Criminology's Darkest Hour: Biocriminology in Nazi Germany

By Rafter, Nicole | Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, August 2008 | Go to article overview

Criminology's Darkest Hour: Biocriminology in Nazi Germany


Rafter, Nicole, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology


This article deals with criminology and its effects during Hitler's Third Reich (1933-1945). For comparative purposes, it also examines the nature and effects of criminology in fascist Italy (1922-1943). In both states, criminology became an extension of political power, but only in Nazi Germany did it fully reach its murderous potential, working to justify the genocide of not only Jews and Gypsies but of criminals as well. Key questions include: How did biological ideas shape explanations of crime in Nazi Germany? How did Nazi science define 'criminals'? What were the consequences of Nazi criminology? And what does the study of scientific criminology under the Nazis reveal about the nature of criminology itself?

Keywords: fascist criminology, genocide, history of criminology, Nazi criminology

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During the 12 years of Hitler's Third Reich (1933-1945), the Nazis used biological theories of crime to justify the killing of tens of thousands of people--millions, in fact, if we consider that the Nazis justified the extermination of not only law-breakers but also Jews and Gypsies, by attributing to them inherent criminality. The Germans developed a science of criminal biology that they believed could identify hereditary criminals and demonstrate that they needed to be incarcerated indefinitely for eugenic reasons--so they would be unable to reproduce. With the onset of World War II in 1939, the Nazis intensified their applications of criminal-biology, drawing on it to select allegedly mentally handicapped offenders, including the criminally insane, for 'euthanasia' or 'mercy-killing'. Later still, after Fuhrer Adolf Hitler decided to exterminate all those with 'lives not worth living',' the Nazis murdered criminals and others whom they deemed to be hereditary 'asocials' in gas chambers or sent them to concentration camps for 'extermination through labor'.

This aspect of the Nazi regime--criminology's darkest hour--remains all but unknown to criminologists. Indeed, until recently, it was relatively unknown even to historians of the Third Reich. Although these historians had closely analysed the development of eugenics, genetics, medicine and other sciences that the Nazis used to destroy indisputably innocent victims, they had paid less attention to the science of criminal-biology, perhaps because its victims, having been accused or convicted of crimes, were considered in some sense suspect or even deserving of their fate (Wachsmann, 2001). In recent years, however, new research by historians such as Richard Wetzell (2000) and Nikolaus Wachsmann (2004) has brought the picture of Nazi criminology and criminal justice into focus. This picture reveals a previously unfamiliar dimension to the predations of the National Socialist state--and the murderous potential of biological theories of crime.

It is no longer possible to dismiss Nazi criminal-biology as a bad science concocted by mad scientists, a perversion that will not recur so long as we uphold standards for 'good' science. In recent years, understandings of Nazi science have undergone rapid evolution as historians abandoned the older view that a few fanatic leaders had forced passive but otherwise virtuous scientists to nazify their methods and findings. This older view was based on a shaky and perhaps untenable distinction between 'bad' and 'good' science; moreover, it was promulgated after World War II by Nazi collaborators who wanted to exculpate themselves (Muller-Hill, 1988; Proctor, 1988). Even more important to the reinterpretation is the growing realisation that the older picture distorts the active and enthusiastic collaboration of German scientists with the Nazi regime. The new wave of studies of Nazi science makes it impossible to continue drawing bright lines between good and bad scientists (for example, Proctor, 1988; Szollosi-Janze, 2001b; Weiss, 2006; Wetzell, 2000; also see Proctor, 1991). The more that historians discover about the workings of Nazi science, the more crucial it becomes to understand why scientists collaborated--to grasp the nature of their relationship with the state that funded their work and their desire to harness science to the goal of race purification. …

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