If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create! We might introduce prophets and high priests of civilization into the world, as surely as we can propagate idiots by mating crétins. Francis Galton (1865)
In today's society applied eugenics is not a utopia anymore, and it will be even less so in the society of the future. Jenõ Vámos (1911)
Charles Darwin published his On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859, creating a controversy from which Judeo-Christian theology in particular has since never recovered. For all of its unintended subsequently malign influence, the book contained no racial theories. The suggestion that he would have endorsed such ideas would have horrified Darwin, who was a notably tolerant person. In fact, except by implication, the work contained little reference to Homo sapiens, essentially being concerned with the evolution of other animal life and that of plants.
Long before Darwin shook the foundations of religious belief, there had been much supposedly scientific debate concerning the development of human characteristics. In the 1820's what became known as recapitulationist theory emerged. This posited that childhood in the white race was the equivalent of savagery or primitivism in evolutionary terms. Thus adults of inferior groups were deemed to be at the mental and emotional level of white male children or adolescents. Nor was this pseudo-science to be applied solely to non-white races. The inferior groups could (and did) consist of the anti-social, criminals, women, and any other disliked nationality the defining group chose to include. Although overtaken by Darwinism, the influence of such thinking on later eugenic theorists will become apparent.
Two years before Darwin's Origins of Species appeared, in 1857 the French psychiatrist, Benedict Augustin Morel, had published his hugely influential work Traite des degenerescence physique, et intellectuelles et morales de l'espece humaine (Treatise on the Physical, Intellectual, and Moral Degeneracy of Mankind), in which he proposed a theory of degeneration. Morel suggested that many illnesses, whether physical, intellectual, or moral, were all caused by a single process: degeneration. He concluded that most illnesses are the result of an incurable hereditary disorder. Allowing those suffering from such disabilities to reproduce presented a genetic risk to the nation. The causes of such a condition were, in Morel's view, the over-consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and opium. Morel believed that those damaged by overindulgence in these and other appetites developed illnesses which weakened their heredity value. This weakened state was passed on to future stock, for the effects were cumulative, so that after approximately four generations the degenerate line would end because the children of the ultimate generation would be born sterile imbeciles.
Degeneracy was a `one size fits all' theory that neatly explained a wide variety of diseases. If the symptoms of those diseases were ostensibly different, to Morel they were simply alternative expressions of a single underlying disorder: degenerate heredity. The importance of Morel's theory on the development of eugenic thinking cannot be over emphasized, for as Morel wrote: We are not dealing with the individual, the single human being, but with society as a whole and the means to such important an end have to be measured accordingly. In this sentence can be seen the rationale for all that was to follow.
The war of words Darwin's thesis prompted only increased in intensity when in 1871 he published The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, applying his evolutionary paradigm to human physical, intellectual, and moral development. Deriving its impetus from Darwin's theory, the hypothesis that came to be known as social Darwinism proposed that competition in society, whether individual, national, or international, is the fundamental component of biological and social evolution. Superior individuals or groups survived and flourished even as the weaker disappeared. This became a justification for imperialism and racism while discouraging liberalism and reform. Although bearing his name, social Darwinism was not limited to a specific interpretation of Darwin's writings, drawing as it did on the works of many others, including the philosopher and political and sociological theorist, Herbert Spencer, the demographer and political economist, Thomas Malthus, and perhaps most significantly, polymath Francis Galton.
Spencer postulated that species evolved via a process of natural selection, and that it was only by eradicating the weakest elements and promoting the strongest that survival of an organism was assured. In Spencer's view, what the eugenicists later defined as the inferior specimens were to be excluded from society in order to enable the valuable components to fulfil that society's ultimate potential for growth and happiness. Moreover, it was perfectly acceptable to utilise the inferior as a kind of slave labour in order to promote the well-being of the valuable. From there, it was but a small step to suggesting that the destruction of the weakest in society was not only natural, but eminently desirable. Only the fittest would, and should, survive. Or as Spencer brutally put it: If they are sufficiently complete they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.
Social Darwinism, with its application of Darwin's struggle for survival to human affairs, in turn gave birth to the science of eugenics. To all intents and purposes the two were to become virtually synonymous in the public's mind, although while there was much that they shared in common, the two concepts were not interchangeable. The term eugenics, a thesis which has no scientific basis, was coined by Galton, a cousin of Darwin, and was derived from the Greek eugenes, meaning well-born or of good stock. Galton described it as the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding. More precisely, this was to be a science which deals with all influences that improve and develop the inborn qualities of a race.
This took Spencer's concept of survival of the fittest, a belief that was to become a basic element of Nazi ideology, to its logical conclusion. Its antonym was dysgenics, defined as the progressive evolutionary weakening or genetic deterioration of a population of organisms relative to their environment, often due to the relaxation of natural selection or the occurrence of negative selection. The Hungarian zoologist, István Apáthy, believed that:
The goal of eugenics is to call attention upon the fact that each social order, each habit, fashion or morality which acts against the selection of the best individuals in fact undermines the future of the entire society and it trades evolution, the salvation of future generations for the pleasures of the moment, for the individual comfort of the present generation.
Or as the American sociologist and social Darwinist, William Graham Sumner, commented at around the turn of the twentieth century:
The sentimentalists are always greatly outraged by the notion of the survival of the fittest which is produced by liberty. If we do not like the survival of the fittest, we have only one alternative and that is the survival of the unfittest. If A, the unfittest to survive, is about to perish and somebody interferes to make B, the fittest, carry and preserve A, it is plain that the unfittest is made to survive and that he is maintained at the expense of B, who is curtailed and restrained by just so much. This process, therefore, is a lowering of social development and is working backwards, not forwards.
Thus the fundamental tenet of the eugenics movement was that restricting the ability of inferior people to procreate (so-called negative eugenics) whilst maximizing that of superior individuals (so-called positive eugenics), would benefit society. To Galton, the creation of better citizens through better breeding was an obvious and inevitable outcome if the principle of positive eugenics he espoused was followed:
We can clearly observe the extreme diversity of character in children. Some are naturally generous and open, others mean and tricky; some are warm and loving, others cold and heartless; some are meek and patient, others obstinate and self-asserting; some few have the tempers of angels, and at least as many have the tempers of devils. In the same way [that] by selecting men and women of rare and similar talent, and mating them together, generation after generation, an extraordinarily gifted race might be developed, so a yet more rigid selection, having regard to their moral nature, would, I believe, result in a no less marked improvement of their natural disposition.
As for negative eugenics, Galton skirted around the issue. The inferior, refuse as he termed them, were to be discouraged and retarded from marriage and reproduction. Given time, in this way the superior would multiply and flourish while the refuse would wither and eventually be eliminated. Galton suggested a programme of financial incentives intended to encourage the desirable to propagate, but the question of just how the undesirable were to be motivated to volunteer for the obverse remained unanswered. It may be supposed that, so far as both positive and negative eugenics were concerned, the notion of compulsion was never a consideration for Galton. Society, he felt, would resolve these issues as a more refined and vigorous praxis was established following recognition of the validity of his theories.
The obvious and immediate problem was clearly one of definition. What did superior and inferior signify? And who was to do the defining? These were, of course, questions which were (and are) incapable of satisfactory answers, but to the committed eugenicists the reasoning was obvious. Valuable life was represented by the racial or social class to which the eugenicist belonged, or with which he felt an affinity; worthless life was everybody else. In 1880, Robby Kossman, a German zoologist who later became a medical professor, succinctly expressed the eugenicist viewpoint:
We see that the Darwinian world view must look upon the present sentimental conception of the value of life of the human individual as an overestimate completely hindering the progress of humanity. The human state also, like every animal community of individuals, must reach an even higher state of perfection, if the possibility exists in it, through the destruction of the less well-endowed individual, for the more excellently endowed to win space for the expansion of its progeny The state only has an interest in preserving the more excellent life at the expense of the less excellent.
This passage combines several elements of what was to become recognizably Nazi ideology; the individual is nothing, the nation (Volk) is everything; a person's worth can only measured by his or her contribution to the community; the Judeo-Christian ethic of the sanctity of life was moribund; the Malthusian concept of limiting population growth was paramount. There was, however, a vital difference between Malthus' theory and the eugenicists' interpretation of it. Malthus advocated unrestricted birth control in order to manage the planet's resources. To the racial hygienists this was a dangerous over-simplification; a high birth rate among the genetically valuable with a matching lowered birth-rate among the genetically worthless was what was really important. Thus the Nazis proposed and practiced selective breeding as part of a policy of geopolitical aggrandisement and expansion, rather than from any altruistic or humanitarian motive. It would not be the meek who would inherit the earth, but the hereditarily valuable. It was for this reason that Nazi medical theorists disowned Malthus' ideas, often forcibly. In National Socialist Germany the valuable were to be encouraged to reproduce; the worthless were to be forcibly prevented from doing so. Nowhere was this dichotomy better illustrated than in the Honour Cross of the German Mother (Ehrenkreuz der deutschen Mutter), an award instituted in 1938 to acknowledge the fecundity of `Aryan' mothers possessing appropriate hereditary credentials. Whilst recognizing the fertility of women considered genetically valuable, the regime was simultaneously sterilizing tens of thousands of others deemed biologically valueless. It would be unfair to lay the blame for this exclusively at Galton's door, but in essence it was a logical, if unforeseeable, consequence of his proposals.
The true lethality of this kind of reasoning only began to emerge with the practical linking of the theories of eugenics with the Völkisch movements plaguing the United States and many countries in Europe during the latter part of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth centuries. Basing his conclusions on the questionable results of intelligence tests given to United States military recruits, in 1923 the psychologist Carl Brigham wrote in his book, A Study of American Intelligence, that the decline in the level of intelligence in American males was largely due to the immigration of inferior racial groups. Eugenics and the purported issues of race became inseparable. The naturalist Zsigmond Fülöp, editor of Darwin's works in Hungary, expressed contemporary reasoning well: Eugenics represents the application of Darwinism to society with the scope of improving the qualities of the race, especially social qualities.
It was easy to bandy such expressions about, but what exactly did the eugenicists mean by terms such as race or social qualities? Having first acknowledged the inherent difficulties in arriving at any wholly acceptable conclusions, in 2002 the American Psychological Association attempted to arrive at a definition not just of race, but also of ethnicity and culture. They determined that the definition of race is considered to be socially constructed, rather than biologically determined. Race, then, is the category to which others assign individuals on the basis of physical characteristics, such as skin colour or hair type, and the generalizations and stereotypes made as a result. Ethnicity, it was suggested, was the acceptance of the group mores and practices of one's culture of origin and the concomitant sense of belonging. And culture was the embodiment of a worldview through learned and transmitted beliefs, values, and practices, including religious and spiritual traditions. It also encompasses a way of living informed by the historical, economic, ecological, and political forces on a group. If anything these attempted definitions confirm the difficulties inherent in endeavouring to establish parameters for these essentially indefinable terms. Be that as it may, it is doubtful if many eugenic theorists were anything like as specific in their interpretation of these matters. Race in particular could have whatever meaning the speaker or author sought to ascribe to it, so that in 1956, Winston Churchill, as a younger man an enthusiastic eugenicist, could produce a book about the British entitled The Island Race, as if that nation possessed some kind of specific racial characteristics. Nearly thirty years later, Margaret Thatcher felt able to repeat the words of her hero when suggesting that the inhabitants of the Falklands were, like the British, an island race, thus misusing a word that by then had been recognized as being not only worthless but, in the wake of the Nazi experience, had sinister connotations.
This is not simply a matter of semantics. As the eminent geneticist, Richard Lewontin has observed:
We should stop talking about major races because to talk about major races gave the impression that there were big differences between these groups in things that mattered - I mean, skin colour, after all, doesn't matter except in some vague aesthetic sense - but things that really mattered: people's characters, their intelligence, their behaviour, whether they're going to compete with other people or not and so on. The evidence then became that there weren't any interesting differences in such things, and so we should stop talking about race.
But of course we have not. If we are still reluctant to abandon the concept of `race' or any of its linguistic variations, often using it as a kind of shorthand in place of more accurate terminology, for the eugenicists this wholly fallacious notion represented the very cornerstone of their beliefs.
If, as has been suggested, every German had his own idea of race, it is certainly true that racial identity was an issue that the Nazis were never able to resolve to their satisfaction. For some supposed experts it was a matter of physical characteristics, whilst others dismissed this notion as unscientific, since there were few individuals who could claim to be free of at least a degree of racial mixing. The regime tied itself into knots in trying to find an answer to this self imposed problem, consistent only in its inconsistency for, with the exception of the Jews, for whom a strictly applied legal definition was in place, the determination of questions of national and racial identity varied greatly within the various regions under Nazi hegemony, being extremely selective in some places yet quite the opposite in others. As with so many other eugenic matters, much of course depended upon who was doing the defining, for such guidelines as existed were quite imprecise, and few of these racial experts were in agreement on the criteria to be applied. In short, Nazi racial policy remains the best example we have yet had of the absurdity of attempting to identify either nations or individuals by such means, and of promoting the values purportedly inherent in one race over those of another.
The perception of eugenics as a new religion was recognized by Galton in a1904 address, in the course of which he stated: It [eugenics] has, indeed, strong claims to become an orthodox religious tenet of the future, for eugenics co-operates with the workings of nature by securing that humanity shall be represented by the fittest races. What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly and kindly. Galton believed, as Lincoln Steffens was to say in a quite different context, I have seen the future and it works. However, Galton continued, society was not yet ready to accept eugenics. It would only be so when a sufficiency of evidence shall have been collected to make the truths on which it rests plain to all. That moment has not yet arrived In other words, it was first necessary to educate the public concerning the immense benefits this modern faith would bring before its precepts could be implemented. Moreover, Galton's new theology would turn traditional religious ethics, together with the concepts of Liberté, égalité, fraternité and The Declaration of the Rights of Man, on their collective heads. For Galton was neither a convinced Christian, nor a democrat, writing as he did:
It is the obvious course of intelligent men and I venture to say it should be their religious duty to advance in the direction whither Nature is determined they shall go, that is towards the improvement of the race .But it [Democracy] goes farther than this, for it asserts than men are of equal value as social units, equally capable of voting, and the rest. This feeling is undeniably wrong and cannot last.
Problems associated with the socalled feebleminded (a wholly inaccurate term utilised to include everything from mental disability to alcoholism, sexual promiscuity, and other deemed anti-social behaviour) became the cornerstone of eugenic theorizing. Labelled as idiots, imbeciles, morons, or degenerates, the existence of such individuals was used to promote the concept that there existed an explicit relationship between low intelligence and both immorality and crime. The cause of the social problems of the time was deemed to be inherited feeblemindedness, and the concomitant poverty a product of hereditary degeneracy. It was concluded Not all criminals are feebleminded, but all feeble-minded persons are at least potential criminals. That every feeble-minded woman is a potential prostitute would hardly be disputed by anyone.
These were global perceptions. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was simply reflecting a majority of contemporary opinion when he commented: Someday we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type A few years later Calvin Coolidge, at that time vice-President of the United States, declared: America must be kept American. Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races. The American psychologist, Henry Goddard, believed it was obvious that no mentally impaired person should be allowed to marry or become a parent. Moreover, it was the duty of the intelligent section of society to enforce this rule. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Goddard's eminent fellow American jurist concluded:
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Darwin had written in The Descent of Man: Both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if they are in any marked degree inferior in body or mind Everyone does a good service who aids towards this end. In Victorian Britain the implication of marriage was, of course, procreation. If not proposing voluntary sterilisation, Darwin was suggesting at least voluntary abstinence. Others, equally eminent, were prepared to go further. As Home Secretary, Winston Churchill called for a simple surgical operation (sterilisation) so the inferior could be permitted freely in the world without causing much inconvenience to others, and wrote to Herbert Asquith, then Prime Minister, I am convinced that the multiplication of the Feeble-Minded, which is proceeding now at an artificial rate, unchecked by any of the old restraints of nature, and actually fostered by civilised conditions, is a terrible danger to the race. In 1903, H. G. Wells wrote:
The conclusion that if we could prevent or discourage the inferior sorts of people from having children, and if we could stimulate and encourage the superior sorts to increase and multiply, we should raise the general standard of the race is so simple, so obvious, that in every age I suppose there have been voices asking in amazement why the thing is not done.
One year earlier, Wells had been even more outspoken in his promotion of eugenics:
The men of the New Republic ... will rout out and illuminate urban rookeries and all places where the base can drift to multiply; they will contrive a land legislation that will keep the black, or yellow, or mean-white squatter on the move; ... so that childbearing shall cease to be a hopeful speculation for the unemployed poor; ... This thing, this euthanasia of the weak and sensual, is possible. On the principles that will probably animate the predominant classes of the new time, it will be permissible, and I have little or no doubt that in the future it will be planned and achieved.
Wells and Churchill were not alone in their concern for the future of Anglo-Saxons, nor was Wells a voice crying out in the wilderness with his dire prophecies. In a lecture to the Eugenics Education Society in 1910, George Bernard Shaw commented:
We should find ourselves committed to killing a great many people whom we now leave living, and to leave living a great many people whom we at present kill. We should have to get rid of all ideas about capital punishment A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people's time to look after them.
Shaw's defenders suggest that his remarks were tongue-in-cheek, a satirical reference to the policies of the more extreme eugenicists, but by 1934 Shaw was surely no longer joking when he wrote:
The moment we face it frankly we are driven to the conclusion that the community has a right to put a price on the right to live in it If people are fit to live, let them live under decent human conditions. If they are not fit to live, kill them in a decent human way. Is it any wonder that some of us are driven to prescribe the lethal chamber as the solution for the hard cases which are at present made the excuse for dragging all the other cases down to their level, and the only solution that will create a sense of full social responsibility in modern populations?
The lethal chamber, a phrase in common usage around the turn of the century, and whose meaning was clear to all, was just five years away at the time of these reflections.
The nature of the rabid bigotry that often drove this kind of thinking is well illustrated by the comments of the Briton, Robert Reid Rentoul, a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, the General Medical Council of Education, the Medico-Legal Society and the Society for the Study of Inebriety a man clearly considered a physician of distinction. In his 1906 book Race Culture; or Race Suicide? (A Plea for the Unborn), Rentoul wrote: The intermarriage of British with foreigners should not be encouraged. A few of us know the terrible monstrosities produced by the intermarriage of the white man and the black . . . From the standpoint of race culture it is difficult to understand the action of those who advocate the naturalization of foreigners.
In a book entitled Heredity and Eugenics in Relation to Insanity published by the British Eugenics Society in 1912, Frederick Walker Mott, the chief pathologist of the London County Council made clear the racism inherent in contemporary eugenic reasoning: The alien Jew and Irish Roman Catholic have large families, as their religion prohibits restrictions 25% of our population, made up mainly of the above mankind poor types, is producing 50% of our children and if this goes on it must lead to degeneracy. In his fellow-countryman Charles Wicksteed Armstrong's The Survival of the Unfittest, published in 1927, there was more than a whiff of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. After claiming that England, possessing the finest human stock in the world, is at the present time doing all in her power to destroy it, Armstrong managed to contrive an alleged confluence of Bolshevism and anti-Semitism worthy of Hitler himself: The deliberately devilish policy of these Russian Jews is to use eventually the whole of Asia's immense resources in population and wealth for the furtherance of their aim world revolution, or the suppression of civilization. When the long-forgotten British eugenicist Anthony Mario Ludovici felt able, in several books published between the two world wars, to promote not only compulsory sterilisation, but also infanticide, incest, and what amounted to euthanasia- The time has come to recognize the inevitability of violence and sacrifice, and consciously to select the section or elements in the world or the nation that should be sacrificed - it becomes evident that racial hygiene was very far from being a solely German preoccupation.
It is evident that all of these notions sterilisation of the inferior and, by either implication or direct proposal, their removal from society, the prohibition of marriage between those considered unsuitable or unworthy, a direct association between mental deficiency and crime, racism as a guiding political principle were symptomatic of much contemporary eugenic ratiocination, and all found their way into Nazi ideology. Zsigmond Fülöp had asked rhetorically, whether we need to initiate a eugenic social policy, or in other words: is there a need for the creation of a human stock bodily and mentally stronger and more valuable than the present one? The answer to this question is nothing but yes. By 1935, the French Nobel Prize winner, Alexis Carrel, felt able to write that the criminal and the insane should be humanely and economically disposed of in small euthanasia institutions supplied with proper gases. This was the lethal chamber writ large. The 1936 German introduction to Carrel's book Man, The Unknown included an enthusiastic endorsement of Nazi policies: The German government has taken energetic measures against the propagation of the defective, the mentally diseased, and the criminal. The ideal solution would be the suppression of each of these individuals as soon as he has proven himself to be dangerous. It was hardly surprising that Carrel became the favoured eugenicist of Vichy France, and in recent years has been quoted with approval by Jean-Marie le Pen, former leader of the French far-right `Front National' party.
It has been suggested that the worldwide popularity of eugenics in the first half of the twentieth century can be explained by the combination of a number of factors; science and scientists were held in high esteem, established class and racial inequalities and prejudices were vindicated by the new discipline, and perceived failings in social welfare policies addressed. Moreover, refuge could be found from the Victorian concept of environment and conditioning as the determining factor in human behaviour. If every society was plagued with poverty, crime, prostitution, alcoholism and disease, all believed to be genetic in nature, the chimera of eugenics appeared to provide an answer to these otherwise unfathomable problems. Even so, the illogicality inherent in Galton's comparison of the breeding of animals or plants with that of human beings was self evident. Capable of an immensely greater variety of intellectual achievements than any other of earth's life forms, mankind was more than just another type of mammal. And as should have been painfully obvious to Galton when he looked around him, the mating of attractive, healthy or academically distinguished parents did not guarantee genetically improved or even equally high standards in their progeny. It did not in itself necessarily increase the probability of such a result. Healthy parents had sick children too. As for maintaining the supposed purity of a racial bloodline, this fallacy had everything to do with prejudice and nothing at all to do with science. The only certainty was that any society implementing the theories of Galton and his disciples would eventually result in that community giving its blessing to the perpetration of criminal acts against those deemed unfit to breed or indeed to live.
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