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darwin and hitler

How Evolutionary Ethics Influenced Hitler and Why It Matters

By Richard Weikart –

[Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a series of three. Read part 1 and part 2.]

One point that I explain in my book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, aroused considerable controversy, and it flamed up even more after Ben Stein interviewed me for the documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which promoted Intelligent Design.  This controversy swirled over the claim that Hitler and the Nazis were influenced profoundly by Darwinism.

When I first began investigating the impact of Darwinism on ethics, morality, and social thought in late nineteenth-century Germany, Hitler and Nazism were not even on my radar screen.  However, as I began discovering the connections between Darwinism and eugenics, euthanasia, and racial extermination, I couldn’t help but notice how many ideas being promoted in the name of evolutionary ethics seemed remarkably similar to Nazi ideology.  The Nazis, after all, had implemented the most radical program of coerced sterilization in the world in order to try to improve human heredity.  After World War II began, they began killing the disabled by the thousands.

I began studying Hitler’s ideology in depth to find out how important Darwinism was in his worldview.  Many historians had already remarked on the importance of social Darwinism in Hitler’s ideology.  However, few had explored this from the angle of evolutionary ethics.  I discovered that even though Hitler never used the term evolutionary ethics, he did indeed base his morality on Darwinian evolution.

When I wrote From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, only the final chapter explicates the role of Darwinism in Hitler’s worldview.  This chapter provoked the greatest controversy, however, with some internet critics claiming that Hitler rejected Darwinism and was a creationist.  Thus, I decided to follow it up with an entire book devoted to the role of evolution in Hitler’s worldview: Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress. Therein I demonstrate not only that Hitler believed in Darwinian evolution, including the evolution of humans, but I also showed in detail that evolutionary ethics was central to Hitler’s worldview.  It influenced many elements of Nazi ideology and policy, including:

1) Racial inequality:

Hitler believed that different races had formed through evolutionary processes and were at different evolutionary levels.  He thought the Aryan or Nordic race (these terms were used synonymously by Nazis) was the most advanced.  These views were not idiosyncratic, but were common among German evolutionary biologists during the early twentieth century.

2) History as a racial struggle for existence:

Hitler thought that races were locked in an ineluctable racial struggle.  He promoted policies that favored the Aryans and disadvantaged other allegedly inferior races, especially the Jews, in order to help the Aryans win the struggle for existence.  Of course, those losing the struggle would eventually be eliminated, one way or another, as the Aryans took over the globe.

3) Eugenics policies, such as compulsory sterilization, forced abortions, and killing of the disabled:

These eugenics policies were designed to prevent biological degeneration and help along the process of evolution.

4) The drive for population expansion:

Darwin claimed in Descent of Man that the birthrate should not be limited, because a higher birthrate was advantageous for evolution.  Hitler agreed and often expressed the same view.

5) The need to acquire living space (through military means):

This idea originated with the German Darwinian biologist-turned-geographer Friedrich Ratzel, who had argued that the struggle for existence was essentially a struggle for space.  Hitler often expressed the need for living space in evolutionary terms.  He linked it to population expansion and the racial struggle.  Gaining living space and driving out the inhabitants was the way to improve the human species by increasing the “master” race at the expense of the “inferior” races.

6) Evolution of moral traits:

Hitler, like many other contemporary biologists and psychiatrists, argued that moral traits were biologically determined.  He believed that the Aryans had the most advanced morality, as they were allegedly more loyal, honest, diligent, etc.  On the other hand, he deemed Jews biologically immoral, since he blamed them for being lazy, mendacious, sexually lascivious, greedy, etc.  Thus, by ridding the world of the Jews and replacing them with Aryans, Hitler in his own perverted view thought he was improving the world by banishing immorality and increasing morality.

Why does this matter?  As many of my critics have pointed out, most Darwinists are not Nazis. So why should we care if the Nazis used Darwinism for their own perverted purposes?

While it is unlikely that anything quite like Nazism will ever spring from Darwinian premises again, there are many other ways that Darwinism is being used to devalue human life today (as I showed in my previous piece).  Abortion is rampant, and eugenics and euthanasia are once again becoming fashionable in academic circles.  While Darwinism is by no means the sole cause of this devaluing of human life, many prominent scholars, such as Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins, admit that it plays a significant role.

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.

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