The following article on Nazi eugenics is an excerpt from Richard Weikart’s book Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Beliefs that Drove the Third Reich. It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The origins of eugenics beliefs
Hitler’s views on eugenics were based on social policies that placed the biological improvement of the Aryan Race, or the Germanic “master race” through eugenics at the center of Nazi belief. But Hitler did not create these views. He merely put into policy ideas that circulated throughout the western world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The roots of Nazi ideology were found in Darwin, Nietzsche, and philosopher Houston Stewart Chamberlain. They made their way to Hitler by way of Julius Friedrich Lehmann, a Munich publisher specializing in medical texts, as well as works disseminating scientific racism and eugenics. Lehmann befriended Hitler in the early 1920s and sent him inscribed copies of many of the racist books churned out by his publishing house, including books that popularized racist anthropology. Lehmann also published the journal Deutschlands Erneuerung (Germany’s Renewal), which was filled with articles promoting racism and eugenics. In a March 1922 circular, Hitler recommended that Nazi Party members read this journal, and in 1924 he published an article in it himself (in part because the Nazi press had been banned in the wake of the Beer Hall Putsch).
Hitler’s views of eugenics in his own words
In his two books, Hitler discussed evolutionary theory as vital to his theory of racial struggle and eugenics. Several times throughout Mein Kampf, he specifically employs the term “struggle for existence” (“Kampf um das Dasein”); in fact, the phrase or its plural appears three times in a passage several pages long where Hitler described why the Germans should be both pro-natalist and expansionist. Historian Robert Richards, however, inexplicably claims that Hitler’s views in this passage are un-Darwinian, because—according to Richards— a Darwinian should supposedly want population expansion only within restricted borders, which would allow the fit to triumph over the unfit.
One of the most important factors in Hitler’s reasoning was the living space (Lebensraum) is to be taken from allegedly inferior races. Thus, expanding is part of the Darwinian racial struggle that allows the allegedly fitter Nordic race to outcompete allegedly inferior races. Contra Richards, Hitler’s discussion makes perfect sense in a Darwinian world if unequal races are waging a struggle for existence. In fact, the whole idea of Lebensraum was first formulated by Friedrich Ratzel, a Darwinian biologist who later became a geographer. In addition, many pro-natalist eugenicists with impeccable Darwinian credentials, such as Alfred Ploetz or Max von Gruber, agreed with Hitler’s position on expansionism (indeed, they may have influenced Hitler in this matter).
Later in Mein Kampf, in the chapter on “Nation and Race,” Hitler discussed biological evolution in the context of racial purity. He argued that racial mixing is deleterious to biological organisms, precisely because it would stymie biological evolution. His reasoning was thus: If two organisms at different levels mate, this will result in offspring below the level of the higher parent—“consequently, it will later succumb in the struggle against the higher level.” Hitler did not use the term “struggle for existence” here, but he described this struggle as a contest between organisms in which the stronger prevail and the weaker are eliminated. He then stated, “If this law did not prevail, any conceivable higher evolution (Höherentwicklung) of organic living beings would be unthinkable.
Hitler did indeed believe in human evolution. It was not a peripheral element of his worldview, either. It helped shape his understanding of the human struggle for existence, natural selection among humans and human races, eugenics, pronatalism, killing the disabled, and expansionism. Of course, Hitler’s evolutionary views were synthesized with many other influences, such as anti-Semitism and nationalism; it was by no means the sole influence on his ideology or policies. But in addition to all the times Hitler explicitly broached the topic of human evolution, he even more frequently discussed the racial struggle for existence, the struggle for existence within the Nordic race, natural selection, and many other Darwinian themes.
Hitler often abbreviated these terms as “racial struggle,” “struggle,” and “selection,” just as many of his contemporaries, including biologists and eugenicists, did, but key issue here is the concept, not the exact terminology. When Hitler spoke about the “selection” of the strongest organisms and the elimination of the weakest, it did not matter whether he used the exact term “natural selection” (though he did at times). He was obviously describing it, and that is the crucial issue.
Eugenics as a scientific policy
After coming to power, Hitler continued to prioritize science over religion. When meeting with Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, Hitler reminded him that the world was changing, and he thought the Catholic Church should change with it. He reminded the cardinal of the Church’s past conflicts with science over its belief in a six-day creation and the geocentric theory of the solar system. Then he told Faulhaber that the Church must abandon its opposition to Nazi racial and eugenics legislation, because such policies “rest on absolute scientific research.” Strange as it may seem to us today, Hitler saw his racial and eugenics agenda as scientific and all opposition to it as the product of benighted, outmoded religion.
In April 1940, Goebbels reported that, in Hitler’s view, Catholicism was “setting itself in ever sharper contrast to the exact sciences. Its [Catholicism’s] end will be accelerated by this.” In November 1941, Hitler overtly dismissed the teachings of Catholicism and any other religion that contradicted the findings of science. He stated, “Today no one who is familiar with natural science can any longer take seriously the teaching of the church. What stands in contradiction to natural laws cannot be from God.” Again, Hitler was not discounting all religion, but he clearly thought science had a superior claim to knowledge. As Michael Burleigh argues, Hitler “subscribed to the view that science had largely supplanted Christianity, without rationalism eradicating the need for belief, or undermining the existence of a creator God in whom he continued to believe.
Core tenets of Hitler’s worldview were that the primacy of race in determining historical developments, Aryan superiority (with the Aryans being the sole creators of culture), the Darwinian racial struggle, the need for eugenics policies, and the evils of racial mixing. Hitler also held a view that Aryans had developed an ancient civilization in the mythical Atlantis. In a passage of Mein Kampf that decries racial mixing writings, Hitler admonished the state to elevate the status of marriage, which under the present system was supposedly contributing to biological decline. By hindering the marriages of those he dubbed inferior, he hoped marriages could “produce images of the Lord and not monstrosities halfway between man and ape.
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This article is an excerpt from Richard Weikart’s book Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Beliefs that Drove the Third Reich. It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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