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Richard Weikart Makes the Definitive Case for the Nazi/Darwinism Connection

Michael Flannery

Richard Weikart, author of From Darwin to Hitler and Hitler’s Ethic, has a new article in the prestigious journal German Studies Review titled "The Role of Darwinism in Nazi Racial Thought." Though some historians have been reluctant to connect evolutionary views with Nazi ideology, Weikart’s cogent argument demonstrates precisely how, in fact, Darwinism was "well entrenched" in the biology curriculum of Germany, how anthropologists’ Darwinian views on race were actively promoted by the Nazi regime, how the evolutionary theme suffused Nazi periodicals, how it made up an important part of Nazi propaganda, and how Hitler himself "regularly invoked Darwinian concepts" in his writing and speeches. "The historical evidence is overwhelming that human evolution was an integral part of Nazi racial ideology," Weikart concludes.

With care and precision, Weikart deals with those like Robert J. Richards who would distance the Nazis from Darwinian views. (Richards’s forthcoming book Was Hitler a Darwinian? is out this month from the University of Chicago Press.) Richards insists that lists of banned books including those promoting "a primitive Darwinism and monism" settles his case that the Nazis were not Darwinians. Weikart counters with the observation that the Nazis did, after all, disagree among themselves on some things, and more importantly, the opposition in this case was not to Darwinism per se but to a particular brand of Darwinism. Nazi opposition to Haeckel’s monism was not directed against Darwinian evolution but rather against the leftist political leanings of the Monist League. Indeed the same periodical actually recommended books promoting Darwinism.

Weikart’s argument resonates with what I, as an American historian, know of the Nazi connection with the eugenics movement in America, itself a movement largely comprised of social Darwinists. With America leading the way under the missionary zeal of Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin, Hitler needed to go no further than Laughlin’s so-called "Model Law" as an example in framing his own Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring under which more than 150,000 Germans were sterilized as unfit. No wonder then that the University of Heidelberg awarded Laughlin an honorary doctorate in 1936 for his pioneering work in "racial hygiene."

Weikart’s case is supported by a high degree of historical consilience. In America, the eugenics movement was not only united by a strong commitment to social Darwinism, its connections with the Nazi policies were in some cases explicit (for more on that see "American Eugenics on the Eve of Nazi Expansion: The Darwin Connection"). Weikart’s most recent publication, in short, makes the position of the Nazi/Darwinism naysayers — the history deniers, you might say — untenable.

Professor Flannery is the author of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press) and other books.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.

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