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Eugenics is the religion of the future and it awaits its prophets.
- Nikolay Konstantinovich Koltsov[3]

The subject of intense global debate in the 100 years between the mid- nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries in both Europe and the United States, it is doubtful if any discipline first acquired and then lost adherents with greater rapidity than the newly named pseudo-science of `eugenics'. The concept proved neither easy to define with any degree of unanimity nor to implement, that is until the empowerment of Adolf Hitler, a political eugenicist more radical and extreme than even the most enthusiastic pioneer of social engineering could have imagined.

Throughout the ages disabled individuals had been universally viewed as flawed beings. Rather than being treated with the charity and compassion we today regard as their entitlement, they were regarded as second-class citizens. In the United States, for example, until the middle years of the twentieth century the disabled were interned against their will, sterilised involuntarily, and denied education, transportation, employment – even the right to vote.[4]Anti-Semitism based upon religious doctrine had an even longer and considerably more violent history. But as appalling as this tapestry of indifference and cruelty undoubtedly had been, it paled into insignificance when compared to the Nazi's attitude towards and treatment of those deemed by that regime to be “worthless” or “racially inferior”.

The kind of supposedly scientific racism that in time produced a more-or-less comprehensible eugenic theory had a long history. If the Age of Enlightenment suggested a new dawning of reason, with freedom and equality for all, there were many who, whilst proclaiming the fundamental rights of man, were eager to qualify those very same rights. They believed that if all human beings were equal, some were certainly more equal than others. A number of the early proponents of what became known as social Darwinism and its offspring, eugenics, defended slavery; others believed that women were intellectually inferior to men and thus did not merit the same privileges; still others held what today would be seen as straightforwardly racist views, in one case going so far as to suggest that the intelligence of the Negro was on a par with that of a parrot.[5] These kinds of opinions do not by any means appear outrageous when compared to a variety of the pronouncements made by certain of the “scientists” of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as we shall see.

It would thus be wrong to think that there was any degree of homogeneity among the acolytes of this secular religion. As with its traditional counterpart, orthodox religion, there were many schisms – Lamarckism (an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring), Darwinism (all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual's ability to compete, survive, and reproduce), Weismannism (all heritable characteristics are transmitted by the reproductive cells and acquired characteristics that cannot be inherited), Mendelism (a set of primary tenets relating to the transmission of hereditary characteristics from parent organisms to their offspring), among others. But all did at least share a common premise – the inviolability of heredity. This perspective might or might not be influenced by the component of environment, depending on convictions of the believer, but of the fundamental tenet there could be no doubt.[6]

Eugenics was seen as a “scientific” debating chamber, a new kind of creed where any theory could be proposed, opposed, argued, or endorsed. Believers could find whatever they sought, for there were few absolutes in this new faith. And like any religion, its advocates could never be disproved, for just as to empirically demonstrate the existence of hell, or the paradise that awaited a steadfast believer, it was first necessary for he or she to die, at which point a lifetime's sacrifice and devotion might prove either hugely beneficial or completely pointless, so eugenicists could only offer a vision of the future in which poverty, disease, and ignorance had been banished. Eugenics did not, because it could not, offer a solution to the perceived problems of today, only to those of tomorrow. The benefits of its application would only be appreciated by future generations. But what a world those generations would inherit from their prescient forefathers, for in effect eugenics would become a secular religion, promising to deliver the utopian chimera of a “scientifically” created perfect society, in which sickness, crime, and antisocial behaviour would be eradicated forever. It was a tantalizing, if entirely unfeasible prospect.

Few of the proponents of the new social hygiene were great humanitarians, especially where they perceived a conflict with the immutable bedrock of the faith, natural selection. The Hungarian physician, József Madzsar, wrote in 1910: “The present form of social charity is even more dangerous because in most cases it obstructs the perishing of elements which are most burdensome and dangerous for society and it encourages their proliferation.”[7] In words echoing those of Adolf Jost fifteen years earlier, he wrote: “If the state has the right to deprive citizens of their freedom, of their life even, it undoubtedly has the right to sterilise as well, especially when this can be executed without any other unpleasant consequences for the individual.”[8] Like many others, Madzar went further. The aim should be not only to restrict the number of those deemed imperfect, but simultaneously to stimulate the growth of those considered the best. Quantity was to go hand in hand with quality. He concluded that eugenics was therefore not simply a matter of social hygiene and heredity, but more importantly of political will. “A eugenic religion will take shape in the realm of ideologies,” he stated. “This religion will forbid all forms of sentimental charity which are damaging to the species; it will enhance kinship and increase love for the family and for the race. In brief: eugenics is a manly, promising religion which calls upon the noblest feelings of our nature.”[9]

This modern religion acquired disciples from every scholarly field - physicians, biologists, geneticists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, economists – the list was both impressive and comprehensive. Nor was it limited to the scientific and academic community. Journalists and politicians also added to the mix. Together, they subscribed to the view that, like Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide, all would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Such an idyllic prognosis was irresistible to these individuals. However, the passing of what the eugenicists considered the most valuable genes from one life cycle to the next in a never ending process of racial betterment, could not, on its own, provide the complete answer. As Madzar had recognized, attaining a eugenic nirvana also required prevention of the transmission of defective genetic material by those deemed socially and racially inferior. The application of the means and ends of these beliefs to Nazi Germany, the positive and the negative, are the subject of this study.

For Alfred Ploetz , physician, biologist, eugenicist, founder of the German Society for Race Hygiene in 1905 (the first eugenics organization in the world),[10] and a pivotal influence on Nazi racial doctrine, there was no doubting that the future of the race was more important than the health of the individual.[11] This concept was at the core of National Socialism. As Telford Taylor commented in his opening remarks at the Nuremberg Medical Trial, it represented “that sinister undercurrent of German philosophy that preaches the supreme importance of the state and the complete subordination of the individual.”[12] Without necessarily endorsing Nazism, some zealous enthusiasts still find that kind of eugenic theory attractive today. But for most rational beings, those fundamentalist principles were dead in the water after National Socialism. They had been directed by the Nazis along the road of discriminatory and racist bio-politics that had been their destiny even before the term “eugenics” was first coined by Sir Francis Galton.[13] In his Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development of 1883, Galton wrote that he had been searching for

a brief word to express the science of improving the stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognizance of all the influences that tend in however remote a degree to give the most suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.[14]

Despite these cautionary introductory words, this is not a polemic against eugenics, social hygiene, bioethics, or any other manifestation of biomedicine as envisioned in a post-Nazi world, certain aspects of which are now part of everyday life. Putting theological debate to one side, many would accept that some modern applications of eugenics, of which the Human Genome Project is perhaps the best example, represent a valuable scientific resource. Stem-cell research into the causes of and potential cure for certain genetic diseases and the contribution this would make towards the alleviation of human suffering, has the potential to be hugely beneficial. Particular contemporary applications of eugenics, for example oral contraception, have revolutionized latter-day lifestyles. Others may feel less easy about specific examples of genetic engineering, such as cloning. The difference, of course, is that these exemplars, unlike eugenics as originally conceived, represent the fruit of practical scientific studies, as opposed to abstract and often pernicious theories. But as Michael Burleigh has eloquently argued: “It is virtually impossible to discuss abortion, genetic engineering, in vitro fertilisation, negative or positive eugenics, euthanasia, organ transplants, psychiatry, sterilisation of the mentally incompetent or treatment of antisocial or violent individuals, without someone invoking the history of Nazi Germany to break, rather than make, a contemporary case.”[15] The same concerns have been expressed by other commentators:

The development of new genetic technologies has resulted in comparisons being drawn between the many horrendous atrocities once perpetrated in the name of eugenics and what might happen in the future. In the minds of most people, eugenics is usually associated with enforced sterilisation, racism, restrictive immigration policies and Nazi concentration camps. There is a danger that the public… will look at the new genetics and simply claim that it is unacceptable to them because of the past. The history of eugenics in the twentieth century suggests that this is a legitimate fear that needs to be addressed.[16]

Yet who can deny the mother of three children suffering from sickle-cell anaemia, when at a 1983 conference on gene therapy, she protested: “I am angry that anyone presumes to deny my children the essential genetic treatment of a genetic disease. I see such persons as simplistic moralists.”[17] The past cannot always be a template for the future.

The fundamental problem accompanying these scientific advances may be expressed in another way. The history of the eugenic movement suggests that it cannot be taken for granted that these potential improvements in healthcare and living standards will be to the benefit of all. The Elysian ideals of a disease free, poverty free, crime free society remain the same eugenic objectives they have always been. But by its very nature, eugenics is elitist, aiming to produce a genetically flawless population. Not all can, nor in the eugenicists frequently expressed view, should, be the beneficiaries of these advances. What of those who slip through the net, those inevitable and unavoidable genetic accidents? If perfection is the ideal, what is to be done with those who, through no fault of their own, are somehow less than perfect? The true strength of any society is evidenced by the extent to which it protects its weakest members. Historically, what has eugenics offered them? And what will it offer them in the future? It is the answers to these questions that give rise to disquiet.

Much of this work is devoted to what “euthanasia” came to mean under National Socialism as the natural culmination of a near century of thinking that indissolubly linked racism and eugenics. The concern here is not with the ongoing debate about euthanasia as such, a subject concerning which individuals will doubtless have opinions of their own, but rather with what “euthanasia” meant in practice during the lifetime of the Third Reich. The quotation marks are important, for they are intended to indicate that what is being dealt with here is not the “mercy death” offered to the suffering out of compassion and empathy which was, and is, the meaning normally ascribed to the expression, but rather the killing of the helpless and vulnerable as part of a racially driven ideology coupled with a callously pragmatic economic imperative, which is how the Nazis chose to interpret the term. Indeed, it would be perfectly accurate to substitute the word “murder” for “euthanasia” throughout this text.

Nor is this a dissertation on the history of eugenics. It is an attempt to present the background to and application of Nazi ideology to the subject of eugenics as well as social and racial hygiene, where that was to lead, and the mind-set and subsequent fate of some of its advocates and exponents. This subject has been exhaustively, one might even say microscopically examined by German scholars over the last thirty years, but relatively little of this immense body of work has found its way into the English language, and it is towards the English speaking reader that this work is directed. Some distinguished authors have provided a growing and important corpus of written material on the subject in English, and frequent reference is made to their efforts herein. But no two individuals will approach any issue in exactly the same way, and it is hoped that the reader will gain a somewhat different perspective on the topic from the manner in which this text is constructed. It begins with a brief history of the gestation of that Nazi eugenic ideology in order to better understand its application and consequences. Thus the first three chapters attempt to broadly illustrate the nature of thinking on matters of eugenics and social hygiene during the last years of the nineteenth and the first forty years of the twentieth centuries, particularly so far as Germany was concerned, for the National Socialists practised, albeit in extremis, what many others had long preached.

The fourth chapter examines the application of that ideology to Germany during the years from 1933 (the Machtergreifung, the Nazi seizure of power) to 1939 (the commencement of the “euthanasia” programme and the outbreak of the Second World War), and in particular focuses on the issue of sterilisation. Fifthly, the practical application of “euthanasia” through the organisation dedicated to it – T4 – is described. In the sixth chapter, some of the killing centres in which “euthanasia” was carried out are considered. The seventh chapter is concerned with activities following the official cessation of the killing programme, the time of so-called “wild euthanasia,” also known more accurately as “decentralised euthanasia”. Eighthly, the application of “euthanasia” to concentration camp inmates, known by the coded term “14f13”, is reviewed, while in the ninth chapter the importance of the “euthanasia” experience to the planned extermination of Jews in Aktion Reinhard is examined. Heinrich Himmler's many involvements in eugenic affairs make up the tenth chapter, with post-war trials and perceptions appraised in chapter eleven and some conclusions proposed in chapter twelve.

Finally, a lengthy appendix contains brief biographical details of some of the individuals involved in the theory and practice of the eugenic programme. Since a precise chronological delineation of the events described is neither possible nor indeed desirable, there is some inevitable overlapping of subject matter. As will hopefully be demonstrated, although given the then prevailing zeitgeist, the Shoah was ultimately a logical consequence of Nazi eugenic thinking and practice (although by no means the sole cause of that catastrophe), this manuscript is not primarily Holocaust-centric. Nonetheless, the importance of the contribution eugenics made towards that tragedy will be a recurring theme, even if comprehensive examination of the plan to eradicate the Jews of Europe and beyond represented by the policy named in memory of the newly deceased chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), Aktion Reinhard, is beyond the scope of this work.[18]

For many years there has been a lively debate among historians concerning the virtues, on the one hand, and pitfalls, on the other, of making moral judgements with regard to historical events. In 1895, Lord Acton instructed his listeners that they should “suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.”[19] Others are of the opinion that it is simply the historian's duty to epistemologically present the unvarnished facts and allow the reader to decide on the moral issues involved. As Richard Evans expressed the point; “The element of moral judgement, insofar as it is exercised at all, is in the end extraneous to the research rather than being embedded in the theory or methodology of it.”[20] Whilst it is hoped that the error of presenting matters in simplistic absolutist terms of good and evil has been avoided, there is no doubt that so far as the subject of this text is concerned, moral judgements are not only unavoidable, but essential. Above all else, the practical application of Nazi eugenics represented the abandonment of a universally accepted set of moral principles that simply cannot be ignored. It is therefore the dictum of Lord Acton that rules here.

A few cautionary words. As Henry Friedlander pointed out, the terms “handicapped” or “disabled” were unknown both before and during the Nazi period. Instead, distasteful and inaccurate terms such as “idiots”, “crazies”, “cripples”, and “feeble-minded” were in common use.[21] In the same manner, Sinti and Roma were described as “Gypsies”, a wholly erroneous word which has acquired derogatory overtones. In order to maintain some kind of consistency the original terminology has been quoted where appropriate throughout this work. No offense is intended thereby.

Experience teaches that dates and numbers are frequently problematical in a work of this nature. Sources do vary, often widely. Wherever precise evidence on such matters is not available, or in cases where the exact evidence cannot be subjected to corroboration from a second source (and sometimes even when it can), the reader will find use of words such as “about”, “approximately”, “early”, or ”late”. Personal names too can present difficulties – Arthur/Artur, Walter/Walther, and so on. In such cases, the most commonly accepted spelling has been used. As for place names, anglicized versions (where they exist) are employed – so Nuremberg rather Nürnberg, Munich rather than München, Warsaw rather than Warszawa. Where place names have changed, on their first appearance both are shown – Kovno/Kaunus, Posen/Poznan, etc. Thereafter, the contemporaneous name is utilised.

Diacritics in general present particular difficulties in a work of this nature. The English language contains few words with diacritic markings; Polish, by contrast, often seems to consist of little else. Such diacritics have normally been used when quoting the names of people and places, as well as where otherwise appropriate (except as already noted), in German, French and Hungarian, but not in Polish. Apologies are offered for the inconsistency, but it is hoped that the reader will have no difficulty, for example, in recognizing Belzec as being an anglicized version of Bełżec, or Lodz for Łódź.

Advantage has been taken of the extraordinary resource now provided by the internet to any student or researcher, whereby an overwhelming amount of detailed information on almost any given subject is accessible at the click of a mouse. The World Wide Web had exponentially expanded the availability of knowledge; the more cynical might also suggest that it is has also performed the same service for ignorance, for there is much that is contentious, misleading, or simply wrong and/or ill-intentioned in cyberspace. Thus the same criteria need to be applied when utilising the internet as would be employed when consulting any other source. But it is self-evident that it is impossible for each and every individual to consult all of the primary documentation on the issues of interest. To that extent, the internet is no different than every other written authority. In researching any subject, most of us are dependant, to a greater or lesser degree, upon the translation and interpretation, literal and metaphorical, of talented individuals whose scholarship we trust. No apologies are therefore offered for the use of material from the internet, which in many cases would otherwise only be accessible with great difficulty, if available at all. The same care has been taken in evaluating and including such data as has been applied in utilising more traditional sources.

Finally, it is only proper to mention that in a number of instances there has been some minor editing of direct quotations in the interest of improving either punctuation or grammar, but hopefully in no case has the intended sense of any quotation been lost. If it has, of course the blame for that or any other errors in the text lies exclusively at the author's door.


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