Eugenics is derived from the Greek meaning “well-born”. It is the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. Because of this, it can be closely linked to Social Darwinism, the application of natural selection to human society. Nowadays, eugenics is a term used almost exclusively with regard to Nazi Germany, however eugenics had been around for decades before the Nazis and Adolf Hitler rose to power.
The concept of eugenics can be seen in Ancient Greece, around 380 BCE in Plato’s book, Republic. In it, he states that the government should create a state-run program in order to regulate human reproduction. This state-run program would be run in secret and through a fixed lottery as people would obviously reject this idea. Each person of the state would be given a number after being analysed and so, this number would be a measurement of the deemed “quality” of a person. People given high numbers would be allowed to reproduce with other people with high numbers. Those who had low numbers would draw out blank cards to ensure their undesirable genes would die out. Plato compared this to dog or horse breeding because horses and dogs are bred to be the best possible versions of themselves. Why should it not be applied to humans?
The idea of eugenics then disappeared and it was only in the 19th century where it was seen once more. After Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, Sir Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Darwin, began researching humans and the variation aspects of the human body such as fingerprints, mental capabilities and facial features. Based on the Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection, Galton came to the conclusion that the idea of survival of the fittest does not affect humans as humans tend to allow the weakest to breed which hinders the advancement of mankind. The term eugenics was coined in 1883 to briefly express “the science of improving stock”. The enthusiasm to evolve humans never flourished in the United Kingdom however the United States embraced this new science.
American supporters of eugenics were of the view that the people of the Nordic, German and Anglo-Saxon races were superior genetically than any other races. They believed in strict immigration laws and anti-miscegenation laws (racial segregation laws). However, a new form of eugenics was created – negative eugenics. Negative eugenics is focused on the elimination of the unwanted characteristics or even the sterilisation of people who had these traits. States began to introduce new laws to restrict the procreation of those people. Connecticut, in 1896, passed a law, illegalizing the marrying of people who were feeble-minded, epileptics or imbeciles. Indiana was the first state to introduce a law forcing compulsory sterilisation on criminals and people with intellectual disabilities. Approximately 32 of the 50 states introduced some variation of that law many of which were only repealed in the late 1970s resulting in the sterilisations of 65,000 people and these laws would become blueprints for Nazi Germany and their eugenic ideas which would be known as racial hygiene.
In Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler expressed gratitude to America for their accomplishments of eugenics and also stated “The demand that defective people be prevented from propagating equally defective offspring is a demand of clearest reason and, if systematically executed, represents the most humane act of mankind. It will spare millions of unfortunates undeserved sufferings, and consequently will lead to a rising improvement of health as a whole.” On July 14th 1933, after coming to power just months earlier, Hitler enacted Das Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses (the Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring) and it came into force on January 1st 1934. This law allowed the compulsory sterilisation of citizens with the following conditions determined by the Erbgesundheitsgericht (Hereditary Health Court):
- Congenital mental deficiency
- Hereditary epilepsy
- Hereditary Chorea (Huntington’s)
- Hereditary blindness
- Hereditary deafness
- Serious hereditary physical deformity
This law was put in place in the hopes of strengthening the human race, in particular the Aryan race, the most superior race from Northern Europe. Hitler believed that the German nation had been weakened by the increase in dysgenic genetic mutations (genetic mutations that cause defects) and groups such as Jews and Gypsies were seen as inferior and they polluted the “pure blood” of the Übermenschen (Aryans). Separately to this law, abortion was legalised. Aryans, however, were restricted but abortions were allowed if their child would be born with a congenital defect or if either parent had a genetic defect themselves. Non-Aryans were encouraged to abort the foetus as soon as possible. Between 1934 and 1939, between 300,000 and 400,000 were sterilised. In 1939, sterilisations lessened and instead were replaced by Aktion T4, a programme designed to euthanize those with physical deformities and intellectual disabilities. Ironically, one of the most powerful individuals, Joseph Goebbels, had a deformed right leg, causing it to be shorter than the left leg which also gave him a limp. Aktion T4 was also known as Gnadentod (mercy death) as the Nazis believed they were doing a service to those being killed and the rest of the world. Both children and adults were murdered through means of lethal injection, gassing (carbon monoxide) and physical abuse. Children were taken to one of two centres in Austria – Am Spiegelgrund and Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic, both in Vienna. Adults were taken to one of six centres in Bernburg, Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Hartheim and Sonnenstein which are small towns spread throughout Germany. Those who were to be killed were described as “lebensunwertes Leben” or “life unworthy of life”.
On September 15th 1935, the Reichstag unanimously adopted two anti-semitic laws. The first is Das Gesetz zum Schutze des deutschen Blutes und der deutschen Ehre (The Law of the Protection of German Blood and German Honour) and Das Reichsbürgergesetz (The Reich Citizenship Law). Together they made up what is known as Die Nürnberger Gesetze (The Nuremberg Laws). The Law of the Protection of German Blood and German Honour stated that to ensure the existence of the German people and purity of German blood marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew would be forbidden, any current marriages were invalidated, even those that took place outside of German jurisdiction and extramarital relationships were made illegal. Jews were also not allowed to display the Reich flag or colours. The Reich Citizenship Law defined the meaning of a citizen of the Reich – a person who is protected by the State, has obligations for the State, but most importantly, is of German blood or related blood. In November this was updatedand declared “A Jew cannot be a citizen of the Reich” and defined a Jew as anyone who was descended from three Jewish grandparents or had two Jewish grandparents and was married to a Jew, was the child of a Jew or was born as the result of extramarital intercourse with a Jew.