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Nigel Hunt, "Nazi Eugenics and American Racism"

The Nazi Connection

Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism 

by Stefan Kühl, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002

Reviewed by Nigel Hunt,

Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 382-383 ( 17 September )

nigel hunt

This book is concerned with exploring the relationship between the eugenics movement in pre-war USA and the German National Socialist policies and experiments between 1933-1945. It has been widely known that the USA, particularly some states, had racist policies in place long before the Nazis came to power in Germany. The Nazi policy of mass sterilisation of mentally handicapped people followed very similar policies that were applied across the USA from the early years of the Twentieth Century. Bodies such as the International Eugenics Movement had a great influence in the USA and also on the policies of the Nazis that eventually led to the extermination programme carried out in Germany.The book is a detailed study of the relationship between the USA and German scientists during the first half of the Twentieth Century. It considers German-American relations within the International Eugenics movement before 1933, the support of Nazi race policy through the International Eugenics Movement, sterilisation in Germany and the USA, American Eugenicists in Nazi Germany, concepts of race and science, the influence of Nazi race policies on Eugenics in the USA, American support in Nazi Germany, and the temporary end of relations between German and American Eugenicists with the advent of the Second World War.

The book is well-researched and contains extensive references and notes, which occupy around 50 pages -- about one third of the book. Kühl draws on material published in the USA and in Germany, and elsewhere as appropriate.

Kühl explores the international nature of the eugenics movement, beginning with the first international meeting organised by the International Society for Racial Hygiene in Dresden in 1911. The meeting drew people from all over Europe and the United States. A further meeting the following year included the son of Charles Darwin and Winston Churchill as representatives -- the latter being the Home Secretary at the time. At this time the eugenics movement was respected in the scientific community. German eugenicists admired the success of people in the USA in obtaining eugenics legislation and receiving extensive financial support. The first major meeting after World War One excluded German delegates. Later, in 1923 the Germans would not take part in meetings with French and Belgian scientists because their countries still occupied parts of Germany. Instead, ties between Germany and the USA were strengthened; to the extent that the Rockefeller Foundation helped establish and support several German institutes.

Both German and US eugenicists supported the case for sterilising handicapped people, and were successful in obtaining legislation. In the USA there were both sterilisation and immigration policies. German supporters of legislation successfully put forward the USA as an example of good practice. When the Nazi party came to power in Germany there was no sudden change of policy, rather an evolution of the policies already developing in both Germany and the USA. Americans went to work in Germany, and in many cases took back to the USA very positive views about Nazi policies.

It was not until Hitler had been in power some time that American eugenicists expressed serious doubts about Nazi policies. In 1936 a group of American geneticists proposed a motion proclaiming their dismay and the way racial policies were developing in Germany. The Nazi government’s response was to boycott a planned eugenics congress in Moscow. That congress was itself postponed until 1939, when it was held in Edinburgh. At this meeting a group of leading eugenicists -- mainly from the USA -- successfully drafted a manifesto against Nazi race policy. US support for German policies had waned with the gradual realisation that the main thrust of the policy was anti-Semitic. Even though anti-Semitism was rife among US eugenicists, most considered the German policies went too far.

The Second World War intervened to stop all links between scientists of the two nations, but after the war Kühl makes it quite clear that the Eugenics movement continued -- albeit under a different name, and many of the “scientists” associated with German policies continued to work in post-war Europe. They were supported in this by people in the USA. He is clear that the attempt to separate eugenics from the Nazi programme of race improvement were only partially successful. After the war eugenicists started to use different names because the term eugenics became unacceptable. Herman Muller started to use “genetic load” and “cost of selection”. The scientific journals also changed their names. The “Annals of Eugenics” became the “Annals of HumanGenetics”, “Eugenics Quarterly” became the “Journal of Social Biology”. Eugenicists renamed themselves as population scientists, human geneticists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, and family politicians. The notion of ethnic racism was eliminated from research programmes in an attempt to separate scientists from the Holocaust. Kühl provides an excellent argument as to how combining eugenics and ethnic racism can lead to policies of extermination. He also shows quite clearly that American eugenicists had a major influence on the development of thought within Nazi Germany; yet no American eugenicist was ever brought before the Nuremberg court to stand trial for war crimes.

Kühl’s thesis is that the relationship between American and German Eugenicists had a major influence on German policies, including the policy of extermination of the handicapped. This is a clearly-argued book containing ample evidence for the thesis. It brings together a lot of research concerning the eugenics movements in the USA and Germany, and clearly demonstrates the strong influence American policies and practice had in Germany, before, during and after the Nazi period. Perhaps the main message is that the Nazis were not responsible for the introduction of eugenic ideas into Germany; the process was evolutionary, and stemmed in large part from the eugenic ideas and legislative policies in the USA during the first half of the Twentieth Century.