Eugenics is the set of theories and practices aimed at improving the inheritable qualities of the human race, and engineer a better society. Greek in its origin, the term, which literally means ‘well-born’, was introduced by British geneticist Francis Galton in 1883, in his book Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. Soon afterwards, the first national eugenics organisation was established in the United States, where eugenics rapidly gained popularity and considerable weight in scientific society. As a result, during the first decades of the 20th century the US states passed numerous eugenic legislations, including sexual sterilisation of persons with inferior hereditary potentialities varying from criminals to the ‘feeble-minded’. Eugenic ideas laid the foundation for the development of the Nazi ideology of ‘racial hygiene’ in the 1930s. In the decades following World War II, with the adoption of a number of laws protecting human rights, many countries began to abandon eugenics policies. 

Eugenics in Great Britain 

Sir Francis Galton introduced the very term eugenics and laid the foundations for a movement that would develop in the following decades. Inspired by the theory of evolution by natural selection introduced by his half-cousin, Charles Darwin, he dedicated his studies to the improvement of the human race. Galton was convinced that eugenics studies could replace Darwinian ‘natural selection’ with more effective processes. G.K. Chesterton’s book is a significant, but rare example of anti-eugenic essays circulating at that time in Britain. He predicted the abuse of eugenics and believed that it would be used as means of suppression of the poor. Even though Chesterton was accused of irrationality because of his ideas, the book had a considerable influence on British parliament. Despite the fact that the movement of eugenics was founded in Britain, the eugenics legislation as it was introduced in the United States and later in Germany was never passed in Britain.

Eugenics in North America

Madison Grant
was an American writer and zoologist known primarily for his work as a eugenicist. The subtitle of the book refers to the key theory promoted by Grant – the superiority of Nordic race and its responsibility for human development. Theodore Lothrop Stoddard was an American historian, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and author of several books which advocated eugenics and scientific racism. His strategy to frighten readers with the spectre of a race war, by presenting the enemies of the 'white race' as being strong enough to pose an existential threat, but weak enough to defeat, is still being practiced, some hundred years later, by white supremacists. James Woodsworth’s book served as a blueprint for Canada’s 'Immigration Act' enacted soon after the publication of the book. In this book, Woodsworth provides a hierarchy of races and ethnicities based on their ability to assimilate into Canadian society. Those belonging to 'prohibited classes' were deported and denied entry to Canada.

Eugenics in Nazi Germany

Eugenic ideas laid the foundation for the development of the Nazi ideology of ‘Racial hygiene’ in the 1930s. Nazi eugenic legislation led to forced sterilisation and murder of hundreds of thousands of individuals deemed ‘unfavourable’ and formed the basis for the Shoah. In 1906, Eugen Fischer conducted field research in German South West Africa (now Namibia). In this context, he conducted the first medical experiments on people in concentration camps, the harbinger of the Nazi practice that would follow a few decades later.
In contrast to other eugenicist of his time, who asserted and promoted cultural and intellectual superiority of the ‘Nordic race’ above others, Wilhelm Schallmayer’s approach was not racist. He was the first to address the subject from a managerial logic of efficiency. Thus, among his suggestions was the introduction of a system of bonuses and fees in order to encourage high-level civil servants and representatives of educated middle classes to have larger families. Hans Günther was the only racial theorist to join the party before the Nazis came to power in 1933, and was nicknamed ‘Rassen-Günther’ and ‘Rassenpapst’ (race pope) in those circles. His book Human heredity and Racial Hygiene was considered to be the ‘standard textbook on racial hygiene’ in Germany and the blueprint for Nazism’s attitude toward other ‘races’. While Fischer is infamous as an ardent advocate of eugenics, Gerhard Kittel is a more paradoxical figure, a prominent lexicographer of biblical languages and one of the most competent New Testament experts, he was also known as an open anti-Semite and an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis. According to Kittel, “World Judaism” which has world domination as its ultimate goal, has been present from the ancient times. Kittel presents an anthology of anti-Semitic clichés with racist interpretations.

Das Wunder des Lebens

Das Wunder des Lebens was a propaganda exhibition organised to promote the racial ideology of the Nazis. It was shown in Berlin at the Kaiserdamm and the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden, in 1935, and later travelled to other locations. Organised by Bruno Gebhard (1901-1985), a professional physician who was known as a curator of several renowned propaganda exhibitions, including Die Frau in Familie, Haus und Beruf (1933) and Deutsches Volk-Deutsche Arbeit (1934), the exhibition Das Wunder des Lebens introduced new representations on the theme of ‘Der Mensch' (‘The Human’). The major aspects of this extensive show were 'Die Lehre vom Leben' (‘The Teachings of Life’) with its highlight being the transparent sculpture of man, 'Der Träger des Lebens' (‘The Bearer of Life’) featuring the German family, and 'Die Erhaltung des Lebens' (The Preservation of Life), dedicated to the health system in Germany. Pictorial material presented in the exhibition included healthy 'Aryan' types, different images of Jewish people, images of physically or mentally disabled people, and representations of other 'undesirable' categories who, according to Nazi ideology, were considered to be a threat to German public health. 

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