Catholicism and Eugenics in the Weimar Republic and in the Third Reich

By Glad, John | Mankind Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Catholicism and Eugenics in the Weimar Republic and in the Third Reich


Glad, John, Mankind Quarterly


Catholicism and Eugenics in the Weimar Republic and in the Third Reich

Katholizismus und Eugenik in der Weimarer Republik und im Dritten Reich: Zwischen Sittlichkeitsreform und Rassenhygiene

Ingrid Richter

Ferdinand Schöningh, 2001

As Richter points out, it is no longer possible to lump all the Christian denominations together as an undifferentiated "anti-eugenic bulwark." There was not only a Catholic but also a Protestant eugenics, although it would be a gross mistake to view these disparate movements as being motivated by a unified worldview. Prominent Catholic priests in Germany supported the eugenics movement, each with his own ideological platform.

It may come as a surprise to many that even today the Catholic Church is not opposed to eugenics per se, but only to contraception and abortion, as well as to Neo-Malthusianism, which is closely intertwined with eugenic thinking. Such a statement might appear to be self-contradictory, but not in the eyes of Catholic theologians. The Church considers sexual abstinence to be the most holy state for humans, and thus there can be no objection to a person abstaining from marriage if he or she fears passing on a genetically heritable disease (negative eugenics). And the Church actively encourages healthy couples to have large families (positive eugenics). Thus, the Church believes that Christian love for children should not prevent Catholics from pursuing eugenic goals, but disagrees with mainstream eugenics over methods.

A second source of confusion underlying the topic of Christian eugenics has been the indiscriminate equating of eugenics with racism and genocide. This lack of a differentiated understanding of the topic has been engendered not only by populist ideologues intent on manipulating public opinion but also by some participants in the eugenics movement itself. The very term "racial hygiene" (Rassenhygiene) leaves the listener confused as to whether it refers to the general human race or specific human races. The result has been a high emotional pitch that renders dispassionate scholarly discussion virtually impossible.

As early as 1910, population management had become a prominent topic in Germany, but the Church's negative attitude toward Darwinism generally restrained public discussion. The "birth dearth" had begun to worry many, and the slaughter of World War I led still others to muse bitterly about both its quantitative and qualitative consequences. Thus it was the War that made eugenics politikfähig (acceptable as a political issue).

The original thrust of concern was strictly quantitative: without soldiers how could Germany maintain its military superiority on a continent so burdened by war? Still, "negative racial hygiene of the American variety" was generally rejected.

As early as 1918 the Gesellschaft für Bevölkerungspolitik (Society for Population Policy) had 1,337 members with 188 fraternities and was affiliated with 100 organizations. During the Weimar period the conservatives (proponents of racial hygiene) favored such publications as Archiv für Rassen- und Gesellschaftsbiologie (The Racial and Social-Biology Archive), while liberals and leftists supported such eugenic and moderate periodicals as Vorwärts (Forward) and Schönere Zukunft (The More Beautiful Future). The left wing favored encouraging healthy children to have more children and supported only voluntary sterilization.

Pro-eugenics Catholics attempted to use the venereal disease issue as a vehicle for promoting eugenics. In 1916 the German Society for Social Hygiene proposed a pre-marital exchange of health certificates. Amalie Lauter (1882-1950), a Catholic professor of education in Cologne, supported the initiative so as to forestall infection of the spouse and children. In 1922 the Prussian Minister of Social Welfare picked up the idea, and in Catholic Cologne Bishop Josef Stoffels (1875-1923) sided with the Catholic Hermann Muckermann (1877-1962), who was known as "the Pope of positive eugenics. …

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