The steady flow of publications considering the way scientists interacted with the administration of the Nazi regime in Germany reveals some interesting cross-currents. It is well known that scientists who were out of step with the regime, particularly Jewish scientists, either emigrated (like Einstein) or ended up collaborating. Very few found it possible to operate independently of their political masters. Medical scientists have been previously considered in this blog (2008 - here), anatomists (2010 - here) and physicists have been the subject of a book-length study (2012 - here). For those tracing the ideological roots of the Nazi movement, one essential ingredient appears to be Social Darwinism: the application of Darwinian mechanisms to human society to understand change and to inform policy. However, there are some historians who demur, and say that Hitler was not a Darwinian. Chief among these is Robert Richards, whose new book is about to be published: "Was Hitler a Darwinian?" by University of Chicago Press. This divergence of thinking is actually significant in itself and worthy of our attention, especially as we approach the 70th anniversary of the ending of WWII. It is important to know what motivated the Nazis and it is important to reflect on the way the Nazis used science and politicized education - for they were world leaders in both.
Hitler's evolutionary ethic underlay or influenced almost every major feature of Nazi policy (source here)
The paper that addresses these issues directly is by Richard Weikart. He identifies six points of discussion and develops a multi-faceted argument that we cannot understand Nazi policy without recognizing the backdrop of Social Darwinism.
"While examining these lines of evidence, I will highlight the ways that Nazi racial thought was shaped by Darwinism (defined as biological evolution through the process of natural selection). [snip] These six points - derived from the view that humans and human races evolved and are still evolving through the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection - profoundly impacted Nazi policy. They formed the backdrop for eugenics, killing the disabled, the quest for "living space," and racial extermination." (p.538)
We cannot follow all issues covered in the paper, but will select some key topics that inform the conclusions. It is important to recognise that the Nazis saw themselves as mainstream thinkers - in their own eyes they were not a lunatic fringe! This needs to be understood when their thinking about the superiority of their own race is considered.
"[E]ven today some scholars are still loathe to entertain the idea that key elements of Nazi ideology could have been in harmony with the thinking of leading German scientists. Indeed the Nazi embrace of Darwinism in their racial ideology demonstrates the influence of science on Nazi ideology. Nazi racial ideology was largely consistent with the scholarship on race taught at German universities. This makes even clearer why so many German anthropologists and biologists supported Nazi racism - they were already committed to it before the Nazis came to power." (p.539)
It is also important not to think that this is a single issue discussion, and other factors are not relevant. The Nazi worldview has numerous elements, and we must not make the mistake of setting up a polarised straw-man analysis.
"I need to stress from the outset, however, that Nazi racial ideology was not derived exclusively from Darwinism or evolutionary biology. Gobineau - who wrote before Darwin published Origin of Species - contributed the idea that the Aryan race was superior to all other races. He also claimed that racial mixing produced deleterious effects, leading many racial thinkers, including the Nazis, to oppose miscegenation. Hatred of the Jews had a long history predating Darwin and has nothing to do with Darwinism. Also, Mendelian genetics played a role in debates over racial ideology - especially about policy relating to miscegenation - within the Nazi regime. However, in the decades preceding Hitler?s rise to power, many German racial theorists had synthesized Gobineau, Mendel, and antisemitism with social Darwinism. Nazi racial theory generally embraced this synthesis." (p.540)
In Hitler's writings, he makes it clear that racial mixing is not a good idea, because it violates evolutionary principles. His arguments invoke the concepts of selection, fitness, the struggle for survival which are all drawn from Darwinism.
"In the struggle for daily bread all those who are weak and sickly or less determined succumb, while the struggle of the males for the female grants the right or opportunity to propagate only to the healthiest. And struggle is always a means for improving a species' health and power of resistance and, therefore, a cause of its higher evolution." (p.541)
The Nazi regime sought to influence young people via educational programmes and youth movements. The curriculum made connections between what was taught and its social and political implications. Darwinism was explicit, and the textbooks followed suit.
"In 1938 the Ministry of Education published an official curriculum handbook for the schools. This handbook mandated teaching evolution, including the evolution of human races, which evolved through "selection and elimination." It stipulated, "The student must accept as something self-evident this most essential and most important natural law of elimination [of unfit] together with evolution and reproduction." In the fifth class, teachers were instructed to teach about the "emergence of the primitive human races (in connection with the evolution of animals)." In the eighth class, students were to be taught evolution even more extensively, including lessons on "Lamarckism and Darwinism and their worldview and political implications," as well as the "origin and evolution of humanity and its races," which included segments on "prehistoric humanity and its races" and "contemporary human races in view of evolutionary history." (p.542)
Weikart continues by looking at the Nazi leaders in academia and in political life, and in the racial propaganda literature they produced. One of the training pamphlets he quotes gives a clear overview of the message people were expected to absorb and which was reinforced by all the leading German scientists of the day..
"The opening pages explained that the central concepts underlying racial ideology are hard heredity and racial inequality. Then it claimed that racial inequality has come about because evolution proceeds by struggle. Different races simply do not evolve at the same pace, so they are at different levels. The authors then asserted that the three main human races - European, Mongolian, and Negro - were subspecies that branched off from a common ancestor about 100,000 years ago. They argued that races evolved through selection and elimination, and the Nordic race became superior because it had to struggle in especially harsh conditions. Throughout this pamphlet the terms "higher evolution," "struggle for existence," and selection are core concepts that occur repeatedly." (p.550)
The conclusions appear to be compelling. Those who are seeking to draw a line between Darwinism and the Nazi worldview have a hopeless task. This is how Weikart summarises his findings:
"Nazi racial ideology - and the many policies based on it - were profoundly shaped by a Darwinian understanding of humanity. Certainly many non-Darwinian elements were synthesized with Darwinism: Aryan supremacy, antimiscegenation, antisemitism, and many more. Nonetheless, Nazi racial ideology integrated all these factors into a worldview that stressed the transmutation of species, the evolutionary formation of the human races, the need for advancing human evolution, the inevitability of the human struggle for existence, and the need to gain Lebensraum to succeed in the evolutionary struggle." (p.552)
This is not an issue without relevance for societies today. Germany in the 1930s was no cultural backwater. They were confident they were building a worldview on rigorous science, affirmed by scholars across the world as well as in their own country. However, this worldview shaped the values held by the people: on ethics, on the worth of human life, and on their aspirations. There are people today who are seeking to build a worldview on evolutionary concepts. They are seeking to influence the educational processes in their own countries, and are creating a culture where dissent is treated as a betrayal of science. Their counsel is wide open to disasters similar to those faced by the Third Reich. We all need to review our personal worldview and to have answers for questions like: What is truth? What is ethical? Who is my brother? What is the worth of human life? What is worth struggling for?
The Role of Darwinism in Nazi Racial Thought
German Studies Review, 36(3), (October 2013): 537-556 (pdf here)
Abstract: Historians disagree about whether Nazis embraced Darwinian evolution. By examining Hitler's ideology, the official biology curriculum, the writings of Nazi anthropologists, and Nazi periodicals, we find that Nazi racial theorists did indeed embrace human and racial evolution. They not only taught that humans had evolved from primates, but they believed the Aryan or Nordic race had evolved to a higher level than other races because of the harsh climatic conditions that influenced natural selection. They also claimed that Darwinism underpinned specific elements of Nazi racial ideology, including racial inequality, the necessity of the racial struggle for existence, and collectivism.
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