American Eugenics and the Holocaust


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Image: labdish.cshl.edu

I came across an article yesterday on Timeline.com: “The Nazi Breeding and Infanticide Program You Probably Never Knew About”. The article describes the Nazi breeding program 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.

There is a reason you may never have known about this.

Eugenics is the “science” of perfecting a race of humans by eliminating “undesirable traits”.  The term was first introduced by an Englishman 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.

The Eugenics Record Office (ERO), on Long Island, was founded in 1910. This was a “scientific” institution that 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.

America fully embraced eugenics. Articles about eugenics were published in major science journals, conferences were held on the topic, and influential people like Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell and John D. Rockefeller were big fans. Contests were held all over the country for the “fittest family”.

In England eugenics focused on selective breeding to “improve” the stock, but in America eugenicists wanted to actively eliminate “undesirable” traits, and these — for some reason — just happened to occur most frequently in poor, uneducated and minority populations.

So how did these eugenicists plan to eliminate undesirable traits? Through racially selective immigration policies, lifelong segregation in camps or “colonies”, miscegenation (the banning of mixed-race marriages) and compulsory 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. However, Buck vs. Bell, a Supreme Court decision in 1927, claimed that compulsory sterilization was no problem, thus legitimizing states 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 compulsory 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 forms were exposing a baby to extreme cold or bacteria.  “Lethal chambers”, later known as gas chambers, were used as well, for people of all ages. It was believed that Americans were not ready yet for eugenic elimination of adults on a grand scale, and some states that were okay with mandatory sterilization balked at euthanasia, so eugenicists got creative. One mental institution in Lincoln, Illinois fed newcomers milk from tubercular cows, the 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 eugenics scientists in Germany. By the mid-1930’s American eugenicists were amazed at the pace at which Germans were implementing eugenics 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; and  the superintendent of a state hospital in Virginia admiringly told a local newspaper that “the Germans are beating us at out own game”.

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”; in fact, they didn’t want to be associated with it at all. An assistant of Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, much lauded in America for his research experiments on twins, went to work in Auschwitz. His name was Joseph Mengele.

Almost immediately after the war, in 1946, the Nuremberg Trials were held, in — you guessed it — Nuremberg, Germany. The major players in Hitler’s Nazi regime were put on trial, their actions laid out in great detail, not only to determine their guilt or innocence, but also, ostensibly, to get to the bottom of the motives for the Holocaust, for the whole world to see. Considering this goal, and considering that the trials were referred to as “the most important criminal case in human history”, it was more than strange that the prosecutor was not one of America’s top criminal lawyers, but rather an obscure communications law attorney.

It was also strange — in fact, it was unheard of — that the prosecution team “had the very, very, very unusual right to censor the evidence presented by the defense.” And what was censored exactly? Any mention of eugenics. Though the German war criminals defended compulsory sterilization programs by quoting Buck vs. Bell,  the word ‘eugenics’ was never once mentioned, even though it was a common term — the only term used in America and Germany to describe and “scientifically” justify any racial selection and elimination. Clearly the Americans didn’t want the public to see any relation between the Holocaust and American eugenics, even though American eugenicists had so enthusiastically shared their knowledge with the Germans and encouraged them by financing German eugenics institutes and German eugenicists.

The article I mentioned at the beginning of this post also makes no mention of eugenics or of the fact that American eugenicists were the first to have breeding and infanticide programs with the goal of eventually eliminating every. single. person. who was not white, blond and blue-eyed. The Nazis just got much further because Hitler’s Germany was not a democracy.

Fun facts:

  • 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 believers in actual eugenics 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 of eugenics, and genetic or not, unfortunately Donald Trump inherited that undesirable trait.

 

Sources:

America’s Hidden History : The Eugenics Movement / Laura Rivard. – Scitable, September 18, 2014. https://www.nature.com/scitable/forums/genetics-generation/america-s-hidden-history-the-eugenics-movement-123919444

The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement / Andrea Denhoed. – The New Yorker, April 27, 2016.  https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-forgotten-lessons-of-the-american-eugenics-movement

The Horrifying Roots of Nazi Eugenics / Edwin Black. – San Francisco Chronicle, 2003, via History News Networkhttp://historynewsnetwork.org/article/1796

A Keen Understanding of Hitler’s Policies : Surveying the American Zeitgeist / A.E. Samaan. – June 19, 2013. http://www.academia.edu/3744468

 

5 responses to “American Eugenics and the Holocaust

  1. Reblogged this on The 99% Blog and commented:
    There is so much more — so much really bad stuff — about American history that has been hidden from us all. Thanks to the Internet, it’s all coming out now. Highly recommended reading for ‘truthers’….

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    • Indeed. I will probably mention it in a later post as well, but the cover-up of America’s role in Germany’s development of its eugenics policies made it clear that the prosecution was hiding something at the Nuremberg trials — people just didn’t know what it was. That is how the holocaust deniers came up with their conspiracy theory. So it still affects us today.

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  2. Pingback: Author Interview – Lior Gavra – “BitterSweet” (Contemporary Poetry) | toofulltowrite (I've started so I'll finish)

  3. This is such an important part of our past to remember. If we descend into “Germany was the enemy and America the hero” of the 20th century, we won’t see that the roles may be reversed for the 21st.

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