Eugenics is normally associated with the barbarity of Nazi Germany and its perversion of science. It is regarded as something of a historical curiosity, as we dust off the cobwebs in the archives. However, when we examine eugenics more closely, we can find the one country which inspired the Nazi party with its eugenicist practices – the United States.
Let’s start with a very basic definition; eugenics (good breeding) is a belief that the quality of human beings can be improved by selectively breeding those with superior traits. If it can be done with animals, why not with humans? This idea is nothing new; the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato advocated the selective procreation of those with superior qualities as part of his plan for renewal in The Republic.
It was in the nineteenth century, with scientific advances in agriculture and human biology, that eugenics as a social movement began to take off. Francis Galton (1822 – 1911), a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term eugenics and did his utmost to develop the pseudoscience of social Darwinism. Earlier, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, concerned about the rising numbers of the poor – including Irish immigration – proposed population control measures directed at restricting the dispossessed from reproducing.
It is important to note that Darwin never endorsed the Victorian-era perversion of evolutionary biology into the pseudoscientific detour of eugenics. The purported ‘survival of the fittest’ motivation was an expression of the English ruling class’ desire that the lower classes and poor would die off, and thus remove any threat to the unequal status quo. Providing a scientific veneer to the status quo became a hobby horse of the English intellectual community.
In Britain, the church along with industrial leaders were supportive of eugenics. However, it was in the United States that eugenicist thinking received enormous corporate philanthropy – the Rockefeller foundation, the Carnegie Institution and financial magnates, provided strong backing for the development of eugenics pseudoscience.
Malthus was worried about the pressures of an increased population on the food supply – he directed his ire at the Irish immigrant community. Blaming migrants for socioeconomic problems was not unique to Britain. Madison Grant (1865 – 1937), American conservationist and lawyer, worried that by allowing the genetically inferior races to settle in the US – such as Jews, Eastern and Southern Europeans – the US was committing ‘race suicide’.
Racially restrictive immigration laws were passed at the national level. Numerous individual states in the US passed forcible sterilisation laws impacting the disabled, the so-called ‘feeble-minded’ and prison populations. Americans were attempting to breed a ‘better race’; numerous competitions for finding ‘better babies’ were based on eugenicist principles.
Madison Grant’s book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916), found a receptive audience in Germany (and throughout Europe for that matter). Reissued numerous times in the 1920s, none other than Adolf Hitler, writing a fan letter to Grant, stated that ‘your book was my bible.’ The theory of a superior Nordic white race did not originate with the Nazi party.
The Nazi hierarchy, and the wider German scientific community, closely studied, and found inspiration in, the eugenics movement in the US. American laws restricting the breeding of those with ‘defective’ genes were templates for similar laws in Germany. The Carnegie Institution developed close links with German race scientists in the 1920s. The Germans noted that the US Supreme Court, in 1927, sanctioned involuntary sterilisation. The US state of Virginia, the Germans observed, passed laws that explicitly stated the preservation of the white race as their goal.
The pseudoscience of eugenics provided a veneer of legitimacy for the policies of exclusion and legalised discrimination. The indigenous Americans, similarly to European Jews, were subjected to a multistage programme of annihilation – compulsory detention, increased pressures to emigrate and/or deportation, enforced resettlement, cultural exclusion and physical liquidation.
The parallels between the Nazi policy of lebensraum – living space for Germans and the liquidation of the genetically ‘inferior’ races – and the American policy of dispossession and extermination of indigenous nations – are striking. It may be uncomfortable to learn of the similarities – notwithstanding the differences between the Third Reich and the United States.
We are all well aware that the Nazi party regarded the Jews as genetically inferior. Anne Frank, German-Dutch Jewish diarist, died in a Nazi-run concentration camp because of that belief. When the United States, in its eugenicist crusade to ‘preserve the white race’, refused entry to European Jews fleeing the Nazis, their refusal was also based on that belief. So, we can say that Anne Frank died, not only because she was deemed genetically inferior by the Nazi party, but also because the US political establishment believed that as well.