War against the weak

by Andy Worthington

[ bookreviews ]

For War Against the Weak, the investigative journalist Edwin Black (author of the critically acclaimed bestseller IBM and the Holocaust) assembled a team of researchers in the US, England, Germany and Canada to pore through obscure archive material, building up a damning indictment of the racist, pseudo-scientific movement called eugenics - whose ultimate aim was to create a superior Nordic race - which came to prominence in the first 30 years of the 20th century in the United States before being adopted, to chilling effect, by the Nazis.

In the first of the book's three sections, Black examines the origins of the movement in the discovery of genes in the late 19th century, which immediately suggested to the more bigoted members of the ruling elite that physical and mental problems in society were caused by the inheritance of inferior genes. Their long-cherished notion that the poor were to blame for their own predicament, for example, could now apparently be justified: economics had nothing to do with it; poverty was caused by "biological inheritance".

The term "eugenics" (from the Greek for well-born) was actually coined in 1883 by a British researcher, Francis Galton, and in the early days the emphasis was on encouraging those with "superior" genes to reproduce (positive eugenics) while discouraging those with "inferior" genes from doing the same (negative eugenics). By the start of the 20th century, however, negative eugenics had become dominant, pursued with fanatical zeal by one particular American, a miserable zoologist and race bigot called Charles Davenport. Bankrolled by leading industrialists through the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune, Davenport was able to establish legitimate institutions dedicated to the study of eugenics, attracting like-minded supporters including Madison Grant, a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, whose influential book The Passing of the Great Race described people of Mediterranean, Balkan and Polish descent as "human flotsam", dismissed the Irish as "of no social importance" and included the observation that on the streets of London "No one can question... the contrast between the Piccadilly gentleman of Nordic race and the Cockney costermonger of Neolithic type."

From the beginning, the American eugenicists' aim was to identify what they considered the most defective and undesirable of the nation's inhabitants - the so-called "submerged tenth", up to 14 million people - and to terminate their bloodlines through compulsory segregation and forced sterilisation. Once this was achieved, the program would continue until only a pure Nordic strain survived. In their more guarded moments - and in a chilling precursor to what was later to occur in Nazi Germany - they also proposed that the "unfit" should be dealt with through what was euphemistically termed "euthanasia".

Despite a lack of public support for their measures, which were doggedly unscientific, involving terms such as "feebleminded" and "shiftless", none of which were ever described objectively, the eugenics movement marshalled broad support from leading scholars in the top Ivy League universities and national organisations including the American Breeders Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of whose members, Dr Albert Wiggam, enthused, "Had Jesus been among us, he would have been President of the First Eugenics Congress." Other prominent supporters included ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and eccentric doctor John Harvey Kellogg (brother of the cornflake inventor), who founded the Race Betterment Foundation "to help stop the propagation of defectives."

With all this backing, the eugenicists were soon able to embark on the first stage of their plans: inter-racial marriage bans and "voluntary" (i.e. coerced) sterilisation. Prisons, asylums and other institutions handed over confidential records to eugenic researchers and fieldworkers (Black notes that the Census Bureau "stands out as the one federal organisation that simply refused to join the movement"), and from 1907 onwards the purge began in earnest. Indiana, where the fervent eugenicist Dr Harry Clay Sharp had already performed over 200 illegal vasectomies on the "unfit", was the first to pass sterilisation laws, and was followed in swift succession by Washington, Connecticut, California (which became the most prominent supporter of sterilisation), Nevada, Iowa, New Jersey (under then-Governor Woodrow Wilson) and New York. In all, 29 states passed sterilisation laws, and Black's research revealed that between 1907 and 1925 over 6,000 people were coercively sterilised. In addition, 30 states also enacted stringent inter-racial marriage bans.

The sterilisation project expanded in 1925, when an appeal to the Supreme Court to prevent the sterilisation of an unfortunate young woman called Carrie Buck was dashed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, who concluded that "It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime... society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind." Buoyed by the verdict, eugenicists enforced over 30,000 sterilisation's from 1925-40, targeting the feebleminded, the insane, petty criminals, those considered morally degenerate and, of course, the long-suffering poor.

In the second section of the book, Black examines how the success of American sterilisation policies influenced eugenicists in other countries. Following the US lead, sterilisation laws were enacted in Belgium, Canada (where nearly 3,000 people were sterilised in Alberta alone), Denmark, Finland, Norway (which sterilised over 40,000 people) and Sweden (where the figures rose to over 60,000). Although Britain failed to enact similar laws, Black points out that high profile supporters of negative eugenics included HG Wells, Winston Churchill, who in 1910 proposed the segregation of 120,000 "feebleminded" Britons "so that their curse died with them and was not transmitted to future generations", and George Bernard Shaw, who was a fervent supporter of euthanasia, advocating "an extensive use of the lethal chamber", on the basis that "A great many people would have to be put out of existence, simply because it wastes other people's time to look after them."

It was in Germany, however, that negative eugenics was to have the greatest impact. Black demonstrates how German eugenicists were persistently supported by their American counterparts, how the Carnegie Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation provided funding for German "race biology" projects from 1922 onwards, and how grateful the nascent Nazi regime was for the financial and ideological support. As the author describes it, German eugenicists "followed American eugenic accomplishments as the model: biological courts, forced sterilisation, detention for the socially inadequate, debates on euthanasia", and in the early 1930s Madison Grant received a fawning fan letter from Adolf Hitler, who described The Passing of the Great Race as "his Bible".

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the fulfilment of the eugenicists' dream began in earnest. Within two months, the first concentration camp was opened at Dachau, and plans were announced for the enforced sterilisation of 400,000 "defectives" according to nine familiar eugenic categories including "feeblemindedness". 56,000 people were sterilised in 1934 alone, but throughout this period, even as the anti-Semitic rhetoric was stepped up to an alarming degree, the American eugenicists remained steadfast in their support. Eugenical News boasted that "Doubtless the legislative and court history of the experimental sterilisation laws in the [US] provided the experience, which Germany used in writing her new national sterilisation statute."

Within a few years, of course, the Nazis moved on from sterilisation to embrace the policy of euthanasia that had been proposed by numerous eugenicists over the previous 40 years. Concentration camps "of gruesome notoriety" were established throughout the country, and in the cities the exterminations began with the mass gassings of thousands of "mentally handicapped" adults in 1939 and continued with the systematic murder of up to 100,000 inhabitants of homes for the aged, mental institutions and other custodial facilities. In the process, the eugenicists' idea of euthanasia was revealed for what it truly was: mass murder on an unprecedented scale.

Beginning in 1941, the deranged dream of Nordic supremacy reached its logical conclusion in the Final Solution, and in Auschwitz, where at least one and a half million people were murdered, the true horror of eugenics was demonstrated by Josef Mengele. Scanning each new train-load of arrivals, Mengele was responsible for picking out Jews for immediate gassing, but was particularly obsessed with locating twins for research and experimentation. From the dawn of eugenics, the study of twins had been considered the key to unlocking the secrets of race supremacy, and in the filth and squalor of Auschwitz, Mengele set up "a modern well-equipped pathology lab", where, as Black describes it, the twins were subjected to a regime of "torture and testing, electroshock and syringes, eye injections and other hideous experiments - where live children and fresh cadavers were equally prized - all to achieve the eugenic ideal of a superior race in a place where mankind had sunk to the nadir of humanity."

In the book's final section, Black looks at the post-war legacy of eugenics. Unsurprisingly, the pseudo-science was unable to cope with the backlash from the horrific reality of its full-scale implementation, particularly when, at the Nuremberg trials, prominent Nazis explicitly used the examples of sterilisation laws and inter-racial marriage laws that existed in over half of the United States as justification for their own actions.

Noticeably, however, although eugenics morphed into the more respectable field of genetics, Black wonders if the spectre of eugenics has truly been banished. The author's research revealed, for example, that a further 35,000 people were coercively sterilised in the United States from the 1940s to the 1970s (with women targeted in particular and California still leading the way) and that prohibitions on inter-racial marriages were only finally overturned by a Supreme Court ruling in 1967 (with Alabama only capitulating as recently as 2000).

Black fears that the brave new world of genetics "will create an uninsurable, unemployable and unfinanceable genetic underclass", based on money rather than race but which nonetheless overlaps rather uncomfortably with the "submerged tenth" of eugenics. He notes that since the 1970s the US Medical Information Bureau, the insurance industry's databank, has included two codes to signify hereditary conditions - cardiovascular and 'other", and worries about the implications of widespread human genome projects, which have already been applied to the entire populations of Iceland and Estonia. He concludes with a genuinely shocking quote from the celebrated geneticist James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, who told a film crew in 2003, "If you are really stupid, I would call that a disease. The lower 10 per cent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what's the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, 'Well, poverty, things like that.' It probably isn't. So I'd like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 per cent."