Eugenics and the Holocaust: 1927-1939

By Glad, John | Mankind Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Eugenics and the Holocaust: 1927-1939


Glad, John, Mankind Quarterly


The author investigates the charge that eugenics represents a "slippery path" that led to the Holocaust, and concludes that this widely popularized allegation is not supported by the facts. In a documented "timeline" he shows that during the period 1927 through 1939 many of the leading proponents of the eugenics movement were Jewish, and that the 1930s movement aimed at the political and genetic exclusion of Jews from German society was a product of political not eugenic ideology.

Key Words: Eugenics; Bioethics; Differential fertility; Euthanasia; Egalitarianism; Nazi ideology; Holocaust; Lysenkoism; Soviet purges; Universalism.

The website Eugenics in the Holocaust or Shoah intones: "Probably one of the most hideous aspects of the Third Reich was their notorious fascination and experimentation with Eugenics."1 Susan Bachrach, curator of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's exhibit "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," supports this view, maintaining that eugenics "culminated" in the Holocaust.2 And even though most people would be unable to provide a definition of eugenics, they nevertheless generally concur with Bachrach, who represents an institution that, according to its official website, "teaches millions of people each year,"3 and diere are sixty other Holocaust museums in addition. But even this outreach is dwarfed by mass media that in dieir totality reach audiences numbering in the hundreds of millions of people - and this on a daily basis.

Eugenics was conceived within the ideological framework of intergenerational equity - as parental responsibility for ensuring that children are born healthy and intelligent. The movement originated in the late 19th century in the wake of Darwin's theory of evolution. It was based on the belief that humans are subject to biological evolution and natural selection, and the belief in the inherited nature of physical traits, disease susceptibilities, abilities, and personality. The aim of eugenics is humanitarian: to promote the welfare of future generations by ensuring that favorable genetic traits are transmitted to offspring. During the first two-thirds of the 20th century, eugenics was advocated by both physicians and social reformers. How did this idealism abruptly earn such a disastrous reputation? Emotions run high, and dissenters have been intimidated into silence.

It is true that some eugenics proponents expressed antipathy toward Jews, but as the timeline demonstrates, Jews were, on the whole, accepted as active participants in the movement. Noting with exasperation the popular association in the public mind of eugenics with anti-Jewish sentiment, the philosopher and Zionist member of the Jewish Academy Leo Strauss coined the maxim reductio ad Hitlerum: "Hitler believed in eugenics. X believes in eugenics. Therefore X is a Nazi."4

Contrary to frequent claims, the eugenics movement did not wither away in the 1930s as bad science, although it played a diminished role in the aftermath of World War II. It remained viable up to the late 1960s, when it was driven underground by the newly created Holocaust memorial movement. First came a surge of articles attacking eugenics, with books beginning to appear in the late 1970s. The annual quantity of books identified by a "Worldcat" (OCLC) search as containing the word "Eugenics" in the title illustrates gives a macroview of monograph publication (see chart, "Worldcat (OCLC) Search of Books Containing the Word "Eugenics").

Books published between 1945 and 1967 were generally supportive of eugenics and bore such titles as Preface to Eugenics; Genetic and Environmental Factors in Human Ability; or How Heredity Builds Our Lives: An Introduction to Human Genetics and Eugenics. Later works had titles like A Corrupt Tree Bringeth Forth Evil Fruit: Religion and the American Eugenics Movement; The Logic of Eugenics: The Path from Social Darwinism to the Holocaust; or 'Hideous Progeny': Eugenics, Disability, and Classic Horror Cinema.

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