Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics
Evolution Icon Evolution

Ignoring Evidence, Caricaturing Critics: Robert J. Richards’s Was Hitler a Darwinian?

Richard Weikart

Editor’s note: For the first part of Dr. Weikart’s review of Was Hitler a Darwinian? (University of Chicago Press) see his article yesterday, "‘Was Hitler a Darwinian?’ Reviewing Robert Richards."

9780226058931.jpgNow let’s examine the second major problem with Richards’s analysis:

2) Richards ignores mountains of evidence, much of which is already contained in my books and articles.

Not only does Richards ignore much of the evidence I presented in my two books, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, but after discussing Hitler’s 1942 remark questioning human evolution, he notes that I counter this piece of evidence by arguing that it is not characteristic. I show that Hitler at other times, including once in a speech at Nuremberg, argued that there was not a large gulf between apes and humans. (In his January monologue Hitler contradicted this point, claiming that the large gulf between apes and humans was precisely why he doubted human evolution.) As Richards suggests, this point is not very decisive, because you wouldn’t have to be a Darwinist to make this claim (though Hitler’s comment is extremely close to a statement Haeckel made repeatedly about the closeness of apes and humans). In any case, thus far Richards’s points are reasonable and make sense.

However, in the midst of this discussion comes this bombshell: "Weikart suggests that this lonely remark from Nuremberg, with its supposed eradication of the distinction between man and beast, indicates the German leaders’ acceptance of evolution." (p. 223) No, No, and a thousand times, NO!!!! Did Richards forget to read the rest of my book? The section that he cites is the beginning of a seven-page section of my book entitled, "Hitler’s Belief in Human Evolution." I open that section by discussing the January 1942 statement where Hitler doubted human evolution. Then I mentioned the 1933 Nuremberg speech (and a 1927 speech and an entry from Goebbels’s Diaries) to show that Hitler did not always believe the point he made in January 1942. Then, at the bottom of p. 47 (the same page discussing the Nuremberg speech), I state: "An even stronger piece of evidence that Hitler believed in human evolution was a statement he made in a 1927 speech." I then go on to discuss many lines of evidence to prove that Hitler believed in human evolution. I cite a 1927 speech, Hitler’s Table Talk of October 24, 1941, Hitler’s secretary’s testimony that he believed in human evolution, Hitler’s Second Book, a June 1944 speech, and a couple of passages in Mein Kampf. I also mention that just a few weeks after his January 1942 remark, Hitler stated (in a monologue of February 27, 1942) that men shaving off their beards is "nothing but the continuation of an evolution that has been proceeding for millions of years: Gradually humans lost their hair."

In addition to the evidence in that seven-page section, I produce many pieces of evidence scattered throughout my book that prove conclusively that Hitler believed in human evolution. These are too many to enumerate (even though they eluded Richards), but let me give just one more example, because it is especially interesting, showing not only Hitler’s belief in human evolution, but also a connection between his and Haeckel’s ideas. On p. 79 I show that Hitler believed in Haeckel’s recapitulation theory (that embryonic development repeats evolutionary history). When dedicating the House of German Art in Munich in July 1937, Hitler claimed that modern art was atavistic, stating, "When we know today that the evolution of millions of years, compressed into a few decades, repeats itself in every individual, then this art, we realize, is not ‘modern.’ It is on the contrary to the highest degree ‘archaic,’ far older probably than the Stone Age." Hitler thought modern artists had not recapitulated enough evolutionary history in their embryological development. This statement clearly shows that he believed in human evolution.

But Richards continues to maintain that I am relying on a "lonely remark from Nuremberg" to prove that Hitler believed in human evolution. I say "continues" because Richards made this same claim in his earlier permutation of this essay (from 2011), which I critiqued. Over two years before this newly revised essay appeared, I told him the claim about the "lonely remark" was completely false. Why does he ignore all this?

Let’s look at just one more instance (among many) where Richards simply ignores vast amounts of evidence inconvenient for his interpretation. He discusses the anti-Darwinian stance of a few scholars writing in the Zeitschrift f�r die gesamte Naturwissenschaft. One of these was clearly a Darwinist, as Richards admits. However, of the five that actually opposed Darwinism, interestingly not one of these actually rejected human evolution; they simply disagreed with the Darwinian mechanism. However, the bigger problem is that Richards pretends that these five anti-Darwinists (one of whom was a philosopher, not a biologist) are representative of "Nazi biology." Richards should have known better, because in 2010 I sent him a draft of an essay that showed that articles in many Nazi periodicals — including Nationalsozialistische Monatshefte, Der Biologe (which was run by the SS after 1939), Volk und Rasse, Archiv f�r Rassen- und Gesellschafts-Biologie, Rasse, and others, not only defended human evolution, but even attacked creationism (a revised version of my essay was published in German Studies Review). That article also showed that some of the leading evolutionary anthropologists in Germany were SS officers. Yet Richards goes his merry way, insisting that Nazi biology was anti-Darwinian, just because he can find a single journal with a few articles by five scholars who believed in human evolution, but embraced a non-Darwinian version of evolutionary theory.

These are only a few examples among many where Richards conveniently ignores evidence that contradict his interpretation.

Let’s look now at the third major problem with Richards’ interpretation.

3) Richards caricatures the position of those he disagrees with (especially me, since I’m the main target of this essay).

Richards not only misinterprets Lorenz, Gross, Hitler, and other historical figures, but he also misinterprets contemporary historians, especially me. I will not dwell long on this point, especially since I’ve already dealt with the red herring of his "lonely remark" comment above.

Early in his essay Richards wrenches out of context a comment I made about German Darwinian materialists to make the claim: "It is true, however, that Darwin and Haeckel were perceived as materialists by many later critics — and by historians like Weikart." (p. 197) Since every historian of science worth his salt knows that Darwin was not a materialist, this makes me look like an ignoramus, because I don’t even understand this most basic fact. Fortunately, however, I have never argued that Darwin was a materialist, and the passage from my work that Richards quotes was about German Darwinists who were materialists, not about Darwin. Richards gets things seriously mixed up. If he wants to find out what I really think about Darwin’s religious views, he can read this brief article. I have never argued that Darwin was a materialist.

Richards then goes on further to "refute" me by claiming that Hitler was not a materialist, either. Apparently Richards didn’t know that I was working on a book manuscript on Hitler’s Religion, where (among other things) I intend to demonstrate that Hitler was not an atheist (or materialist). Richards is attacking a straw man, not me, in many of his arguments against me.

Richards also claims that I (and other of his opponents) ignore many influences on Hitler in search of some "unique key to Nazi evil." This is balderdash. In the introductions to both my major books on this topic, I state very plainly that I recognize there are many factors influencing Hitler — and I list quite a few, even more than Richards does. I argue that Darwinism was an important influence, but Hitler was influenced by many non-Darwinian thinkers, too, including Gobineau and Chamberlain, whom Richards discusses. By showing that Hitler was heavily influenced by non-Darwinian sources, Richards apparently thinks he is refuting me — but he is not.

One final example: Richards states, "Quite a few conservative critics, whom I’ve cited at the beginning of this chapter [and I’m the one mentioned the most], have contended that Hitler’s Mein Kampf expresses a racial theory that virtually comes straight from the pages of Darwin’s Origin of Species — or at least from those pages as reauthored by Ernst Haeckel." This is a gross caricature, because in my book, From Darwin to Hitler, I only discuss Darwin briefly. I do discuss Haeckel extensively, to be sure. However, one would never guess from Richards’s essay that instead of a simplistic thesis that Darwin (or maybe Haeckel) produced Hitler, I discuss dozens of Darwinian thinkers — who often disagree among themselves on important issues. Rather than getting his ideas directly from Darwin or Haeckel, I argue that Hitler’s ideas hailed from a large number of influential scientists and social thinkers, either directly or — more likely — indirectly. I discuss the following Darwinian thinkers: August Weismann, Ludwig B�chner, Bartholom�us von Carneri, August Forel, Ludwig Woltmann, Theodor Fritsch, Wilhelm Schallmayer, Alfred Ploetz, Eugen Fischer, Friedrich Ratzel, Julius Friedrich Lehmann, Max von Gruber, Willibald Hentschel, J�rg Lanz von Liebenfels, Ludwig Schemann, Fritz Lenz, and many more besides.

Tomorrow I will turn to the fourth problem with Richards’ essay:

4) Richards conflates certain key concepts.

Richard Weikart

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Richard Weikart is Emeritus Professor of History, California State University, Stanislaus, and author of seven books, including From Darwin to Hitler, Hitler’s Ethic, The Death of Humanity, and Hitler’s Religion. His most recent book is Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism (2022). His PhD dissertation, Socialist Darwinism, earned the biennial prize of the Forum for History of Human Sciences as best dissertation in that field. He has lectured at many universities and other venues in the US and Europe. He also has been interviewed on dozens of radio shows, podcasts, and TV, and appeared in seven documentaries, including Expelled. Some of his lectures and interviews are available on YouTube.