Tuesday, March 22, 2005
Darwin and Hitler: An Exchange With Richard Weikart
Dear Pat Hayes,
I just saw your comments about my forthcoming lecture, including your following remark:
“Unsurprisingly, they don't see science, Darwin, or scientists as being at the root of that particular evil.”
You obviously have not read much on the Nazi era, for many historians—Ian Kershaw, Eberhard Jaeckel, Brigitte Hamann, Michael Burleigh, Henry Friedlander, and many more—have discussed the role of social Darwinism in the formulation of Nazi ideology. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum currently has a display, “Deadly Medicine,” detailing the involvement of medical science in the Nazi atrocities. They have compiled photos and text about their display in a book by the same title, wherein they discuss the involvement of scientists and medical practitioners in the Holocaust. Detlev Peukert, a highly regarded German historian, published an essay on ““The Genesis of the 'Final Solution' from the Spirit of Science,” which is published in a scholarly book, Reevaluating the Third Reich, edited by reputable historians. Much scholarship in the past two decades has shown conclusively the involvement of scientists and physicians in formulating eugenics, euthanasia, and racial ideology, which fed into Nazi thinking.
Department of History
California State Univ., Stanislaus
Red State Rabble replies:
Thank you for your letter on my post about your upcoming lecture, "From Darwin to Hitler." While I don't consider myself to be an expert on the Nazi era, I nevertheless find your thesis -- that Darwinism played a key role in the rise of eugenics, euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, and racial extermination, all ultimately embraced by the Nazis -- unpersuasive. The roots of the Nazi ideology, I believe, are far more complex. Your letter consists primarily of appeals to the authority of a small group of writers and historians, but, as I'm sure you are aware, there are other points of view.
Fritz Stern, a refugee from and eminent scholar of the holocaust, for example, finds the roots of Nazism not in Darwin but in the mixing of religion and politics. He said the following in accepting the Leo Baeck Medal November 14, 2004:
"We who were born at the end of the Weimar Republic and who witnessed the rise of National Socialism—left with that all-consuming, complex question: how could this horror have seized a nation and corrupted so much of Europe? ...
"Hitler himself, a brilliant populist manipulator who insisted and probably believed that Providence had chosen him as Germany’s savior, that he was the instrument of Providence, a leader who was charged with executing a divine mission. God had been drafted into national politics before, but Hitler’s success in fusing racial dogma with a Germanic Christianity was an immensely powerful element in his electoral campaigns. Some people recognized the moral perils of mixing religion and politics, but many more were seduced by it. It was the pseudo-religious transfiguration of politics that largely ensured his success, notably in Protestant areas."
Likewise, while some scientists who considered themselves Darwinists were also supporters of eugenics, there were also many prominent Christians, such a Mary E. Teats, the National Purity Evangelist for the Women's Christian Temperance Union, who said,
"The great and rapidly increasing army of idiots, insane, imbeciles, blind, deaf-mutes, epileptics, paralytics, the murderers, thieves, drunkards and moral perverts are very poor material with which to "subdue the world," and usher in the glad day when "all shall know the Lord, whom to know aright is life everlasting." There are hundreds and thousands of men and women today to whom in the interests of future generations, some rigid law should say, "Write this one childless." Men and women whose habits of life are such as to curse their offspring, should be prohibited from marrying."
Many, many other examples could be cited.
Understanding the roots of Nazism or eugenics and preventing it's return remains a key task today. Each of us could search the literature to find quotes by scientists or Christians supporting Hitler or eugenics. Likewise, each of us could also find and list scientists or Christians who opposed both. Neither approach is likely to lead to the deeper understanding of the social and historical roots of those great evils.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Darwin's theory of evolution was as widely accepted by scientists in the United States as it was in Germany, and yet Nazism triumphed in Germany and not in our country. Your simple thesis, that Darwin, science, and evolution are responsible for Hitler's horrors does nothing to help us account for the different outcomes in each country.
My sense is, that as an ardent opponent of evolution, you are less interested in arriving at a deeper understanding of the factors that produced these terribly destructive social movements than in finding a handy club to beat Darwin with. This is scholarship in service of ideology rather than scholarship in the service of expanding understanding.
The right-wing play-book -- or Wedge Strategy --calls for the demonization of political opponents as a first step to winning political power. At its heart, I think this is the purpose of your book and lecture. The similarity between Christian fundamentalism's demonization of science and scientists -- for which your book and public speaking provide intellectual cover --and the Nazi's demonization of the Jews is more than just a little remarkable.
I believe that scientists and those in the medical profession have drawn the appropriate conclusions from the experience with Nazism and medical experimentation in Germany and eugenics in this country.
I don't think that the Christian right -- which forms the backbone of the movement against teaching evolution in the schools -- can say the same. Here in my home state of Kansas there is a minister named Fred Phelps who is attempting to organize a movement against gays that has distinct Nazi overtones. Gays, you will remember from your research were prominent among the victims of the Holocaust.
Rev. Phelps regularly attends the funerals of the victims of HIV Aids to harass their grieving families. He sees in the 9/11 Terror attack on New York, the hand of God reaching out to punish gays for what he, Phelps, deems to be their sins. Likewise, he welcomed the Indian Ocean Tsunami because it killed, he says, 2,000 gay Swedes who were vacationing there among the roughly 250,000 other victims.
As yet, I have heard no condemnation of Rev. Phelps from the Christian right or the fellows of the Discovery Institute.
I urge you, in your April 7 speech, to call attention to the dangers -- so reminiscent of the Nazi era -- of the mixing of religion and politics that we are living through right now in America. I urge you to speak out against men like Phelps who would build a social movement to bully and harass men and women simply because they are gay.