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From Darwin to Hitler: An Interview with Richard Weikart

By Jayson Whitehead
May 16, 2005

As soon as World War II ended and details of the German Holocaust emerged, the world began to search for answers to explain the Nazis’ motivations for the systematic eradication of millions of Jews. Since then, Adolf Hitler has come to be recognized as the embodiment of evil and is frequently depicted as an amoral, bloodthirsty devil. Yet, as Richard Weikart explains in his recent book From Darwin to Hitler, Germany’s dictator in fact hewed to a strict, if pernicious, moral code, “an evolutionary ethic that made Darwinian fitness and health the only criteria for moral standards. The Darwinian struggle for existence, especially the struggle between different races, became the sole arbiter for morality.”

Where did Hitler appropriate his belief system from? As Weikart demonstrates, Hitler and his cohorts were the beneficiaries of a new world view that had cropped up in Europe and America shortly after the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Published in 1859, Darwin’s chief thesis that organisms gradually evolve through natural selection galvanized the European intellectual community by providing a rational explanation for the development of biological life sans God. As important as The Origin of Species was to science, its impact was equally felt in the field of ethics where it provided the groundwork for a new belief system that eschewed divine creation for Darwinian natural selection. The ripple effect was almost immediate. Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, the father of modern eugenics, argued for the practice of artificial selection—weeding out the “unfit” of the human race—only a few years after The Origin of Species’ advent in 1959.

Germany-Austria was especially fascinated with the ethical connotations of Darwin’s ideas, and its intelligentsia quickly integrated them. The result was that twenty years after its debut, The Origin of Species was the force behind a burgeoning eugenics movement. In an 1880 essay, German zoologist Robby Kossman laid down its ethos, proclaiming

that the Darwinian world view must look upon the present sentimental conception of the value of the life of a human individual as an overestimate completely hindering the progress of humanity. The human state also, like every animal community of individuals, must reach an even higher level of perfection, if the possibility exists in it, through the destruction of the less well-endowed individual, for the more excellently endowed to win space for the expansion of its progeny…. The state only has an interest in preserving the more excellent life at the expense of the less excellent.

By the turn of the century, declarations like Kossman’s were a common part of any German intellectual’s vernacular. Delivered dramatically, they often took on characteristics similar to those of the biologist Arnold Dodel. “The new world view actually rests on the theory of evolution,” he wrote in 1904. “On it we have to construct a new ethics.… All values will be revalued.” Ernst Haeckel was the most renowned German Darwinist (many of his books went through several reprintings) and perhaps its most passionate defender. Stressing that natural selection be applied to humans, he argued for its extension to all areas of life. He and fellow social Darwinists vehemently opposed any belief system that advocated the existence of a soul, instead holding that man had no free will; biology dictated everything, even morals.

As a result, notions of good and bad were shattered. Under the social Darwinist model, whatever facilitated the biological improvement of the human race was good, anything that hampered its development evil. As eugenics arguments gained traction, groups like the Society for Race Hygiene were formed to disseminate Darwin’s ideas and often ended up advocating artificial selection. Most eugenics arguments focused on how to keep the weaker elements of society—the disabled, the mentally retarded, repeat criminals and alcoholics—from reproducing (all were considered hereditary traits). Only by purifying the higher evolved, the social Darwinists argued, could the human race properly evolve. Of course, the white German was assumed to be the most evolved. As a result, most eugenicists had a harsh view of other races, believing them to be a less evolved form of human. Many argued that other ethnicities—aborigines, native Americans, blacks, East Asians—were in fact closer to the ape than to their level of human. Haeckel explained in The Natural History of Creation that “between the most highly developed animal soul and the least developed human soul there exists only a small quantitative difference, but no qualitative difference….” The social Darwinists had turned the traditional ideal of the sanctity of life upside down.

As bold and brash as the social Darwinists were in their rhetoric, they were less certain in how to execute their proposals. While some argued for compulsory sterilization of the “unfit” (a practice adopted in Sweden, America and other countries), others simply maintained that the weaker elements should be encouraged to refrain from reproducing. Darwinists were equally torn on topics such as war and abortion, some contending that they disproportionately reduced the able-bodied population while others believed them to be effective abettors of the evolutionary process. The one thing all social Darwinists agreed on was that whatever aided the fit and suppressed the unfit was moral and proper.

Into this environment stepped the Austrian-born Hitler, writing in Mein Kampf (1925): “A stronger race will supplant the weaker, since the drive for life in its final form will decimate every ridiculous fetter of the so-called humaneness of individuals, in order to make place for the humaneness of nature, which destroys the weak to make place for the strong.” Subjugating all of humanity to the evolutionary process, he took the next step of arguing that the destruction of the weak by the strong was humane. When he set up the “Aryan” German as the exemplar of the most highly evolved and the Jew as its weakest, or most immoral, the Nazis were born.

In From Darwin to Hitler, Richard Weikart, an associate professor of modern European history at California State University, documents the tremendous rise of Darwinian ethics in Germany. By demonstrating the depth of its reach in German society, he makes a compelling case that social Darwinism laid the basis for Hitler’s extreme moral code. Weikart also points to elements of Darwin that continue to affect today’s culture. oldSpeak recently interviewed the author by e-mail.

JW: Was there something unique about Germany in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century that made it so susceptible to Darwin’s ideas?

Richard Weikart: Materialism and positivism (agnosticism) were probably stronger in German universities than elsewhere in Europe by the mid-nineteenth century, and many of the earliest and most vocal proponents of Darwinism were materialists or positivists of some sort. Historicism and biblical criticism were also strong intellectual currents in Germany, preparing the ground for the reception of Darwinism.

JW: Pre-Darwin and concurrent with social Darwinism, there was a movement in Europe to break from Judeo-Christian tradition. It seems that Darwin gave many of these movements the foundation they were desperately seeking. Is this accurate?

RW: Yes, many materialists were jubilant when Darwin published his theory and immediately jumped on the Darwinist bandwagon. They used Darwinism as a club against their religious opponents. Karl Marx, for example, stated that Darwin provided the natural-historical foundation for his views. Friedrich Engels crowed that Darwin had demolished teleology in nature. Ludwig Büchner and Karl Vogt, two prominent scientific materialists in the 1850s, embraced Darwinism with alacrity and used it to buttress their materialist position. However, there’s another side to this story. Many young people in the late nineteenth century were converted to materialism through Darwinism. Karl Kautsky, a leading socialist thinker in late nineteenth-century Germany, for instance, confessed that Darwin’s explanation for the origin of morality won him over to materialism.

JW: The blunt discussion of eugenics was very commonplace in turn of the century Germany. Books openly advocating practices like sterilization of the disabled, retarded and criminal sold well, for instance. As an American, it’s hard to imagine that such books if published here would not be condemned with an immense broad moral outrage. Was there moral outrage in Germany?

RW: These ideas were published widely in the United States in the early twentieth century, too.  This was not just a German phenomenon. Some opposition to eugenics arose in the U.S. and Europe, mostly from Roman Catholics, conservative Protestants and a few leftists. However, most leftists and mainline Protestants, following the lead of many vocal scientists and medical elites, embraced eugenics, including compulsory sterilization. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld compulsory sterilization laws in the famous Buck v. Bell decision of 1927.

JW: Eugenics did take hold in America in the early twentieth century, and tens of thousands were sterilized. Did Hitler, in taking social Darwinism to its furthest horrific extremes, impact how eugenics was discussed here?

RW: Social Darwinism and eugenics were already being undermined in the U.S. by the 1930s and 1940s, especially in the fields of anthropology and psychology where cultural determinism and behaviorism were becoming ascendant. Hitler’s eugenics policies, however, did bring disrepute to eugenics and the term eugenics was abandoned by most advocates, even those who continued to uphold the same ideas. What actually happened, however, by the 1960s and thereafter, is that eugenics continued to operate, but under different names and in a more individualistic, rather than collectivist, manner. It now became genetic screening, genetic counseling, embryo selection, selective abortion, etc.

JW: In many of the eugenics discussions of the early twentieth century, various intellectuals urged that the Darwinian struggle be extended to humanity without providing any guide as to how to carry that out. Were Darwin and his devotees irresponsible in not foreseeing the potential danger of applying his theories to ethics?

RW: Darwin recognized that his views did not provide any objective, transcendent foundation for morality. He stated, “A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward [and these are Darwin’s views], can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones.” However, Darwin, like most Victorian liberals, was optimistic about human nature, and he believed that humans had social instincts that would lead them to obey the Golden Rule. Darwin did not take seriously enough the dark side of human nature, and his views provided no moral fulcrum to oppose anyone obeying sinful, aggressive instincts.

JW: The promulgation of Darwinian ethics led to a rejection of the Judeo-Christian idea of the sanctity of human life. Was genocide, such as that perpetrated by Hitler, inevitable?

RW: No, the Holocaust required other layers of thought, for example anti-Semitism, which was not derived from Darwinian ethics. However, once the sanctity of human life is swept away, this opens the door to all manner of atrocities, including infanticide, involuntary euthanasia, assisted suicide, abortion, warfare and sometimes even genocide.

JW: Would the eugenics movement have existed without Darwin?

RW: There have been some thinkers who promoted eugenics of some sort apart from Darwinism (Plato, for instance). So, logically, one can embrace eugenics without Darwin. However, historically Darwinism was the key catalyst for the rise of eugenics, and most early eugenicists argued overtly that their views were based on Darwinism.

JW: Did Darwin ever express an opinion on the arguments for artificial selection? Is artificial selection an adulteration of Darwin’s original ideas?

RW: Artificial selection of humans to improve heredity, for example eugenics, was first proposed in the 1860s by Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin) after he read Darwin’s Origin of Species. When Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, he expressed ambivalence toward Galton’s ideas. He admitted that certain modern advances might be biologically deleterious to humanity, but he still thought that natural selection was powerful enough to overcome these allegedly degenerative effects. In line with his general socio-political views, he maintained a laissez-faire attitude, but he suggested that those with poor hereditary traits should voluntarily refrain from marriage.

JW: Certain Darwinists were pacifists while other prominent Germans “used Darwinism to justify warfare as a path to progress and improvement, as well as to dismiss all moral considerations.” Does the debate that existed around war expose the difficulties in translating Darwin to ethics?

RW: Yes, Darwinists could not agree among themselves concerning the ethical implications of Darwinism on many questions, including sexual morality, marriage, war, infanticide, etc. Some Darwinists denied that Darwinism had any ethical implications, though most naturalistic Darwinists thought it did. Today there seem to be two main camps among Darwinists.  Evolutionary psychologists and socio-biologists generally uphold the view that morality is an illusion originating through the Darwinian struggle for existence. As the Darwinian philosopher Michael Ruse has stated, “Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction and has no being beyond or without this.” The other camp denies that Darwinism has any ethical implications.

JW: How is Darwinism manifested in our ethics today?

RW: I wouldn’t say that the devaluing of human life in our society, which we see manifested in abortion, infanticide, assisted suicide, etc., is solely a manifestation of Darwinism. However, some ethicists, such as Peter Singer and James Rachels, have overtly argued for the legitimacy of these practices, based on Darwinism. Many other factors influence our values, such as the desire for “sexual liberation” or moral autonomy. However, Darwinism is also interconnected with these developments in complicated ways.

JW: A recent study noted the increase of America’s criminal population, which has consistently risen for several decades. The social Darwinists believed in permanent incarceration of criminals. Are there similarities in how Americans view criminals?

RW: Those who advocated permanent incarceration of habitual criminals in the early twentieth century held the view that criminality (and immorality in general) had biological roots. Some Americans today agree with this view, such as those searching for the genes for alcoholism, violence, homosexuality, etc. However, many American scholars reject biological determinism in favor of environmental or cultural determinism. Yet others still uphold free will and personal responsibility. These three views are still in competition among American jurists, it seems to me.

JW: Is there a direct line from Darwin to abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, even physician-assisted suicide?

RW: I hesitate to say that it’s a direct line from Darwin to abortion, euthanasia or infanticide because Darwin himself did not advocate these things and some Darwinists do not approve of them. However, elements of Darwinian theory did contribute historically and philosophically to the devaluing of human life. Darwinists themselves discussed the implications of Darwinism for altering our understanding of human life and death. Some of the factors that Darwinists stressed were the breaking down of distinctions between animals and humans, denial of the human soul, a new conception of the meaning of death, the human struggle for existence and a biological inequality among humans. Also, most of the early advocates of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia were avid Darwinists who thought Darwinism undermined the sanctity of life ethic.

JW: Hitler is routinely depicted as the embodiment of evil. Yet, as you write, he also hewed to a rigid moral code. Is it important to consider this when discussing the Nazis?

RW: I think so. There are three possible positions relating Hitler to morality: 1) he simply ignored morality; 2) he was amoral; or 3) he embraced a coherent morality that he used to justify his actions. Because of Hitler’s perverse atrocities, most historians have assumed that one of the first two choices must be true. However, in the course of my research on evolutionary ethics in Germany, I recognized that what many of these Darwinists wrote about ethics had striking similarities to Nazi ideology. Though I had not originally intended to discuss Hitler at all, the connections became too clear to ignore. After I sent my book to press, Claudia Koonz published a book, The Nazi Conscience, which also argues that the Nazis had a coherent vision of ethics. She doesn’t explain the Darwinian underpinnings of it, but she does demonstrate that it was a racial ethic, which is accurate. I’m currently working on a sequel to my book that will explore Hitler’s views on morality and ethics.

My biggest concern about this reinterpretation of Nazism is that some will try to use this new interpretation as an object lesson about the dangers of embracing any form of ethics, including the Christian ethic. I think the object lesson is different. For me, it shows the danger of embracing a wrong ethic that denies that some are worthy of love and compassion.