Philosophy and Ideas

From Dystopia to Utopia: Nazi euthanasia/eugenics and their re-emergence

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines euthanasia as bringing about “a gentle and easy death”; and eugenics as “the production of fine offspring by improvement of inherited qualities”. Although the two issues are separate, they often go together in practice, the most notorious example being Nazi Germany.

During his time in jail Hitler studied works on euthanasia and concluded that the German volk had been corrupted by degenerate blood. His solution was the encouragement of racially pure Germans to breed more, whilst the impure should be neutralised. He wrote in Mein Kampf, “He who is bodily and mentally not sound and deserving may not perpetuate this misfortune in the bodies of his children. The völkische state has to perform the most gigantic rearing-task here.”

Once Hitler came to power, the overall aim of euthanasia in Germany between 1933 and 1945 was to eliminate those whom the party considered to represent “life unworthy of life”. At first this meant people who because of severe psychiatric, neurological or physical disabilities were a genetic and financial burden upon German society and the state. Later, Jews, Slavs, homosexuals and gypsies were added to the list. Needless to say, “a gentle and easy death” was not a consideration for them; most died by lethal injection (typically phenol), gassing or starvation.

One of the Nazis’ first acts was to introduce the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring”, which required doctors to register all known cases of patients with hereditary disabilities. In addition, denunciation of such people was encouraged. Genetic health courts were established to evaluate cases of inherited disability.

Between 1933 and 1939 these policies resulted in the compulsory sterilisation of about 360,000 people. Once war started, however, it was deemed economically wasteful to keep such people alive in institutions. As a leading Nazi doctor, Hermann Pfannmüller, eloquently said, “The idea is unbearable to me that the best, the flower of our youth must lose its life at the front in order that feeble-minded and irresponsible asocial elements can have a secure existence in the asylum” (quoted in Gerhard Schmidt, Selektion in der Heilanstalt 1939-1945, Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagsanstalt, 1965). 

As a result, organised mass killings flourished under a euthanasia program known as Action T4, an acronym for “Tiergartenstrasse 4”, the address of the headquarters of the innocuous sounding “Charitable Foundation for Curative and Institutional Care”. Action T4 operated from September 1939 until the end of the war.

The origin of the program lay with a letter dated September 1, 1939, from Hitler to Karl Brandt (his personal physician) and Philipp Bouler (head of the T4 program) telling them to expand the practice of euthanasia. Following this, a national register of people with mental and physical impairments was compiled, although the first adult victims of Action T4 were not Germans but institutionalised Poles who had been rounded up in the region of Wartheland.

By October hospitals, sanatoria, aged care facilities and nursing homes under German control were ordered to compile lists of all inmates who had been institutionalised for five years or more, or were criminally insane, or were non-Aryans. A panel of experts then judged which people on the lists should be exterminated. In reality, few of them were reprieved and it is estimated that between 200,000 and 275,000 disabled and elderly people were murdered, many in special treatment centres at Grafeneck, Brandenburg, Bernburg, Hartheim, Sonnenstein and Hadamar. These centres were not open to relatives or visitors.

In practice, the majority of victims were killed soon after arriving at the centres. Falsified death certificates showing the cause of death as pneumonia, along with urns of unidentifiable ashes, were then sent to the victims’ families.

The aim of the euthanasia program was the creation of a nation of pure Aryan volk whose sacred destiny was to rule over inferior races. No doubt coloured races as well as most Asians would have been murdered too had Nazi global ambitions prevailed. The Japanese, being Germany’s ally, were given honorary Aryan status, although how long this would have lasted is anyone’s guess.

For eugenics to achieve the Nazi party’s goal, it would require more than killing those considered unworthy of life. In practice, mass murder went hand-in-hand with the promotion of a breeding program, the purpose of which was the expansion of a genetically pure Germanic race. Families that were considered 100 per cent Aryan were encouraged to produce more children.

Motherhood assumed a near-divine status in Nazi Germany. As Gertrude Sholtz-Klink, leader of the National Socialist Women’s League, said in a speech in 1936: 

It is therefore our task to awaken once again the sense of the divine, to make the calling to motherhood the way through which the German woman will see her calling to be mother of the nation. She will then not live her life selfishly, but rather in service to her people. 

Strict laws ensured that marriage partners were tested for inherited conditions. In addition, a eugenic assessment of each other became common practice for couples engaged to be married.

As well as the domestic breeding program, German soldiers mated with selected Norwegian women (Norwegians being considered fine Aryan specimens) with the result that around 10,000 offspring were born to them during the war. Not surprisingly, these children subsequently had a difficult time finding their place in Norwegian society.

Eugenics in Nazi Germany owed much to the popularity of the movement in the United States, especially California, where in the 1930s forced sterilisation was a legal and popular method for improving the human strain. Scientific reports on the success of euthanasia were frequently sent to scientists in Germany, and the Rockefeller Foundation even funded a number of German eugenics experiments. Sweden and Switzerland also had enforced sterilisation programs.

The idea that intra-racial and inter-racial competiveness would lead to the emergence of superior populations was derived from Darwin’s theory of evolution, especially notions of natural selection and survival of the fittest. These theories appealed especially to Hitler, who believed that the German nation had been corrupted and weakened by degenerate elements that were responsible for its defeat in the First World War. Without his active encouragement eugenics might not have become an integral part of Nazi policy.

The most influential advocate of eugenics in Germany was the physician Alfred Ploetz, who argued “that the primary and most important task of the physician was to prevent the wholesale degeneration of Germany into one large asylum”. (Dwork, D. & R.J. van Pelt.. Auschwitz, New York, 1996.) It is pertinent to compare this statement with the words of the Hippocratic Oath that guided members of the medical profession worldwide, although perhaps only when it suited them.

There is no completely satisfactory explanation of German behaviour towards those considered to be non-Aryans, particularly how it happened that one of the world’s most civilised and advanced people could sink so low. Perhaps part of the answer comes from the philosopher Hermann Keyserling, who wrote: 

Death is a fundamental trait of the German nation … Only in this situation do the Germans feel entirely German; they admire and desire death without purpose, self-sacrifice … The French or English want victory, the Germans only want to die. — quoted in J.P. Stern, Hitler: The Führer and the People, revised edition, London, 1990.

To this partial answer, however, must be added the Nazi party’s wholehearted embrace of the pseudo-science of eugenics. In The Descent of Man Darwin wrote, “At some future period … the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” This view must have been grist to the Nazi mill.

Bruce S. Thornton recently pointed out in the City Journal (22 June, 2012):

Like Malthus, Darwin had no patience with sentimental Christian or Enlightenment ethics that sought to alleviate suffering and improve human life with medical advances such as vaccinations, or with asylums and other social welfare institutions that cared for the sick, insane or poor.

Here one is justified in questioning whether Darwin was a product of the Enlightenment or just another deluded romantic dreamer. His theories appealed greatly to Nazis and communists alike.

Until the application of Nazi racial theory, eugenics was a popular and respectable cause in Western countries, attracting many famous figures including H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger, Sidney Webb, John Maynard Keynes and Theodore Roosevelt. If the human species is to progress, it seemed reasonable to extend the principles of selective breeding of animals to human beings. Racial hygiene societies, as they were called, flourished in Britain, the USA and Australia with the intention of improving the quality of the species by eliminating its less robust members.

Melbourne in the 1920s and 1930s was an important centre of eugenics. Among its supporters, many of whom were drawn from the university, were Richard Berry, professor of anatomy, who promoted use of a “lethal chamber” for mental defectives; Sir John Medley, vice-chancellor of Melbourne University; Sir Keith Murdoch; Sir David Rivett, former chief executive of the CSIR (later CSIRO); Rev. G.K. Tucker, founder of the Brotherhood of St Laurence; and Kenneth Cunningham, president of the Eugenics Society, and founding director of the Australian Council for Educational Research.

Nazism in practice discredited the principles of eugenics and euthanasia, but only temporarily. Thornton argues that eugenics has been repackaged as “population control” and concern for the environment, which “has led to attacks on the economic and technological development that represents the best hope for improving human life around the globe”. Inspired by Malthusian gloom and scenarios of global catastrophe, some environmentalists oppose food aid for starving people, especially in Africa, because of their belief that it encourages overpopulation.

One can trace a direct line between pre-war eugenics movements and postwar organisations such as the Population Council founded by John D. Rockefeller III, the Club of Rome, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, all of which see humanity as a problem.

We should not be surprised that, under the impetus of environmentalist movements, the ideology of eugenics and euthanasia has been resurrected in the developed world. In Australia opinion polls suggest that euthanasia, in the form of assisted suicide, has wide community support.

While it can be argued that mentally sound people have a right to dispose of their own lives and perhaps to call upon medical assistance in doing so, the issue of assisted suicide in general, although touted by its advocates as a humane act, is far from clear-cut. Euthanasia raises a number of moral and social issues that those who favour it either prefer not to address or are intellectually incapable of doing so. These issues are primarily concerned with killing a person without his or her permission, as might happen to one who is in a coma or incapable of rational thought or unable to communicate. And who is to pass sentence on the victims? And by what moral authority do they do so?

More worrying is that once the genie of euthanasia is out the bottle, there is every likelihood that legalised killing will spread beyond the elderly and severely disabled. Extermination of new-born infants who are mentally or physically deficient could become commonplace. If anyone doubts this possibility, he or she should look at the abortion phenomenon. Legal abortion began with the intention of protecting mothers’ lives but rapidly became an industry for those mothers who prefer a dead foetus to a live baby. Much abortion may now be considered a method of birth control post facto.

The controversial Australian academic, Peter Singer, writes in his book, Practical Ethics, “A week old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being … the life of a new born baby is of less value to it than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” He goes on to say that under some circumstances “a full legal right to life comes into force not at birth, but only a short time after birth – perhaps a month”, and that parents of disabled babies should be able to decide whether they should be killed.

Since “a month” after birth is a purely arbitrary period, there is no reason, in a society where infanticide is legal, for it not to be extended to any other arbitrary period—three months or even a year. After all, Singer places great emphasis on a baby’s recognition of self as a criterion for being a person, although he never explains why. In his view a sense of self, rather than being a continuing process that begins at birth (if not earlier) and ends with death, springs up overnight like a mushroom.

Underlying Singer’s ideas are a number of presumptions. They included the premise that human life is no more valuable than that of any other animal and, in some circumstances, may be of less worth. As a believer in anthropomorphism, Singer would probably approve of a society that treated its animals like humans, and its humans like animals. Some of Singer’s other premises are that the sanctity of human life is a questionable Christian ethic that lacks universal acceptance, but for which there is plenty of historical precedence; and that quality of life is more important than its sanctity.

That Peter Singer’s arguments have the moral force of a Gestapo directive to begin mass killing is neither here nor there. As Scott Klusendorf notes in an internet article (“Peter Singer’s Bold Defense of Infanticide”, 16 April 2009), Singer’s “Darwinian worldview leaves us philosophically and morally bankrupt, with no reason to act ethically in any context”.

The point is that were euthanasia of infants to be legalised it would be a short step to eliminating anyone who is judged to be lacking in self-awareness, physically or mentally weak, or who does not meet other defined criteria—in all likelihood, criteria promulgated by a ruling elite that places the notional good of society above that of its individual members. One can easily imagine that if killing people of any age who suffer from a debilitating illness or accident, or who no longer fulfil a useful social purpose, could be justified in the interest of the greater good, then only those who did not oppose the elite’s ideology would be comparatively safe, as was the position in Nazi Germany.

Peter Singer’s response to this possibility is to argue that we should “do everything possible to keep our government democratic, open, and in the hands of people who would not seriously wish to kill their opponents”. However, we are not talking about “people who would not seriously wish to kill their opponents” but about people who seriously plan to kill innocent and defenceless members of their own species. In Singer’s brave new world there will be no more Robert Hookes, Stephen Hawkings or Itzhak Perlmans.

The policies of the Australian Greens support Peter Singer’s stance on euthanasia and infanticide; the euthanasia practitioner Dr Philip Nitschke has stood for election as a Greens candidate. Writing in Quadrant (January-February 2011) Kevin Andrews said of the Greens, "To them, human life is merely instrumental, because intrinsic value lies in the environment itself. This ideology is manifest in the Greens’ approach to life-and-death issues—infanticide, assisted suicide and euthanasia—where a person has a right to commit suicide, and be assisted if necessary." 

The Greens’ anti-humanitarian ideas have already resulted in mass starvation in under-developed countries that were denied genetically modified food as a consequence of their perverted ideology. As Thornton points out, “The alliance of radical environmentalism, population-control advocacy, and anti-capitalist leftism continues to prolong the misery of the Third World.”

Should the Greens gain the political power they desperately seek, the introduction of policies to control population can be expected. They will certainly include voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia.

For a party that is intent on engineering society according to a deeply flawed blueprint, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that euthanasia and selective breeding will again become the tools of eugenics. For the greater good of the world, future victims may not be Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and Slavs but anyone who does not meet the criteria for life or who fails to embrace the Greens’ vision of global paradise.

Brian Wimborne wrote “The Roots of Green Politics in German Romanticism” in the July-August issue.

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