The cross-linkages between the histories of eugenics and of those transformations that led to armed conflict or modern warfare are still an under-researched area in social, political, and medical historiography. Here the focus is particularly laid on the social development, the political and intellectual conflicts, and the cultural contexts that led to some of the most devastating modern wars during the first half of the 20th century, such as the Great War and the Second World War. From a sheer quantitative perspective many more casualties than ever during world history—more than a hundred million—occurred through the modern mechanized forms of warfare of the 20th century as well the effects of total war, which extended to civilian populations in unprecedented ways as ever in previous centuries before—owing, in no small part, to the influences of eugenic prejudice, racial hygiene and hate, and exaggerated nationalistic tendencies.
Developments leading up to the First World War Ideas from Social Darwinism raged strongly in the political and cultural debates at the turn of the 20th century. As early as 1892, for example, Swiss psychiatrist and neurologist Auguste Forel (1848 –1931) drew the attention of doctors, politicians and military leaders to what he called the “issue of the feeble-minded” due to their biological and cultural “degeneracy”. Forel thereby promoted the sterilization of the mentally ill––in the medical system of psychiatry and mental health––ill as a “national sacrifice” similar to “that of the soldier in times of war”. He thus amalgamated sociobiological with militaristic ideas of war as inherently being a societal “cleansing process”, and grounded his thinking on the observation that feeble-mindedness and degeneracy were widespread. He thereby claimed to be an adherent to quality Malthusianism––the social idea that the perceived overwhelming growth of the poor and unfit classes along with undesirable races had to be stopped, for which the British social philosopher Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) had fervently argued for. Being an exemplary for a larger group of medical doctors, psychiatrists and social reformers, Forel advocated for what he saw as a conscious and reasonable form of eugenics based on the principles of the Victorian polymath Francis Galton (1822-1911). Since the early 1890s, he had inaugurated an interdisciplinary discussion circle in Switzerland on issues of eugenics, which also attracted large numbers of war refugees from parts of Germany, Russia, Austria, Hungary, and Italy. These inter-changes stand in the context of the long history of human warfare and recent, dominant concerns from imperialism and colonialism can hardly be isolated from the larger general context of the history of racism and eugenics. Many doctors, scientists, and academics actively supported the declaration and pursuit of war out of explicitly social-Darwinian and eugenics-based motivations.
The First World War (1914 - 1918) At the very beginning of the 20th century, Europe stood at the doorsteps of many vertiginous social, cultural, political and spiritual changes, which culminated in a lustful and frightening atmosphere of tumbling prewar societies. For many conservatives, the preservation of the established aristocratic world-order of the 19th century was at stake, which had come to be shaken in the period between 1900 and 1914. For social democrats and communists, a new political order needed to be created to conform with the demands of industrialized and urbanized modern societies, when the war of 1914 broke out. What these changes have meant has been further explored by both military and cultural historians who have shifted their focus of analysis during this period from the political big picture of military decision making to the fine-grained social and cultural conditions and problems of warfare. Imbued with nationalistic, bellicist and often racial ideas from prewar times, the immediate and direct transition––during the phases of mobilization––from civil life to armed conflict in all participating nations of the “Great War” is breath-taking. Pacifist views and political criticisms, even by socialist, social-democratic, and liberal parties, had been rather marginal and war was fought in the name of “higher forms of civilization” (as from the German and Austro-Hungarian propagandistic perspective) or against countries with lower racial purity and social values, as resembled in the infamous agitation against “the Huns” (from the perspective of the British Empire). In this vein, British biologist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892–1964), for example, defended the use of chemical warfare as a clever means of the mass extermination of enemy soldiers in the previous war, which he saw as the epitome of the struggle of modern peoples for their survival. This was described in his influential book “Callinicus – A Defence for Chemical Warfare” (1925) in the “To-Day and To-Morrow” book series, which during the interwar period became available to North American readers through the publishing house of E. P. Dutton in New York.
Eugenic, racial, and imperialist ideas were widespread in the political and militaristic protagonists of warfare among the most civilized and developed countries of the Western world. Moreover, they influenced the army of those helping professions in the war effort, who assisted in the mitigation and easing of the effects of casualties, injuries, and persecution of civil populations, namely the physicians, surgeons, nurses, and other health care workers during the war. Medical luminaries, such as the German neurologist Hermann Oppenheim (b. 1858–d. 1919), the young surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch (b. 1875–d. 1951) in Switzerland, the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi (b. 1873–d. 1933), or the British psychologist Charles Samuel Myers (1873-1946) all realized the gruesome effects of war, and this changed the experiences of and scientific attitudes toward warfare itself. Even the direct medical challenges of mechanized and trench warfare in WWI––most prominently “shell shock”, “war neurosis”, and the “nervous heart” were translated back into degeneration and eugenic terminology, that these conditions that had become visible by the hundred-thousands during and after the “Great War” were intrinsically coupled to the weak, fragile, and impure character of those soldiers suffering from them. Even during the prolonged interwar period, the important social and medical effects that war casualties and the dismemberment of WWI veterans had on industrialized societies were omnipresent, as this new quality of warfare was remarkably described in contemporary military history accounts, such as “The Real War (1914–1918)” (1930), written by the English historian Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895–1970).
The Second World War (1939 - 1945) The rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, along with the outbreak of the Second World War, have been interpreted as the epiphany of existing nationalistic, eugenicist, and racist movements. Of the abundance of scholarly literature on the vast subject, only a few developments can be singled out here as they pertain to issues of eugenics history.
It is particularly striking, again, that intellectuals, scientists, and physicians had played major roles as planners, administrators, and experts in the most horrific programs of negative eugenics exemplified in Nazi sterilization and Nazi euthanasia. The principal assumptions had already been well laid out during the times of political and economic turmoil of the 1920s, when the nesters of negative eugenics, such as the Freiburg psychiatrist Alfred Hoche (1865–1943) and the Leipzig lawyer Karl Binding (1841–1920) had published their infamous tract on “Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living” (1920). In fact, support for Nazi and Fascist ideology was rampant in the scientific and intellectual elites in Germany, Austria, and Italy at the time––and likewise elsewhere as well. Overall in Canada, however, no general spread of eugenic thought about war––despite individual publications addressing this issue––could be identified for the First and Second World War, quite in contrast to Nazi Germany and other Fascist countries at the time.
As Michael Kater (1989) has shown, most of the leading Nationalist Socialist physicians and scientists either had themselves had a military career in WWI or were socialized in the military of the Weimar Republic or of National Socialist institutions (such as the National Socialist Physicians League or even later in the Security Forces of the SS), or both. These eugenicist ideals they brought to action, when opportunity arose, for example after the inauguration of the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935 or the so-called “Action T4” from 1939. The complex interplay of warfare with the eugenics programs of the Nazis is further highlighted in the fact that the drastic T4-based euthanasia activities to murder handicapped and mentally ill children increased intensely with the outbreak of WWII and later the German Wehrmacht’s assault on the Soviet Union in 1941. Paul Weindling (1989), among many other scholars, has drawn the attention to the involvement of medical researchers and physicians in racial-anthropological and war-related human research, which resulted in their indictments at the Nuremberg Doctors Trial, in 1947; and Andrew Zimmermann (2001) outlined that the principle aims of the Second World War can be spelled out as a form of total war with intrinsically racial and eugenics aims that found its climax in the horrors of the Holocaust against the Jewish as well as Sinti and Roma populations of Europe between 1941 and 1945.
-Frank W. Stahnisch
Blom, Philipp, 2008, The Vertigo Years. Europe, 1900–1914. New York: Basic Books.
Curtin, Philip D., 1998, Disease and Empire: The Health of European Troops in the Conquest of Africa. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Dwyer, Ellen, 2006, “Psychiatry and Race during World War II,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 61 (2006): 117-43.
Kater, Michael H., 1989, Doctors under Hitler. Chapell Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Leed, Eric J., 1979, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Leist, Anton, 2006, Auguste Forel. Eugenik und Erinnerungskultur. Zurich: Hochschulverlag.
Proctor, Robert, 1988, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stahnisch, Frank W., 2013, “Military Medicine.” In: “Oxford Bibliographies” (Military History, Series Editor: Dennis Showalter). New York: Oxford University Press 2013, pp. 1-32 (http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199791279/obo-9780199791279-0130.xml).
Weindling, Paul, 1989, Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism, 1870–1945. Cambridge History of Medicine. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Zimmerman, Andrew, 2001, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.