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Darwinism in Nazi Propaganda

Richard Weikart
Hitler's religion
Photo: Hitler in 1941, via Wikicommons.

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Chapter 1 of Richard Weikart’s new book, How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism.

The official Nazi Party newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, focused mostly on politics and current events and only rarely mentioned scientific issues. Nonetheless, occasionally it featured articles that honored Charles Darwin or Ernst Haeckel for their contributions to evolutionary theory. In 1932 the Völkischer Beobachter published an article simply entitled “Darwin,” which claimed that Darwin’s theory was the theoretical foundation for eugenics and racial theory, which, of course, were central features of the Nazi worldview. The article, written by an anonymous professor, explained that evolution was a well-established scientific truth that was not debatable, and that Darwin’s theory of natural selection had triumphed over Lamarckian theory. It called on fellow Germans to honor “the great scientist and scholar Charles Darwin.”1

As we shall see in this chapter, official Nazi periodicals, science journals, and official Nazi propaganda pamphlets written to propagate Nazi racial ideology all concurred with this perspective. They honored Darwin and championed his theory of natural selection, rejecting the Lamarckian theory of evolution. Whenever they overtly discussed evolution, they proclaimed it as a scientific fact and rejected any attempts to question it. Further, they portrayed biological evolution as an important factor in their worldview.

Evolutionary Theory in Official Nazi Periodicals

The Völkischer Beobachter was just one of many Nazi periodicals to laud Darwin and his theory. Various Nazi periodicals featured articles positively discussing evolution, including human evolution and its relationship to racial theory. Some of these articles explicitly attacked anti-evolutionary thought. The anti-evolutionary ideas they opposed, moreover, were not being published by fellow Nazis, but instead were being promoted by religious periodicals, especially the Catholic periodical Natur und Kultur. In the course of my research, I have surveyed quite a few Nazi periodicals, and I have never discovered a single article in them attacking or even calling into question evolutionary theory. Some articles argued over the details of evolutionary theory, and they might even criticize Darwinism as too individualistic. However, these articles always embraced the common descent of organisms, and the vast majority taught the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection through the struggle for existence. They also consistently espoused the ideas of human evolution and the evolution of races, which they believed buttressed their views on racial inequality and racial competition.

In 1934, on the occasion of the evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel’s hundredth birthday, the Völkischer Beobachter ran a story about Haeckel by the evolutionary biologist Viktor Franz. While Franz expressed some criticisms of Haeckel’s combative anti-Christian stance, he lauded Haeckel for his contributions to evolutionary biology.2 In 1939, on the twentieth anniversary of Haeckel’s death, Völkischer Beobachter carried an article even more laudatory toward Haeckel. It not only applauded his contribution toward evolutionary biology, but also highlighted Haeckel’s promotion of human evolution as a worthy achievement.3 These articles fully supported evolutionary theory, including human evolution, and presented Darwinism as an important foundation for other elements of Nazi ideology, such as racial theory and eugenics. The view among some people today that human evolution is incompatible with Nazi racial ideology was apparently not a view shared by the Völkischer Beobachter

Objection: The Nazis Just Used Darwinism as a Propaganda Tool

It’s undeniable, then, that the Nazis employed Darwinism widely in their propaganda efforts. But one might object that the Nazi use of Darwinism was purely a rhetorical strategy: That is, Hitler and other Nazis shrewdly co-opted a dominant scientific paradigm in the service of their insidious political goals. And if there had been another dominant scientific view of origins, they would have claimed that for their cause. There are multiple problems with this objection. 

First, it seems to rest on the false assumption that the Nazi regime was primarily opportunistic. Most historians today recognize that Hitler and most leading Nazis were not primarily opportunists but, rather, fanatical ideologues. Sure, Hitler and his comrades were willing to lie to the public if it brought political advantage. However, those lies were always to try to advance their heartfelt ideology, not just to attain power for power’s sake. 

Second, we have considerable evidence that Hitler and leading Nazis did not just use Darwinism for public consumption, but promoted it in private conversations. It was not just a superficial add-on to gain support for unrelated ideas and policies. 

Third, and probably most importantly, this objection fails to recognize that leading Darwinian biologists and anthropologists were promoting scientific racism in the pre-Nazi period. The Nazis were influenced by this scientific racism. Darwinism was an essential part of Nazi racial ideology from the start. It is not like Nazis had their racist ideology in place, and then added Darwinism to the mix to gain more public support. Racism and Darwinism were closely aligned long before the Nazis developed their ideology.

Conclusion

Not only science journals, but also the most important Nazi periodicals, along with pamphlets written to teach the Nazi worldview, all taught the importance of evolutionary biology in Nazi ideology. The authors considered human evolution especially important, because they believed it supported their vision of racial inequality and racial struggle, fundamental parts of the Nazi worldview. No Nazi journal or official Nazi publication (at least, of which I am aware) published articles or essays denying human evolution. However, some did publish essays bashing creationism and anti-evolutionary ideas. Though there was some debate about the exact way that evolution occurred, the version of evolutionary theory most Nazis preferred was the Darwinian theory of natural selection through the struggle for existence.

Notes

  1. Prof. Dr. B., “Darwin,” Rasse, Volk und Staat: Rassenhygienisches Beiblatt, in Völkischer Beobachter, Norddeutsche Auflage (June 15, 1932).
  2. Viktor Franz, “Das Göttliche im Gottesverneiner,“ Völkischer Beobachter, Norddeutsche Auflage Nr. 47 (February 16, 1934).
  3. A. C., “Um die Abstammung des Menschen: Zum 20. Jahrestage Ernst Haeckels,“ Völkischer Beobachter, Norddeutsche Auflage (August 9, 1939): 6.

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.

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Charles DarwinDarwinian racismDarwinismErnst Haeckeleugenicsevolutionevolutionary theoryhuman evolutionnatural selectionNazispre-Nazi periodpropagandarecismscientific racismViktor FranzVölkischer Beobachter