Hitler Made Eugenics Famous, But He Took It From United States
Hitler victimized an entire continent and exterminated millions in his quest for a so-called “Master Race.”The world thought Hitler was mad and barely understood his rationales. But the concept of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race was not Adolf Hitler’s.
The Idea was created in the United States at least two decades before Hitler came to power.
It was the product of the American eugenics movement.
Eugenics was the racist American pseudoscience designed to wipe out all human beings except those who conformed to a Nordic stereotype. The philosophy was enshrined into national policy by forced sterilization, segregation laws and marriage restrictions that were enacted in 27 states.
Ultimately, eugenics coercively sterilized some 60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated thousands more in colonies and persecuted untold numbers in ways we are just learning.
Only after eugenics and race biology became entrenched as an American ideal was the campaign transplanted to Germany, where it came to Hitler’s attention.
Hitler studied American eugenic laws and rationales and sought to legitimize his innate race hatred and anti-Semitism by medicalizing it and wrapping it in a pseudoscientific facade. Indeed, Hitler was able to attract many reasonable Germans by claiming that science was on his side.
While Hitler’s race hatred sprung from his own mind, the intellectual outlines of the eugenics Hitler adopted in 1924 were strictly American.
Eugenics would have been little more than bizarre parlor talk had it not been for massive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune.
They were in league with America’s most respected scientists from prestigious universities such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton. These academicians faked and twisted data to serve eugenics’ racist aims.
The Carnegie Institution effectively invented the American movement when it established a laboratory complex at Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island. This complex stockpiled millions of index cards on ordinary Americans as the movement carefully plotted the removal of families, bloodlines and whole peoples.
From Cold Spring Harbor, eugenics advocates agitated in the legislatures of America as well as in the nation’s social service agencies and associations.
The Harriman railroad fortune paid local charities, such as the New York Bureau of Industries and Immigration, to seek out Jewish, Italian and other immigrants in New York and other crowded cities and subject them to deportation, confinement or forced sterilization.
The Rockefeller Foundation helped found and fund the German eugenics program, and it even funded the program that ultimately sent Josef Mengele into Auschwitz.
The Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Institution, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Max Planck Institute — the successor to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute — all gave unlimited access and unstinting assistance in the course of this investigation. These organizations all have worked hard to help the world discover their pasts and have set an example of philanthropic openness.
Long before the advent of America’s leading philanthropies, however, eugenics was born as a scientific curiosity in the Victorian age.
In 1863, Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, theorized that if talented people married only other talented people, the result would be measurably better offspring.
At the turn of the last century, Galton’s ideas were imported into the United States just as Gregor Mendel’s principles of heredity were rediscovered. American eugenic advocates believed with religious fervor that Mendelian concepts explaining the color and size of peas, corn and cattle also governed the social and intellectual character of man.
In the early twentieth century, America was reeling from the upheaval of massive immigration and torn by post-Reconstruction chaos. Race conflict was everywhere.
Elitists, utopians and so-called progressives fused their smoldering race fears and class bias with their desire to make a better world, reinventing Galton’s eugenics as a repressive and racist ideology. Their intent: to populate the earth with vastly more of their own socioeconomic and biological kind, and less or none of everyone else.
The superior species the eugenics movement sought was not merely tall, strong and talented; eugenicists craved blond, blue-eyed Nordic types. This group alone, they believed, was fit to inherit the earth.
In the process, the movement intended to subtract blacks, Indians, Hispanics, Eastern Europeans, Jews, dark-haired hill folk, poor people, the infirm — essentially, anyone outside the gentrified genetic lines drawn up by American raceologists.
How would they do it? By identifying so-called “defective” family trees and subjecting them to lifelong segregation and sterilization programs to kill their bloodlines. The grand plan was literally to wipe away the reproductive capability of the “unfit” — those deemed weak and inferior.
Eighteen solutions were explored in a Carnegie-supported study in 1911 called “Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeder’s Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population.”
Although the eighth of the 18 solutions was euthanasia, the breeders believed it was too early to implement this solution. Instead, the main solution was the rapid expansion of forced segregation and sterilization, as well as increased marriage restrictions.
The most commonly suggested method of eugenicide in America was a “lethal chamber,” or gas chamber.
Even the United States Supreme Court endorsed eugenics as national policy. In an infamous 1927 decision, Buck v. Bell, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Years later, the Nazis quoted Holmes’ words in their own defense at the Nuremberg trials.
During the 1920s, Carnegie Institution eugenics scientists cultivated deep personal and professional relationships with Germany’s fascist eugenicists.
In 1924, when Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf,” he frequently quoted American eugenic ideology and openly displayed a thorough knowledge of American eugenics and its phraseology.
“There is today one state,” Hitler wrote, “in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”
Hitler proudly told his comrades just how closely he followed American eugenic legislation.
“I have studied with great interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock,” he told a fellow Nazi.
Hitler even wrote a fan letter to American eugenic leader Madison Grant, calling his race-based eugenics book, “The Passing of the Great Race,” his “bible.”
Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, coined a popular adage in the Reich: “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.”
Hitler’s struggle for a superior race became a mad crusade for a Master Race, exchanging the American term “Nordic” for “Germanic” or “Aryan.”
Race science, racial purity and racial dominance became the driving force behind Hitler’s Nazism. Nazi eugenics ultimately would dictate who would be persecuted in a Reich-dominated Europe, how people would live and how they would die.
Nazi doctors would become the unseen generals in Hitler’s war against the Jews and other Europeans deemed inferior. Doctors would create the science, devise the eugenic formulas, and even hand-select the victims for sterilization, euthanasia and mass extermination.
During the Reich’s first decade, eugenicists across America welcomed Hitler’s plans as the logical fulfillment of their own decades of research and effort. Ten years after Virginia passed its 1924 sterilization act, Joseph DeJarnette, superintendent of Virginia’s Western State Hospital, complained in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “The Germans are beating us at our own game.”
In 1934, sterilizations in Germany were accelerating beyond 5,000 per month.
Returning from a visit to Germany, the California eugenic leader C. M. Goethe bragged to a key colleague, “You will be interested to know, that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought . . . I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.”
Beyond the scientific road map, America used its money to fund and help found Germany’s eugenic institutions.
By 1926, Rockefeller had donated some $410,000 — almost $4 million in today’s dollars — to hundreds of German researchers.
In May 1926, for example, Rockefeller awarded $250,000 to the German Psychiatric Institute of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, which became the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry. Among the leading psychiatrists at the German Psychiatric Institute was Ernst Rudin, who became director and eventually an architect of Hitler’s systematic medical repression.
Another in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute’s complex of eugenic institutions was the Institute for Brain Research. Since 1915, it had operated out of a single room, but everything changed when Rockefeller money arrived in 1929.
A grant of $317,000 allowed the institute to construct a major building and take center stage in German race biology. The Institute for Brain Research received additional grants from the Rockefeller Foundation during the next several years.
Leading the Brain institute was — once again — Hitler’s medical henchman Rudin. Rudin’s organization became a prime director and recipient of murderous experimentation and research conducted on Jews, Gypsies and others.
Beginning in 1940, thousands of Germans taken from old age homes, mental institutions and other custodial facilities were systematically gassed. In all, between 50,000 and 100,000 were killed.
“While we were pussy-footing around,” said Leon Whitney, executive secretary of the American Eugenics Society, “the Germans were calling a spade a spade.”
A special recipient of Rockefeller funding was the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Berlin.
For decades, American eugenicists had craved twins to advance their research into heredity. The institute was now prepared to undertake such research on an unprecedented level.
On May 13, 1932, the Rockefeller Foundation in New York dispatched a radiogram to its Paris office that read: “JUNE MEETING EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE NINE THOUSAND DOLLARS OVER THREE YEAR PERIOD TO KWG INSTITUTE ANTHROPOLOGY FOR RESEARCH ON TWINS AND EFFECTS ON LATER GENERATIONS OF SUBSTANCES TOXIC FOR GERM PLASM.”
At the time of Rockefeller’s endowment, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a hero in American eugenics circles, functioned as a head of the Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics. Rockefeller funding of the Institute for Anthropology continued directly and through other research conduits during Verschuer’s early tenure.
In 1935, Verschuer left the Institute to form a rival eugenic facility in Frankfurt that was much heralded in the American eugenic press.
Research on twins in the Third Reich exploded, backed up by government decrees mobilizing all twins. At about that time, Verschuer wrote in Der Erbarzt, a eugenic doctors’ journal he edited, that Germany’s war would yield a “total solution to the Jewish problem.”
Verschuer had a long-time assistant. His name was Josef Mengele.
On May 30, 1943, Mengele arrived at Auschwitz. Verschuer notified the German Research Society, “My assistant, Dr. Josef Mengele (M.D., Ph.D.) joined me in this branch of research. He is presently employed as Hauptsturmfuhrer [captain] and camp physician in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Anthropological testing of the most diverse racial groups in this concentration camp is being carried out with permission of the SS Reichsfuhrer [Heinrich Himmler].”
Mengele began searching boxcars that arrived at the camp for twins. When he found them, he performed beastly experiments, scrupulously wrote up the reports and sent the paperwork back to Verschuer’s institute for evaluation.
Often, cadavers, eyes and other body parts also were dispatched to Berlin’s other eugenic institutes.
Rockefeller executives never knew of Mengele. With few exceptions, the foundation had ceased all eugenic studies in Nazi-occupied Europe before World War II erupted in 1939.
But by that time the die had been cast.
The talented men Rockefeller and Carnegie had financed, the great institutions they helped found and the science they helped create took on a scientific momentum of their own.
What stopped the race biologists of Berlin, Munich and Auschwitz?
Certainly, the Nazis felt they were unstoppable; they imagined a thousand-year Reich of superbred men.
But something did vanquish Mengele and his colleagues. On June 6, 1944, the Allies invaded at Normandy and began defeating the Nazis, town by town and often street by street. They closed in on Germany from the west, while the Soviet army overran the Auschwitz death camp from the east on Jan. 27, 1945. Mengele fled.
Auschwitz was indeed the last stand of eugenics. The science of the strong almost completely prevailed in its war against the weak. Almost. Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of the award-winning “IBM and the Holocaust” and the just-released “War Against the Weak” (“Four Walls Eight Windows”), from which this article is adapted. He can be reached via www.edwinblack.com.