A. P. Krammer
The Nazi Symbiosis: Human Genetics and Politics in the Third Reichby Sheila Faith Weiss
The Faustian bargain—in which an individual or group collaborates with an evil entity in order to obtain knowledge, power, or material gain—is perhaps best exemplified by the alliance between world-renowned human geneticists and the Nazi state. Under the swastika, German scientists descended into the moral abyss, perpetrating heinous medical crimes at
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The Faustian bargain—in which an individual or group collaborates with an evil entity in order to obtain knowledge, power, or material gain—is perhaps best exemplified by the alliance between world-renowned human geneticists and the Nazi state. Under the swastika, German scientists descended into the moral abyss, perpetrating heinous medical crimes at Auschwitz and at euthanasia hospitals. But why did biomedical researchers accept such a bargain?
The Nazi Symbiosis offers a nuanced account of the myriad ways human heredity and Nazi politics reinforced each other before and during the Third Reich. Exploring the ethical and professional consequences for the scientists involved as well as the political ramifications for Nazi racial policies, Sheila Faith Weiss places genetics and eugenics in their larger international context. In questioning whether the motives that propelled German geneticists were different from the compromises that researchers from other countries and eras face, Weiss extends her argument into our modern moment, as we confront the promises and perils of genomic medicine today.
Mitchell G. Ash, University of Vienna, Austria
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The Nazi SymbiosisHuman Genetics and Politics in the Third Reich
By SHEILA FAITH WEISS
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHuman Heredity and Eugenics Make Their International Debut
By 1933, the existence of a lively international scientific community of human geneticists and eugenicists was one of the most important prerequisites for the symbiotic relationship forged between German biomedical scientists and functionaries of the Nazi state. Indeed, without focusing attention on the scientific status that human genetics and eugenics had attained as well as the professional prestige its practitioners enjoyed during the second and early third decades of the twentieth century, the critical role that German members of this international network of human geneticists played in the construction and legitimization of National Socialist racial policy remains inexplicable. As will become evident from our four case studies, the international renommée of German biomedical scientists was at least as much a "resource" for Nazi racial policy makers as the intellectual content of their research. German human geneticists, for their part, knew quite well how to exploit their status in the international arena to advance their own professional interests at home.
For this reason it is necessary to examine the origins and maturation of this international scientific community and the active involvement of key German human geneticists and eugenicists in it prior to the Third Reich. This is a long and complicated story with many nuances, and one whose contours, for our purposes, can only be sketched here. Its roots lie in the late nineteenth century: an era whose intellectual hallmark was the belief in science as a tool to reform and advance society. This was a time still untouched by the brutalization of trench warfare, machine guns, and poison gas that would all too soon physically and psychologically scar an entire generation of men and radically alter the dominant European intellectual worldview. It also changed the nature of the German eugenics movement both at home and abroad. Although the divisive impact of the Great War on the international eugenics movement in the immediate years following the end of hostilities was largely overcome by the mid-1920s, deep-seated political resentments, especially on the part of conservative German geneticists and eugenicists, were not laid to rest. That having been said, by the beginning of the third decade of the twentieth century, eugenics worldwide was popularized and professionalized as never before. The development of a transnational eugenics movement in several regions around the globe was certainly spurred on by favorable international opportunities that went beyond a shared set of assumptions and values held by the nations involved. Especially in Germany, new research institutes created to promote human heredity and eugenics were established to keep up with international scientific trends in these fields. They would also contribute to the new, if fragile, Weimar Republic's vision of a healthy and efficient social welfare state. With the waning of international tensions, Germany's established experts in the field once again played a major role in the world arena. As we will see, even the National Socialist regime in 1933 did not immediately affect Germany's position on the international stage.
The Specter of Degeneration, the Rise of Eugenics, and the Origins of Modern Genetics, 1890–1914
Although people always had been well aware that in the plant and animal kingdom "like produces like," the modern science of genetics can be attributed to the efforts of a then relatively obscure Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel. Working in an experimental garden in his monastery, Mendel cultivated and tested thousands of pea plants between 1856 and 1863. The result of his work is his now famous laws of inheritance: the law of uniformity, the law of segregation, and the law of independent assortment. Based on his research, Mendel assumed that there were two factors (what we today call alleles) for each inherited trait. These factors segregate during gamete production. Mendel also recognized that some hereditary traits are expressed only when both factors (one from each parent) are transmitted whereas other traits reveal themselves when merely one factor (from only one parent) is inherited. In the former case, the factor can be considered "recessive"; in the latter, "dominant." The transmission of one factor for a given trait will not affect the inheritance of the other. Moreover, in the second generation (F2), dominant and recessive traits appear in a 3:1 ratio. Today we would say that the dominant and recessive phenotypes for a particular trait emerge in the F2 in this proportion. In the case of a pure-bred dihybrid crossing, the F2 reveals a phenotype ratio of 9:3:3:1.
Interestingly, the significance of Mendel's work was not recognized during his own lifetime. There are numerous reasons for this, perhaps the most important being that the Austrian monk himself did not realize the general significance of his findings. In 1900, thirty-five years after Mendel first published his experiments on pea hybridization, his work was simultaneously "rediscovered" by three scientists: the German botanist Carl Correns (1864–1933), the Austrian agronomist Erich von Tschermak (1871–1962), and the Dutch horticulturalist Hugo de Vries (1848–1935). Developments largely internal to the history of biology help explain why these three scientists were able to recognize the significance of Mendel's work in 1900 while earlier researchers did not. Within a decade of the rediscovery of Mendel's laws of inheritance, the modern study of genetics was becoming a distinct field in biology. The term "genetics" itself was first introduced in 1906 by the British biologist and early supporter of Mendel, William Bateson (1861–1926).
The rediscovery and gradual acceptance of Mendelism during the first decade of the twentieth century served to legitimize and advance the incipient eugenics movements in the three countries where they first appeared: Great Britain, the United States, and Germany. As was mentioned in the introduction, the term "eugenics" was first coined by Francis Galton in 1883. His investigations convinced him that a broad range of human traits—moral and mental as well as physical—were passed down from generation to generation. Darwin's cousin firmly believed that some form of social control over the reproductive capacities of a population was necessary to elevate its hereditary substrate and halt what was assumed to be the threat of degeneration. As Galton himself remarked, "[if] the twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create!" "Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied," he mused?
What did Galton and others mean by degeneration, and why were biologists, medically trained professionals, and social activists in these countries suddenly so concerned to adopt measures designed to improve the genetic endowment of their populations at the end of the nineteenth century? Why the desire to take evolution into their own hands?
Three contexts stand out as being particularly significant in addressing these queries and hence shaping the early history of eugenics in the above-mentioned three countries: the social problems resulting from industrialization and urbanization; the intellectual currency of social Darwinism, especially its "selectionist" variety that denied the importance of environmental influences; and a state interventionist policy in the fields of health and welfare based on scientific expertise.
During the nineteenth century, most Western countries were transformed from agricultural to industrial societies. This transformation resulted not only in profound structural changes but social and economic strife, class conflicts, the rise of socialist movements that appeared to threaten the reigning capitalist order, the increase of criminality, pauperism, alcoholism, prostitution, and the heightened awareness of the existence of a large number of mentally ill and so-called feebleminded individuals. This latter group, the so-called mental defectives, was singled out by scientists, physicians, and lay observers as posing a grave social and financial liability for the state. Given the general faith in science to solve all of humankind's problems, numerous attempts to flesh out the larger philosophical and social meaning of Charles Darwin's (1809–82) now generally accepted theory of evolutionary change as well as state interventionist policies in many countries designed to manage their welfare problems, it is hardly surprising that those concerned with explaining the disconcerting outgrowths of the social transformations taking place employed the rhetoric of biologists. In hindsight we can say that such individuals "scientized" or "biologized" what we would today consider social and economic problems.
Future eugenicists in the Anglo-Saxon countries could take their lead from Darwin himself who, after reading Galton's writings on the threat of the decline of hereditary talent and the resulting degeneration of the human race that inevitably follows, commented on the problem in his second most important book, The Decent of Man:
if the various checks ... do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and the otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better classes of men, the nation will retrograde, as has too often occurred in the history of the world.
We must remember that progress is no invariable rule. it is very difficult to say why one civilized nation rises, becomes more powerful, and spreads more widely than another; or why the same nation progresses more quickly at one time than another. We can only say that it depends on an increase in the actual number of the population, on the number of men endowed with high intellectual and moral faculties, as well as on their standard of excellence.
In his same work, Darwin suggested a solution to the problem of degeneration, though much less vigorously than his cousin: "Man scans with scrupulous care the character and pedigree of his horses, cattle and dogs before he matches them, but when it comes to his own marriage he rarely, or never takes any care.... Yet might selection do something not only for the bodily constitution and frame of his offspring, but for their intellectual and moral qualities. Both sexes should refrain from marriage if they are in any marked degree inferior in body or mind.... Everyone does a good service who aids towards this end."
Darwin and many "social Darwinists," individuals who believed that Darwin's laws could also explain social and political changes, did not themselves disavow the impact of environmental influences in the origin and development of species. At a time when the laws of inheritance were not understood (remember that Mendel's laws were not generally known until after 1900), most scientists who supported evolution had little choice but to accept a role for "Lamarckism." This was the emphasis on the inheritance of acquired characteristics as a mechanism of evolutionary change put forth by the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829). By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the inheritance of acquired characteristics was challenged both by Galton himself and, even more thoroughly, by the German embryologist August Weismann (1834–1914). As a result of his research, Weismann totally rejected Lamarckism and afforded Darwin's principle of natural selection an even greater role in organic and social evolution than the author of the Origin of Species himself. His notion of the "continuity of the germ-plasm," which presupposed that the hereditary substance was distinct from and unaffected by somatic cells, suggested that it was impossible to improve a human being's condition by means of mental or physical training. As one later German eugenicist noted, "only selection can preserve and improve the race." Indeed for those who accepted Weismann's views with respect to heredity and the "all-supremacy" of selection, eugenics was the only practical strategy to improve the human species and avert its degeneration.
In Britain, America, and Germany, the first stirrings of eugenics began before the rediscovery of Mendel's laws at the turn of the twentieth century. Even after 1900, Galton and some of his British eugenic-minded colleagues like Karl Pearson (1857–1936) first rejected the universality of Mendelism; they attempted to demonstrate the laws of human inheritance statistically through what was then known as biometry, but they could not provide a scientific mechanism for the transmission of the hereditary material. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, however, Mendelism won the day even in Britain. It was used by those interested in the social question to attack the problem of the "pauper class," or "residium," a large group of unskilled laborers at the margins of society whose alleged low intelligence and high fecundity was perceived as a danger to the British state. Earlier "unscientific" reform strategies to control these individuals were replaced by the modern applied science of eugenics. In the United States, Mendelism was the hereditary theory of choice after it became known in scientific circles. Charles B. Davenport (1866–1944), one of the most important American human geneticists at the time (known for his work on the inheritance of human skin and eye color as well as Huntington's chorea), used it to advocate eugenics, "the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding." Davenport first became interested in heredity after spending a sabbatical year with Galton and Pearson. By 1908, however, he had become an adherent of Mendelism and began to apply his principles to the study of human traits. The link Davenport made between Mendelism and eugenics can best be seen in his popular book Heredity in Relationship to Eugenics (1911). Like their counterparts in Britain, American enthusiasts for the cause such as Davenport viewed eugenics as a way to apply science to the problems of a class-ridden and socially heterogeneous industrial society.
Germany also became preoccupied with eugenics at the end of the nineteenth century. Two physicians, Wilhelm Schallmayer (1857–1919) and Alfred Ploetz (1860–1940), the cofounders of the nation's incipient eugenics movement, wrote treatises arguing for the need to take action against degeneration. It was no accident that medically trained professionals were in the vanguard of German eugenics, and three future directors of the two Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes we will examine, Eugen Fischer, Ernst Rüdin, and Otmar von Verschuer, were all medical doctors by training and early supporters of the gospel of Galton. Physicians enjoyed extraordinary prestige in Germany because of the medical breakthroughs, particularly in bacteriology, of the nineteenth century. This reinforced their view of themselves as the one professional group possessing the expertise to safeguard the health and welfare of the young nation. Eugenics in Germany was an attempt to apply a biotechnocratic approach to the hotly debated "social question"—how to keep the large and militant working class true to the state—and boost national efficiency. Whereas medical professionals would be strongly represented later in eugenics movements in other countries, this was not the case in Great Britain and the United States.
Although Galton first coined the word "eugenics" and had been interested in the inheritance of human traits since the 1860s, it was Germany, not Britain, that established the first eugenics society and journal. In 1900 a prize competition funded by the Krupp munitions family to answer the question, "what can we learn from the theory of evolution about internal political development and state legislation?" provided the impetus for the incipient German eugenics movement. The munitions baron hoped, through support of this contest, to take the wind out of the sails of Germany's left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPD) that threatened his political interests. Supported largely by skilled workers, the SPD used Darwin's theories to argue for democratic political change. Schallmayer's 1903 award-winning work Vererbung und Auslese im Lebenslauf der Völker (Heredity and Selection in the Life Process of Nations) did support a change in governmental policy, but not that advocated by the SPD. Rather, Schallmayer insisted that long-term national power depended upon the biological vitality of its citizens and neglect of hereditary fitness would lead to the downfall of the state.
Excerpted from The Nazi Symbiosis by SHEILA FAITH WEISS Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Sheila Faith Weiss is professor of history at Clarkson University and author of Race Hygiene and National Efficiency: The Eugenics of Wilhelm Schallmayer.
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