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The origins of the eugenics movement in Germany

Posted by Matthew McCusker on 19 April 2013

The eugenics movement in Germany drew on the same primary inspiration as its sister movements in Britain and the United States, namely, the writings of Charles Darwin.

In this post I wish to continue our series on eugenics by presenting profiles of just a few of the many individuals who helped to shape the first decades of the German eugenics movement.

 

Ernst Haeckel

Ernst Haeckel, a biologist who had visited Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley in 1866, first introduced their work to a wide German audience. Haeckel can, along with Darwin and Galton, be considered one of the founders of 'scientific racism'.

He considered that "the Caucasian, or Mediterranean man, has from time immemorial been placed at the head of all the races of men, as the most highly developed and perfect."

Haeckel taught at the University of Jena for forty-seven years from 1862 to 1909 and during this time he worked ceaselessly to propagate both the theory of evolution and the racial ideology which had become almost inseparable from it. One of his lasting legacies was a series of drawings of embryos from different species which purported to demonstrate their gradual evolution.

His drawings are no longer considered as being of any scientific value; indeed they are widely considered to have been deliberately doctored, even faked, in order to prove his pre-existing theories. The most influential of Haeckel’s forty-two published works was The History of Creation (1868) in which he set out the theory of evolution for his German audience with his own reflections on the development of the human race.

Typical of his views are his statements that inhabitants of southern Africa are 'more like apes' than any other race of human beings and that 'no woolly-haired nation has ever had an important "history"'1. Haeckel shared Charles Darwin’s view that the 'lower races' were doomed to extinction2. There would soon be those in Germany who would attempt to accelerate this supposed evolutionary process.

Alfred Ploetz

One of the most poisonous fruits of Haeckel's legacy was the Freie wissenschaftliche Vereinigung (free scientific union) a radical group who studied and discussed the writings of both Haeckel and Darwin.

They wanted to found an ideal society on a pacific island and organise it along eugenic principles. A leading member was Alfred Ploetz who coined the term Rassenhygiene, literally 'Racial Hygiene', which has essentially the same meaning as the word 'eugenics'.

In 1895 he published Outline of Racial Hygiene and followed this with The Efficiency of our Race and the Protection of the Weak in which he advocated large scale abortion, infanticide and the rigorous control of human reproduction by the state. In 1904 he founded the journal Archive for Racial and Social Biology and in 1905 the German Society for Racial Hygiene.

He was praised by the Nazi eugenicist Ernst Rudin as a man who 'by his meritorious services has helped to set up our Nazi ideology'. Like many other supporters of brutal population control policies, such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

He received this award in 1936, the year after the notorious Nuremberg Laws were instituted. Early in his career he was considered pro-Jewish and praised the intellectual abilities of the Jews; he was later to bring his views into line with those of the Nazi regime.

Eugen Fischer

Eugen Fischer was one of the leading figures of the early German eugenic and Darwinist movement. In 1908 Fischer conducted a research project on people of mixed-race in German South West Africa and concluded that intermarriage between races should be forbidden.

On his return to Germany he founded the Society for Eugenics in Freiburg. Throughout this period he worked closely with Charles Davenport and the International Federation of Eugenics Organisations. In 1927 he became head of the Kaiser Wilhem Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, which position he held until 1942.

In 1933, the year Hitler rose to power, he was appointed Rector of the Frederick William University of Berlin and later joined the Nazi party. He was an enthusiastic advocate of sterilisation and birth control and was responsible for the forced sterilisation of mixed race children in the Rhineland (the children of European women and African soldiers in the occupying French army).

After the Second World War, his career continued seemingly unblemished by his cooperation with the Nazi regime. He was one of the many beneficiaries (along with International Planned Parenthood) of the policy of turning a blind eye to those implicated in Nazi eugenics, in order to aid German recovery. He was made an honorary member of the German Anthropological Society in 1952.

Ernst Rudin

Ernst Rudin was introduced to Darwinism and the ideology of eugenics by his brother-in-law Alfred Ploetz. He began his career by studying the genetic origins of mental illnesses.

From 1917 – 1945 he was Director of the Genealogical-Demographic Department at the German Institute for Psychiatric Research in Munich. He was also to be become the head of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and the German Society for Racial Hygiene.

In 1933, shortly after Hitler seized power, Rudin, along with other leading eugenicists sat on the Expert Committee on Questions of Population and Racial Policy which advised Hitler on matters relating to eugenics.

Rudin authored the official commentary on the 'Law for the prevention of hereditarily diseased offspring.' He was arrested in 1945 but was released swiftly.

Eugenics and Abortion

These brief portraits should be enough to make clear that the Nazi programme of genocide, euthanasia and sterilisation was not the isolated work of a rogue regime but was simply, at that date, the most bloodthirsty of attempts to implement the eugenic ideology that had been growing in strength for nearly a century.

After the Second World War the advocates of eugenics regrouped and found new ways of propagating and implementing their ideology. Abortion has proved to be the simplest way of securing 'racial hygiene', for example, around 90% of infants diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome are now killed in the womb.

We are all called to do our part in the struggle for human life and dignity in the face of the almost overwhelming power of the eugenics movement.

Help defeat eugenics today:

1. Ernst Haeckel, The History of Creation: Volume II (1880 ed., New York), p307
2. In The Descent of Man Darwin had written "Civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate the savage races throughout the world ... The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla."

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