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Is Robert Richards Right to Deny that Hitler Was a Darwinian?

Richard Weikart

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Editor’s note: This concludes Dr. Weikart’s evaluation of Dr. Richards’s book, Was Hitler a Darwinian? (University of Chicago Press), in particular its title essay. For the first and second parts of the review, see "‘Was Hitler a Darwinian?’ Reviewing Robert Richards" and "Ignoring Evidence, Caricaturing Critics: Robert J. Richards’s Was Hitler a Darwinian?"

9780226058931.jpgI turn now to the final three problems with Richards’s essay:

4) Richards conflates certain key concepts.

Two conflations vitiate his analysis: 1) Darwin with Darwinism; and 2) racism with anti-Semitism. Indeed Darwin and Darwinism overlap (as do racism and anti-Semitism). However, they are not the same, and here’s the problem: Richards thinks that if he can show that Hitler believed x and Darwin denied x, then Hitler’s belief is non-Darwinian or even anti-Darwinian. For instance, Richards claims that Darwin’s own "widening circle of moral concern has nothing in common with Hitler’s virulent hostility to races other than the Aryan." (p. 233) OK, so Darwin’s ideas are not the same as Hitler’s. This is hardly news. I have said the same thing in my own books. Does this mean that all Darwinists or all subscribers to evolutionary ethics shared Darwin’s "widening circle of moral concern"? Not at all. My analysis does not assume that Darwinists have to believe every single thing Darwin did. If that is the way Richards wants to define Darwinism or Darwinist — as including only those who believe everything Darwin believed — then only Darwin would qualify (and even this would be "iffy," because he altered his views on some matters over time).

This same conflation of Darwin and Darwinism leads Richards to misquote me in the third sentence of the essay, where he claims, "In a subsequent book, Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, Weikart argues that Darwin’s ‘evolutionary ethics drove him [Hitler] to engage in behavior that the rest of us consider abominable.’" (p. 192) This is a misquote, because adding the word "Darwin’s" immediately before the sentence (and "evolutionary" should be capitalized, because it was the beginning of my sentence) alters the meaning I intended. In that passage I was not talking about Charles Darwin’s specific brand of evolutionary ethics at all, as Richards claims, but rather about evolutionary ethics in general. "Evolutionary ethics" and "Darwin’s evolutionary ethics" are not one and the same. This conflation of Darwin and Darwinism spoils many parts of this essay, because once Richards shows that Darwin did not believe something that Hitler believed, he then concludes that Hitler was not influenced by Darwinism.

As for the conflation of racism and anti-Semitism, Richards spends a great deal of his essay belaboring the point that Hitler’s anti-Semitism did not come from Darwinism. It would have been helpful if Richards had indicated why he thought this needed proving, because I have clearly stated in my own books that anti-Semitism did not come from Darwinism. It is no surprise to me that Hitler’s anti-Semitism came from sources that Richards discusses, including the anti-Darwinian Houston Stewart Chamberlain (though here Richards ignores the more Darwinian-inclined anti-Semites of the early twentieth century, such as Willibald Hentschel or Theodor Fritsch). Perhaps Richards’ discussion of anti-Semitism is targeting the historian Daniel Gasman, but if so, it would have been helpful to say so.

In my view, Richards chose an easy target by proving that Hitler’s anti-Semitism did not come from Darwinism. But then a problem emerges. Once Richards has shown that Hitler’s anti-Semitism is non-Darwinian, he then shouts in triumph that Hitler’s racism is thus non-Darwinian. However, Hitler’s racism included more than anti-Semitism alone. Some parts of Hitler’s racism could still have come from Darwinian sources, even if the anti-Semitism didn’t — a point that doesn’t seem to occur to Richards. One of the most obvious parts of Hitler’s racism that did owe its impetus to Darwinism was the notion that unequal human races are locked in a struggle to the death.

Of course, Richards might counter that non-Darwinians, such as Chamberlain, also believed in a racial struggle. Indeed, it is of course possible for non-Darwinists to believe in a racial struggle. However, three historical problems emerge for Richards here: 1) Most of those pushing the idea of a racial struggle in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were committed to Darwinism and saw racial struggle as a part of the evolutionary process (i.e., even though he was influential, Chamberlain was not characteristic of most racial theorists in this regard). 2) Chamberlain’s anti-Darwinism was not widely known. Ludwig Schemann, founder of the Gobineau Society and one of the leading racists in early twentieth-century Germany, wrote a massive three-volume book on the history of racism. In it he claims (wrongly) that Chamberlain was a passionate supporter of Darwin. 3) Though Chamberlain rejected Darwinism, as a young man he had embraced it, and later he argued explicitly in his most important and popular book that evolution had advanced the important idea of racial struggle. Even though Chamberlain jettisoned the transmutation of species, he kept the Darwinian notion of a racial struggle for existence.

5) In addition to ignoring specific lines of evidence, Richards totally ignores many of the most salient points I set forth in my books about what connects Darwinism and Hitler.

Richards’s essay focuses so much on Hitler’s racism, especially his anti-Semitism, that he ignores the other important elements of Hitler’s ideology and policy that I discuss at length in all my books. These include his pro-natalism, eugenics, euthanasia, and expansionist militarism, which were all justified by resort to the struggle for existence going on between humans, especially between human races.

Haeckel was the first German scholar to recommend infanticide for the disabled (and later he advocated involuntary euthanasia for adults, too). Hitler’s program of killing the disabled, which resulted in the murder of about 200,000 in Germany (and more in German-occupied territory) in less than five years, was based on the reasoning proffered by leading Darwinian biologists and physicians. Richards might reply that Darwin did not approve of infanticide or euthanasia. Good point. Darwinism does not necessarily imply killing the disabled, and I have never said it did (I stated quite clearly in From Darwin to Hitler that I was not arguing that Darwinism logically led to Nazism or Nazi atrocities). Nonetheless, when we examine what actually happened historically, we find that not only Hitler, but also the German physicians actually running the Nazi program to kill the disabled, used evolutionary ethics as a justification for their atrocities.

Now for one of the most interesting problems in Richards’s essay:

6) At one point Richards even creates a new historical "fact."

Richards claims that I played a "sly trick" by translating "Entwicklung" as "evolution" in some passages in Mein Kampf. The standard translation by Ralph Manheim consistently translates it as "development," which is a correct translation in most contexts.

In arguing that my translation is incorrect, Richards does not examine even a single example of my translation to show that I mistranslated it. Rather, he invents a new historical "fact": he claims that the term "Entwicklung" had declined in usage since the nineteenth century. I don’t know where Richards got this tidbit of misinformation, but I have examined many biology journals and biology textbooks of the 1930s and 1940s, and they were still regularly using the term Entwicklung for evolution.

I could give hundreds of examples to prove this, but hopefully this interesting example will suffice — the manual discussing the official Nazi biology curriculum, Erziehung und Unterricht in der H�heren Schule: Amtliche Ausgabe des Reichs- und Preussische Ministeriums f�r Wissenschaft, Erziehung und Volksbildung (Berlin: Weidmannsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1938). It used the term Entwicklung repeatedly to refer to evolution. On p. 160 it stipulated, for example, that in the eighth class teachers should cover: "Overview of the Entwicklung of life in the course of geological history." Here Entwicklung quite obviously means biological evolution, and if anyone doubts this, they should go look at the context. Immediately after this comment the manual discussed evidence for biological evolution and told teachers they should cover "Darwinismus." The very next point it instructed them to teach was the "Origin and Entwicklung [obviously meaning evolution] of humans and human races."

Hopefully it will not be necessary, but I can produce hundreds of more examples from biology journals and textbooks proving that Entwicklung was indeed one of the preferred terms used by biologists and biology teachers for evolution in the first half of the twentieth century.

In addition, as I have shown here in greater detail, I have examined several different translations of Mein Kampf, and all except Manheim translate "Entwicklung" as "evolution" in some of the same passages that I do. Three of these translations were done in the 1930s, so it would seem that they would know if Germans were still using the term "Entwicklung" to mean "evolution." Not only that, but a prominent German scholar at the University of Birmingham translated an excerpt of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and he prefaced his pamphlet by stating, "The racial thought of Herr Hitler begins with a popularized conception of Darwin’s evolutionary hypotheses, which are turned to surprising uses." He then translates "Entwicklung" as "evolution" in an excerpt from the chapter "Nation and Race," just as I do. (Adolf Hitler, The Racial Conception of the World, ed. Charles Grant Robertson [London: Friends of Europe, 1938], 7-8.)

Apparently there are a lot of sly tricksters around.

Image source: Wikicommons.

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.