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The second world war has left an indelible mark in history, and the horrors that

were committed in its name instil the same disgust than in the past. There was a lot of

turmoil in Europe between the two world wars. A series of background events, such as

the invasion of China by the empire of Japan and the rise of fascism in Italy, coupled with

the socio-economic tensions of the great depression, are often held responsible for the

outbreak of war. However, the leading force behind Germany at the time, the national

socialism party, can also be held accountable for starting the war. Hitler's ideology of the

Aryan race dominated most of his political moves, which killed thousands of people in

his own country before spreading to the other nations. Hitler's ideology and policies

borrowed some elements from other country, such as the science of eugenics, to achieve

his horrendous goals. According to the Merriam-Webster, eugenics is “a science that

deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of

race or breed”. Eugenics was at the heart of Nazi ideology and, consequently, was used as

the basis for legislation that brought about the death of millions in the beginning of the

second world war.

The birth of eugenics traces back to the great discovery of Charles Darwin on

natural selection. Charles Darwin was a British naturalist born during the nineteenth

century. He is mostly recognized for his extensive studies of nature and animals, as well

as his numerous trips around the globe in order to complete said studies. During his

lifetime, he published many books, including one that was called “On the Origin of

Species”. In this book he detailed his theory of evolution based on natural selection,

saying that the strongest of a group (animals in this case) would be most likely to survive

and reproduce, thus passing on its genes and improving the genetic pool of the specie. He
did not venture, however, into the human realm and did not associate his theory with our

evolution. Moreover, he is not credited for inventing the science of eugenics. The one

who built from Darwin's theory to create eugenics is none other than his half-cousin,

Francis Galton. Himself a decorated scientist, he expanded on the theory of Darwin,

noting that trying to support and provide for the weakest elements of society would bring

about a counter-evolution. The international journal of mental health resumes it in these

words :

...the advances of civilization would result in an “unnatural” over breeding of


inferior types, which would eventually lead to a gradual deterioration of
humankind. The latter theory was based on the idea that whereas nature had
previously tended to eliminate the disabled and infirm, the advances of science
and medicine and the humanitarian impulse of society to care for them would
result in the increased breeding of inferior types, with the resultant decline of the
racial stock (physicians and the nazi euthanasia program p.2)

The social and historical context should not be taken lightly, since they provide the base

of the reasoning behind eugenics as thought of by Galton. During the nineteenth century,

the enlightenment movement was strongly implanted in many countries over the world,

such as France, Germany and the United-States. It brought about some major change on

the social and legal point of view. Thus, humanitarian ideals were more prominent in the

time of Galton. The man behind eugenics had no wrong intentions in mind when he

formulated the theory. Like many other scientist and thinkers of the era, Galton focused

all of his work towards the improvement of his society. He argued that eugenics could

contribute to the general health of the public and reinforce the genetic background (PNEP

2). Both positive and negative eugenics could be applied, either by encouraging

“desirable birth” or disapproving of “undesirable birth” (PNEP 2). Specialists from

different fields such as medicine, genetic, biology and anthropology studied the notions
of eugenics and tried to bring its elements into their own fields. The theory found way in

psychiatry and in some case, anthropology. This mixture of social and scientific fields to

explain purely social situations is referred to as social darwinism (ESNA 1). From there,

the social implications inherent to eugenics began to be discussed and, in some cases,

distorted to serve other purposes than the improvement of society. Hitler's government

used eugenics to his advantage, but they were certainly not the first to use this science in

order to implement laws and restrictions. To evaluate its chances of success, Germany

turned its eyes towards another powerful country, the United-States.

The twentieth century saw the rise to power of the United-States. Even though

they were not as powerful as their are now, they were well under way and their

international impact was slowing building. Germany learned a lot from practises already

in place in the US regarding eugenics and sterilization. The apparition of eugenics in the

United-Stated came from three emerging developments : “a belief in scientific

management and rational planning, the pressures of economic instability, and the arrival

of the progressive era” (ENSA 3). The progressives of the time (which included a good

deal of eugenicists) tried to convince the general public that a healthier genetic stock

would decrease the expenses of the government and the economic instability.

Furthermore, the hype and accolades from the scientific world sufficed to convince those

in search of a rational side. Unfortunately, there was more to it than the honest desire to

eradicate illnesses and uplift society. The beginning of the twentieth century brought

about a great deal of immigrants from Europe, namely Catholics and Jews (AEN 5). A lot

of black people also came to the United-States around that time period. As a result of this

immigration, native Americans used eugenics to control and restricts newcomers rights,
fearing their purity would be destroyed. Paul Crook, author of “American Eugenics and

the Nazis”, resumes the situation in this way : “...American eugenics has been explained

in terms of a greater perceived threat to the “racial purity” of the hegemonic white,

Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle to upper classes” (AEN 4). Legislations were put in

place around 1907, and by 1926, 23 states had eugenics related sterilization laws (ENSA

3). Most of them were involuntary, meaning that the approbation of the person was not

needed to proceed. In general, these laws were applied on mentally ill people and

criminals. Coincidentally, those two particular groups contained more minority and poor

people than what was found on average in the rest of society. While those practises were

going on in America, Hitler had been looking in and inspiring himself of the American

ideologies and methods. According to Crook, Hitler was “an early admirer of American

eugenics” (AEN 6). He supports his point by saying that “[Hitler] regarded Madison

Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race as his bible; and his Mein Kampf, 1924, praised

the Immigration Restriction Act for excluding “undesirables” on the basis of hereditary

illness and race” (AEN 6). The link between the two nations was considerably bigger

than just mutual recognition, for Germany shared most of the American values mentioned

earlier. An article from the Annals of medicine further details this link:

Sources of inspiration common to both nations included the belief that scientific
management could solve social problems by preventing the propagation of the
"unfit"'; a willingness to measure individual worth in economic terms to justify
strategies to diminish the number, and therefore cost, of defective populations; the
conviction that mental illness posed a serious enough social threat to justify
compulsory eugenic sterilization at the cost of the individual human right to
procreate; and the belief that certain "races" are superior to others. (ESNA 7)

The highlights of this excerpt mention races and social problems. Both of these points are

important facts that led the US and Germany to use eugenics in a perverted way. Even
thought the concept of the Aryan race is associated with the Nazis, it still remains that the

upper caste of the American society wanted to preserve their place in the hierarchy and

force unto others their values and ideals. What differentiates those two powerful country

is the approach to the ideology. National socialists took the sterilization one step further,

which eventually led to the massive murder. To understand the process that occurred in

Germany, one must examine the socio-historical context of this country.

Even though eugenics was present in most of the influential countries during the

twentieth century, none took it as far as the Germans did. The unique socio-historical

context, coupled with the unstable economic situation, allowed for dangerous

experiments and laws. Firstly, the whole world was changing his position on science and

medicine in general. For this reason, the birth of eugenics was considered a natural thing,

since scientists were only beginning to discover the marvels that modern science had to

offer. Of course, this thinking had an effect on the whole of the population, including the

citizens without any scientific background. Germans and other Europeans came to

consider their social environment in terms of medical and biological elements. They saw

eugenics for what it was originally created, to “combat degeneration at the level of

society” (EEA 3). Following in the footsteps of the Americans, the focus was directed

towards the mentally ill and the psychiatric patients. Collectively, the citizens “hoped that

the prevention of breeding in such populations would diminish societal degeneration”

(EEA 3). Secondly, Germany was going through a very unstable period, having lost the

first world war. A strong majority believed in the superiority of the Nordic people (which

includes Germans) and had a hard time to swallow their defeat. Incapable of facing the

reality that caused them to lose the war, they searched for an explanation. According to
Karl Kessler, author of “Physicians and the Nazi Euthanasia Program”, the German

people framed the Jews, amongst others, for having “stabbed them in the back” (PNEP

3). He goes on to say that “The “Jewish question” and the question of the deleterious

influence of other peoples and races on the German nation came to occupy a significant

part of their work. The Nazis found in these ideas a biological basis for their racial beliefs

and embraced them” (PNEP 3). Part of those deleterious people included feebleminded

and weak individuals, since they were unable to help their own country. Thus, there was a

consensus that agreed to question the rights of individuals to promote the global strength

of the nation. At that time, even though Hitler had not yet been elected, the grounds were

ready for sterilization through eugenics. There was no consensus, however, on what

would later become the euthanasia program. In 1933, Hitler won the election and brought

with him the racial views mentioned earlier. He played on the national feeling of failure

shared by the populace to legitimize his hatred towards other races. The main ideology

behind National Socialism, the Aryan race, was then fuelled by the power of eugenics.

Moreover, some major branches of science such as medicine and biology began to

change under the influence of eugenics, mainly to support it. Such support was needed

since eugenics was only a theory made by Galton. The facts or logics presented in

eugenics had yet to be backed up by scientific proof. This transformation of the scientific

world (in Germany) was accompanied by the introduction of laws permitting and

facilitating sterilization was the first step towards the Aryan race. The first law to be

passed was the law for the prevention of genetically diseased offspring in July of 1933

(PNEP 4). This regulation prescribed involuntary sterilization for a range of disease, such

as blindness, manic depression, deafness, epilepsy and alcoholism. Two years later, in
1935, another law was passed to prevent marriage amongst disabled people. This law for

the protection of the genetic health of the German people only allowed for marriage of

two disabled people if they had been pre-emptively sterilized. Hitler took good care to

feel the population's opinion on said laws to avoid any opposition or disagreement. Aware

that his ideas and conceptions might not be widely accepted, he began a campaign of

marginalization and propaganda against the target group of his laws. It is only after the

beginning of the war that the Fuhrer decided to move on to a more drastic measure :

euthanasia. The harsh condition of the war facilitated the development and execution of

the euthanasia program. The process of implementation of this particular initiative was

kept secret from the citizens, and Hitler hoped that the circumstances of the war would

serve as a valid reason for endorsing the mentality. By 1939, euthanasia was put into

place, even if it was in disagreement with the current laws of Germany. Hitler used his

influence and evident power over the public to have it enforced. Additionally, he

controlled and directed this program, all the while bypassing the government

establishment in place (PNEP 7). The killing of children began in 1940, and was

conducted in partnership with hospitals and asylums. Doctors and other specialists would

refer the highly disabled children to an agency, which would then select those who were

to be euthanatized. Following the success of the operations on the children, a similar

program was put in place for the adults. This program was codenamed Aktion T4, and

killed approximately 70,000 adults between 1940 to 1941 (PNEP 9). This number does

not include the millions of people that were executed in the concentration camps

afterwards, in the peak of the war.


Hitler and his dream of the Aryan race is the prime example of racism gone out of

control. The scars left on the world by his genocide are far from healed, and they are not

suppressed in the global imagination. Hitler used eugenics has a stepping stone to enact

his murderous views and to support his ideology. Slowly building from the theories of a

respected scientist and mimicking the methods of other country, he managed to push the

boundaries of atrocity and carry out the sterilization and euthanasia of millions. Today,

eugenics is considered to be a pseudo-science, a status that Hitler helped to obtain

through his interpretation and usage of it. Medicine and other sciences have evolved

enough to repudiate the majority of the facts presented by the Nazis, such as the illnesses

thought to be directly related to our genes. The downside to this evolution is another

discipline that has slowly made its way into our world. Genetic engineering, or the ability

to modify our genes, promises to enhance the human capacities and find cures to a lot of

disease. This newfound possibility is warmly welcomed by some, and coldly criticized by

others. Some see the endless possibilities, others see a return to the basis dilemma that

was first started with eugenics. What is the worth of a single human being compared to

the well-being of the society ? One thing is for sure : in order to know where we are

going, we need to know where we came from.


Work Cited

̈ Peter Chroust, and Christian Pross. Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine
Aly, Gotz,
and Racial Hygiene. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. Print.

Collection of translated articles published in German journals of the time. Interesting


insights on the ideology and the perception of eugenics from inside sources. High quality
of the articles that gives another angle and more perspective to the conflict.

Crook, Paul. "American Eugenics and the Nazis: Recent Historiography." The European
Legacy 7.3 (2002): 363-81. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

Develops mostly the relation between America and Germany on the topic of eugenics.
Adds diversity by explaining how eugenics developed in other powerful countries such as
France, England, Japan and others. Quick recapitulation of the origins is also important to
cross reference with other sources. Lengthy and high quality.

Engs, Ruth C. The Eugenics Movement: an Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood,


2005. Print.

Encyclopaedia encompassing many different elements, all related to eugenics. Very


effective to get an overall view of the subject and to make connections between the
elements that make up the main topic. Information is concise, of high quality and covers
a lot of aspects.

Kessler, Karl. "Physicians and the Nazi Euthanasia Program." International Journal of
Mental Health 36.1 (2007): 4-16. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

High quality source that explains the reasoning behind Nazi eugenics. Information mostly
based on a medical point of view and briefly traces back to the origins of eugenics.
Explains the relation between the medical and the political nature of eugenics for Hitler's
party.

Nicosia, Francis R., and Jonathan Huener. Medicine and Medical Ethics in Nazi
Germany: Origins, Practices, Legacies. New York: Berghahn, 2002. Print.

Noack, Thorsten, and Heiner Fangerau. "Eugenics, Euthanasia, and Aftermath."


International Journal of Mental Health 36.1 (2007): 112-24. Academic Search
Complete. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

Source of high quality explaining the context preceding the entry of eugenics in Nazi
Germany as well as the development of the ideology. Focus on the means employed to
enact the sterilization and killings. Helpful for retracing the chronology of the events that
lead to WWII.

Proctor, Robert. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
UP, 1988. Print.

Examines the medical field during the third Reich and the political aspect related to it.
Further analysis of the links between political ideals and medical practises associated
with eugenics. Credible source that emphasizes those links, making the process of
sterilization and legislation easier to understand.

Sofair, André N., and Lauris C. Kaldjian. "Eugenic Sterilization and a Qualified Nazi
Analogy: The United States and Germany, 1930-1945." Annals of Internal
Medicine 123.4 (2000): 312-19. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

Demonstrates the similarities between United States and Germany policies on


sterilization. Comparison of historical data as well as medical journals helps to create a
link between the two countries and reveal motivations and strategies behind the eugenics
campaign. Sources are credible and highly relevant.