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New Book: Social Darwinism and “The Hitler Problem”

Richard Weikart
Hitler

Editor’s note: For Part 1 of Professor Weikart’s review of Social Darwinism, see here.

In Cambridge University Press’s new book Social Darwinism, Jeffrey O’Connell and Michael Ruse tackle an issue that I have written about extensively: the connections between Darwinism and Nazi ideology. Unfortunately, however, as far as I can tell, they ignore almost everything I have written (I have to say “almost” because they do quote from a blog post I wrote). To be sure, they do cite my book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, though I cannot tell if they read a line of it, because they never discuss any specific material from the book. Worse yet, they do not even cite my later books, Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (2009) or Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Ideas that Drove the Third Reich (2016), even though these are the most thorough and important scholarly books that deal with the topic of Hitler’s social Darwinism.

In their chapter on “The Hitler Problem” they make the completely untenable assertion that Hitler did not believe in evolution at all. As is obvious from their citations, the way they came to this conclusion was by reading Robert Richards’s works, especially Was Hitler a Darwinian? (Richards answers his question with a resounding, No!).

An Avalanche of Evidence

My book, Hitler’s Ethic, contains an avalanche of evidence that Hitler believed in evolution, including human evolution. My later book, Hitler’s Religion, contains a chapter, “Was Hitler a Creationist?” that directly refutes Richards’s false arguments. Here I can only provide a few tidbits, but if anyone wants more evidence, including explicit refutations of Richards’s claims, please consult these works.

Let me give some examples of Hitler’s belief in evolution and social Darwinism from a variety of sources: Hitler’s Mein Kampf and his Second Book, his speeches, his monologues, and testimony from his associates.

In Mein Kampf and in his Second Book, Hitler not only uses Darwinian terms constantly, such as evolution, struggle for existence, and struggle for life, but several times he explicitly describes the struggle for existence as a natural law that humans should be careful not to contravene. In one passage he mentioned that the struggle in nature vanquishes the weak and sickly, and then stated,

Always struggle is a means to improve the health and stamina of the species, and thus a cause of its evolution. By any other process all development and evolution would cease, and the very reverse would take place.

(Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Barrows Mussey [New York: Stackpole Sons, 1939], 278)

In Hitler’s Second Book, social Darwinism is even more obvious, as Hitler opens the book with a chapter on “The Struggle for Life” (which incidentally is a term that Darwin himself used as a synonym for the struggle for existence). In this chapter Hitler explained in detail his view that organisms, including humans, reproduce faster than the available resources and living space, so this makes the struggle for existence inevitable. “In the limitation of this living space,” Hitler asserted, “lies the compulsion for the struggle for survival, and the struggle for survival, in turn, contains the precondition for evolution.” (Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s Second Book: The Unpublished Sequel to Mein Kampf, ed. Gerhard L. Weinberg [New York: Enigma Books, 2003], 8)

A Frequent Theme for Hitler

The struggle for existence was a frequent theme in Hitler’s speeches, too, and in a 1927 speech he clarified its significance in human evolution, stating,

You are the product of this struggle. If your ancestors had not fought, today you would be an animal. They did not gain their rights through peaceful debates with wild animals, and later perhaps also with humans, through the comparative adjustment of relations by a pacifist court of arbitration, but rather the earth has been acquired on the basis of the right of the stronger.

In a 1942 speech Hitler explained that Germany needed to fight wars to comply with the laws of nature. He then explained, “This struggle leads in effect to an unswerving and eternal selection, to the selection of the better and tougher. We thus see in this struggle an element of the building up of all living things.” He then reiterated that struggle is a law of nature that produces “progressive evolution.” (Hitler, “War der Zweite Weltkrieg für Deutschland vermeidbar?” May 30, 1942, in Hitlers Tischgespräche, 492) 

In Hitler’s monologues he often broached the topic of evolution and the struggle for existence. For instance, in a long monologue about evolution, science, and religion on October 24, 1941, he was dismissive toward Christianity and clearly expressed support for evolution. At the close of the monologue he stated,

There have been humans at the rank at least of a baboon in any case for 300,000 years at least. The ape is distinguished from the lowest human less than such a human is from a thinker like, for example, Schopenhauer.

(Hitler, Hitlers Tischgespräche im Führerhauptquartier, ed. Henry Picker [Frankfurt, 1989], 75)

Otto Dietrich, Hitler’s publicist, claimed that Hitler considered nature the source of “the final truth about life. He took such principles as the struggle for existence, the survival of the fittest and the strongest, for the law of nature and considered them a ‘higher imperative’ which should also rule in the community life of men.” Dietrich also stated that Hitler’s “evolutionary views on natural selection and survival of the fittest coincided with the ideas of Darwin and Haeckel.” (Otto Dietrich, The Hitler I Knew, trans. Richard and Clara Winston [London, 1957], 19, 153) Hitler’s personal secretary, Christa Schroeder, concurred, stating that Hitler believed:

Science does not yet clearly know from which root human beings have arisen. We are certainly the highest stage of evolution of any mammal, which evolved from reptiles to mammals, perhaps through apes, to humans. We are a member of creation and children of nature, and the same laws apply to us as to all living organisms. And in nature the law of the struggle rules from the beginning. Everything incapable of living and everything weak will be eliminated.

(Christa Schroeder, Er War Mein Chef: Aus dem Nachlass der Sekretärin von Adolf Hitler, ed. Anton Joachimsthaler, 2nd ed. [Munich: Langen Müller, 1985], 68)

Darwinism and Anti-Semitism

O’Connell and Ruse ignore all this evidence (and much, much more) that I have presented in my writings. Instead, they emphasize the valid point that anti-Semitism was crucial in Hitler’s ideology, but Darwin never promoted anti-Semitism. True enough, but it misses the important point that no one — certainly not me — has ever argued that Darwinism contributed to anti-Semitism or that Hitler derived everything in his worldview from Darwinism. On the contrary, I have clearly argued in all my works that Hitler was an eclectic thinker who drew on many different intellectual influences — some of them contradictory. He was influenced by the ideas of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wagner, and many other thinkers, both well-known and obscure. (I examine many of these at length in Hitler’s Religion).

However, the influence of social Darwinism on Hitler was not minimal, because it was a key ingredient of many important Nazi doctrines, such as racial struggle, living space, militarism, eugenics, euthanasia, and more. Not only that, but as we shall see in my next post, these ideas of Hitler’s were not just fringe ideas of people who had little understanding of Darwinian biology. Many Darwinian biologists and anthropologists promoted these ideas, too.