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Darwinian Racism: How Evolutionary Theory Shaped Nazi Thinking

Richard Weikart
Photo: Columbine Memorial, Littleton, Colorado, by Denverjeffrey, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from the Introduction to Richard Weikart’s new book, How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism.

It was the spring of 1999, a Denver suburb. The day, April 20 — Adolf Hitler’s birthday. An 18-year-old white nationalist, Eric Harris, donned a shirt emblazoned with “Natural Selection” before heading off to high school. For weeks he had been preparing a special event in honor of the Führer. Together with a co-conspirator, Dylan Klebold, he planted a bomb in the Columbine High School cafeteria. Harris planned to shoot his fellow students as they fled the explosion. When the bomb failed to detonate, he and Klebold entered the school and opened fire, killing 13 and wounding 24 before turning their guns on themselves.

Why was Harris — as are many white nationalists today — so eager to honor both Hitler and Darwin? Why did he think Darwin’s theory of natural selection provided fodder for his white nationalist ideology? 

What Were the Connections?

If we delve deeply into the ideology of Nazis, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists, we find that Darwinism — the view that species have evolved over eons of time through the process of natural selection — plays a fundamental role, shaping their views about race and society. Both Hitler and Harris, together with other Nazis and white nationalists, believed that Darwinian theory contributed several key ideas to their racist ideology. Most importantly, they thought Darwinism implied that different races had evolved to different levels, so they considered some races superior and others inferior. Further, they believed that these allegedly unequal races were locked in an inescapable struggle for existence, in a competition to the death. Nazis and white nationalists consider it their mission to advance their own race in this universal racial struggle, even to the point of perpetrating violence against those deemed their racial enemies. In the Darwinian struggle for existence, someone has to die, after all.

Many Darwinists will protest that evolutionary theory does not necessarily lead to the conclusions that Nazis and white nationalists have derived from it. Most Darwinists today are not racists and do not go around staging mass murders. They represent a wide variety of political and social philosophies, including egalitarianism and democracy. Many of them uphold human rights. But we can grant this obvious point and still pursue a historical inquiry that is increasingly, and alarmingly, relevant: Did Nazis believe that Darwinism informed their worldview, and do present-day white nationalists believe this? Were they influenced by Darwinian theory, and, if so, how?

The Darwinian Background

Those wanting to distance Darwinism from the Nazis need to stop ignoring the fact that the racial inegalitarianism of the Nazis in the early to mid-20th century was not all that distant from the racist attitudes and theories of many leading Darwinian biologists, anthropologists, and physicians. Darwin himself was racist and exulted in the European extermination of the “lower races,” which he integrated into his theory of human evolution. Many other scientists likewise promoted racism on the basis of their understanding of evolutionary theory. If the Nazi perspective was a misinterpretation of Darwinism, it was a misinterpretation fostered by the Darwinian biologists themselves, not by non-scientists or fringe publicists.

Indeed, long before the Nazis came on the scene, Darwinian biologists, anthropologists, and other scholars — including Darwin himself — were insisting that Darwinism provided intellectual support for racism and even racial extermination (and some also saw it as justification for militarism, economic competition, abortion, and euthanasia).1 For instance, the leading Darwinian biologist in Germany, Ernst Haeckel, stated in 1904, “The distance between the thinking soul of the cultured human and the thoughtless animal soul of the wild natural human is extremely vast, greater than the distance between the latter and the soul of a dog.”2 Haeckel believed that Europeans had evolved to a higher level than other human races, and this view was quite common among scientists.

One of the most important features of Darwin’s theory was his proposed mechanism for evolution: natural selection through the struggle for existence. Darwin argued that the population of any species — including humans — grew faster than the food supply, leading to competition for scarce resources in which the fit — those better adapted to their environments — survived and reproduced, while the unfit perished. This notion of natural selection would have a profound influence on conceptions of race relations, because Darwin thought that some races — such as black Africans, native Americans, and others — were intellectually inferior to Europeans, and that this explained why they were being exterminated by Europeans. Thus, many Europeans in the 19th century construed Darwin’s theory as justification for annihilating other races. After all, these other races must be the “unfit,” and in the Darwinian scheme of things, the unfit perish.

Many leading biologists, psychiatrists, and physicians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries thought that Darwinism also provided support for eugenics policies. Eugenics was a movement that aimed at improving human heredity. Many eugenicists were disturbed by the way that modern societies were protecting their weak and sickly members, allowing them to survive and even reproduce. They feared that this contravening of natural selection would lead to biological degeneration, rather than upward evolution. To rectify matters, eugenicists proposed policies that would encourage the more prolific reproduction of those they considered biologically superior, while preventing the reproduction of those deemed inferior. By the early 20th century, compulsory sterilization of people with disabilities was one of the most popular eugenics measures. In 1907 Indiana passed the first compulsory sterilization law, and many other states followed suit in the decades thereafter.

Was Nazism Influenced by Darwinism?

Many historians recognize that Hitler was a social Darwinist, and some even portray social Darwinism as a central, guiding element of Nazi ideology.3 Thus it is strange that a small number of historians seem to think that Nazis did not believe in human evolution at all. George Mosse in The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (1964) argued that acceptance of human evolution was incompatible with Nazi racial ideology, because of the Nazi stress on the perfection and immutability of the German race.4 Similarly, and more recently, Peter Bowler and Michael Ruse have argued that the Nazis rejected human evolution, because they upheld a fixed racial type and racial inequality.5Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the work of Daniel Gasman, whose book purportedly demonstrates that Hitler built his ideology on the social Darwinist ideas of Ernst Haeckel, but then in the conclusion claims that the Nazis did not like the idea of human evolution.6

But how is it possible to embrace social Darwinism, while rejecting Darwinism and human evolution? Anne Harrington has suggested that the Nazis liked some elements of Darwinism, especially the struggle for existence, but not human evolution from primates.7 Robert Richards supports this position, claiming that Nazi racial ideas and practices “were rarely connected with specific evolutionary conceptions of the transmutation of species and the animal origin of all human beings, even if the shibboleth ‘struggle for existence’ left vaporous trails through some of the biological literature of the Third Reich.”8

Seven Lines of Evidence

This position seems plausible at first glance, especially since Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a forerunner of Nazi racial ideology, embraced it. But the claim runs aground when we examine Nazi racial ideology in detail. In particular, the following lines of evidence demonstrate overwhelmingly that Nazi racial thinkers embraced human and racial evolution: 1) Hitler himself believed in human evolution. 2) The official Nazi school curriculum prominently featured biological evolution, including human evolution. 3) The Nazi Ministry of Education encouraged schools to purchase books teaching evolution. 4) Nazi racial anthropologists, including SS anthropologists, uniformly endorsed human evolution and integrated evolution into their racial ideology. 5) Nazi eugenicists argued that Darwinism was an integral part of eugenics ideology. 6) Nazi periodicals, including those on racial ideology, included discussions of evolutionary theory, and some even overtly combated creationism. 7) Nazi materials designed to inculcate the Nazi worldview among SS and military men vigorously promoted evolution as an integral part of the Nazi worldview.

Evolutionary theory shaped Nazi thinking in multiple ways. First, almost all Nazi racial theorists believed that humans had evolved from primates. Second, they provided evolutionary explanations for the historical development of different human races, including the Nordic or Aryan race. (These two terms were usually used synonymously, but most Nazi racial theorists preferred the term Nordic.) Specifically, they believed that the Nordic race had become superior because harsh climatic conditions in north-central Europe during the Ice Ages had sharpened the struggle for existence, causing the weak to perish and leaving only the most vigorous. Third, they believed that the differential evolutionary development of the races provided scientific evidence for racial inequality. Fourth, they held that the different and unequal human races were locked in an ineluctable struggle for existence. Fifth, they thought that the way for their own race to triumph in the struggle for existence was to reproduce more prolifically than competing races and to claim more living space in which to further increase their numbers. 

These five points — rooted in the view that humans and human races evolved and are still evolving through the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection and the struggle for existence — profoundly impacted Nazi policy. They formed the backdrop for pursuing eugenics, killing the disabled, aggressively seeking more “living space,” and exterminating members of races deemed inferior. These are hardly peripheral issues.

Notes

  1. I discuss all these themes in depth in From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
  2. Ernst Haeckel, Die Lebenswunder: Gemeinverständliche Studien über Biologische Philosophie (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner, 1904), 450. Throughout the present volume, German-to-English translations are mine unless otherwise noted.
  3. Many scholars have noted the importance of social Darwinism in Hitler’s world view: Richard Weikart, Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 2 vols. (New York: Norton, 1998­–2000), 2:xli; see also 1:290, 2:19, 208, 405, 780; Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin, 2004), 34–35, and Third Reich in Power (New York: Penguin, 2005), 4, 708; Eberhard Jäckel, Hitler’s World View: A Blueprint for Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), chap. 5; Mike Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860–1945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 277–278; Rainer Zitelmann, Hitler: Selbstverständnis eines Revolutionärs (Hamburg: Berg, 1987), 15, 466; and Neil Gregor, How to Read Hitler (New York: Norton, 2005), 40. For a longer list, see Weikart, Hitler’s Ethic, 205–206, n. 6.
  4. George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (New York: Dunlop and Grossett, 1964), 103.
  5. Peter Bowler, “Darwin’s Originality,” Science 323 (January 9, 2009): 226; Michael Ruse, “The Impact of Darwinism,” interview by Christopher Fish, Stanford Review, April 21, 2008.
  6. Daniel Gasman, The Scientific Origins of National Socialism: Social Darwinism in Ernst Haeckel and the German Monist League (London: MacDonald, 1971), 173.
  7. Anne Harrington, Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 262, n.2; Werner Maser takes a similar position in Hitlers Briefe und Notizen. Sein Weltbild in handschriftlichen Dokumenten (Düsseldorf: Econ Verlag, 1973), 301.
  8. Robert J. Richards, “That Darwin and Haeckel Were Complicit in Nazi Biology,” in Galileo Goes to Trial and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald Numbers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 177. Richards goes even further, implausibly arguing that Hitler and the Nazis completely rejected biological evolution, in Robert J. Richards, Was Hitler a Darwinian?: Disputed Questions in the History of Evolutionary Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).