by Denyse O’Leary
I first determined to make a point of reading historian Richard Weikart’s meticulously researched book, From Darwin to Hitler because Darwinists were very clearly upset by the implications of his work. Some seemed obsessed with proving Weikart, who teaches at California State University (Stanislaus) not only wrong but dishonest and irresponsible – which he certainly isn’t.
I am glad I read this magisterial work, because I now understand much better the relationship between 19th century Darwinism and the rise of Hitler. Weikart unearths so many old, almost buried 19th and early 20th century German sources. Indeed, one can only wonder at his patience, systematically reading through the many, many articles and books of long-dead eugenicists, imperialists, pacifists, socialists, and such.
Weikart unearths several lines of evidence that are critical for understanding what happened. Darwin himself was a wealthy, upper crust, peaceful British racist, regretting the inevitable demise of the lesser forms of human life. No one, least of all Darwin, thought that he should do anything to make it happen. However, in Germany, both rightists and leftists wanted to use Darwin’s theory to rid the nation of people that they felt were holding it back. They had no problem with the idea of struggle or violence; it was their job, in their own opinion, to make sure that the right side won.
Racist eugenics was accepted as science and many scientists were complicit with the Nazis. Nazis generally prided themselves on being “scientific”, and by that they meant being eugenicist – and by that, in turn, they meant that they were loyal to Darwin after their fashion.
One discovery I found enlightening is that German pacifists were not like the peaceniks who carry anti-war signs in today’s societies. German pacifists regretted that wars destroyed fit people, as opposed to unfit ones. In short, destruction itself did not trouble them, rather the fact that war’s destruction could not be engineered against those they deemed inferior. Under the circumstances, if an idea like natural selection or survival of the fittest gained popular approval, it could end only in disaster.
Hitler himself was not a man who read deeply, but, as Weikart shows, he gained a lot of social Darwinism from the popular literature he read. The genocidal policies he enacted had become popular over a period of about seventy years.
Finishing the book, I found myself wondering why anyone would find it worth their while to argue whether Darwinism played a role in Nazi eugenics policies, because it so obviously did. Yet some do indeed wish to argue that, as my combox attested last year. Reviewer Sander Gliboff, for example, anxious to defend modern Darwinism, completely misses the point of the book – that Darwinism was an important, but not essential, plank in the growth of Nazism. It would have been possible to construct Nazism without Darwinism, but Darwinism was very much part of the mix.
If you lined up all the early Darwinists and eugenicists and such from Germany fifty years before the glorious Reich ended in the suicides in the bunker in 1945 and asked them, “What do you think now that it has come to this?” – they would doubtless be stunned. They only thought they were getting rid of the detritus of evolution, the people who didn’t matter anyway.
Here are two of Weikart’s articles that are available online:
A number of years ago two intelligent students surprised me in a class discussion by defending the proposition that Hitler was neither good nor evil. Though I kept my composure, I was horrified. One of the worst mass murderers in history wasn’t evil? How could they believe this? How could they justify such a view?
They did it by appealing to Darwinism. Their pronouncement on Hitler occurred while we were discussing James Rachels’ book, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (Oxford University Press, 1990). Darwinism, these students informed us, undermined all morality. This was not the first time I had heard such a view. In fact, at that time I was in the beginning phases of a research project on the history of evolutionary ethics, and I had already reviewed the work of some scientists and social scientists who believed that Darwinism undermined human rights and equality.
Decades ago a prominent euthanasia proponent stated that “there is a place in humanity for murder, that is to say by killing the unfit.” Another commanded, “Chloroform unfit children. Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.” One might be forgiven for thinking that these were rantings of a Nazi leader, for they do reflect the ideology underlying the Nazi euthanasia program, during which about 100,000 handicapped Germans were murdered by physicians under government direction. But alas, these statements came from prominent British and American progressives–the former from the British physician Havelock Ellis, and the latter from the controversial American lawyer Clarence Darrow.
To most Germans, Hitler never appeared to be an evildoer, and thus subsequent attempts to portray him as a fanatical madman betray a misunderstanding of the epoch in which he ruled, Weikart argues. Instead, Hitler was very much a man of his age. The moral justifications for the evil he unleashed were developed long before he rose to power.
I asked Richard Weikart to comment on the reviews:
The reviews by historians have been a mixed bag. The anonymous referees who reviewed it for the publisher praised it and gave it high marks, which led Palgrave Macmillan to publish it in the first place (so, yes, it is peer-reviewed). The historians Richard J. Evans of Cambridge Univ., Ian Dowbiggin of Univ. of Prince Edward Island, and Alfred Kelly all provided glowing dustjacket blurbs (see my website). I received a very positive review in German Studies Review, a review that was largely positive but also contained some criticisms on H-Ideas (available on-line), a review that tilted toward the negative, but also contained some positive comments, in Central European History, and some rather vicious reviews in American Historical Review (where readers were told that I was advancing a “theocratic agenda”) and in Journal of Modern History (where the reviewer ridiculously claimed I was arguing that Darwinism leads logically and inevitably to the Holocaust).
All the reviewers admitted that my writing and research were good and none pointed out any significant errors of fact. Most of the criticisms I have addressed in a response posted to my website. (Scroll down to Response to critics.)
Apparently, Dr. Weikart will be speaking at the Darwinism after Darwin conference at the University of Leeds, England in September. His talk is open to the public.
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O’Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada’s Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).