How the Nazis undermined eugenics

These German parents hold an allegedly 'Aryan' girl  who was born in a centre for eugenics during WWII The Nazi regime wanted to build a super-race of people who looked like and had the genetic qualities of this family, and would stop those who didn't fit the bill from reproducing - through whatever means necessary

On 14 July 1933, the Nazis implemented a compulsory sterilisation law. It was a step towards what they believed would be a more perfect human race, using the scientific theories of eugenics. But their use of eugenics to justify their actions, ended up undermining its credibility as a science.

The Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring marked the start of the Nazi regime's eugenics programme. It argued that those they called "defectives" should not be allowed to reproduce. At the same time, it promoted the selection of only those individuals it deemed the best for procreation.

One of Hitler's first acts after passing the law was to create more than 200 genetic health courts to deal with those suffering from conditions such as schizophrenia, Huntington's disease, severe deformities and even alcoholism. Doctors were legally obliged to register anyone they thought met the criteria, resulting in around 400,000 sterilisations between 1933 and 1945.

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In the concentration camps, super cold carbon dioxide would be forced into women's uteruses”

End Quote Prof Robert Proctor Author, Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis

In his polemic Mein Kampf, Hitler promoted eugenics as something which could only benefit society: "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."

Dr Marius Turda, a modern historian at Oxford Brookes University says: "It was about creating a healthy, racially strong society. Those who did not 'fit in' had to be stopped from procreating. [Nazi] eugenicists targeted those who cost the state a lot of money in terms of social and medical care."

Dr Turda explains that "when the 1933 law was introduced, it assumed both medical (the recommendation of the physician) and legal dimensions (a judge to sanction it). Cases would be presented and discussed and in some instances, people could request a re-examination to prove they did not have a hereditary disease or that they were brought to the court by mistake. Successful appeals were rare but it shows the Nazis were not omnipotent - yet."

The racial elements the Nazis became infamous for soon came into force. In the 1930s, around 400 children, known as the "Rhineland bastards", born to German mothers but whose fathers were WWI French-African soldiers were sterilised because they were considered to be "enemies of race".

Nazi attacks

A pile of human bones and skulls  in 1944 at the Nazi concentration camp, Majdanek

"The procedure itself was quite dangerous. Females were sterilised by having their fallopian tubes tied - it was an invasive operation. Men had vasectomies. As the years went on, the Nazis developed 'rapid sterilisation'. People would be made to sit on a lot of foam - underneath was an x-ray machine which would bombard them until the job was done. In the concentration camps, super cold carbon dioxide would be forced into women's uteruses and the assembly line method of sterilisation became a speciality," says Professor Robert Proctor of Stanford University.

The situation worsened with the Action T4 programme set up in 1939 and in place until the end of the war. Around 300,000 people are believed to have been killed because they were considered 'life unworthy of life'.

"The programme was initially directed at the German population - the insane and the criminals who cost the state money. The problem had not been solved by sterilisation, so the solution was brutal and pragmatic. Germany was about to embark on a global war and needed beds for soldiers," says Dr Turda.

Genocide under the Nazis

  • Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany persecuted and killed vast numbers of people who did not conform to its ideas of racial and biological "purity"
  • The victims of Adolf Hitler included millions of Jews living in Germany and other countries occupied by the Nazis who were killed in the Holocaust

Source: BBC History

The Nazi regime also harboured secret plans to support the breeding of an elite Aryan 'master' race. The 'Lebensborn' children were originally intended to counter Germany's high abortion rate, falling birth rates and encourage the eugenic thinking already in place. The programme supported the birth of children who fitted the Aryan criteria. It started in Germany but soon moved into other occupied countries including Norway, Poland, Denmark and France. After the war, many of these children were ostracised.

Yet during the Nuremberg Trials, the Nazi doctors argued that eugenics as a means to shape society had been used elsewhere.

Briton Sir Francis Galton coined the term 'eugenics' in 1883, describing it as "the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage".

In the US, the state of Indiana had implemented a forced sterilisation law affecting those with mental health conditions in 1907, which remained in effect until 1974. In California those with three criminal convictions, prisoners with particular 'perversions' and the 'feeble-minded' were sterilised in a process described as 'asexualisation'.

Eugenics also had supporters in the UK. "Britain didn't go ahead with sterilisation though," says Dr Debbie Challis, author of The Archaeology of Race. I think people were unwilling to let the state control independent abilities." But the sterilisation of the mentally ill did occur in Belgium, Brazil, Canada and Sweden, with some programmes remaining in place up until the late 1970s.

Sterilisation in the UK and Europe

While eugenics is now considered a pseudoscience - and after the Nazis, one with murderous consequences - it was once a respectable branch of the social sciences.

The term 'eugenics', meaning "good birth", was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, an English scientist who pushed the University College London to found a department to study the field.

While eugenic sterilisation never became official policy in the UK - in part due to opposition from the Catholic church - Finland, Norway, and Sweden adopted sterilisation laws in the 1930s.

Between 1933 and 1945, more than 400,000 Germans were sterilised under Nazi "racial hygiene" laws, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Nazi use of eugenics meant that something once highly regarded by many became something for people to disassociate themselves from. Nazi sterilisation laws were condemned by other eugenicists as a "direct infringement of human liberty" and "an expression of Germany turning into a totalitarian racial state," according to Dr Turda.

Various eugenics societies and journals changed their names to distinguish themselves from what the Nazis had done.

But although the term has fallen into disrepute, there are some that argue we should not be frightened to use it today.

Dr Turda says that: "Many are afraid of even using the word 'eugenics'. Instead we have 'genetic engineering' or 'human enhancement' but it all boils down to a basic formulation."

In Eugenics: The Future of Human Life in the 21st Century, molecular biologist David Galton suggests the term should be used because of its 'cautionary' value.

Dalton writes: "Call it what you will, but if your aim is to use scientific methodology to make the best of the inherited component for the health and well-being of the children of the next generation, it is by definition 'eugenics'".

Just recently the UK government gave the green light to an IVF technique using DNA from three people which could eliminate some diseases passed from mother to child.

As Dr Turda says: 'We look at science to provide an answer to our desire for perfection. Everyone wants to have healthy babies - but humans are, by nature, imperfect creatures."

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