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How American Eugenicists Helped Shape Nazi Tactics

War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign To Create a Master Race

By Edwin Black

Four Walls Eight Windows, 518 pages, $26.

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Edwin Black, the author of the award-winning “IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation” (Crown, 2001), has written a provocative new book that traces the influence of the American eugenics movement on Nazi Germany. This ground has been covered before, most notably in Stefan Kuhl’s “The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism” (Oxford University Press, 2002). Still, Black’s work provides us with a more detailed account of how pre-World War I American eugenicists promoted the belief that the racial composition of the country was threatened by immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe — including Jews — as well as by the physically infirm and social deviants, such as epileptics, the deaf, the blind, the retarded, the chronically ill, criminals and other categories of “undesirables” thought to have hereditary, transferable diseases that endangered the physical vitality of the nation. These “scientists” sought to prevent the “unfit” from producing offspring by promoting sterilization laws and legalizing euthanasia, which they viewed as a “painless killing” of people deemed unworthy of life.

Black provides us with profiles of long-forgotten leaders of the American eugenics movement such as Charles Davenport, Harry Laughlin and Madison Grant, but more importantly, he delves into their influence on American eugenic policy. Their initial success occurred in 1907, when Indiana became the first jurisdiction in the world to legislate forced sterilization of its mentally impaired patients, poorhouse residents and prison inmates. A more far-reaching triumph was the passage of the National Origins Act of 1924, which created a quota on the number of foreigners from Eastern and Southern Europe entering the United States. The law’s objective was to protect the Anglo-Saxon majority from the high birthrate of the newly arrived immigrants; during the 1930s, when Jews sought to flee from Nazi Germany, the rigid interpretation of this law prevented many Jewish refugees from finding shelter in America.

American eugenicists also influenced their counterparts in Great Britain and Germany, where they encouraged measures to prevent the “breeding” of lives unworthy of living. Indeed, as Black informs us, “Germany’s budding eugenicists became desirable allies for the Americans. A clear partnership emerged in the years before World War I. In this relationship however, America was far away the senior partner. In eugenics, the United States led and Germany followed.”

This relationship continued during the Third Reich. During the 1920s, the politically neutral Rockefeller Foundation played a major role in establishing and sponsoring major eugenic institutions in Germany, and during the Hitler years it funded Nazi-controlled institutions both in Germany and Austria until 1939. The Carnegie Foundation continued to fund the Eugenic Records Office until 1939, despite the office’s support for the Nazi persecution of the Jews. In 1935, Hitler thanked Leon Whitney of the American Eugenics Society for sending him a copy of “The Case for Sterilization,” a 1934 book that promoted the idea of using sterilization to protect the racial health of Anglo-Saxon America.

Although following World War II American geneticists would claim that they had no connection with their Nazi counterparts, the author contends that this was not the case. For example, one American, U.H. Ellinger, published an article in the American Genetic Association’s Journal of Heredity in April 1942 stating that the deliberate eradication of the Jews had nothing whatsoever to do with religious persecution, but was a large-scale breeding project with the objective of eliminating from the nation the hereditary attributes of the Semitic race. Ellinger concluded that when the problem arises as to how the breeding project may be carried out most effectively, after the politicians have decided upon its desirability, biological science could even assist the Nazis.

It is apparent from Black’s research that American eugenicists contributed to Nazi racial hygiene policy. The Nazi experiments with X-rays to sterilize their victims, euthanasia and even the gas chamber were all at one time or another proposed by American eugenicists as a means of eliminating the unfit from American life. To the extent that Black’s research documents this connection between early 20th-century eugenics policy and its extreme escalation by the Nazis in the death camps, the book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the evolution of the Holocaust.

Jack Fischel is the author of “The Holocaust” (Greenwood Press, 1993) and “Historical Dictionary of the Holocaust” (Scarecrow Press, 1999).

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