Fwd: REVIEW: Judaken on Weikart, _From Darwin to Hitler_

From: Ted Davis <tdavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Mon Sep 19 2005 - 09:31:08 EDT

A very interesting review of a work we've discussed in the past.
Interesting to see that the author would agree with Michael Roberts'
comments about Darwin and racism (when Michael commented on Weiker) and also
with my support for the extensive research on which the work is based. I
agree also with the point about doing old fashioned history of ideas--I'm
sometimes guilty of the same thing. I dont' therefore think that this is a
fatal objeciton, simply a limitation--and all historical works have


>>> smtedit@MAIL.H-NET.MSU.EDU 9/19/2005 8:48:50 AM >>>
Date: Fri, 16 Sep 2005 13:13:56 EDT
From: H-Net Reviews <books@WWW.H-NET.ORG>
Subject: Judaken on Weikart, _From Darwin to Hitler_

Published by H-Ideas@h-net.msu.edu (June, 2005)

Richard Weikart. _From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics,
and Racism in Germany_. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004. ix + 312 pp.
Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed for H-Ideas by Jonathan Judaken, Department of
History, University of Memphis.

Deadly Ethics?: The Impact of Social Darwinism on Eugenics and Racism in

The special tenth anniversary exhibition entitled "Deadly Medicine:
Creating the Master Race" currently on view at the United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum is a powerful illustration of the Darwin to Hitler thesis
explored in Richard Weikart's new book. On display are the texts, tools,
and techniques used to promote and legitimate science, specifically
eugenics, as the salvation to the threats that hampered the health of the
nation. The exhibit depicts how widespread the mesh of eugenics and racism
was by the late nineteenth century. It dramatically shows the effects on
the real bodies of suffering victims who were forcibly sterilized or
murdered because of the policies of racial hygiene enacted by the Nazis to
regenerate the body politic. Richard Weikart's book has the merit of
directly considering an implicit question within the scholarship upon
which the exhibit was based: is there an ethical perspective within
evolutionary theory that links Darwin to Hitler?

For intellectual historians, this question encapsulates other concerns:
was Nazism imbued with a coherent moral vision or was it nihilistic and
opportunistic, animated only by the will to power? Does evolutionary
theory have a systematic set of ethical values that underlie its
scientific and materialistic viewpoint? What are the social implications
of Darwin's ideas and how does social Darwinism differ in different
national contexts? If Nietzsche's _Genealogy of Morals_ is one example of
the effort to historicize the claim that there are immutable, universal
ethical standards, can one conversely write a genealogy of moral
relativism? How ought intellectual historians write the history of
morality and in what ways is their approach different from philosophers?
Richard Weikart's book on evolutionary ethics has the merit of
foregrounding these issues. The last of them, which is both ethical and
methodological, points to the shortcomings of a nonetheless important

In eleven chapters broken down into four parts, _From Darwin to Hitler_
presents the basic tenets of Darwinian evolutionary theory as applied to
ethics. Weikart focuses "primarily on [the] Darwinian influence on
eugenics, euthanasia, racial theory, and militarism in Germany" (p. 9).
The basic premises that governed social Darwinist positions on these
points were clear and coherent. They were encapsulated in the oeuvre of
Ernst Haeckel, the most famous and influential social Darwinist in Germany
from the publication of Darwin's _The Origin of the Species_ (1859) until
the early twentieth century. Haeckel--and many of the prominent
scientists, physicians, psychiatrists, economists, geographers,
anthropologists, and philosophers whose creed was akin to his--believed
that everything, including human consciousness, society, and morality was
a function of natural cause and effect. These natural laws could be known
through scientific investigation and science was "the arbiter of all
truth" (p. 13). Since individual subjectivity was a function of the laws
of nature, Darwinism implied determinism. It undermined any mind-body
dualism or the notion of a soul distinct from the physical body. Social
Darwinism claimed that human behavior and moral character were the product
of hereditary forces. The mechanism that drives heredity is natural
selection (in particular group selection) and the struggle for existence.
This struggle has resulted in a variety of moral standards within the
human species and over time; Darwinism thus implies moral relativism (p.
25). These simple maxims provided a secular, unified, mechanistic,
non-theological system that explained the link between the individual, the
group, the nation, and mankind. It thus offered a consistent account of
things as diverse as human nature, economics, international relations, and

If we believe Weikart, the impact of evolutionary theory on ethics was
revolutionary. It overturned the moral codes of what he repeatedly calls
"traditional" Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment ethics, legitimating
eugenics, "inegalitarianism, scientific racism, and the devaluing of human
life" (p. 10). The root of this revolution was Darwin's non-theistic
explanation for the origin of ethics in _The Descent of Man_ (1871): "He
pointed out that other animals live in societies and cooperate, and the
social instinct producing this cooperative behavior is heritable. In
humans the social instincts have developed further than in most other
species, and, harnessed together with expanded human cognitive abilities,
produced what we call morality. The mechanism producing the increase in
social instincts was, according to Darwin, natural selection through the
struggle for existence. Those groups with more cooperative and
self-sacrificing individuals would out-compete those groups with more
selfish individuals" (p. 22). This naturalistic account replaced the old
moral values with a single standard by which to judge all choices,
exalting evolutionary progress itself "to the status of the highest moral
good" (p. 10). The moral maxim of evolutionary ethics was, as Willibald
Hentschel, a student of Haeckel's incisively put it on a postcard to
Christian von Ehrenfels, a philosopher and proponent of eugenics, "'That
which preserves health is moral. Everything that makes one sick or ugly is
sin'" (p. 43).

In his painstakingly researched third chapter, Weikart examines the
institutionalization of evolutionary ethics. His assiduous inquest into
the archives, personal papers and even some personal interviews reveal a
coterie of different ethical societies: the German Society for Ethical
Culture; Academy of Physiological Morality and other efforts spearheaded
and financed by Albert Samson; the Krupp Prize Competition announced in
1900 and completed in 1903; Haeckel's Monist League; the International
Order for Ethics and Culture; Alfred Ploetz's Society for Race Hygiene;
and renowned anti-Semite Theodor Fritsch's German Renewal Community. Each
of these organizations promoted the separation of ethics from religion and
advocated, in different degrees, an evolutionary approach to ethics. This
resulted in the wide dissemination of an evolutionary approach to moral
questions, especially in the medical, scientific, and academic milieu.

The second part of the book focuses on the application of evolutionary
ethics to a number of concrete moral questions. Weikart's grand claim is
that "only in the late nineteenth and especially the early twentieth
century did significant debate erupt over issues relating to the sanctity
of human life, especially infanticide, euthanasia, abortion, and suicide"
(pp. 75, 145). The argument of this section, summarized in its title, is
that evolutionary ethics results in "Devaluing Human Life." A key tenet is
that not all human life is equal. Those deemed unfit or _minderwertig_ in
German, often translated as inferior, "but literally meaning 'having less
value'" could thus be targeted for elimination. In a 1909 speech to the
Society for German Scientists and Physicians, the anthropologist and
eugenicist Felix von Luschan made the dichotomy between the valuable and
the inconsequential clear in his response to the question, "Who is
inferior?" "The sick, the weak, the dumb, the stupid, the alcoholic, the
bum, the criminal; all these are inferior,'" von Luschan maintained,
"compared with the healthy, the strong, the intelligent, the clever, the
sober, the pure'" (p. 95). Generally, two overlapping categories were
expendable: the disabled (especially the mentally ill) and those who were
economically unproductive. Non-European "races," too, were consigned to
moral oblivion as a result of the contribution of evolutionary theory to
racial science.

What this ultimately permitted, Weikart contends in part 3, was
"Eliminating the 'Inferior Ones.'" Since evolutionary ethics dovetailed
with eugenics, it entailed controlling reproduction. A spectrum of
positions emerged from the shared premise that sexual morality ought to be
judged "by its effects on the hereditary health of future generations" (p.

144), including sanctioning infanticide, abortion, polygamy, and voluntary
and involuntary euthanasia. Condoning these dictums throws into relief the
difference between Jewish, Christian, and Enlightenment precepts and the
doctrines that emerged from the new evolutionary credo. While "Christian
churches explicitly forbade murder, infanticide, abortion, and even
suicide," (p. 145), Darwinism undercut the sanctity of human life and
reduced humans to mere animals. "By stressing human inequality, and by
viewing the death of many 'unfit' organisms as a necessary--and even
progressive--natural phenomenon," Weikart argues, "Darwinism made the
death of the 'inferior' seem inevitable and even beneficent" (p. 160).

Moreover, while it was most certainly not the case that social Darwinism
created German militarism, it did provide a scientific justification for
warmongering. However, while the dominant chord struck by Darwinists
touted the virtue and necessity of war, it was interesting to learn that
during the World War I epoch, social Darwinist arguments were marshaled to
support both categorical pacifism and what Weikart calls "peace eugenics,"

which supported the peace movement by opposing wars between European
nations "where the brightest and best mowed each other down without regard
to their biological traits" (p. 181), since this would lead to the
biological degeneration of Europeans.

Mowing down the racially inferior degenerates outside the European order
was, however, almost universally authorized. It was social Darwinist
arguments that provided the counterpoint to the liberal "civilizing
mission" by maintaining that the "lower races" were doomed to their
inferiority. Europeans, and the new German colonizers in particular, could
thus legitimate the most uncivilized barbarity. Weikart illustrates this
in his brief exposition of the Herero genocide in German Southwest Africa
(1904-6), where General Trotha "explicitly justified racial annihilation
using Darwinian concepts" (p. 205). Having thus laid the stage for the
final scene, Weikart concludes the book with a discussion of "Hitler's
Ethic," arguing that he was the ultimate embodiment of "an evolutionary
ethic that made Darwinian fitness and health the only criteria for moral
standards. The Darwinian struggle for existence, especially the struggle
between different races, became the sole arbiter for morality" (p. 210).

But was Hitler's ethics defined only by evolutionary principles? And does
this mean that racism and anti-Semitism were subsumed within an
evolutionary credo by the Weimar period? Or was it the case, as I would
suggest, that evolutionary discourse and scientific racism were grafted
onto the multiple branches of anti-Semitism and volkish ideology in which
Nazism was rooted? Indeed, Weikart is at pains to show that most social
Darwinists and eugenicists directed their fear and concern about racial
degeneration not at Jews, but at non-Europeans: American Indians,
Australian aborigines, Africans, and East Asians. As he says, "some social
Darwinists even opposed anti-Semitism, and some German and Austrian Jews
([Ludwig] Gumplowicz, for example) justified racial struggle and racial
extermination, just as other German thinkers did" (p. 204). Weikart also
indicates that while Haeckel and a number of other social Darwinists held
anti-Semitic views (an issue only sporadically addressed throughout the
book), they differed from the redemptive anti-Semitism of Hitler (p. 217).

In fact, the extent to which there was a cross-fertilization of Darwinism
and anti-Semitism is never adequately addressed.

Certainly one of the merits of the book is that Weikart presents lots of
countervailing evidence to support his own more nuanced version of the
Haeckel-to-Hitler thesis. He aptly summarizes its simplified form (and
cites its key exponents, who he takes to task): "Darwinism undermined
traditional morality and the value of human life. Then, evolutionary
progress became the new moral imperative. This aided the advance of
eugenics, which was overtly founded on Darwinian principles. Some
eugenicists began advocating euthanasia and infanticide for the disabled.
On a parallel track, some prominent Darwinists argued that human racial
competition and war is part of the Darwinian struggle for existence.
Hitler imbibed these social Darwinist ideas, blended in virulent
anti-Semitism, and--there you have it: Holocaust" (p. 3). While he
includes many caveats and disclaimers, this is ultimately the general
thrust of the book. But Weikart also itemizes the variants of Darwinism
and eugenics ideology as they were applied to ethical, political, and
social thought and is aware of the many roots of Nazi ideology, thus
clearly refusing any monocausal explanations of Nazism. There were many
twisted roads that converged at Auschwitz: Darwinism, Wagnerism,
Nietzscheanism, volkish ideology, fascism, nationalism, racism and
anti-Semitism. The question for the intellectual historian is to weigh the
elements and cultural and contextual specifics that led individuals and
movements to the crossroad. This is the Achilles heal of Weikart's

This is a work of intellectual history methodologically two generations
old, written in the vein of Arthur Lovejoy. Weikart follows what Lovejoy
called the "unit ideas" of social Darwinism in Germany, tracing their
variations in a number of individual thinkers and their works. The result
is often repetitive, since the core premises of these men are pretty
clear. It is also repetitious in the structure of the presentation. Most
chapters open with Darwin's position on the point at hand, then discusses
Haeckel's incorporation into Germany, and continues with the elaboration
or modification by what becomes a slightly changing cast of characters
after the first chapter (Bartholomaus von Carneri, Alexander Tille,
academic philosophers Georg von Gizycki and Friedrich Jodl, eugenicists
Friedrich Hellwald, Wilhelm Schallmayer, and Ludwig Buchner, psychiatrists
like Hans Kurella and Emil Kraepelin, and anthropologists like Felix von
Luschan). On several occasions Weikart expresses the same point in
different chapters using exactly the same verbiage. He even uses the same
quotation by Theodor Fritsch (translated slightly differently!) to
illustrate the same point in two different chapters (see pp. 55, 69).

What this approach cannot explain is why Darwin, "a typical English
liberal" supported laissez-faire economics and opposed slavery! Nor why
Darwin "like most of his contemporaries considered non-European races
inferior to European, but he never embraced Aryan racism or rabid
anti-Semitism, central features of Hitler's political philosophy" (p. 3).
Nor why Herbert Spencer's views on war differed from most of his German
contemporaries. Nor why French social Darwinist Georges Vacher de Lapouge
and French racial theorist Arthur Comte de Gobineau's biological racism
had greater resonance in Germany than in France. To explain the very
different conclusions reached from shared axioms, Weikart would have to
delve into what the generation of intellectual historians after Lovejoy
(Peter Gay, H. Stuart Hughes, Carl Schorske, George Mosse, etc.) explored
as the social dimensions of thought and the specificity of different
national histories and cultural traditions.

But Weikart is categorical that while he recognizes "the influence of
political, social, economic, and other factors in the development of
ideologies in general and Nazism in particular" he claims that "these
topics are outside the scope of this study" (p. 5). The result is a weak
account of many important contextual forces that shaped Weikart's story,
including his pale version of the moral crisis of the fin-de-siecle, which
is never really located in its epoch (p. 59). There is no flesh on the
bones, no heart and soul to the characters we are introduced to that
explains their divergent itineraries. After all, there were social
Darwinists who opposed infanticide, abortion, euthanasia, and militarism
on evolutionary grounds.

Weikart also fails to follow the rich nuances of the discourse/practices
and institutions that have preoccupied the contemporary generation of
intellectual historians, who have paid attention to the continuities and
ruptures within systems of thought. So his presentation of racism, for
example, reiterates a rationale that does not stand up to the critical
scrutiny of intellectual history. He consistently claims that Christian
and Enlightenment principles (especially the former) "militated against
some of the worst excesses of racism. Christian theology taught the
universal brotherhood of all races, who descended from common ancestors"
(p. 103). When indicating what theological tradition he is referring to,
Weikart's repeatedly has recourse to the term "traditional," which is a
reductive notion that intellectual historians should always inveigh
against. He uses the common nomenclature of "Judeo-Christian" when no such
tradition exists--there have been more than one Christian tradition, all
with a supercessionist theology and wholly different Jewish traditions.
Does the theological tradition to which Weikart refers include the Spanish
inquisition, with its juridical designation of "limpieza de sangre," which
was the basis for the persecution of Jewish converts and constitutes an
important kernel in modern conceptions of racial discourse? Is Martin
Luther's _On the Jews and their Lies_, which signaled the theme of
_Verjudung_ or "Jewification" as a major threat to Luther's quest for a
purity of faith and spirit and called for Germans to take practical
measures to guard against "Judaizing," including burning all Jewish houses
of worship and forcing Jews into labor camps, an aberration of Christian
theology? What of the Hamatic myth, which reads racism into and out of the
Bible? Not to mention Voltaire's anti-Semitism, the first development of
systems of racial classification in the eighteenth century by Buffon and
Linne, and the development of the first racial sciences, phrenology and
physiognomy, by Johann Lavater and Franz Gall, all of which were firmly
entrenched within central strands of the Enlightenment. Similar criticisms
could easily be developed for Weikart's claims that Christian ethics were
a necessary limit to evil, including imperialism or genocide. The more
interesting question, it seems to me, is how Christianity could endorse
racism, imperialism, anti-Semitism and genocide or at the very least, why
"Christianity failed in practice to stop the extermination of many tribes
and peoples" (p. 185) given its prima facie principles.

These criticisms aside, Weikart has written a significant study because it
raises key ethical questions in broad terms that have contemporary
relevance. His historicization of the moral framework of evolutionary
theory poses key issues for those in sociobiology and evolutionary
psychology, not to mention bioethicists, who have recycled many of the
suppositions that Weikart has traced. Along the way, we are offered a
number of interesting side currents, including a discussion of Nietzsche's
embrace and resistance of evolutionary theory (pp. 46-49), as well as
interesting tidbits of what Wiekart covered in his book, _Socialist
Darwinism_ (pp. 90-94). Ultimately, however, Weikart's desire to write a
complex version of the twisted roads taken on the journey from Darwin to
Hitler would require a methodology that can better integrate the roads not
taken, as well as an appreciation that some of those byways had traffic
moving in opposing directions.

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Received on Mon Sep 19 09:33:28 2005

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