Early attempts to claim a racial division between "masters" and "slaves", or the belief that a nation's ruling class is biologically superior to its ruled subjects, were made in the 18th century. Henri de Boulainvilliers in his book History of the Ancient Government of France (published posthumously in 1727) tried to prove that in France, the nobility represented the descendants of the old Frankish ruling class, whereas the rest of the population was descended from the subject Gauls. Therefore two qualitatively different races were confronting one another, and the only way to abolish the superiority of the Franks was to destroy their civilization. Classical liberal theorists such as Volney and Sieyès discredited this theory by showing that the French nobility consisted mostly of nouveaux riches who came from all parts of the country, and thus the idea of a racially-pure Frankish lineage was fraudulent.
In 1855, French count Arthur de Gobineau published his infamous work An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. Expanding upon Boulainvilliers' use of ethnography to defend the Ancien Régime against the claims of the Third Estate, Gobineau divides the human species into three major groupings, white, yellow and black, claiming to demonstrate that "history springs only from contact with the white races." Among the white races, he distinguishes the Aryan race as the pinnacle of human development, the basis of all European aristocracies. However, inevitable miscegenation led to the "downfall of civilizations". The politically legitimist Gobineau was an enemy of democracy as much as he was an enemy of miscegenation.
Gobineau's influence was slight at first. In his letters to Alexis de Tocqueville, he complained that his book was being hushed up in France and was having a real effect only in the United States. Tocqueville, who rejected the book in spite of his friendship with Gobineau, pointed out to him that this was because the book chimed with the slave-owners' interests in the Southern states. However, in the 1880s the book gained popularity in Germany thanks to the efforts of Cosima Wagner. In 1899, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a Germanophile Englishman and Cosima Wagner's son-in-law, published The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. Expanding upon Gobineau's earlier theories, he argued that that Western civilization is deeply marked by the influence of the Teutonic peoples. Chamberlain grouped all European peoples—not just Germans, but Celts, Slavs, Greeks, and Latins—into the "Aryan race", a race built on the ancient Proto-Indo-European culture. At the helm of the Aryan race, and, indeed, all races, he saw the Nordic or Teutonic peoples.
The Übermensch (German) ("Overman" or "Superman") is a concept in the philosophy of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche—he posited the Übermensch as a goal for humanity to set for itself in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (German: Also Sprach Zarathustra). However, Nietzsche never developed the concept on racial grounds. Instead, the Übermensch "seems to be the ideal aim of spiritual development more than a biological goal". Nazism distorted the concept's real meaning in order to make it fit its 'master race' view.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was posited that the Indo-Europeans (who were generally referred to as Aryans) made up the highest branch of humanity because their civilization was its most technologically advanced. This reasoning was simultaneously intertwined with Nordicism which proclaimed that the "Nordic race" was the "purest" form of the said Aryan race. Today, this view is regarded as a form of scientific racism because it contradicts the belief in racial equality by positing the view that one race is superior to all other races.
Eugenics came to play a prominent role in this racial thought as a way to improve and maintain the purity of the Aryan master race. Eugenics was a concept adhered to by many thinkers in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, such as Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, H. G. Wells, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Madison Grant, Émile Zola, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, John Harvey Kellogg, Linus Pauling, and Sidney Webb. Human "dog and pony show" type events (organized by advocates of eugenics), where men and women appeared on stage in swimsuits in eugenic competitions (only Nordic Aryans were allowed to enter) to be evaluated for their physical and mental qualities as marriage partners, were common throughout Europe and North America in the 1920s. The Nazis took this concept to a further extreme by establishing a program to systematically genetically enhance the Nordic Aryans themselves through a program of Nazi eugenics, based on the eugenics laws of the US state of California, to create a super race.
The modern concept of the master race is generally derived from a 19th-century racial theory, which posited a hierarchy of races that was based on darkness of skin color. This 19th-century concept was initially developed by Count Joseph Arthur De Gobineau. Gobineau's basic concept, as further refined and developed in Nazism, placed black Indigenous Australians and Equatorial Africans at the bottom of the hierarchy, while white Northern and Western Europeans (which consisted of Germans, Swedes, Icelanders, Norwegians, Danes, British, Irish, Dutch, Belgian and Northern French) were placed at its top; olive skinned white Southern Europeans (who consisted of Southern French, Portuguese, Spaniards, Italians, Romanians, and Greeks, i.e., those who were called the Mediterranean race, were regarded as another sub-race of the Caucasian race) and placed in its upper middle ranks; and the Semitic and Hamitic races (supposed sub-races of the Caucasian race) were placed in its lower-middle ranks (because the Jews, were Semites, the Nazis believed their cleverness made them extremely dangerous—they had their own plan for Jewish world domination, a conspiracy which needed to be opposed by all thoughtful Aryans). Slavs such as Poles and Russians were not considered Aryans; and neither were the members of the Mongoloid race (including its offshoots such as Malayans, American Indians) and mixed-race people such as Eurasians, the bronze Mestizos, Mulattos, Afro-Asians, and Zambos were placed in its lower middle ranks. However, the Japanese were considered honorary Aryans.
In their attempt to scientifically prove the racial inferiority of Slavs, German (and Austrian) racial scientists were forced to gloss over their findings which consistently proved that Early Slavs were dolicocephalic and fair haired, i.e., "Nordic", while the South Slavic "Dinaric" sub-race was often viewed favourable. Nazis used the term "Slavic race", and considered Slavs to be non-Aryan The concept of a Slavic "Untermensch" accompanied their political goals, and it was particularly aimed at Poles and Russians. Germany's immediate goal was Drang nach Osten or expansion into the East, which was the first phase in its ultimate plan to conquer Europe, and Ukraine's "chernozem" (black earth) soil was regarded as a particularly desirable zone for colonization by the "Herrenvolk" (master race).
In relation to the Nazis belief in racial purity, author and historian Lucy Dawidowicz wrote:
In the hierarchy of Nazi racism, the "Aryans" were the superior race, destined to rule the world after the destruction of their racial arch-foe, the Jews. The lesser races over whom the Germans would rule included the Slavs — Poles, Russians, Ukrainians. ... Hitler's racial policy with regard to the Slavs, to the extent that it was formulated, was "depopulation." The Slavs were to be prevented from procreating, except to provide the necessary continuing supply of slave laborers."