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Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism

The Promotion of racist doctrines in the name of science


George J Stein

American Scientist January-February 1988, 76, 50-58

A recent issue (10 August 1984) of the French weekly L' Express carried as its cover story "Demography: The Suicide of the White Race?" The French review of the New Right, Elements for a European Civilization, offers its readers the opportunity to purchase the works of Y. Christen, The Hour of Sociobiology, Marx and Darwin, and The Darwin Dossier, and the work of H. J. Eysenck, Human Inequality. The review Nouvelle Ecole, a rightist journal, devotes a special issue (no.38) to "Darwinism and Society", and the rightist publishing firm of Plon offers the work of A. Griotteral, The Immigrants; The Shock, which affirms that a "multiculturaI France will be, in fact, a negation of France" and offers a plan for a "repatriation" of the foreigners. Even tiny Luxembourg is concerned: in 1982 the president of the government observed that "if there is a foreign influx to be added to the children of foreign parents who grow to maturity and have children of their own, Luxembourg will become something of a Mediterranean nation." 

The roots of ethnocentrism, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia remain deep in Europe, and remain deep in Europe, and although anti-semitism is in bad taste as a consequence of World War II, it too remains alive. What can the history of science, especially the history of human biology and the new science of sociobiology , tell us about the place of these social (or perhaps natural) phenomena?

Nazi Racial and

biological policy grew

out of a well-established

and generally accepted

scientific tradition

Since the pioneering study of the American historian Richard Hofstadter on Social Darwinism in American Thought in 1945, many scholars have been attracted to a more ideologically sensitive analysis of the relation between science, scientists, and the putative scientific foundations of racism (Stanton 1960; Ludmerer 1972; Pagliaro 1973; Chase 1977). There is little doubt that the history of ethnocentrism, racism, nationalism, and xenophobia has been also a history of the use of science and the actions of scientists in support of these ideas and social movements. In many cases it is clear that science was used merely as raw material or evidence by ideologically interested political actors as proof of preconceived notions. Most contemporary sociobiologists and students of biopolitics would argue that all attempts to use science in this manner are, in fact, mere pseudoscience but nevertheless are to be taken quite seriously as a threat to both authentic science and democratic politics (Falger 1984).

On the other hand, there is also little doubt in the historical record that this contemporary self-protecting attitude is based on a somewhat willful misreading of history of ethnocentrism and the like has also been the history of many well-respected sceintists to advance and support racist and xenophobic political and social doctrines in the name of science. Thus, if the scientists of the day used the science of the day to advance racism, it is simply a fonn of Kuhnian amnesia or historical whitewash to dismiss concem with a possible contemporary abuse of science by a claim that the past abuse was mere pseudoscience. If scientific truth is to be a canon of Truth, it would have been unscientific to claim that science was irrelevant to the truth of the superiority of the Victorian English male unless, of course, we are prepared to assert that our science is science but their science was not. There would appear to be an epistemological problem with such a claim. Thus, while some contemporary scientists (e.g., E. O. Wilson) appear to write as if sociobiology will be (or is) the new philosopher's stone to provide the fully unified science of mankind, others (e..g., R. D. Alexander) are more aware of the limits of science. The semi-educated public is confused. It may, then, be instructive to review a recent case in the history of the relationship between science and the roots of ethnocentrism, racism, and nationalism: the case of national socialism in Germany.

National socialism and biopolicy

There are certain difficulties in understanding national socialism. Leaving aside the pure ideological views of most Marxists, there is a great diversity of interpretations, too many in fact to review here (Laqueur 1976; Aycoberry 1981). There is little attempt to understand national socialism on its own terms. On the one hand, sheer moral revulsion prevents most attempts at sympathetic understanding. On the other hand, however, the seeming inconsistency of Nazism and Hitler with any rational categories of experience often prevents seeing the Nazis as they saw themselves. To illustrate these difficulties with a comment by a very well known scholar on the subject:

Hitler arrives at a whole philosophy of history, an interpretation of human existence from the beginning onwards, which has a certain crazy originality. As Hitler sees it, human nature forms part of nature and follows the same laws as the rest of nature. ...Nature demands inequality, hierarchy, subordination of the inferior to the superior-but human history is a series of revolts against this natural order, leading to ever greater egalitarianism. [Cohn 1981, p. 184]

There is no origina1ity here, crazy or otherwise. Hitler’s views are rather straightforward German social Darwinism of a type widely known and accepted throughout Germany and which, more importantly, was considered by most Germans, scientists included, to be scientifically true. More recent scholarship on national socialism and Hitler has begun to realize that this "crazy originality" was the specific characteristic of Nazism. National socialist "biopolicy," a policy based on a mystical-biological belief in racial inequality, a monistic, anti-transcendent moral nihilism based on the eternal struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest as the law of nature, and the consequent use of state power for a public policy of natural selection, is what national socialism is all about (Jäckel 1972). Once it becomes clear that a particular biopolicy was the basis of the regime, various historical problems such as the seeming inconsistency or opportunism of tactics, the strategic blunders such as the invasion of Russia, or the totally irrational efforts expended on the extermination of undesirables become dear. Hitler was, in fact, remarkably consistent in the application of national socialist biopolicy; it is perhaps the only element of the Nazi era which was neither modified nor manipulated in response to strategic and tactical requirements (Rich 1973). More important, with the exception of a pathological hatred of the Jews, shared by many Volkish Germans, Hitler did not invent national socialist biopolicy : It is the thesis of this article that almost every element of Nazi biopolicy was already well established in the German political culture in both a vulgar, man-in-the-street sense and, more importantly, among the educated elite who took their views from the representative science of the day.

A brief overview of the fundamental ideas of national socia1ist biopolicy can be seen in Hitlers Mein Kampf. As early as 1925, in chapter 4 of volume 1 of Mein Kampf, Hitler discussed the relationship between politics and natural selection as the basis for a successful German national policy .This short section will serve to illustrate the kind of thinking which can be found throughout Mein Kampf, other writings and speeches, countless other Nazi books, films and tracts, and, of course, the graveyards of Europe.

Hitler analyzed the prospect facing Germany of a continual increase in population numbers and demand. His fundamental assumption was a world of scarcity . Hitler recognized that continual growth of numbers and levels of demand within, to use the modem term, the limited "carrying capacity" of the German ecosystem would lead eventually to increasing misery and ultimately starvation. Hitler considered four possible solutions to the population-resource disequilibrium; three would be rejected.

The first policy would be the "French" policy of restricting population through birth control to a size which could be sustained within the limits of the German ecosystem. This, however, was rejected. Not only would it be imprudent to restrict population while potential enemies did not, but population restriction through birth control violates the law of nature. Nature, to be sure, restricts numbers in excess of environmental resources. Nature, however, restricts not the "power of procreation" but the "conservation of the procreated by exposing them to hard trials and deprivations.... Those whom she permits to survive the inclemency of existence are a thousandfold tested, hardened, and well adapted to procreate in turn, in order that the process of thoroughgoing selection may begin again from the beginning" (Hitler 1943, p. 131). 

A people that interferes with natural selection through permitting anyone to breed merely introduces even rarger numbers of the less fit into the population pool. This "mockery of Nature and her will" must lead to disaster. A nation which has not followed natural selection in developing its population will "some day be deprived of existence on this earth for man can defy the eternal laws of the will to conservation for a certain time, but sooner or later vengeance comes…. A stronger race will drive out the weak, for the vital urge in its ultimate form will, time and time again, burst all the

Many well-respected scientists used their

authority as scientists to advance racist

doctrines in the name of science

absurd fetters of the so-called humanity of individuals, in order to replace it by the humanity of Nature which destroys the weak to give his place to the strong" (p. 132).

A second option for addressing the need for additional resources would be "intemal colonialization" or increasing the yield from a fixed base through modern technology. Hitler saw that there are limits to resource extraction. Only so much marginal land could be brought under cultivation, only so much fertilizer could be added to the soil; "a limit will one day be reached, created by the soil itself" (p. 133). But, Hitler observes, it will be objected sooner or later that this will be the fate of the whole planet. True but irrelevant; "Nature as such has not reserved this soil for the future possession of any particular nation or race… Nature knows no political boundaries. First she puts living creatures on this globe and watches the free play of forces. She then confers the master's right on her favorite child, the strongest in industry and courage" (p. 134). And, of course, a people that has chosen to limit the effects of natural selection through birth control and that attempts to live off an ever-narrowing physical resource base will confront the "culturally inferior but more brutal and more natural peoples." 

Then ...there will be but two possibilities: either the world will be governed by the ideas of our modern democracy , and then the weight of any decision will result in favor of the numerically stronger races, or the world will be dominated in accordance with the laws of the natural order of force, and then it is that the peoples of brutal will who will conquer, and consequently once again not the nation of self restriction. [p. 135] 

In the end, Nature asserts herself, and "only the urge for self-preservation will avail." Thus, the infamous phrase: "Mankind has grown great in eternal struggle, and only in eternal peace does it perish" (p.. 135). 

The third policy option, and that followed by modern, liberal societies, would have been to recognize the interdependence of natios and, through technological superiority and trade, purchase the needed food and resources. This rational or civilized response was reject- ed because the physical survival of a community is too crucial to be left to the mercy of potentially hostile foreign states. EngIand's trade success was not a true exception as it had both an empire and a special linguistic and cultural bond with the United States, itself a continental power base. Then too, the poIitical and economic disruption and suffering caused by the occupation of the Ruhr by France and Belgium after World War I demonstrated the fragility of trade and commerce for survival.

The fourth option was, thus, war. War justified as the natural right of any breeding community taking what it needed for survival. Such a war of expansion of the German community could not take place in the "Cameroons" but must Occur in Europe. "We must, therefore, coolly and objectively adopt the standpoint that it is certainly not the intention of Heaven to give one people fifty times as much I and and soil in this world as another ...we must not let poIitical boundaries obscure the boundaries of eternaI justice" (p. 138). And if the other will not share the earth willingly, "then the Iaw of self-preservation goes into effect" and Germany will take what it needs.

This, then, is the core of national socialism. As Hitler wrote in another section of Mein Kampf:

The foIkish philosophy finds the importance of mankind in its basic racial elements. In tl1e state it sees on principle only a means to an end and it construes its end as the preservation of the racial existence of man. ...And so the foIkish philosophy of life corresponds to the innermost will of Nature, since it restores the free play of forces which must lead to a continuous mutual higher breeding, until at last the best of humanity , having achieved possession of this earth, wi1l have a free path for activity in domains which wilie partly above it and partly outside it. [pp. 383-4]

National socialism, whatever else it may have been (for example, a revolt of the' petty bourgeoisie) was ultimately the first fuIIy self-conscious attempt to organize a political community on a basis of an explicit biopoIicy: a biopoIicy fully congruent (or so it was claimed) with the scientific facts of the Darwinianotion. What then were the roots of this biopoIicy?

It is by now an acadernic commonplace to observe that national socialism was a crude social Darwinism. This "Rumpelstiltskin effect" assumes that by naming something one has explained it and has it under control. It is not so simple. True, Nazism was a form of social Darwinism. That correct assertion, however, explains little, as there is no reason inherent in Darwin's thought that required as a logical consequence the extermination of millions of human beings. Darwin's ideas have been appIied (misappIied?) in a variety of ways. All manner of liberal thinkers have appropriated Darwin to find, at last, a scientific foundation for the liberal beIief in progress, democratic egalitarian socialism, and an altruistic ethic of human soIidarity. Marx himself viewed Darwin's work as confirmation by the naturaI sciences of his own views, and even Mao Tse-tung regarded Darwin, as presented by the German Darwinists, as the foundation of Chinese scientific sociaIism (Mehnert 1977). How did Darwinism in Germany become the foundation for national socialism?

It is instructive to recall the full tit1e of Darwin's revolutionary work of 1859: On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. There are, thus, two basic ideas: the idea of evolution and the idea of selection. Darwinism seems to combine within one theory an idea of an overall pattern or cohesion in the evolution or development of allife forms with an idea, that all species "have evolved through a natural selection of vanous, offspring through a competitive struggle for life. Fitness, then, results from the chance interrelationships among vast numbers of possibilities wherein some are selected ; and some rejected on the basis of an ability for surviving, and reproducing in a given environment at a given time.

It is obvious that any teleological or transcendent-dualistic notions are an unscientific intrusion into Darwin’s account of life on earth. Nevertheless, the liberal social Darwinism of the English focused on evolution to the neglect of selection. For men like Herbert Spencer, there was, via the organic analogy, an almost automatic evolution in a progressive direction. The basic competition among individuals became a virtual guarantee of inevitable progress in ethics, politics, and civilization in general. It is, of course, now widely recognized that this "Darwinism" of English liberal, rational capitalism and individualism was an ideology in search of scientific legitimacy rather than science supporting an ideology. German social Darwinism, while even a greater misappropriation of science than English and American social Darwinism, was, curiously enough, more faithful to the fullness of Darwin' s scientific views.

The core idea of Darwinism was not evolution, but selection. Evolution is a completely neutral word which describes the resu1ts of selection. Selection, to which values are irrelevant, results in evolution. English social Darwinism, as it were, had it backwards. Darwin's insight was rather that "success" or the "preservation of favoured races" is the result of biological "fitness" in the living conditions of a given time and place; there is no equation of survival and progress in Darwin. The Germans, who focused on selection and the "struggle," or Kampf as it was translated, were closer to the radical insight of Darwin's efforts.

The German intellectual environment

In the late nineteenth century the intellectual life of Germany was confused. At the political level there was a shift from the liberal optimism of the 1840s through the 1860s, from a belief in progress, rationalism, and enlightenment, to a reaction against the failed revolution of 1848, support for the rise of the new Prussian state, and a growth of xenophobic and irrationalist romantic nationalism. Germans began to distinguish "civilization" and "culture" and to identify life as a collective phenomenon of race, people, or Volk. German philosophic romanticism was a xenophobic, or more accurately Francophobic, reaction against the idea of "man" as a species. Rather "men" participated in life or had their being through a unique natural and cultural identity. Folkism was established as both a philosophical ideology and as a political movement.

Simultaneously, however, there was a strong materialist development in late nineteenth-century German intellectual life. Marx, Feuerbach, and many others were rejecting the idealism of Hegel for a more materialistic vision of life. In science proper, men like Helmholtz and Virchow contributed to the development of positivism. This materialism and positivism in German intellectual circles provoked, in turn, the reaction of the so-called German Critics, Lagarde and Langbehn, which attacked the whole idea of "modernity" as destructive of the distinctive German culture. Indeed, some scholars who have observed the obvious anti-urban, folkish conservativism of national socialism have argued that Nazism was a "politics of cultural despair," and a conservative reaction against industrialism, urbanism, and science (Stern 1963). There was, however, a third possibility. What if positivism or materialism, that is to say, science, could be synthesized with idealism and folkish romanticism? What if folkish romanticism were scientifically true? Then, to anticipate the historical results, folkish romanticism as national socialism would likewise be scientifica1ly true. This, in essence, was the achievement of the German social Darwinists, especially Ernst Haeckel and his followers.

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was the man who brought Darwinismus into German intellectual life. Not only did he succeed in establishing his interpretation of the strictly scientific aspects of Darwin as the correct view for a generation of scholars, but he went far beyond science to establish a unique German form of social Darwinism (Gasman 1971). This social Darwinism combined an almost mystical, religious belief in the forces of nature (i.e., natural selection as the fundamental law of life) with a literal, and not analogical, transfer of the laws of biology to the social and political arena. It was, in essence, a romantic folkism synthesized with scientific evolutionism. It included the standard Darwinian ideas of struggle (Kampf) and competition as the foundation for natural law , and therefore social law, with a curious "religion" of nature which implied a small place for rationalism, the lack of free will, and happiness as submission to the eternal laws of nature. Blut und Boden were the reality of human existence.

"Hundreds of thousands of incurables –

lunatics, lepers, people with cancer - are

artificially kept alive without the slightest

profit to themselves or the general body"

-Ernst Haeckel

Standard romantic folkism, especially as it appealed to the marginal middle class, needs little comment. Essentially it was a comforting self-image of being mystically united with the German racial group and its physical or natural environment. The role of such folkish elements in later national socialism is well known. It is important to remember, however, that Hitler himself thought these folkists silly. Hitler' s folkism was no such vague nonsense of fir trees and deep Germanic forests; his was scientific. 

By the late nineteenth century, the ideas of Count Arthur de Gobineau' s The Inequality of Human Races (1854) were no longer current in Germany. Gobineau, after all, was too pessimistic. Haeckel, however, would revive Gobineau' s ideas by claiming, unlike the anti-modern, antiscience folkists, that the science of Darwin established the truth of Gobineau' unscientific speculations of Aryan superiority. Furthermore, a biologically superior elite could use the instruments of the modern, urban technological state to practice a biopolicy of natural selection, which would maintain Aryan superiority in spite of Gobineau' s prognosis.

Darwin' s Origin was published in 1859 and translated into German in 1860. In 1863, Ernst Haeckel, alreadya respected professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at the University of Jena, addressed the annual meeting of the Congress of German Naturalists in a lecture entitled "On Evolution: Darwin's Theory." He argued that Darwin was correct and, even though Darwin himself had not yet publicly speculated on the origins of humankind, Haeckel argued additionally that humankind had unquestionably evolved from the animal kingdom. Thus, and here the fatal step was taken in Haeckel's first major exposition of Darwinism in Germany, humankind's social and political existence is governed by the laws of evolution, natural selection, and biology , as clearly shown by Darwin. To argue otherwise was backward superstition. And, of course, it was organized religion which did this and thus stood in the way of scientific and social progress. 

Haeckel was an active scientist and published numerous strictly scientific studies in a Darwinian context. His place in the history of science as a biologist is secure. He was, however, also a prolific popularizer of scientific ideas and in his later years was politically active in support of his scientific social ideology .His most important "popular" works include: (English-language editions) The History of Creation; Or the Development of the Earth and Its Inhabitants by the Action of Natural Causes (1876); The Riddle of the Universe (1900); The Evolution of Man (1903); The Wonders of Life (1905); and Eternity; World War Thoughts on Life and Death, Religion, and the Theory of Evolution (1916). He also published numerous scientific-expedition travel books and various philosophical works in German.

By the end of the nineteenth century , serious scholars in England had begun to question the whole idea of social Darwinism (Himmelfarb 1959). Even Darwin's disciple T. H. Huxley was questioning the relevance of Darwin' s ideas to politics and ethics. Although social Darwinist ideas would linger on in England and America among some anthropologists, American racists, and the British and American eugenics movement, both the continued scientific development in genetics and the rise of an egalitarian Labor Party created a scientific and ideological environment which offered less and less support for the pseudoscientific ideas of social Darwinism in England. Not so in Germany. 

Haeckel's Die Welträtsel (1899, translated as The Riddle of the Universe) argued that a new monistic or non-dualistic natural religion based on evolutionary Darwinian natural selection could explain and guide all society. Biology and physical science were to be the foundations of public administration and must inform all aspects of public and social policy. Die Welträtsel was an immensely successful book. In 1899 it sold 100,000 copies; by 1919 it had gone through ten editions and had been translated into 25 languages; by 1933 it had sold half a million copies in Germany alone. And, although much of the science had already been rendered obsolete, and although Haeckel received some criticism from fellow academics who objected to popularizing works, many more scientists deeply respected Haeckel and accepted his version of scientific Darwinism. The general semi-educated public, as is obvious from the sales figures, loved it. Here at last was a scientific religion which established the truth of German romantic nationalism, Aryan superiority, and the true value of the folk. Haeckel's other popularizations were equally well received.

In 1906 (Haeckel was by then in his seventies) a group of his followers formed the Monist League to support and agitate for this set of curiously original ideas. The founders were not a collection of semi- educated eccentrics typical of the various folkish movements. They included: Dr. A. Kalthoff, a radical protestant theologian; Dr. H. Schmidt, a colleague at Jena and ultimately Haeckel's biographer; W. Boelsche and B. Wille, literary critics and novelists; Dr .A. Forel, a geneticist; R. H. France, a biologist and first editor of the monthly Der Monismus; Dr .J. Unold, a physician and social Darwinist political writeri Dr .A. Forel, a Swiss geneticist W. Schallmeyer, one of the founders of the German eugenics movementi L. Gurlitt, a cofounder of the Wandervogel (often regarded as the genesis of the Hitler Youth); Dr. L. Plate, a biologist and successor to Haeckel' s chair at Jena; and W. Ostwald, a Nobel Prize chemist.

The Monist League was the organized expression of Haeckel's social Darwinism. It agitated and wrote for a conservative revolution in the name of science. The issue was biosocial reform, not structural or political change. Man was seen as a wholly natural phenomenon governed by the laws of biology.Thus, all transcendent ideas of man, be they theological or historical, were scientifically false. Man's so-called soul or psychic life differed from the primates only in degree, not in kind. Parental love was just as evident in apes as in men. There was no qualitatively unique status for the human species, either collectively or as individuals: no spiritual essence, and no primacy over nature.

The ideas of Ernst Haeckel

Are the ideas of Haeckel and his followers the ideas which were to be found in national socialism? A review of some of Haeckel's comments will, I believe, settle the question. It should be noted that many of his followers who wrote in the Monist, the youth journal Sonne, and other sympathetic publications were considerably more extreme than the master.

The first step, and one made in Haeckel's first presentation of Darwin's ideas, was the social Darwinist transition. "Man is not above nature, but in nature" (HAeckel 1903, p. 456). "Civilization and the life of nations are governed by the same laws as prevail throughout organic life" (1916, p. 116). The "evolution of man has taken place according to the same immutable laws as the evolution of any other natural body" (1903, p. 458). "Natural selection in the struggle for life acts so as to transform human society just as it modifies plants and animals" (1876, p. 280). Thus, when "we take it in its wider sense, human sociology joins on to that of the nearest related mammals ...social rules [ are the] natural laws of heredity and adaptation" (1905, p. 467).

As everything is a product of the process of evolution through selection and there are obvious differences among human beings, it follows that different human beings represent different levels of evolution. For Haeckel, Gobineau was correct (1905, p. 391). There is no species unity among humankind as "the morphological differences between two generally recognized species- for example sheep and goats-are much less important than those ...between a Hottentot and a man of the Teutonic race" (1876, p. 434). And, of course, it is the Germans who have "deviated furthest from the common form of apelike men" and who thus "outstrip all others inthe career of civilization" and will lead humankind to a "new period of higher mental development" (1876, p. 332): not only mentally, but physically as well, for it is only among the Aryans that one finds that "symmetry of all parts, and that equal development, which we call the type of perfect human beauty" (1876, p. 321). And of course, the converse was true. The lesser races were worth less. After a1l, "woolly-haired" peoples are "incapable of a true inner culture or of a higher mental development ...no woolly-haired nation has ever had an important history" (1876, p. 310). It is one thing to be a racist, it is another to draw the practical consequences for action from one's racism. Yet Haeckel was prepared to argue that since "the lower races-such as the Veddahs or Australian Negroes-are psychologicaly nearer to the mammals-apes and dogs-than to the civilized European, we must, therefore, assign a totally different value to their lives". (1905, p. 390.

Haeckel' s ethics were completely naturalistic. The function of morality was to serve successful natural selection. Liberalism, democracy, and rationalistic enlightenment were scientifically false as they required an assumption of free will and individual autonomy. Free will was a "pure dogma based on an illusion" (1900, p. 16). The rules of morality are not some special human characteristic which transcends nature but "rest on biological grounds and have been developed in a natural way" (1905, p. 413). Morality serves natural selection and neither reason nor will would overcome the scientific facts of natural biological laws. 

The great struggle between the determinist and the indeterminist, between the opponent and sustainer of free will, has ended today, after more than two thousand years, completely in favor of the determinist. The human will has no more freedom than that of the higher animals, from which it differs on1y in degree and not in kind. [1900, pp. 130-1] 

The basis for human life, success, and happiness was to be found in conformity with the laws of nature. Man was a social species. Individualism was an illusion and the organic analogy was not an analogy but a scientific truth. Just as each cell of an organism "though autonomous, is subordinated to the body as a whole; in the same way in the societies of bees, ants, and termites, in the vertebrate herds, and in the human state, each individual is subordinate to the social body of which he is a member" (1916, p. 113). Thus, a certain reciprocal altruism must govern human life together with society. If a man desires to have the advantages of living in an organized community, he has to consider not only his own fortune, but also that of the society, and of his 'neighbors' who form the society" (1900, p. 350). Moreover, it was a sign of having reached a higher stage of evolution to have a "more highly developed moral sense" if one recognized that "welfare, true happiness, and satisfaction" were to be found in submission to the scientifica1ly true requirements of the organized folkish community (1916, p. 129).

If it is true that there can be no scientific

base for racist policies, must it not be

true that there can be no scientific base

for advocating nuclear disarmament?


The basic outline of German social Darwinism as developed by Haeckel and his colleagues is clear. It was argued that, on scientific grounds, man was merely a part of nature with no special transcendent qualities or special humanness. On the other hand, the Germans were members of a biologically superior community. German social Darwinism, contrary to Anglo-American social Darwinism, rejected the liberal individualistic state in favor of a natural, organic, folkish state of blood and soil. It attacked the alienation and atomization of individualistic modem civilization in the name of a psychological fulfilment resulting from union with the natural processes of evolution seen as a collective struggle for existence. And, of course, it argued that politics was merely the straightforward application of the laws of biology. In essence, Haeckel and his fellow social Darwinists advanced the ideas that were to become the core assumptions of national socialism. 

Unfortunately, it was not just the general principles of the folkish state which were outlined by the German social Darwinists. Specific public biopolicies were advocated in the name of science. Again, a brief review of some of Haeckel's key ideas for a scientific biopolicy is instructive. Haeckel was the respected scientist; the views of his followers were often more extreme. Haeckel's view of society is best described as corporatist, or technically, fascist.

The history of civilization teaches us that its gradual evolution is bound up with three different processes: (1) association of individuals in a community; (2) division of labor among the social elements, and a consequent differentiation of structure; (3) centralization or integration of the unified whole, or rigid organization of the community. The same fundamental laws of sociology hold good for association throughout the entire organic world. [1905, p. 169] 

This rigid organization of the community had consequences for the value of the different levels of the social hierarchy and, as noted before, between peoples. "The greater the differentiation of conditions and classes in consequence of the division of labor, the greater become the differences between the educated and uneducated sections of the community, and between their interests and needs, and, therefore, the value of their lives" (1905, p. 169). 

The business of the corporate state was eugenics or artificial selection-politics as applied biology. Haeckel was especially fond of praising the ancient spartans whom he saw as a successful and superior people as a consequence of their socially approved biological selection. By killing all but the "perfectly healthy and strong children" the spartans were "continually in excellent strength and vigor" (1876, p. 170). Germany should follow this Spartan custom, as infanticide of the deformed and sickly was "a practice of advantage to both the infants destroyed and to the community ." It was, after all, only "traditional dogma" and hardly scientific truth that all lives were of equal worth or should be preserved (1905, p. 116).

It was not merely sickly infants who should be removed. There were in Germany "hundreds of thousands of incurables-lunatics, lepers, people with cancer, etc.-who are artificially kept alive ...without the slightest profit to themselves or the general body ." Indeed, these diseased people merely bred descendants who polluted the breeding pool and rendered the entire people less fit. The state was not required to keep alive people who had become "utterly useless." The state, instead, should establish special medical commissions to study the ill and deformed, and should have the duty to provide a "redemption from evil" in the form of a quick and painless drug (1905, pp. 118-19). And not just sickly infants, lunatics, and useless people. Capital punishment "for incorrigible and degraded criminals is not only just, but also a benefit to the better portion of mankind." 

By the indiscriminate destruction of all incorrigible criminals, not only would the struggle for life among the better portion of mankind be made easier, but also an advantageous artificial process of selection would be set into practice, since the possibility of transrnitting their injurious qualities would be taken from those degenerate outcasts. [1876, pp. 172-3]

The business of the corporate organic state, when it finished with the above-mentioned domestic housecleaning, was also to secure more living space, Lebensraum, for the German people. Like many German nationalists, Haeckel was a founding member of the rightist Pan-German League. Emigration had to be halted as many of the best Germans were leaving their people for lack of opportunity at home. New land, new niches, new space was needed. "The German Empire, being overpopulated, has urgent need to extend and strengthen its frontiers." And, of course, a drive to the East would be best, not only for the land, but also to create a sufficient buffer against "barbaric Russia." 

"The new provinces which we are going to annex are energetic and intractable, but with cautious, intelligent treatment they can be Germanized, or at least made accessible to German culture" (1916, p. 169). There really was very litt1e left for national socialism to invent. The foundations of a biopolicy of ethnocentrism, racism, and xenophobic nationalism had already been established within German life and culture by many of the leading scientists of Germany well before World War I.

Unfortunately, Haeckel and his colleagues in the Monist League were not the only members of the German academic and scientific communities who helped prepare the way for national socialist biopolicies. Two other groups need to be mentioned. The first were the German racial anthropologists. Beginning in the 1890s with the work of Otto Ammon on cepha1ic indexes rand other such scientific proof of Aryan supenonty, much German anthropology, especially the most scientific branch, physical anthropology, added to the climate of folkish superiority. If humankind evolved through natural selection and there are scientifically measurable differences among humans such as cranial capacity, facial angle, or pigmentation, then it was obvious that the races of humankind must be arranged hierarchically along the ladder of evolution. The chief source of these ideas in Germany was the Politisch-Anthropologische Revue under the editorship of Ammon and L. Woltmann. Whether or not physical anthropology is considered a true science, there is little doubt that the anthropologists who discovered all the measurable divergent physical, psychological, and mental characteristics of the various races thought they were scientific. And so did the general public.

The second group of scholars were far more scientific and simultaneously far more politically active, that, is, the Society for Racial Hygiene (Gesellschaft far Rassenhygiene). Developments in the science of genetics had shown that the earlier Lamarckian view of acquired traits as heritable phenotypes was mistaken. Furthermore, genotypic traits seemed to continue to be inherited irrespective of environmental conditions. The simpleminded genetics of Haeckel and his Monists were thus scientifically wrong. However, this did not, in Germany, contribute to a discrediting of racialist thinking. Rather, the members of the Society came to almost identical conclusions on eugenic matters as Haeckel while claiming: to be even more scientific. The hygiene-eugenics movement in Germany, as initially in England and America, began with the observation that modern medicine was keeping congenitally feeble people alive to reproduce. They followed Galton's (1892) observation on the small number of children produced by the superior people in a given society and added the observation of the generally smaller family size among the superior races. This they blamed, via a kind of reverse naturalistic fallacy, on the ethics of individualism in democratic and capitalist societies. Modern civilization was thus seen as a threat to the cultured Nordic races. Throughout the pages of their joumal, the Archiv für Rassen und Gesell- schaftsbiologie, the German eugenicists argued for social policies of sterilization, selection, euthanasia, etc., which differed little from those of Haeckel, his Monists, the racial anthropologists, the vulgar folkists, and, ultimately, the national socialists.

By 1936 the Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene had over sixty local chapters active in promoting these ideas. The coeditors of the Archiv included the founder, A. Ploetz, a medical physician; L. Plate, a zoologist and successor to Haeckel's chair at Jena; E. Rudin, a psychiatrist; and R. Lenz, a racialist writer. In 1935 H. F. K. Gunther, the author of Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes, was appointed to the University of Berlin and awarded the Prize for Science (Zmarz1ik 1972). By 1936 doctorates in racial science were offered at the universities of Berlin, Frankfurt, Königsberg, Leipzig, and Münich. German social Darwinism, enthnocentrism, and racism were well established in the nation's universities while, at the same time, German social Darwinism, ethnocentrism, and racism were being well established in the streets as the public policies of the national socialist Third Reich.

modern science and public policy
It would, of course, be a gross exaggeration to claim that the German scientific community , especially the members of the biological sciences faculties, were directly responsible for national socialism. Historical and political changes of such magnitude are far too complex to reduce to one or even a few causes. Nevertheless, recent historical studies such as those by Gasman (1971), Zmarzlik (1972), and Beyerchen (1977) demonstrate that most members of the scientific and academic communities did very little to support the Weimar Republic, did very little to oppose the rise of Hitler and national socialism, and in many cases lent their considerable prestige as scientists to the support of the ideas of the national socialist movement. It is simply true historically that German academics and scientists did, in fact, contribute to the development and eventual success of national socialism, both directly through their efforts as scientists and indirect1y through the popularization or vulgarization of their scientific work.

It will be objected that those scientists were not "true" scientists and that their ideas, especially those ideas on biopolicy which are the focus of this article, were not "true" science. True enough by today's standards. Their biopolicies of racism and ethnocentrism are not our values of the unity of humankind. But then, if we are to argue that they made a naturalistic fallacy in developing a racist "ought" from their putative "is," by what epistemological standard do we derive our "ought" of the unity of humankind from our putative "is" of the unity of humankind? If science cannot support racist nationalism, neither can it support liberal humanitarianism or any other normative, ethical construct. We are forced to reassert that science is totally irrelevant in the choice of public policies.

Science, however, always seems to involve scientists. And the interrelationships among science, scientists, and public policy remain as problematic today as in 1930. Have those scientists who have been discussing the "nuclear winter" effects of nuclear war as an effort to encourage arms control ceased to be scientists? Is it not precisely because they are scientists who base their policy prescriptions on science that we are to take their views seriously? If it is true that there can be no scientific base for racist policies, must it not be true that there can be no scientific base for advocating nuclear disarmament? Or must we not admit that the scientific findings of the natural science of sociobiology or the social science of biopolitics are as likely to be appropriated by interested parties, even scientists, to serve political ends as were the scientific findings of the German social Darwinists, racial anthropologists, and eugenicists? The history of scientific racism, ethnocentrism, and nationalist xenophobia suggests that this is no mere academic question.


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George Stein is an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies of Miami University and has taught at Miami University's Center in Luxembourg. A political scientist, his research interests include the reIationship between science, especiaIly biology, and public policy, and he has published articles on ethics and environmentalism and on public policy and scarcity. An early version of this paper was presented at an annual meeting of the European Sociological Society, of which he is a member ; he also holds membership in the Association for PoIitics and the Life Sciences and in the International Studies Association. This article is reprinted with permission from The Sociobiology of Ethnocentrism, edited by V. Reynolds, v. Falger , and I. Vine (Croon Helm, Ltd., 1986; Univ. of Georgia Press, 1987 ). Address: School of InterdiscipIinary Studies, Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056.

Figure 1. The frontispiece to Ernst Haeckel’s The Evolution of Man (1874, transl. 1903) presents a skull labelled ‘Australian Negro" as an intervening evolutionary stage between the ‘Mediterranean’ skull and those of the lower primates. Such racist doctrines were generally accepted by educated Germans as scientifically true long before Hitler came to power. Haeckel was certainly an authoritative scientist; he was the primary advocate of Darwinism in nineteenth-century Germany and is perhaps best known today for proposing the theory that a developing embryo recapitulates the evolutionary history of its species.

Figure 2. In this illustration from Racial Science of the Jewish People by Hans K. Günther, a photograph of Benjamin Disraeli, identified principally as a "Jew from England," is displayed alongside a black African ("Hottentot") in order to demonstrate that the resemblence of the two men is probably attributable to a common "hamitic," specifically an "Ethiopian," origin. The book, published in 1930, is typical of the purportedly scientific ethnological studies that proliferated in Germany both before and after the Nazis came to power.

Figure 3. Ernst Haeckel extended the social Darwinist ideas he advocated into what amounted to a new religion, Monism, which denied any essential distinction between nature and humankind and thus denied a transcendent status for traditionai moral values. This frontispiece to one of Haeckels many books of scientific exposition depicts the close relation of humans to nature and to their simian relatives in a way that seems intended to shock the conservative Germans of the day. By the time the Nazis came to power, Haeckel’s views of man's place in nature had become far less shocking in Germany. (From Album of Science: The Nineteenth Century, L. Pearce Williams, Scribner's 1978.)