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Eugenics, Gas Chambers and Nazis: America’s Shameful Past

January 25, 2015

Eugenics, History

Eugenics

Forget the film, it’s the book you want to read: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s a remarkable and inspiring story about Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survives a series of terrifying ordeals. However, early in the book my attention was drawn to Hillenbrand’s statement, that as a teenager in the 1930’s, Louie came close to being sterilized by the state of California, because “as a serial troublemaker, a failing student, and a suspect Italian, he was just the sort of rogue that eugenicists wanted to cull.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century, America was  reeling demographically from immigration, racial conflict and post-Reconstruction chaos. Government adopted the idea of scientifically managing both nature and society, a philosophy that came to be known as Progressivism, and as usual when politics and science are conjoined together, a monster was born. This view of science as reform, plus the newly discovered science of genetics, gave rise to eugenics, the racist pseudoscience that claimed to improve human populations through selective breeding and sterilization. If you think that the idea of breeding a blonde-haired, blue-eyed supermensch, first emerged under the German Nazi Party you’re mistaken. The concept originated in the United States decades before Hitler came to power, and many of Hitler’s worst atrocities, including gas chambers, were first legitimized by American eugenicists.

In 1911, a study funded by the prestigious Carnegie Institute, outlined eighteen possible  ‘solutions’ to the problem of preventing gene pool  pollution, including euthanasia, forced sterilization and geographical isolation. The most commonly suggested method for eugenicide in America was a “lethal chamber” or public locally operated gas chamber. Local gas chambers enjoyed the support of many liberals, such as the government chemist and Pure Food and Drug Act pioneer Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and civil rights lawyer Clarence Darrow, who said it was just to “chloroform unfit children…and show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.” William J. Robinson, a New York urologist and leading authority on birth control, eugenics, and marriage, wrote that the best solution would be for society to “gently chloroform” the children of the unfit or “give them a dose of potassium cyanide.”  Paul Popenoe, the leader of California’s powerful eugenics movement, also endorsed the lethal chamber, and in his popular college textbook  Applied Eugenics,  published in 1918, he states that: “From an historical point of view, the first method which presents itself is execution…Its value in keeping up the standard of the race should not be underestimated.”

Hitler followed closely the progress of the American eugenics movement and even wrote a fan letter to American eugenic leader Madison Grant, calling his race-based eugenics book, The Passing of the Great Race:The Racial Basis of European History, his “bible”. In addition to providing the theoretical underpinning of eugenics, America funded many of Germany’s eugenic institutions. For example, Rockefeller gave a large grant to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Berlin. At the time of the Rockefeller gift, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, who later worked at Auschwitz, was head of the Institute. Verschuer had a long-time assistant called Josef Mengele, who subsequently became the infamous camp physician at Auschwitz known as the “Angel of Death”. It’s worth noting that during the Nuremberg trials, the Nazis referred to the work of American eugenicists and quoted Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, in their defense: “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.”

After the landmark 1927 Supreme Court case which legitimized compulsory sterilization of the ‘unfit’, eugenics rapidly became public policy and it opened the doors to rampant discrimination against virtually anyone with an ‘undesirable’ trait: alcoholics, epileptics, rapists, the deaf, the depressed, certain criminals, ‘promiscuous’ women pregnant out of wedlock and poor men and women on welfare who were diagnosed as feeble-minded. 65,000 Americans were sterilized, often without their knowledge or consent, under the eugenics programs that operated during the 20th century, rendering untold generations extinguished from future existence. Even today, the practice has not been completely eradicated. A recent report shed light on the practice of female sterilization in California prisons during the period 2006-2010 when 148 women were sterilized illegally.

_________________

“In his last book, Mr. [H.G.] Wells speaks of the meaningless, aimless lives which cram this world of ours, hordes of people who are born, who live, yet who have done absolutely nothing to advance the race one iota. Their lives are hopeless repetitions. All that they have said has been said before; all that they have done has been done better before. Such human weeds clog up the path, drain up the energies and the resources of this little earth. We must clear the way for a better world; we must cultivate our garden.”

Margaret Sanger 1879-1921 Founder of Planned Parenthood

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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46 Comments on “Eugenics, Gas Chambers and Nazis: America’s Shameful Past”

  1. nicciattfield Says:

    That’s just so shocking! I’ve recently been reading Naomi Klein’s book on climate change, where she, too, comments on the lost ones who never come into existence (through toxic waters which impact on fertility). But this is so much worse. I spent time in a hospital for people with intellectual disability and learned so much about being human, relationships and appreciating life (tortoises, dogs, birds). To think of who was lost in the name of perfection…how horrible. Thanks for sharing though, Malcolm.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Nicci, thank you for following up on the issue of those unborn, an incalculable loss. It’s easy to think of eugenicists as being hard and callous but they considered themselves kind and humane. I certainly don’t wish to defend them but, in a sense, the eugenicists were using the same gain/loss matrix as we just did. They believed that the benefits to future generations of culling the ‘unfit’, clearly outweighed the pain and suffering inflicted on the current generation.

      Reply

      • nicciattfield Says:

        I can appreciate the different sides to every story. I remember being pregnant and the doctor asking about a test for downs syndrome, and did I want to know? The implication was choice. I didn’t want the test. After spending time with people who have disability, I wouldn’t again.

        And yet, when I see how people get treated sometimes by society, the exclusion, institutionalization and child abuse children survive, I can understand the other side. Should violent people have children? How does society intervene when it comes to abuse? I can understand the motivation (from my own limited perspective), but it isn’t an idea I feel comfortable with.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Nicci, I can see that you really do try hard to see the other side to every story and that’s a very rare quality. I definitely think I’m going to have to re-evaluate my opinion of diversity studies 🙂

          I believe there are some issues where it’s not useful or even possible to make comparisons. Philosophers would say something along the lines of “ultimate values are incommensurable”. I think abortion is a good example, where, with enough empathy it’s possible to see both sides of the issue and reason alone is not sufficient to be able to decide between them. In short, there is no single scale available with which to compare the two belief systems. This is actually an argument for pluralism, for letting different forms of life, different experiments in living, flourish, even if we personally oppose the values that underpin them.

    • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

      “I spent time in a hospital for people with intellectual disability and learned so much about being human, relationships and appreciating life (tortoises, dogs, birds).” That is precious, Niccia. I know people who’ve volunteer in nursing homes and those with disabled family often come to a greater appreciation of the meaning of life and the simplicities we take for granted. I don’t mean just the faculties we can exercise but things like the power of beauty and love, and the meaning of wisdom.

      Guess what movie I caught this past wknd, MG? I would’ve liked to have gotten to the book first if time had allowed. Provocative, enlightening post.

      Reply

  2. renxkyoko Says:

    I’m shocked. Margaret sanger, of Planned Parenthood , said that ?

    Reply

  3. MamaMickTerry Says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    I was also shocked when I read that part in Hildebrand’s book, too. In fact, I stopped and asked my husband if he knew the history and public policy around eugenics. He didn’t and so I continued (and finished) the book with that notion tickling at the back of my mind.
    Clearly, this was kept out of the history books…especially out of the ones that filled the insides of my very conservative and religious high school. I knew nothing of the horrors of war or Nazis until I went to college. After reading this, it would appear that I’m still sheltered – from our own American past.
    Thank you for a thorough lesson on a grave topic…certainly gave me something to think about today.
    Michelle

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Although I don’t believe in conspiracy theories I think you’re correct that this subject is omitted or understated in popular history books. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy just a very unpleasant subject that people would rather not be reminded of. Although eugenics cut across party lines it was a major plank of the Progressive Movement and so people who describe themselves as Progressives today may not like to be reminded of this fact. There is plenty of other bad ‘stuff’ hidden away in the dark corners of Americas’s past. How about this or this for starters?

      Reply

      • MamaMickTerry Says:

        I’d hate to see all of the dark stuff still hidden in the corners. Indeed, I had heard of the syphilis experiments and it still shocks me when I read about it today. I work in the healthcare industry and it feels like we are just one misguided experiment away from full darkness. Makes me just want to gather up my father like a mother hen and stay inside. But, talented writers like yourself gently remind me that hiding is not an option and shedding light on these issues is often the first step toward the light. Thank you, Malcolm.

        Reply

  4. Kate Loveton Says:

    I am aware of much you’ve written above. I would never want to empower ANY government with the right to determine who shall or shall not be born. It makes my skin crawl.

    UNBROKEN – a fabulous book for many reasons. I did not see the film, but the book had a big impact on me. An amazing man.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Kate, I agree with you about Unbroken and Zamperini, a remarkable book and a remarkable man. I learned about the American eugenics movement several years ago but what I didn’t know until recently was how close the ties were between German and American eugenicists, the extent to which America financed the German eugenics program, and also the fact that American eugenicists were advocating gas chambers for eugenicide long before the Nazis envisaged using them for a much more sinister purpose.

      Reply

  5. Mikels Skele Says:

    Wow! Thanks, Malcolm, for a much needed, and, I’m afraid, timely, history lesson. We haven’t gone to that extreme yet, but the prerequisite attitudes are there.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Mikels, you raise the frightening possibility that by forgetting the past we are dooming ourselves to repeat it. Eugenicists were wrong in assuming simple causal connections between genes and complex behaviors but the science of genetics is advancing so rapidly nowadays that moral progress is failing to keep up, and inevitably this will, at some point in the future, lead to another disaster.

      Reply

  6. Andrea Stephenson Says:

    This is shocking but unfortunately not something I was completely unaware of from studying Women’s Studies in the past – the fact that in particular, women of colour and poorer women were given unnecessary sterilisations for no reason other than who they were.

    Reply

  7. Middlemay Farm Says:

    Another good book about the past and present eugenics movement is Dennis Sewell’s The Political Gene. This problem has not gone away–only the names have changed.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. I love to get book recommendations. I checked this one out on Amazon and surprisingly it was published in April 2011 but does not have a single review! However, it was given a favorable review in the New Statesman by John Gray, one of my favorite book reviewers, so it’s definitely going on my ‘to read’ list.

      Reply

  8. D.G.Kaye Says:

    Thanks for shedding light on some of the hidden atrocities of mankind. And I do plan on reading the book Unbroken. Anyone knows the book is always so much better than any movie version – edited and warped into a new version.

    Reply

  9. Thomas E. Pallante Says:

    Malcolm,

    That was interesting.

    Tom

    Reply

  10. aFrankAngle Says:

    Eugenics was a human disgrace … and a discredit to Darwin’s work … I state that because some link Darwin to eugenics.

    Reply

  11. NicoLite Великий Says:

    That’s heavy stuff there. The Land of the Free and Eugenics? Great Scott!

    Reply

  12. Klausbernd Says:

    Dear Malcolm,
    thank you very, very much for this well researched post. I didn’t know about these historical facts.
    “Land of the Free – hmmm, free? – and the Eugenics” – we love it 🙂
    Didn’t Darwin protested against Spencer’s Social Darwism? Siri darkly remembers that Darwin made clear that his theory only applies to biology and not to sociology.
    Greetings from Merry Old England
    the Fab Four of Cley

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Klaus. It is the prevailing opinion that Darwin was not a Social Darwinist but there is an ongoing debate about the subject. However, I find the following quotation from Darwin’s ‘Descent of Man’ quite damning although it’s true that Darwin never advocated forced sterilization:

      “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”
      Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871 edition)

      Reply

      • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

        Malcolm,

        You seem to lump all eugenicists together. However there’s a universe of difference between private individuals implementing it in their own lives and the state imposing it. Voluntary eugenics can be reasonable.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Well put Michael. Thank you for pointing this out. The thrust of the post is clearly about the misuse of eugenics when it became public policy but voluntary eugenics is a completely different matter.

      • Klausbernd Says:

        Dear Malcolm,
        thank you very much for this Darwin-quote. In 2004 and (if I remember it correctly) later too there were well researched articles in the National Geographic magazine asking if Darwin was wrong. In 2004 they didn’t really answer their question but made the point that evolution is a THEORY, a scientific theory based on systematic observations. When I think Darwin, I think evolution THEORY. And like any theory it can be used for the wrong reasons as we saw with the the theory of relativity. People interpret and use a theory following the zeitgeist and even the the founders do like Darwin and Freud f.e.
        On the other hand I am not a biologist and therefore I cannot really judge this theory but it fits into my reasoning.
        Have an easy week
        Klausbernd

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          The overwhelming majority of scientists support the theory of evolution but, as you say, theories can be misapplied and used in all sorts of unsavory ways. Social Darwinists were wrong to believe that an evolutionary successful organism meant anything other than that the organism has survived the random process of evolution. It certainly did not mean that the organism was ‘good’or especially fitted to dominate less successful specimens.

        • Klausbernd Says:

          Dear Malcolm,
          thank you very much for your reply 🙂
          I agree: The laws of evolution neither imply a jugdement nor can they be transferred to social situations. Evolution is a biological but not a social theory. Isn’t it always important to see the field which a theory applies to and where it doesn’t?
          Have a happy week
          Klausbernd

  13. Dalo 2013 Says:

    One of the best books I have read in the past few years, so much so I am passing on seeing the movie as the words run so clearly in my mind. What I did not realize was this history of eugenics ~ wow! You perhaps say it best: “as usual when politics and science are conjoined together, a monster is born.”

    I’ve always wondered about this strange link between German and American scientists/eugenicists, but never would have imagined that the US financed the German eugenics program ~ I’d ask “how is this possible” but unfortunately even as appalling as it is, this just is not that surprising. Great post!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Dalo, thank you for the feedback. In five paragraphs I could only touch the tip of the iceberg on this subject. American money completely transformed the German’s eugenic research program. For example in 1929 Rockefeller gave $317,000 to the Institute for Brain Research, which until then had operated out of a single room. Leading the Institute was Ernst Rudin, who became a prime director and recipient of the murderous experimentation and research conducted on Jews, Gypsies and others. I could go on but you get the idea.

      Reply

  14. Tidalwavelet Says:

    I was forced to host a special Olympiad when I was a in tech school at Keesler AFB back in the 80’s. He had down’s syndrome. I’m ashamed to admit that I felt as though I was going to be a glorified dog sitter. That weekend changed my life. I learned that this young man was a fellow human, with goals and dreams and aspirations like me. A couple years ago, I came across a great little video piece on the humanity of those with down’s syndrome that made me smile.

    https://tidalwavelet.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/shifting-perspectives-at-the-dublin-arts-council/

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for this. As I just commented on your post that video has changed my own perception of what it means to have a down’s syndrome child. Prior to seeing that video, I think I would have erred towards abortion for down’s syndrom children, now I’m not so sure.

      Reply

  15. Beth Says:

    I don’t read books like this or see the movies. Maybe I am a wimp, but this would make me have nightmares for years to come–maybe forever. I never actually saw *Schindler’s List* either or read the book because I knew I was not up to it.

    Maybe a few more people ought to read passages like this to understand that the power of life and death is not in their hands. “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. 6 Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed:for in the image of God made he man” (Gen. 9:5-6).

    That applies to young and old, rich & poor, smart & dumb, mentally ill & alert. Let me stick my neck way out and say it even applies to the pre-born.

    When I led a few middle schoolers through the *Diary of Anne Frank*, it became ultra clear that the US was deeply involved in many of the things the Germans were doing in WW2. I did the rabbit trails of research and came up with more than I wanted to know. May God have mercy on us all for the things we fail to stop or unwittingly allow.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Beth. I second your sentiments about “the things we fail to stop or unwittingly allow.” Also, individuals can be cruel enough on their own but once governments get involved the potential for evil appears to increase exponentially.

      Reply

  16. Beth Says:

    Hey, one more thought on this issue. Try reading this article about end of life issues:

    http://www.mercatornet.com/careful/view/15785

    Reply

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