4. Of Eugenicists, Oligarchs and Psychopaths
Eugenics is an attractive word resulting from the combination of two Greek words: εὐ = ‘good’ and γενής = ‘growing’. Its accepted definition is that of a set of beliefs and practices aiming to improve the genetic quality of a human population, historically by excluding people and groups judged to be ’inferior’ and promoting those judged to be ‘superior’. And in that process lays the problem. For two and a half millennia, beginning with Plato, the concept has cast a long shadow, up until the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, better known as ‘the angel of death’ for his activity as both a German Schutzstaffel – SS officer and physician during the second world war. He was part of the SS-Totenkopfverbände which ran the concentration and extermination camps.
Mengele was not, as many of such party thugs as made up the SS, an uneducated person: before the war, he had received doctorates in anthropology and medicine, and began a career as a researcher. He joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and the SS in 1938 and was assigned as a battalion medical officer at the start of the second world war. In early 1943 he was moved to the Nazi concentration camps service and assigned to Oświęcim, Auschwitz, in occupied Poland, where he saw the opportunity to conduct genetic research on human subjects. More precisely the Auschwitz concentration camp was a complex of over forty concentration and extermination camps. Auschwitz ‘proper’ consisted of Auschwitz I, the main camp in Oświęcim; Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a concentration and extermination camp built with several gas chambers; Auschwitz III-Monowitz, a labour camp created to staff a factory for the chemical conglomerate IG Farben; and dozens of subcamps.
The long shadow is still with us.
The ‘concept’ of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master ‘Nordic race’ did not originate with Hitler and his regime. The idea was revamped relatively recently – just over one hundred years ago – in the United States, and cultivated in California. There eugenicists played an important, although little known, role in the American eugenics movement’s campaign for ‘ethnic cleansing’, a more recent descriptor of ‘final solution’.
Eugenics may still be the racist pseudo-science determined to wipe away all human beings deemed ‘unfit,’ preserving only those who conformed to some kind of ‘Nordic’ stereotype. Elements of the ‘philosophy’ were enshrined as national policy by forced sterilisation and segregation laws, as well as marriage restrictions, enacted in twenty-seven states. In 1909 California became the third state to adopt such laws. Ultimately, eugenics practitioners coercively sterilised some 60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated thousands in ‘colonies,’ and persecuted untold numbers in different ways. Before the second world war, nearly half of coercive sterilisations were performed in California, and even after the war, the state accounted for a third of all such operations.
California was considered an epicentre of the American eugenics movement. During the first decades of the twentieth century, California’s eugenicists included potent but little known ‘race’ scientists, such as Army venereal disease specialist Dr. Paul Bowman Popenoe, an American agricultural explorer, Ezra Seymour Gosney, a lawyer and philanthropist, and Charles Matthias Goethe, a banker, entrepreneur, land developer, philanthropist, conservationist, founder of the Eugenics Society of Northern California, and a native of Sacramento, California, as well as members of the California State Board of Charities and Corrections and the University of California Board of Regents.
Eugenics would have been so much bizarre parlour talk had it not been for extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune. They were all in league with some of America’s most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. These academicians espoused ‘race theory’ and ‘race science’, and then ‘arranged’ and twisted data to serve eugenics’ racist aims.
David Starr Jordan, president of Indiana University and the founding president of Stanford University, originated the notion of “race and blood” in his 1902 work The blood of the nation, a study of the decay of races through survival of the unfit, published in 1902 by the American Unitarian Association in Boston, MA. In the work the distinguished author declared that human qualities and conditions such as talent and poverty were passed through the blood.
In 1904 the Carnegie Institution established a laboratory complex at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island which collected millions of index cards on ordinary Americans, as researchers 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 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, trumped up confinement or forced sterilisation.
The Rockefeller Foundation helped found the German eugenics programme and even funded the programme on which Dr. Josef Mengele worked before he went to Auschwitz.
Much of the spiritual guidance and political agitation for the American eugenics movement came from California’s quasi-autonomous eugenic societies, such as the Pasadena-based Human Betterment Foundation and the California branch of the American Eugenics Society, which coordinated much of their activity with the Eugenics Research Society in Long Island. These organisations – which functioned as part of a closely-knit network – published racist eugenic newsletters and pseudo-scientific journals, such as Eugenical News and Eugenics, and made propaganda for the Nazis.
Eugenics appealed and galvanised the elite members of the wealthy and academic class who believed that uncontrolled population growth by poor people posed a threat to the social order. One of the first proponents of population control was the Anglican clergyman, Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus who in 1798 published a tract called An Essay on the Principle of Population in which he stipulated that within twenty three years – by the year 1890, there would have been standing room only on the earth. To prevent that catastrophe he recommended facilitating an increased mortality rate.
“All children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to a desired level, must necessarily perish, unless room is made for them by the deaths of grown persons … Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations.” (Quoted in A. Chase, The Legacy of Malthus: The Social costs of the new scientific racism, Knopf, distributed by Random House, New York, N.Y.1977; see also: S. W. Mosher, The Origins of Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom, 2009).
Malthus’ dire prediction did not materialise; but his essay was a commercial success, issued in six editions. His views about the need to control the population of the poor was adopted by the British and American upper class. Furthermore, as life-spans lengthened and general health improved in the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin suggested that not only were the poor having more children who survived, they were rapidly ‘dumbing down’ the population. This was regarded as an ominous ‘dysgenic’ trend. A Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, an English Victorian era statistician, polymath, sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, psychometrician, and eugenicist, coined a term which gave a pseudo-scientific gloss to ‘eugenics’ promoted as a progressive ideology aimed at increasing the birth rate of ‘the fit.’ In 1863 Galton theorised that if talented people only married other talented people, the result would be measurably talented people = better offspring. Galton and his staff collected extensive genealogies which were duplicated in every western country. Galton advocated “eugenical marriage” as a “religious duty,” nothing more. (E. Black, War against the weak: Eugenics and America’s campaign to create a master race, Thunder’s Mouth Press/Avalon Publishing Group, New York, N.Y. 2004).
However, Galton’s version of a freely chosen “positive eugenics” soon gave way in the United States to government mandated racially charged “negative eugenics.” Legislation was enacted to control the reproduction of segments of the population which were deemed to be the carriers of ‘defective’ genes.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Galton’s ideas were imported into the United States just as Gregor Johann Mendel, the founder of the modern science of genetics, re-discovered the principles of heredity. American eugenic advocates believed with religious fervour that the same Mendelian concepts determining the colour and size of peas, corn and cattle also governed the social and intellectual character of a human being.
In an America demographically reeling from immigration upheaval and torn by post-Reconstruction chaos, ‘race’ conflict was everywhere in the early twentieth century. Elitists, utopians and so-called ‘progressives’ fused their smouldering race fears and class bias with their desire to make a better world. They reinvented Galton’s eugenics into a repressive and racist ideology. The ultimate purpose was to populate the earth with vastly more of their own socio-economic and biological kind – and less or none of everyone else.
The ‘superior species’ the eugenics movement sought was populated not merely by tall, strong, talented people. 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 emancipated Negroes, immigrant Asian labourers, Indians, Hispanics, East Europeans, Southern Europeans, Jews, dark-haired ‘hill folk’, poor people, the infirm and really anyone classified outside the gentrified genetic lines drawn up by American race-scientists.
How would that be done? By identifying so-called ‘defective’ family trees and subjecting them to lifelong segregation and sterilisation programmes to kill their bloodlines. The grand plan was literally to wipe away the reproductive capability of those deemed weak and inferior – the so-called ‘unfit.’ The eugenicists hoped to neutralise the viability of ten per cent of the population at a sweep, until none were left except themselves.
Eighteen solutions were explored in a Carnegie-supported “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,” prepared by Bleeker Van Wagenen and published in 2009. Point eight was euthanasia.
The most commonly suggested method of eugenicide in America was a “lethal chamber” or public locally operated gas chambers. In 1918, Dr. Paul Bowman Popenoe, the Army venereal disease specialist during the first world war, co-wrote with professor Roswell Hill Johnson the widely used textbook, Applied Eugenics (The Macmillan Co. London and New York, 1920) which argued, “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.” Applied Eugenics also devoted a chapter to ‘Lethal Selection,’ which operated “through the destruction of the individual by some adverse feature of the environment, such as excessive cold, or bacteria, or by bodily deficiency.”
Eugenic breeders believed that American society was not ready to implement an organised lethal solution. But many mental institutions and doctors practiced improvised medical lethality and passive euthanasia on their own. One institution in Lincoln, Illinois fed its incoming patients milk from tubercular cows believing a eugenically strong individual would be immune. Thirty to forty per cent annual death rates resulted at Lincoln. Some doctors practiced passive eugenicide one newborn infant at a time. Others doctors at mental institutions engaged in lethal neglect.
Nonetheless, with eugenicide marginalised, the main solution for eugenicists was the rapid expansion of forced segregation and sterilisation, as well as more marriage restrictions. California led the nation, performing nearly all sterilisation procedures with little or no due process. In its first twenty-five years of eugenic legislation, California sterilised 9,782 individuals, mostly women. Many were classified as ‘bad girls,’ diagnosed as “passionate,” “oversexed” or “sexually wayward.” At Sonoma, some women were sterilised because of what was deemed an abnormally large clitoris or labia.
In 1933 alone, at least 1,278 coercive sterilisations would be performed, 700 of which were on women. The state’s two leading sterilisation mills in 1933 were Sonoma State Home with 388 operations and Patton State Hospital with 363 operations. Other sterilisation centres included Agnews, Mendocino, Napa, Norwalk, Stockton and Pacific Colony state hospitals.
Even the United States Supreme Court endorsed aspects of eugenics. In its infamous 1927 decision, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote – in an 8-1 decision in the case of Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), that “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.” This decision opened the floodgates for thousands to be coercively sterilised or otherwise persecuted as sub-human. (The Supreme Court ruled on eugenics once again in Skinner v. State of Oklahoma, ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942). There the United States Supreme Court held that laws permitting the compulsory sterilisation of criminals were unconstitutional if the sterilisation law treats similar crimes differently. In the case, the Oklahoma law applied to “habitual criminals” but it did exclude white-collar crimes. That could have applied even to traffic tickets which are a crime. The Court held that treating similar crimes differently violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment).
Years later, at the Nuremberg trials bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, some of their lawyers would quote Holmes’s words in their defence.
Only after eugenics became entrenched in the United States was the campaign transplanted into Germany, in no small measure through the efforts of California eugenicists, who published booklets idealising sterilisation and circulated them to German official and scientists.
Hitler studied American eugenics laws. He tried to legitimise his anti-Semitism by medicalising it, and wrapping it in the more palatable pseudo-scientific façade of eugenics. Hitler was able to recruit more followers among otherwise 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 made in America.
During the 1920s, Carnegie Institution eugenic scientists cultivated deep personal and professional relationships with Germany’s Nazi eugenicists. In Mein Kampf, published in two volumes in 1925-27, Hitler quoted American eugenic ideology and openly displayed a thorough knowledge of American eugenics. “There is today one state,” wrote Hitler, “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.”
The United States Immigration Act of 1924, which established the Border Patrol, was another piece of legislation based on the principles of racial purity and white supremacy and greatly admired by Hitler: “Compared to old Europe, which had lost an infinite amount of its best blood through war and emigration, the American nation appears as a young and racially select people. The American union itself, motivated by the theories of its own racial researchers, has established specific criteria for immigration … making an immigrant’s ability to set foot on American soil dependent on specific racial requirements.”
Hitler proudly told his comrades just how closely he followed the progress of the American eugenics movement. “I have studied with great interest,” he told a fellow Nazi, “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.” (Mein Kampf, an unexpurgated digest, translated with critical comments by B. D. Shaw, Political Digest Press, New York, 1939).
Hitler even wrote an admiring letter to American eugenic leader Madison Grant calling his race-based eugenics book, The passing of the great race his “bible.” (The passing of the great race: or, the racial basis of European history, originally published in 1916, Eastford, CT, USA 2017).
Peters used the El Paso example to demonstrate how effective Zyklon B was as an agent for killing unwanted pests. Peters became the managing director of Degesch, one of two German firms which acquired the patent to mass-produce Zyklon B in 1940. During the second world war, the Germans would use Zyklon B in concentrated doses in the gas chamber to exterminate millions of people the Nazis considered Ungeziefer, vermin, sub-human pests.
During the Third Reich’s early years, eugenicists across America welcomed Hitler’s plans as the logical fulfilment of their own decades of research and effort. California eugenicists republished Nazi propaganda for American consumption. They also arranged for Nazi scientific exhibits, such as an August 1934 display at the Los Angeles County Museum, for the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association.
In 1934, as Germany’s sterilisations were accelerating beyond 5,000 per month, the California eugenics leader Charles Matthias Goethe on returning from Germany enthusiastically addressed to a key colleague thus: “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 programme. 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.”
That same year, ten years after Virginia passed its sterilisation act, Dr. Joseph Spencer DeJarnette, director of Western State Hospital located in Staunton, Virginia, observed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “The Germans are beating us at our own game.”
More than just providing the scientific roadmap, America funded Germany’s eugenic institutions. By 1926 Rockefeller had donated some $410,000 – almost $4 million in twenty-first century money – to hundreds of German researchers. In May 1926 Rockefeller awarded $250,000 to the German Psychiatric Institute of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, later to become the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry. Among the leading psychiatrists at the German Psychiatric Institute was Dr. Ernst Rüdin, considered as the founding father of psychiatric genetics or of ‘racial hygiene’, who became director and eventually an architect of Hitler’s systematic medical repression.
Another in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute’s eugenic complex of institutions was the Institute for Brain Research. Since 1915 it had operated out of a single room. Everything changed when Rockefeller money arrived in 1929. A grant of $317,000 allowed the Institute to construct a major building and take centre stage in German race biology. The Institute received additional grants from the Rockefeller Foundation during the next several years. Leading the Institute, once again, was Hitler’s medical henchman Ernst Rüdin. Rüdin’s organisation became a prime director and recipient of the 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. Between 50,000 and 100,000 were eventually killed.
Leon Fradley Whitney, executive secretary of the American Eugenics Society declared of Nazism, “While we were pussy-footing around … 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 13 May 1932, the Rockefeller Foundation in New York dispatched a radiogramme to its Paris office: “June meeting Executive Committee nine thousand dollars over three year period to K.W.G. Institute Anthropology for research on twins and effects on later generations of substances toxic for germ plasma.”
At the time of Rockefeller’s endowment, Professor Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer of the University of Münster, a human biologist and geneticist and a hero in American eugenics circles, functioned as a head of the Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics. Rockefeller funding of that Institute continued both directly and through other research conduits during Verschuer’s early tenure. In 1935 Verschuer left the Institute to form a rival eugenics facility in Frankfurt which was much heralded in the American eugenic press. Research on twins in the Third Reich exploded, supported by government decrees. Verschuer wrote in Der Erbarzt, a eugenic doctor’s 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 Dr. Josef Mengele. On 30 May 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 Hauptsturmführer (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 Reichsführer [Himmler].”
Dr. Mengele began searching the boxcar arrivals for twins. When he found them, he performed atrocious experiments, scrupulously wrote up the reports and sent the paperwork back to Verschuer’s Institute for evaluation. Often, cadavers, eyes and other body parts were also dispatched to Berlin’s eugenic institutes.
Rockefeller executives most likely did not know of Mengele. With few exceptions, the Foundation had ceased all eugenic studies in Nazi-occupied Europe before the war erupted in 1939. But by that time the die had been cast. The talented men Rockefeller and Carnegie financed, the institutions they helped found, and the science they helped create took on a scientific momentum of their own.
After the war, eugenics was declared a crime against humanity – an act of genocide. Germans were tried and they cited the California statutes in their defence. That was to no avail: they were found guilty.
However, Mengele’s boss Verschuer escaped prosecution. Verschuer re-established his connections with California eugenicists who had gone underground and renamed their crusade “human genetics.” Typical was an exchange 25 July 1946 when Popenoe wrote Verschuer: “It was indeed a pleasure to hear from you again. I have been very anxious about my colleagues in Germany. … I suppose sterilisation has been discontinued in Germany?” Popenoe offered tidbits about various American eugenic luminaries and then sent various eugenic publications.
Verschuer wrote back: “Your very friendly letter of 7/25 gave me a great deal of pleasure and you have my heartfelt thanks for it. The letter builds another bridge between your and my scientific work; I hope that this bridge will never again collapse but rather make possible valuable mutual enrichment and stimulation.”
Soon, Verschuer once again became a respected scientist in Germany and around the world. In 1949 he became a corresponding member of the newly formed American Society of Human Genetics, organised by American eugenicists and geneticists.
In the fall of 1950 the University of Münster offered Verschuer a position at its new Institute of Human Genetics, where he later became a dean. In the early and mid-1950s, Verschuer became an honorary member of numerous prestigious societies, including the Italian Society of Genetics, the Anthropological Society of Vienna, and the Japanese Society for Human Genetics.
Human genetics’ genocidal roots in eugenics were ignored by a victorious generation which refused any connection with the crimes of Nazism and by succeeding generations which never knew the truth of the years leading up to war. In time governors of five states, including California have issued public apologies to their citizens, past and present, for sterilisation and other abuses spawned by the eugenics movement.
Human genetics became an enlightened endeavour in the late twentieth century. Hard-working, devoted scientists finally cracked the human code through the Human Genome Project. Now, every individual can be biologically identified and classified by trait and ancestry. Yet even now some leading voices in the genetic world are calling for a cleansing of the unwanted among us, and even a master human species.
There is understandable wariness about more ordinary forms of abuse, for example, in denying insurance or employment based on genetic tests.
After the passage of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act on 21 May 2008 genetic discrimination is illegal in the United States. Yet, because genetics research is global, no single nation’s law can stop the threats. (E. Black, The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics , 6 July 2009).
Some concluding considerations seem appropriate at this point.
As professor John Galloway observed, “Whatever the motives and methods used to realise them – persuasion, education, coercion, sterilisation, segregation, euthanasia and more – eugenics has stemmed from the belief that a population, ‘race’, or even the species, is ‘degenerating’ and in urgent need of improvement and revitalisation.” (E. Rudolph. White Lies: Eugenics, Abortion, and Racism, 2014, PDF file).
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