Connections Between Social Darwinism And Nazi Germany

by Sunny Hoi

What is the connection between Germany’s notorious National Socialist Party and Social Darwinism? How did the Nazis use and abuse this adaption of Charles Darwin’s biological theories to support their own racist agenda? This article examines the story behind these connections and its chilling results.

Germany’s National Socialist Party[1] applied Social Darwinism to their worldview by using it as a means to justify their programs of racial hygiene. This culminated in the murder of thousands of Jews in the Holocaust, as well as the slaughter and torture of people they deemed unworthy of life, including the Roma people, homosexuals, Poles, Slavs, and many others. This essay examines how and why the Nazi government applied the theories of Social Darwinism and in turn, eugenics, to their social policies, and how this led to so many atrocities committed in the name of science and civilization.

The idea of race was not a new concept in the twentieth century. As Howard Winant writes, the idea of an “us” versus “them” based on the idea of superiority and inferiority is very old, and can be identified in the ancient concepts of civility and barbarity. However, the idea of race as it is understood today began at the end of the middle ages. This modern interpretation defines race as a concept that signifies and symbolizes sociopolitical conflicts and interests in reference to different types of human bodies.[2] There is no actual biological basis for the separation of human beings due to phenotypic differences; thus the distinction is necessarily one made by social and historical processes which Winant notes are “imprecise, if not completely arbitrary.”[3] It is easy to argue that race was a creation of European ethnocentrism which began during the slave trade and the rise of nation-states and empires, all explained in terms of Enlightenment rationality. However, as Winant observes, it would also be easy to state the opposite; that concepts of race fuelled the creation of this integrated sociopolitical world and the rise of modern authoritarian states.[4] Whichever came first bears little effect on the concept itself and the uses and abuses of it that would occur in twentieth century Germany.

The ideas of Social Darwinism were merely an application of Darwin’s natural theories to humanity and human existence. These theories were based on individual struggle and competition for resources. Originally this concept of individuality was used to support laissez faire economic policies, because both stressed “individualist competition.”[5] However, as Richard Weikart writes, the theories were eventually put into a social context and used to support imperialism, eugenics, and racism. This newer interpretation of Darwinism focused on a collective struggle and recalculated traditional views on topics such as euthanasia, suicide, infanticide  and abortion.[6]  Many Darwinists also invoked scientific theory to undermine Judeo-Christian values, which they viewed as out of date, sentimental, and contrary to scientific progress.

The ideas of Social Darwinism were popularized in Germany by Ernst Haeckel and Wilhelm Schallmayer. They both staunchly disagreed with Christian ethical doctrine and worked to counteract it, writing numerous essays on the subject and arguing that Darwin’s theory was the most important development of the nineteenth century. Social Darwinist ideas were essential in overturning Christian views on the sanctity of life. This value regarding life was enshrined by John Locke as the “right to life,”and was considered by most to be a fundamental right of every human being.[7] By questioning this right under the auspices of Darwin’s theory, many Darwinists felt they were creating an entirely new world view based on science and collective improvement. These sentiments greatly influenced the eugenics movement as well. Schallmayer and Alfred Ploetz founded the first eugenics society in Germany in 1905. Haeckel and August Weismann, the two most famous Darwinists in the country, were recruited as honorary members. Their group was called the Society for Race Hygiene (SRH), and would become an important ally organization of the Nazi party.[8]

Many members of this society believed that Darwin’s theories supported the idea that some people were more deserving than others of the right to life. Some other members of the SRH challenged the prohibition on killing what Weikart calls “innocent life.” Haeckel and other Darwinists also fought against those who believed in body-soul dualism; that human life was more valuable than animal life. These Darwinists argued that humans were not much different from animals. Many German Darwinists felt that because Darwin emphasized Malthusian population principles, it was natural to believe that individual human lives were not really important. Alfred Hoche echoed this sentiment in the notorious book he co-authored: Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life). By extension, statements such as that of Ludwig Biichner’s “the species is everything: and history as well as nature  mark every step forward, even the smallest, with innumerable piles of corpses” became acceptable among this community of Social Darwinists and those who followed them.[9] Thus, as Weikart notes, death was no longer something to be feared as it was in the Christian paradigm. Death was in fact the ally of victory, and a “force for progress.”[10] This was an important step in devaluing the life of the individual, and the Nazi party would use this type of thinking to support their murderous social programs and policies, and to encourage their soldiers into battle as part of this progressive and collective evolutionary force.

This mentality that life was fundamentally unequal greatly contributed to the racism propagated by many Social Darwinists. Haeckel devoted an entire chapter of one book to pointing out the differences between races, arguing that these differences made some (Aryans) more valuable than others. These theories were influenced largely by the work of the French essayist Comte Arthur de Gobineau, who in his An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853-1855) argued that the best of ancient Greek and Roman culture had survived in modern European nations. Gobineau thought that this most superior civilization originally came from ancient Indo-European culture, also known as “Aryan.”[11] This idea of an Aryan race greatly influenced many members of the Nazi party, including Adolf Hitler. The upper echelons of the Nazi party included many Social Darwinists who believed that the German people were descendents of these Aryans, and thus represented a superior Nordic race. They often called this race the German Volk.[12] Ideas of racially superior peoples would have later implications in the Nazi parties treatment of the “Rhineland Bastards,” Jews, Poles, and Roma, whom they all deemed racially inferior.

These racialized Social Darwinist interpretations of natural theories led to a doctrine of beliefs and fanaticism on the part of the Nazi government. This drive toward a purely idealized society, free of mental illness, social “burdens,” and “racially inferior” peoples, culminated in the murder of several millions of innocent people, all in the name of Racial Hygiene and “progress.”

[1]   From here on referred to as the Nazi party/Nazis.

[2]   Howard Winant, “Race and Race Theory,” Annual Review of Sociology 26 (2000) : 172.

[3]   Ibid., 172.

[4]   Ibid., 173.

[5]   Richard Weikart, “The Origins of Social Darwinism in Germany: 1859 -1895,” Journal of the History of Ideas 54, no 3 (July 1993) : 469.

[6]   Ibid., 470.

[7]   As quoted in Richard Weikart, “Darwinism and Death,” Journal of the History of Ideas 63, no 2 (April 2002) : 327

[8]   Sheila Faith Weiss, Race hygiene and national efficiency: the eugenics of Wilhelm Schallmayer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 91.

[9]   As quoted in Weikart, Darwinism and Death, 331.

[10] Ibid., 331.

[11] Paul A. Fortier, “Gobineau and German Racism,” Comparative Literature 19, no. 4 (1967), 344.

[12] Mike Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American thought, 1860-1945 (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997), 272.

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