The Holocaust: Did Darwin Make Hitler Do It?

Richard Weikart, the historian and Discovery Institute ally who wrote From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (Palgrave Macmillan 2004), in a new book (coming out in two weeks) pushes forward with his thesis that “Darwinism” is inextricably linked to 20th century eugenics and, ultimately, the Holocaust.

His new book focuses in on Adolf Hitler (yes, that Adolf Hitler) and is titled, Hiter’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (Palgrave Macmillan, July 21, 2009).  The book in hardcover is pricey ($68 bucks), but I was rather impressed with his From Darwin to Hitler when it first came out, and so I may consider buying it. Weikart is obviously a conservative historian, but he’s also a very careful one, and he writes well. Here, from The Journal of Modern History, is part of a review of his earlier book, From Darwin to Hitler :

Weikart offers a well‐written and succinct summary of German Darwinian theory that is useful in many ways. But it is marred by a tendency to overgeneralization. His definition of “Darwinism” is based not on the ideas of Darwin himself—which are never carefully analyzed—but on the reception of these ideas by a wide range of speakers. As he himself admits, Darwinian rhetoric was pressed into the service of many different agendas—socialism, liberalism, and conservatism; feminism and antifeminism; natalism and Malthusianism; pacifism and patriotic saber rattling. For Weikart, this is not a problem—even speakers who were “poles apart politically … had more in common than we may have suspected at first glance” (9). All Darwinian thinkers advocated the violation of the “right to life” through measures such as birth control, abortion, voluntary and compulsory “euthanasia,” voluntary and compulsory sterilization, infanticide, and genocide. And all Darwinian thought led inevitably to Auschwitz. This is a value judgment that some readers will accept, and others (myself included) will oppose. At the turn of the twentieth century, all biomedical issues were seen in the context of the decline in birthrates, which seemed to threaten the military readiness and cultural vitality of Western European nations. Natalism—which was based chiefly on nationalist and military, not eugenic, considerations—was the reigning obsession. Some of the figures mentioned by Weikart—for example, Alfred Ploetz—were indeed hard‐hearted opponents of social policies that might have the effect of enabling the “unfit” to survive and reproduce. But many others, such as the socialist physician Alfred Grotjahn, recognized the importance of environment as well as heredity to the building of a healthy population. Although they supported some “negative eugenic” measures that were designed to prevent the birth of “unfit” offspring, their major efforts were devoted to “positive eugenics,” which promoted the health of the younger generation by improving the health and living conditions of mothers, children, and families.

Weikart’s new book, focused specifically on Hitler, better have its end notes thoroughly clean and tied-up nicely, and he better render measured and defensible judgments, because if he doesn’t, you can be sure that his colleagues will eat him for lunch. In any case, this upcoming book should generate a lot of interesting discussion, and no doubt a good deal of vigorous mudslinging between evolutionists and creationists (as his previous book did). I think it’s a topic that’s important, however. Eugenics, afterall, is not just a historical curiosity. It’s an issue that shows signs of reasserting itself as we move deeper into the 21st century. And if you don’t think hard about history, you run the risk of repeating it. Can the 21st century ride the tiger of eugenics any better than the 20th?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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