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Racial Hygiene: The Beginning of the End
The idea of biological degeneration had been studied by doctors, psychiatrists, and scientists many decades before the 1930’s and the Nazi regime were ever in power. The idea that the integrity of populations was being undermined by behaviors of alcoholism, criminality, or mental deficiency was a topic for researchers before anyone even knew who Adolf Hitler was. In this essay I will discuss the evolution of a concept that would become known as racial hygiene. In my examination of this idea I will explore the educational tools, the propaganda machine, and the eventual mobilization of a nation towards this ideological organization of a supreme race in Nazi Germany.
The aforementioned idea that nations were being undermined by increasing cohorts of unfit individuals has some scientific and political significance. Cell biologist August Weissman coined the term defective ‘germ plasm’ and contended that it was this defective plasm that was to blame for these unfit individuals’ behaviors. In the early 1900’s there were a rising number of eugenic pioneers that would try and continue the study of the ideas of Weissman. There was a ‘gene race,’ much like the more contemporary space race, that occurred between various countries around the turn of the century.
As these studies became better known, their political implications became magnified. In 1909 the world’s first professorial chair in eugenics was established. Now as international scientists begin to explore the possibility of a defective germ plasm existing political divides begin to form. As the studies became more and more intense the idea that a nation could be improved by selective breeding became the focus. This would eventually become the premise for eugenics theorists.
The debate over the validity of the theory of eugenics was the question posed by “ethically aware and responsible” scientists to prove eugenics without using pseudo-scientific assumptions.2 Although the challenges to eugenics were strong the post World War I depression would bring the rise to more intense challenges against the conservation of people who were burdensome both biologically and economically to a nation. A number of nations that were suffering mass depression would look to eugenics as one of the reasons for their pain and suffering.
As the debate over eugenics continued to keep scientists on both sides of the argument hard at work, discussions of euthanasia would begin to surface. One of the main arguments that arose was that there could be an opportunity to reduce costs.
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It could almost seem as if we have witnessed a change in the concept of humanity. I simply mean that we were forced by the terrible exigencies of war to ascribe a different value to the life of the individual than was the case before…But in emphasizing the right of the healthy to stay alive, which is an inevitable result of periods of necessity, there is also a great danger of going too far: a danger that the self-sacrificing subordination of the strong to the needs of the helpless ill, which lies at the heart of any true concern for the sick, will give ground to the demand of the healthy to live.
The anxieties that were raised by Bonhoeffer had a great deal of validity. There definitely is a concern when we begin to challenge people’s rights to live due to incapacities that exist within them.
As the complexities of this theory of eugenics were battled out by scholars, doctors, and politicians the conditions in German life were still in a state of depression. A depression is exactly what an idea that challenged the basic values of human life needed to be considered and granted any sense of legitimacy. The destitution of the German people was beginning to wear on the psyche of the nation. Ewald Meltzer who was an advocate of sterilizations would test the fate of the vulnerable. By the mid 1920s Meltzer had documented the desire of some parents to be disburdened of their mentally incapable children to relieve them of the emotional and financially responsibilities of raising such children. This introduced to Germany the idea that it could be considered a possibility to dispose of the less capable in order to free resources for the strong.
We start to see more exposure to this idea of eugenic infanticide as the post WWI decade of the 1920s nears a close. Hitler touched on the subject in a speech at the 1929 Nuremberg Party rally:
If Germany was to get a million children a year and was to remove 700-800,000 of the weakest people then the final result might even be an increase in strength. The most dangerous thing is for us to cut off the natural process of selection and thereby rob ourselves of the possibility of acquiring able people. The first-born are not always the most talented or strongest people…As a result of our modern sentimental humanitarianism we are trying to maintain the weak at the expense of the healthy.
This speech by Hitler would mark the beginning of a long public campaign in an attempt by Hitler to give salience to the idea of a necessity for racial cleansing in Germany. This campaign would be multifaceted. One of the most important facets for gaining legitimacy to this idea was gaining scholarly backing.
When the Nazis came to power they restructured the school system to try and instill some of this racial ideology in their students. In order to for this to be effective there needed to be a concerted effort to coordinate the teaching profession in order to gain political commitment and reliability to the Nazi ideology. A group called the national Socialist teachers’ Association (NALB) was established in 1929 for the purpose of indoctrinating teachers into the ideological principles of such topics as eugenics. It was extremely important to the party to get as many teachers as possible to endorse the ideas of the party.
This effort was successful as by 1932 there were 320,000 members of the NSLB, which constituted 97 percent of all teachers. Most of the teaching guidelines were derived from Hitler’s ideas on education where he professed that the “rearing of healthy bodies” was more important than the learning of “pure knowledge.” The subject of German was altered to focus on “German awareness” and the importance of strong German qualities. The teaching of biology lent itself to include the necessity to cultivate “racial health” by choosing the correct spouses of Aryan decent. The importance of bearing large families within a racially healthy relationship was also stressed.
As this initial exposure to the early ideas of eugenics and racial health became prevalent in the schoolhouses and universities, they also became a larger topic for the political forum of the Nazi party. The speech given by Hitler at the Nuremberg rally in 1929 was only the beginning of what would be a political onslaught that would be aimed at the heart of the German psyche. One of the most important features of this campaign to cement the ideology of eugenics was the anti-Semitic policies and opinions that were aimed to demonize the “lesser classes” in Germany.
In 1933 the first step was taken in this war against Jews in particular with the initiation of a boycott on Jewish businesses on April 1. This would only last two days but it would mark the beginning of a host of laws between April and October that would be enacted to exclude “non-Aryans” from the civil service, the legal profession, judgeships, the medical profession, teaching positions, cultural and entertainment enterprises and the press. There would also be acts that would limit the number of “non-Aryans” that would be allowed to matriculate in secondary schools and universities to 1.5 percent of the total enrollment.10
The idea of a “Law to Protect German Blood” was introduced to Hitler by the Reich Doctors’ Leader Gerhard Wagner. Hitler embraced this idea, and shortly thereafter he enacted the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. This law would prohibit the marriage between “Jews and citizens of German or kindred blood” and would forbid “sexual relations outside marriages between Jews and nationals of German or kindred blood. This law would be included in a slew of racial laws that would become known as the Nuremberg Laws introduced at the annual Nazi party rally in Nuremberg on September 15, 1935. “The ‘Nuremberg laws’ effectively separated the Jews from the Germans politically, legally, and socially.
The Nuremberg laws were definitely a sign of the beginning of the end for the Jewish population. Hitler was effectively establishing his idea of a pure Aryan race and nation. After the passage of this notorious set of laws the propaganda campaign of the necessity to rid the nation of ‘impurity’ would escalate. By November 1938, the persecution of non-Aryan individuals would reach a new height. On November 7, an official at the German embassy in Paris was shot. The assassin was Hirschel Grynszpan who was the son of a Polish Jew who had been recently expelled from Germany. Two days later Hitler’s propaganda Chief Joseph Goebbels called for a nationwide revenge against the Jews.
This would call for the drastic actions that occurred on November 9th and 10th of the Kristallnacht, or night of glass. The assassination of the third secretary would lead to the burning of synagogues, violent encounters with people of Jewish decent, and the destruction of Jewish businesses and homes. These actions would leave one hundred Jews dead, seven thousand Jewish businesses destroyed, and many thousands more that were tormented in the events of the Kristallnacht. One description of these horrible acts and the scene in Leipzig were given by Nora Levin:
Jewish dwellings were smashed into and contents demolished or looted. In one of the Jewish sections, an eighteen-year-old boy was hurled from a three-story window to land with both legs broken on a street littered with burning beds and other household furniture…Jewish shop windows by the hundreds were systematically and wantonly smashed throughout the city at a loss estimated at several millions of marks…the main streets of the city were a positive litter of shattered plate glass…the debacle was executed by SS men and Storm Troopers, not in uniform, each group having been provided with hammers, axes, crowbars and incendiary bombs.
This was the most audacious systematic act of anti-Semitism to this point in the campaign. The aftermath of this event would leave scars for many and was the indication of many more acts of persecution that would be felt by the Jewish and non-Aryan community in Germany.
As war broke out the stakes of the anti-Semitic campaign would increase. World War II would provide Hitler the major case that he needed to ‘solve’ the problem of the Jews. There would be an important relation between the war and the annihilation of the Jews made by Hitler. Since Hitler had always associated Soviet bolshevism with the Jews, he made the case that it was important to destroy the enemy wherever he could be found. Furthermore, a war against Soviet bolshevism was a war against the Jews.14 Hitler would bring a key player into this war against the Jews. This man was Heinrich Himmler. He shared many of the ideological views of Hitler’s development of a pure Aryan race. The main responsibility of Himmler, who was the leader of the SS, was to carry out a “final solution” to the Jewish threat.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the mass murders of the Jews begin. It was the role of Himmler and the SS to lead these killings but the ordinary police would also take part. The killings would take place on a massive scale. In September 1941, over 33,000 Jews were massacred in two days. “They were mowed down by machine gun fire and fell into a large ravine, which was then covered with earth to hide the bodies. ” There would be many more like this in the hundreds of towns that Germany would occupy in the Soviet Union.
For the Nazi regime, the killings that took place in the Soviet Union would mark the start of the extermination of the Jews of Europe—which was Hitler’s Endlosung (or “Final Solution). The actual systematic attempt to exterminate non-Aryans in Europe is a topic for another essay. It is important, however, to note that the events and ideas presented in this essay laid the groundwork for the holocaust. Furthermore, it is extremely important that we learn a lesson from the events of over half a century ago that it is possible for a nation to get so far from normal human decency that the genocide of the masses can take place.
“One cannot afford sentimentality in a situation such as this.
The Jews would kill us if we did not defend ourselves. It’s a life and death struggle between the Aryan race and the Jewish bacillus. No other government, and no other regime, could summon the strength for such a
general solution to this question .”
—Joseph Goebbels (1942)
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