I am Darius, the great king, the king of kings . . . Persian, the son of a Persian, Aryan, from the Aryan race.”
The Old Persian term arya—identical to the Sanskrit term—became the root of the name for Iran. The two languages are closely related, indicating a link between the people who spoke them. But on top of the linguistic evidence, Darius’s inscription is clear evidence that Persians have been using the term to refer to themselves for over 2,000 years.
In The Nineteenth Century, Europeans Tried To Link Themselves To Ancient Sanskrit Texts
If “Aryan” has been linked with Persia and Northern India for thousands of years, how did it become associated with Hitler's blond, Nordic ideal? Europeans connected the group with a distant corner of Asia during the medieval and early modern period. European maps made during the 1500s placed “Aria” in the mountains between Persia and India, as in Martin Waldseemuller’s 1507 map.
It was not until the mid-19th century that European scholars delved into the mystery of the Aryan peoples and decided they were the ancestors of Europeans. The connection was driven by the discovery - in the West - of ancient Sanskrit texts that showed linguistic similarities with European languages. Between 1800 and 1850, European scholars claimed that Sanskrit texts were on the same level as ancient Latin or Greek sources. As Sanskrit was held up as an ancient, sophisticated language, European scholars tried to link their own societies to the rich history of Sanskrit.
Europeans Claimed That Aryan Meant The White Race
Europeans claimed credit for the influential achievements of the actual Aryans by arguing they were the first "white people." The nineteenth century was the peak of scientific racism, or the attempt to use science to prove racial differences. The European reaction to Sanskrit has to be understood in that context. It was all part of a nineteenth-century effort to divide the world into races—and to show that one race was superior.
In the 1850s, the Comte de Gobineau first used the term to mean the “white race.” He claimed a common Indo-European linguistic heritage that proved Aryans were white. He also argued that those who settled in India and Persia had been white, proto-European settlers who were superior to the peoples they “conquered.” Gobineau and his disciples claimed that all the world’s progress was due to these people, who were superior to “Semites,” “yellows,” and “blacks.”
If this sounds a lot like Europeans swooping in to take credit for someone else’s accomplishments—that’s exactly what it was.