Eclectic Rant: From Eugenics to the Holocaust

By Ralph E. Stone & Judi Iranyi
Monday July 18, 2011 - 12:03:00 PM
Some dictators don't know where to stop (created by J.N. Darling, 1876-1962)
Some dictators don't know where to stop (created by J.N. Darling, 1876-1962)

In his book, Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill, author Robert Whitaker discusses a pseudoscientific theory called eugenics. According to this theory, the gene pool was being polluted by the mentally ill, that the severely mentally ill were carriers of defective "germ plasm" and thus, were a threat to the health of American society. The mentally ill were described as a degenerate strain of humanity, social wastage that bred at alarming rates and burdened normal Americans with their upkeep. In some states, the mentally ill were prohibited from marrying, forcibly committed to asylums, and in many states sterilized against their will. American eugenicists encouraged Nazi Germany in its massive sterilization of the mentally ill, a program that led to the crematoriums of the Holocaust. 

Below is our synopsis of Whitaker's discussion of eugenics. It is disturbing. It may well dispel some of the myths about the origins of the Holocaust. 

In 1889, Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species, which basically posited that evolution was a struggle for survival where only the fit survived. While Darwin did not address humankind's beginnings, Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin, saw from Darwin's study that humans were not a fixed species, but had evolved. Thus, future change in humans was inevitable. Farmers, for example, were able to breed more desirable plants and hardier, meatier domestic animals through breeding practices. By applying such practices to humans, Galton reasoned, the race of men could be improved by weeding out the undesirables. 

Galton coined the word "eugenics,", which is derived from the Greek word for "well-born." It is a purported science with an aim of improving the human stock by giving the more suitable races the means of prevailing speedily over the less suitable races. Eugenics divided humans into two classes: the eugenic and the cacogenic or poorly born.  

Eugenics did not get much traction in England, but it did so in the United States. The U.S. eugenics movement was funded by Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Mary Harriman, the widow of railroad magnate Edward Harriman, and was hailed by graduates of Harvard, Yale, and other Ivy League Universities. 

In the mid-1880s, more than 5 million Irish and Germans immigrated to the U,S, followed by a second wave of a million per year in the early twentieth century. The "ruling class" -- the WASPs -- realized that these immigrants were predominately non-protestant and less white. And they tended to have more children than those born here. That meant the haves would end footing the bill for the havenots. This showed up in the asylum population. According to the U.S. Census, in 1850, there were 15,610 insane in a total population of 21 million, or one in 1,345. By 1880, there were 91,997 people in a total population of 50 million, or one in 554 people. Forty percent in asylums were foreign born. Ergo it must be the foreign born who were carrying the "germ plasm." Eugenics was the answer. In order to stop the spread of "defectives," the U.S. spent less money on the care of the mentally ill, enacted laws prohibiting them from marrying, put them in asylums, and sterilized them against their will. The purported scientific justification for sterilization was that insanity was inherited and therefore, sterilization was necessary to stop its spread. 

Eugenics became a force in the U.S. in 1921 when the American Museum of Natural History hosted the Second International Congress of Eugenics, financed in part by the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation. Museum President Henry Fairfield Osborn, a nephew of J.P. Morgan, opened the session by stating that it was time for science "to enlighten government of the spread and multiplication of worthless members of society." Speakers from Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, and Cornell, MIT, and NYU participated. Talks included "The Jewish Problem," the dangers of "Negro-White Intermixture," and the "Pedigrees of Pauper Stocks." Exhibits and charts from the Congress were put on display in the U.S. Capitol. After the Congress, a eugenics society was formed with the purpose of lessening the number of degenerates, delinquents, and defectives supported in public institutions.  

The American Eugenics Society (AES) was incorporated in 1926. The primary purpose of the AES was to promote sterilization. They did this by placing pamphlets and textbooks in schools and sterilization campaigns. From 1907 to 1927 about 8,000 eugenic sterilizations were performed. Oliver Wendall Holmes writing for the majority (8-1) in Buck v. Bell, 244 U.S. 200 (1927) ruled that sterilization was constitutional. Holmes said: "experience has shown that heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, imbecility, etc." Lousy science became the basis for bad law. By the end of 1945, 45,127 Americans had been sterilized under sterilization laws. 

After the Supreme Court decision, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland passed sterilization laws. In 1925, Adolph Hitler, in Mein Kampf, praised eugenics as the science that would rebuild the nation after World War I. Hitlers concept of a "master race" -- an Aryan race or pure race -- was not far removed from eugenics concept of the "well-born." In 1925, the Rockefeller Foundation gave $2.5 million to the Psychiatric Institute in Munich , which became became Germany's leading center for eugenic research. It also gave money to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics in Berlin. 

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany passed comprehensive sterilization legislation. Over the next six years, Germany sterilized 375,000 of its citizens. 

In the U.S,, the idea that the mentally ill and other "misfits" were useless to society and that the state killing of them might even be acceptable. Later, in 1940, Nazi Germany embraced this idea with a vengeance by killing its mentally ill with "proper gasses." One practical reason for killing the mentally ill was that it freed up hospital beds for the wounded as Germany had invaded Poland. More than 70,000 mental patients were gassed. Hitler ended the gassing of the mentally ill in 1941, the gas chambers were dismantled and sent to concentration camps where they were reassembled and used for the killing of Jews and "others devoid of value." 

After the war and the horror of the concentration camps were revealed, attention slowly became focused on the dismal conditions of U.S. mental institutions. Some called them American concentration camps.  

The AES's membership dropped considerably after WWII. In 1972, the AES was renamed the Society for the Study of Social Biology. 

I see vestiges of eugenics-thinking in post-WWII U.S. in the treatment of African-Americans, Jews, homosexuals, undocumented immigrants, and Muslims. I see a trace of racism in the criticism of President Obama. I see a "blame the victim" mentality. Doesn't it seem like the safety nets for the poor, mentally ill, disabled, elderly, and displaced are among the first programs to be cut at budget crunch time while at the same time we won't approve taxing the rich more. The "well born" get richer while the havenots fall by the wayside.