Hitler found inspiration in American eugenics programs for his Nazi breeding programs, experiments on twins, concentration camps, the Holocaust, and more
(12-19-2017, updated 07-11-2017) An article I saw yesterday: “The Nazi Breeding and Infanticide Program You Probably Never Knew About”. Yeah, there’s a reason you probably never knew about this. In the 1920s Hitler was impressed by American eugenics programs. Rich Americans gave Germans the funds, science and technology to develop their own programs. When the Germans ran with it, Americans were quick to take credit for introducing them to the science. But when news of the concentration camps and other atrocities, like the experiments on twins carried out in Auschwitz, started pouring in, the word was barely ever heard, read or spoken again in America, even while some practices continued.
Eugenics is the “science” of perfecting a race of humans by eliminating “undesirable traits”. An Englishman first introduced the term in 1883. In America it became popular around 1900. The Civil War had taken its toll on white American men and America was experiencing unprecedented immigration. White folks felt existentially threatened and were enthusiastic about the notion that they could purposely breed blue-eyed, blond-haired white people and eliminate undesirable traits.
Articles on eugenics were published in major science journals, conferences on the topic were held, and influential people like Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell and John D. Rockefeller were big fans. Soon, many Americans fully embraced the idea. White Americans all over the country held contests for the fittest family. American eugenics programs and policies began to take shape.
In England eugenicists focused on selective breeding to “improve” the stock, but programs in the United States intended to actively eliminate “undesirable” traits, and these — for some reason — just happened to occur most frequently in poor, uneducated and minority populations. The Nazi breeding programs took after the American model.
The Eugenics Record Office (ERO), on Long Island, was founded in 1910. This “scientific” institution collected data from family trees, to see which traits were inheritable. Their purpose was “to improve the natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family”. Undesirable traits that eugenicists were interested in included pauperism; feeblemindedness; dwarfism; promiscuity; moral degeneracy; being black, Jewish, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, Eastern-European or dark-haired hill folk. I kid you not. The ERO was active until the beginning of World War Two.
So, apart from breeding programs, how did these eugenicists plan to eliminate existing undesirable traits? Through racially selective immigration policies, lifelong segregation in camps or “colonies”, miscegenation (the banning of mixed-race marriages) and forced sterilization. Oh, and both passive and active euthanasia.
Several states had eugenics programs. Though it wasn’t that controversial, some people did object to having been sterilized against their will. They went to court, but in Buck vs. Bell, the Supreme Court decided in 1927 that forced sterilization was no problem, so states were free to go right ahead with eugenics programs. Thirty-two states practiced eugenics and many thousands of female prisoners, women with mental disabilities, and women on welfare (especially black women on welfare) were sterilized with the goal of making America blond-haired and blue-eyed. Between the turn of the twentieth century and World War Two, California performed the most forced sterilizations, but the practice continued well into the 1970’s in the South, often referred to as the “Mississippi appendectomy“.
Passive euthanasia was a popular way to rid the gene pool of “defective” newborns. Often treatment would be withheld from a sick baby so it would die. More active euthanasia could take the form of exposing a baby to extreme cold or bacteria. “Lethal chambers“, later known as gas chambers (which were used in concentration camps by the Nazis to murder six million Jews and many other “undesirables”), were used as well, for people of all ages. Eugenicists believed that Americans were not ready yet for eugenic elimination of adults on a grand scale. Some states that were okay with forced sterilization balked at euthanasia, so eugenicists got creative. One mental institution in Lincoln, Illinois, fed newcomers milk from tubercular cows, their idea being that only the strong would survive.
By the 1920’s Hitler had become a fan, and rich enthusiasts like Rockefeller spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on German research labs and funding for German eugenics. By the mid-1930’s American eugenicists were amazed at the pace at which Germans were implementing policies to clear their country of undesirables. American eugenicists were proudly taking credit for Germany’s eugenics policies. Exhibits of German accomplishments in the field — especially their experiments on twins — were held in California. The superintendent of a state hospital in Virginia even told a local newspaper admiringly that “the Germans are beating us at our own game”. One Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer was particularly admired in America for his research experiments on twins.
From 1900 to 1940 American eugenics programs were a source of pride.
Then came World War Two and Germany began gassing it’s old and weak, and soon the first news about concentration camps reached America. From one day to the next there was not one more mention of eugenics in the American media. Not a peep. Suddenly Americans weren’t in such a hurry anymore to take credit for Germany’s “epoch-making program”. America was at war with Germany, the Nazi breeding programs, the concentration camps and the genocide went too far, and American eugenics programs were no longer to be associated with the Germans.
The article I mentioned at the beginning of this post describes the breeding programs that involved encouraging and forcing “pure Aryan” women to get pregnant from “pure Aryan” men and taking the babies to be educated by the SS, as well as the active euthanasia of “impure” babies. It doesn’t mention eugenics either, nor the fact that American eugenicists were the first to have breeding and infanticide programs with the goal of eventually eliminating every. single. person. in the country who was not white, blond and blue-eyed. The Nazi breeding programs just got much further because Hitler’s Germany was not a democracy.
Some other facts:
- An assistant of the aforementioned Otmar Freiherr vor Verschuer went to work in Auschwitz, one of the notorious Nazi concentration camps. His name was Joseph Mengele. He, too, did experiments on twins.
- Verschuer was never prosecuted. After the war he reestablished contact with his friends in California and a few years later he was back on the job as a recognized scientist in Germany.
- Eugenics was renamed “human genetics“, which eventually became a more respected science, giving us the human genome, for example.
- People who are still believers today often refer to it as having “good genes”. Trump claims his uncle was a genius, and that he inherited those good genes, and he regularly boasts that his children have good genes. His father was a big fan, and genetic or not, unfortunately Donald Trump inherited that undesirable trait.
(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “American Eugenics and the Holocaust”, 12-19-2017)
- Black, Edwin. “The Horrifying Roots of Nazi Eugenics”. San Francisco Chronicle, 2003, (via History News) Networkhttp://historynewsnetwork.org/article/1796
- Denhoed, Andrea. “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement”. The New Yorker, April 27, 2016. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-forgotten-lessons-of-the-american-eugenics-movement
- Rivard, Laura. “America’s Hidden History : The Eugenics Movement”. Scitable, September 18, 2014. https://www.nature.com/scitable/forums/genetics-generation/america-s-hidden-history-the-eugenics-movement-123919444
- Samaan, A.E. “A Keen Understanding of Hitler’s Policies : Surveying the American Zeitgeist”. June 19, 2013. http://www.academia.edu/3744468
Header image: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Eugenics_in_the_United_States