The term “racial hygiene” (Germ. Rassenhygiene) is a special interpretation of eugenics in the German-speaking countries. Alfred Ploetz’s (1860-1940), influential textbook, which was published in 1895, has often been taken as the starting point of the eugenic doctrine in 20th-century German medicine. The concentration on both the topic of “racial hygiene” and its context of origin, in this article, have their roots in the German leadership in the medical and scientific world in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Ploetz’ book summarized many of his own earlier experiences, when he had lived in the United States for several years, and introduced the aims of racial hygiene to a German medical readership. During the 1890s, the term “eugenics” (~ the science of good genetic stock) of the British naturalist and polymath Francis Galton (1822-1911) had not yet been adopted into the German academic scholarship. Galton, who had coined the notion of eugenics in his “Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development” in 1883, pursued pioneering empirical research that focused on the biology and heredity of mental traits such as “intelligence,” “addiction,” or “criminal behaviour”. Where Galton however had focused on rather general questions and research applications of eugenics, by describing instances of social deprivation, degeneracy, and the distribution of mental illness, the German-speaking racial hygienists soon took a much stronger empirical stance by analyzing the “preconditions” of alcoholism, poverty, or prostitution and seeking distinct forms of “treatment” and “correction” for such individuals.
Contemporary discourses and the beginning of early racial hygiene circles
Eugenic discourses at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century had remarkably widespread attraction not only to medical doctors, but also to biological or social scientists. It often followed the influential and leading idea that projected an “improvement of the race” or the “breeding of social elites.” Eugenic programs promised to give a biological redefinition of human morality and particularly social behaviour. Eugenic thinking thus held high currency with many public intellectuals in the German-speaking world, such as the social (and later race-)lawyer Karl Binding (1841-1920), the expressionist painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935), the medical publisher Julius Friedrich Lehmann (1864-1935), or the writer and later Nobel laureate Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946). Several of Hauptmann’s novels explicitly deal with the contemporary eugenics discourse and literary figures in Hauptmann’s works had been modeled after eugenicists, such as physician Alfred Ploetz. The focus in Hauptmann’s work likewise appeared as a positive reception of American eugenics, which for him was centrally represented in birth control activist Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) in New York City, who interpreted contraception as an attempt to plan and control human reproduction.
Taking these considerations into account, scientific versions of eugenics discourse should be viewed from an international perspective. This is pertinent in Hauptmann’s example, and it helps to identify some of the relations that linked actors from disparate societal groups with one another. Through his older brother Carl (1858-1921), a student of medicine, Gerhart Hauptmann became acquainted with the later Munich racial hygienist Alfred Ploetz, who since 1886 studied under the leading psychiatrist and eugenicist Auguste Forel (1848-1931) in Switzerland. With his influential work on anti-alcoholism, temperance behaviour, and the support of women’s suffrage, Forel had gained a wide following among his students. He also justified the sterilization of the mentally ill as a “national sacrifice” similar to “that of the soldier in times of war”, before leading German psychiatrists–––such as Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926) in Munich, Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915) in Frankfurt am Main, or Robert Sommer (1864-1937) in Giessen–––hopped on the same racial hygienic bandwagon.
However, the interpretations of “eugenics” and “racial hygiene,” although similar, where not synonymous. While they addressed more or less the same social problems and medical conditions, there had been a much stronger emphasis in early German “eugenics” (Rassenhygiene) to race. “Racial hygiene,” by itself was based on the assumption of racial hierarchies that would supposedly be led by the Aryan superiority of the Nordic races over other races in the world. It also placed eugenics assumptions about the “inheritance of disease” or “physiological degeneration” in the specific context of “lower racial constitutions,” as an explanation of medical and social problems of the time.
The societies for racial hygiene in Munich and Berlin
The back and forth between racial hygiene, social hygiene, and eugenics is noticeable in the fact that Ploetz, in the early 1900s, began deviating from his long-held socialist ideals and believing in the principles of social Darwinism. This change is reflected in the launching of his journal “Archive for Racial and Social Biology” (1904), and in the inauguration of the “German Society for Racial Hygiene” (1905). In 1907, together with the Berlin anthropologist Fritz Lenz (1887-1976) and the Munich psychiatrist Arthur Wollny (1889-1976), Ploetz formed a secret circle within the Society for Racial Hygiene known as the “Circle of the Norda.” This group was modeled on Forel’s circle in Zurich, and in 1910 Ploetz, Lenz, and Wollny developed it further into the “Nordic Circle” (Nordischer Ring) in Munich. It now aimed at integrating intellectual exchanges with sportive exercises, following to the ideals of eugenics as a social science and practice. The Nordic Circle became the second most influential private circle in the field of racial hygiene in Germany, while all these lodge-like associations were created around the idea of “saving the Nordic race.”
The virulent views of the Munich circle were later integrated into the “Expert Council for Population- and Racial Politics” that the Nazi politician Wilhelm Frick (1877-1946) inaugurated in 1933. The example of the activities of the “Division on Racial Hygiene and Racial Politics” show that by the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, the core of the eugenic assumptions included a social diagnostic and likewise therapeutic approach. The materialist analysis of the kind of scientific socialism recognized political struggles and social contradictions mainly in terms of economic relations (such as high costs for the national health care system through the chronically ill and physically handicapped, or the burden on social welfare costs through large numbers of hospitalized psychiatric patients). Building on this perception, the racial hygienist critique of modern society increasingly perceived social ills (such as poverty, prostitution, and criminality) in terms of the sickly, degenerate, or moribund strains of Western cultures. The healthy and natural body, as it became idealized in racial hygienic discourse, could only be achieved by undoing civilization’s ill effects, an international endeavour in which psychiatrists like Kraepelin, Alzheimer, or Ruedin in Germany, Adolph Meyer (1866-1950) at Johns Hopkins University and Charles Kirk Clarke (1857-1924) from the Toronto General Hospital were eager to come forward with ready solutions.
The relationship between “racial hygiene” in the German-speaking countries and the “eugenics movement” in the English-speaking world, up until about 1930, was particularly influenced by German intellectuals’ and scientists’ reception of former Galtonion ideas – particularly in their social-Darwinist interpretation through the philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). German-speaking racial hygienists, such as Ploetz, Fischer, or Ruedin gave the eugenics assumptions of an inheritability of biological, mental, and social traits a decidedly racial and genealogical interpretation. While the term of “racial hygiene” was well-known in the English-speaking world, such as by the leader of the Eugenics Record Office in the United States, Charles Davenport (1866-1944), English-speaking eugenicists tended to adhere to the previous Galtonian notion of “eugenics” with which they had been accustomed. This is not to say, however, that there were not specific interpretations, often called “mainline eugenics,” that had not emphasized folk notions of race. Davenport and his supporters at the Eugenics Record Office in fact pursued more racially-driven research with a strong anthropological bent, while heating widespread fears of “race suicide” as held by many of the eugenics popularists.
This is particularly so when the direct exchanges and acquaintances of the eugenicists on both sides of the Atlantic are taken into account. They all shared that the healthy and natural “social body” of Western cultures, could only be achieved by undoing civilization’s ill effects, an undertaking in which psychiatrists like Kraepelin, Alzheimer, or Ruedin in Germany, Adolph Meyer at Johns Hopkins University and G. Alder Blumer (1857-1940) at the State Asylum in South Dakota in the United States, or Charles Kirk Clarke from the Toronto General Hospital in Canada, also shared in. Fundamental to eugenic discourse, then, was the idea that culture, society, or the nation had to be regarded as an organism which was subject to mental debilities, and economic, as well as social decay. It is on this level that the views of English-speaking “eugenicists” and German-speaking “racial anthropologists” became similar, but they differed decidedly in interpretations of the “racial constitution” and in its influence on mental and physical “degeneration” and “inheritable disease.”
-Frank W. Stahnisch
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