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Deprogram with Denyse O'Leary
As long as it’s not about their love for evolution. It is common to hear that the Nazis utterly lacked morality. Of course, that satisfies deep anger. But is it true? University of California professor Richard Weikart’s recent book, Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), offers an illuminating answer: No.
Hitler’s Ethic (a companion to his From Darwin to Hitler, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) demonstrates that the Nazis indeed had an ethic. It flowed directly and painstakingly from evolutionary theory, as understood in Germany at the time.
Embryologist Ernst Haeckel was Darwin’s best-known advocate and popularizer in Germany in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus, Weikart had originally titled his book, “From Haeckel to Hitler,” but the publisher altered the title to “From Darwin to Hitler” for marketing reasons—he was concerned that too few bookstore browsers would recognize Haeckel’s name.
Today, Haeckel is remembered as the author of one of the “most famous fakes in biology” (Pennisi, Science, 1997), because he altered drawings of various vertebrate embryos to make them look more similar to each other than they actually are. The altered drawings were reproduced in books and periodicals for over a century because they supplied an apparently convincing demonstration of Darwinian evolution.
Three factors make discussion of the Nazis and Darwinism difficult. First, many people react with rage when the subject is even raised. (This writer has dealt with some of them.) As Weikart painstakingly documents in both books, key Nazi theorists were avid Darwinists. We cannot understand Nazi social policies without addressing their belief that they were helping evolution by promoting survival of the fittest. But that is, of course, a long way from reversing the assumption. Most Darwinists of the day probably did not sympathize with the Nazis, and it is likely that many fought against them during World War II.
A second factor that complicates discussion is that Hitler himself was a crowd pleaser, not a deep or original thinker. As Weikart notes in From Darwin to Hitler, he got most of his ideas and information from popular media (if not from beer halls). Weikart studies the serious theorists of the day because their ideas laid the groundwork for the popular interpretations that shaped the views of millions of Germans, including Hitler.
The third difficulty is that Nazi attitudes sometimes happened to coincide with traditional Christian morality, for example on abortion. But there is a fundamental difference: Hitler opposed abortion, not in principle, but only for healthy German women who could contribute to the expansion of the German population. He approved it for “inferior” races. Confusion on this score has sometimes been exploited by those who would draw attention away from the Darwinian basis of Hitler’s policies. The Nazis were not trying to restore an old-fashioned morality; old-fashioned morality was precisely what they wanted to destroy.
Weikart is sometimes attacked in print for having had a sordid motive for even raising the issue. So why did he do it? And how did he get interested in the first place?
Actually, at first, he wasn’t interested. While living in Germany some years ago to improve his German, he was mainly interested in the nineteenth century. He doubted that he would uncover anything new about the Third Reich. For one thing, in his view, it was an overworked field. But then he discovered one neglected point:
[A]s I investigated the history of evolutionary ethics in pre-World War I Germany, I noticed—to my surprise—remarkable similarities between the ideas of those promoting evolutionary ethics and Hitler’s worldview. This discovery (which happened around 1995) led me to investigate Hitler’s worldview more closely, and this research convinced me that I had found something important to say about Hitler’s ideology.
As he put it in Hitler’s Ethic,
Evolutionary ethics underlay or influenced almost every major feature of Nazi policy: eugenics . . . euthanasia, racism, population expansion, offensive warfare and racial extermination. Hitler’s ethic was essentially an evolutionary ethic that exalted biological progress above all other moral considerations. Humans must adapt to and even model themselves after the laws of nature.
The Nazis thought that humans were tampering with the laws of nature by permitting the weak and unfit to survive, and they believed that their ruthless policies would fix the problem.
Weikart is at times serene and at other times impatient when reflecting on the response to From Darwin to Hitler. Reacting to claims that he argues that Darwinism leads inevitably to Nazism—or actually causes it—he says, “I reject both of these interpretations, and in the introduction and conclusion to the book I overtly denied these positions. I was flabbergasted when I saw these misrepresentations of my book. Of course, many disciples of Darwin were outraged that I would place his name in the same title as Hitler.”
A Central Issue
Another common canard is the claim that Hitler never mentioned Darwin or evolution. Weikart, who is nothing if not extensively well-read on the subject, concedes that Hitler may never have mentioned Darwin, but
when they also claim that Hitler never discussed evolution in Mein Kampf, they are simply wrong. They also ignore the many, many times that Hitler explicitly mentioned his belief in evolution, including human evolution. Hitler often discusses “evolution” (Entwicklung in the German), the struggle for existence, selection, and other evolutionary concepts in his writings and speeches. My book, Hitler’s Ethic, is chock-full of examples. I don’t know of any case where Hitler actually uses the term “common descent,” because that’s what most people understood “evolution” to mean.
Popular art depicting evolution, then and now, makes that quite clear.
Overall, however, Weikart is optimistic that discussion of these issues is becoming more informed and useful. “Interestingly,” he notes, “most historians in the past several decades have come around to the position that understanding Hitler’s ideology is central to understanding what the Nazis did. Yes, they were power-hungry, but they wanted to use power to achieve specific goals.”
That’s definite progress, because discussing the Nazis while ignoring evolutionary ethics makes as much sense as discussing the Communists while ignoring statism. •
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