Eugenics and Social Democracy: Or, How the European Left Tried to Eliminate the 'Weeds' from Its National Gardens

Article excerpt

The 'science' of eugenics emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century, with the aim of assisting nation states in formulating social policies which would improve the 'quality' of the population. The emergence of modern health and social policies from the turn of the twentieth century provided the institutional conditions for translating eugenic rhetoric into a policy programme. Nowadays, eugenics tends to be popularly associated with Nazi Germany, where large-scale experiments in social engineering included forced sterilisations and 'euthanasia' of 'degenerate' persons. In truth, however, eugenic ideas found support across the political spectrum, including amongst socialists and anarchists. Whilst feminists were to be found on both sides of the debate--supporting and opposing eugenics--most opposition came from liberals, who rejected state intervention in private life, and churches, particularly the Catholic Church. Eugenicists called for scientifically-founded state intervention to prevent further degeneration of the diseased national body. Social democrat reformers were amongst the pioneers of eugenic 'science' as well as policy practices in Europe. A number of eugenic policies such as forced sterilisation of 'degenerates' were strongly promoted by the Left and were first applied in countries such as Switzerland and Sweden. Other eugenic policies included education programmes, non-voluntary incarceration in psychiatric clinics, removal of children from parental homes, prohibition to marry, as well as measures that specifically targeted vagrants, 'gypsies', and, more generally, socially deviant groups such as unmarried mothers, 'sexual deviants', or people with physical or mental impairments. The emerging welfare state also added an additional motive to that of preventing degeneracy: limiting public expenditure. Indeed, rapidly expanding welfare institutions increasingly targeted the 'inferior' categories of the national population who became the main recipients of the growing welfare system. Limiting the number of 'weeds' in the national garden therefore appeared as a rational means of reducing welfare costs, which many social democrats as well as feminists supported enthusiastically. Recent developments in the area of genetics have not only returned collective preoccupations with heredity to the debate on the future of national welfare systems, but have also revived anxieties about past eugenic experiences. Against this backdrop, there are important lessons to be drawn from the role of social democracy in the European experience of eugenics. The aim of this article is to explore the connections between eugenics and social democracy, and to raise a number of issues concerning these links which are, given contemporary ethical concerns around the new human genetics, of continuing importance today. While focusing on Switzerland in particular, the Swiss case will be contextualised by eugenic experiences in other European countries, such as the UK, Germany and Scandinavia.


A series of prominent media scandals concerning Sweden and Switzerland made 1998 an important year in the history of European eugenics. In the Swedish case, a study which examined sterilisation policies generated considerable interest and concern throughout Europe's popular and scientific press. (1) Although social historians had been previously aware of the practice, the media and public alike were shocked to discover that Sweden, renowned for its strong welfare state and attendant protection of vulnerable social groups, had engaged in exclusionary practices such as eugenic sterilisations until as recently as 1973. In the Swiss case, 1998 saw the publication of a government report on the notorious Kinder der Landstrasse ('Children of the Country Lanes') programme, (2) which officially confirmed claims about the forced removal of 'gypsy' children from their biological families that had been reported in the Swiss press as early as 1972, resulting in public outrage. …


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