“IF ONE IMAGINES… A BATTLEFEILD COVERED WITH THOUSANDS OF DEAD YOUTHS… THEN OUR INSTITUTIONS FOR IDIOTS AND THEIR CARE… ONE IS MOST APPALLED BY… THE SACRIFICE OF THE BEST OF HUMANITY WHILE THE BEST CARE IS LAVISHED ON LIFE OF NEGATIVE WORTH.”
–Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, Authorization of the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life
It is hard to imagine what life was like a hundred years ago. I will forgo painting a detailed picture, except to say that the whole idea of reading a post on a blog would be utterly alien to the turn-of-the-century consciousness. It’s hard to imagine a world without air travel, computers, (quality) recorded music, strip malls, retail bookstore chains, and the globalized economy. And it would be equally hard to imagine living in a state committed to an intense nationalism, modern progress, and quelling biological threat.
Such was the state of Germany after the ghastly results of WWI. The “war to end all wars” was really only the beginning that served to intensify those commitments with the rise of the Nazi Party. Their deification of the state claimed a right to territorial expansion and the need for biological superiority. For the average German it was either follow the policies the resulted in another World War (and the extermination of six million Jews) or extinction. There is not much middle ground between utopia and annihilation.
At the Science Museum of Minnesota I was introduced to this cultural backdrop as well as the factors that lead up to the Nazi embrace of the mythical “Aryan master race” in their exhibit Deadly Medicine, an exhibit sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Interestingly enough, the idea of “racial hygiene” was not particular to the Nazis. Theirs was the terrible subset of a science gone mad that had swept through Western industrialized nations called eugenics—or as the exhibit said, “science as salvation.”
Eugenics is the application of Darwinian Theory to anthropology. In this view “the survival of the fittest” entails that the “fit” classes of people embody a genetic make-up that gives them an advantage for survival and progress over those that are deemed “unfit.” Conversely, the result for a society that expends its “fittest” citizens on the battlefield to preserve the sanctity of life for the “unfit” is “biological degeneration.” As a solution, eugenics taught that society must encourage “positive” policies that reinforced “valuable” families with “desirable” traits to intermarry, and if necessary, engage in “negative” policies that forbade “inferiors” to pass on their traits, mostly by means of forced sterilization. What is now derisively called “social Darwinism” was then the scientific orthodoxy of the age.
Such an orthodoxy was not unique to Germany, however. What is shocking to learn is that much of the progress in eugenics came from the United States and England. The term “eugenics” was coined by Francis Galton, a half cousin of Charles Darwin, who pioneered the field by gathering data about human behavior and hypothesizing a link to genetic nature. His study lead him to conclude that noble qualities were endowed through heredity, and within a generation the scientific community embraced his ideas. As early as 1907 Indiana passed a law permitting the involuntary sterilization of “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists.” In 1911, then Governor of New Jersey Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that would apply to “the hopelessly defective criminal classes.” Even Helen Keller, a noted disability rights icon, saw merit in the idea that some defective children should not be saved from a premature death due to predisposition to criminal behavior. By 1924, 2,500 Californians had undergone involuntary sterilization.
Eugenics influence on culture inspired genetic grandstanding events as “better baby” and “fittest family” contests that took on an almost a sideshow appeal, albeit a reversed one from a carnival’s “freak shows” to a genetic “beauty pageant.” So entrenched was the “fact of eugenics” in the public mindset that skeptical enquirers from Europe were excoriated in xenophobic terms. (As a side note, about Ben Stein’s movie Expelled, it would have been more prudent of him to explore social Darwinism from this angle. Since his was a film about questioning established scientific dogma and defending academic freedom he could have made a salient point about the factors of cultural blindness and intellectual hubris the scientific community is prone to as evidenced by these absurdities. Alas he made a foray into a topic that had more to do with guilt-by-association than logically consistent historical analysis.)
Perhaps most famously, and most egregiously, the 1927 Supreme Court Case Buck v. Bell upheld a Virginia law permitting the sterilization of the “feebleminded.” Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the opinion famously caricaturing Carrie Buck as a “feeble minded white woman” as the “daughter of a feeble minded mother” and “the mother of an illegitimate feeble minded child” which demanded the cutting of her Fallopian tubes.
“IT IS BETTER FOR ALL THE WORLD, IF INSTEAD OF WAITING TO EXECUTE DEGENERATE OFFSPRING FOR CRIME, OR TO LET THEM STARVE FOR THEIR IMBECILITY, SOCIETY CAN PREVENT THOSE WHO ARE MANIFESTLY UNFIT FROM CONTINUING THEIR KIND… THREE GENERATIONS OF IMBECILES ARE ENOUGH.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Buck v. Bell
History would later show that Carrie Buck was not “feebleminded” nor was she given to sexual promiscuity. Her daughter Vivian (who was not “feebleminded” either) was the result of a rape she endured at the hands of a caretaker’s nephew. Nevertheless, the ruling provided a precedent for sterilizing over 8,000 Virginians.
Interestingly enough, the laws upheld in Buck v. Bell served as a model for Nazi Germany. Harry Laughlin, the American doctor who wrote an expert deposition on Carrie Buck declaring her “feebleminded” and therefore given to “moral delinquency” (though he never met her), was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg for his work “racial cleansing.”
Hitler’s ideology cobbled together ideas from Darwin (eugenics), Luther (anti-Semitism), and Nietzsche (themes from Will to Power, Superman) spawned a propaganda campaign to support sweeping policies that resulted in the involuntary sterilization of some 350,000 German citizens.
“OUR STARTING POINT IS NOT THE INDIVIDUAL, AND WE DO NOT SUBSCRIBE TO THE VIEW THAT ONE SHOULD FEED THE HUNGRY, GIVE DRINK TO THE THIRSTY, OR CLOTHE THE NAKED… OUR OBJECTIVES ARE ENTIRELY DIFFERENT: WE MUST HAVE A HEALTHY PEOPLE IN ORDER TO PREVAIL IN THE WORLD.”
—Joseph Goebbles, 1938
Of course, segregation and discrimination towards Jews would follow with legislation like the “Blood Protection Law” announced in 1935 that prohibited sexual relations between Jews and Germans. By 1938, after the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom, the goal of “complete emigration” of Jewish people from Germany seemed fulfilled. After World War II broke out Hitler installed what has become known as the “Final Solution”—the systematic extermination of Jews from Europe—which also included the euthanasia of children born with birth defects. From 1939 to 1945 more that 5,000 children were killed for “the good of the Fatherland” with their brains harvested for scientific research. Along with their Jewish counterparts, institutionalized Germans would find themselves in the gas chambers. Many patients were the victims of “mercy killings” via starvation and medication overdoses.
“I DO NOT CHARACTERIZE EVERY JEW AS INFERIOR, AS NEGROES CERTAINLY ARE,… BUT I REJECT JEWRY WITH EVER MEANS IN MY POWER, AND WITHOUT RESERVE, IN ORDER TO PRESERVE THE HEREDIARY ENDOWMENT OF MY PEOPLE.”
—Eugene Fischer, German eugenicist, 1939
Polish and other Eastern European Jews were held in special contempt as “subhuman” and were the subjects of medical experiments at Auschwitz by the Nazi physician Josef Mengele. Many of his experiments were carried out on Jewish women in search of a more efficient, non-surgical method of sterilization by injecting poison into the uterus often killing them or severely maiming them (which lead to “mercy killing”). In the end, as with most Nazi war criminals, many of the biomedical experts were not prosecuted and enjoyed prestigious research positions until they retired. Only one was charged and sentenced to death.
What was particularly enlightening about the whole exhibit is how the utopia of eugenics is cast. Like a spell, the promise of a better life for humanity by science is an intoxicating one, so much so that it lead to the debaucheries of scientific research, government legislation, judicial reasoning, anthropological and sociological studies. Yet historians are careful not to allow us a washing of the hands and a moral superiority that looks down on such racist generations. We too look at the promises of science in embryology and stem cell research that seeks a world free of blindness, epilepsy, bi-polar disorder, and Parkinson’s disease. Such a mindset is not wrong. But the answers to the questions about the expense of human dignity in the name of scientific progress are clearly answered. We would do ourselves more of a favor by first remembering the consequences of rushing to embrace new ideas than to move forward in the name of “progress.”
See Also: Taking Eugenics Seriously: Three Generations of ??? Are Enough? by Paul A. Lombardo.