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  • Writer's pictureIlka Knüppel

Euthanasia - Germany wasn't the only country considering it. History by William J. Prunka, Esq.

Eugenics Propaganda. Public Domain.

The term eugenics means the “practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding (as through sterilization) to improve the population’s genetic composition.” The term eugenics, was introduced in 1883, by the Englishman Francis Galton to describe a method of natural selection via selective breeding. In the United States, the eugenics movement stemmed from the early work of Galton. Eugenicists sought to improve the quality of the human race, by attempting to affect the natural processes of evolution. At its most extreme as implemented by the Nazis, eugenics was used as a means to eliminate “all human beings deemed ‘unfit.’”

Germany was not the only nation considering the concept of euthanasia in the 1920’s. In 1927, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote “‘three generations of imbeciles are enough’ as part of his opinion in Buck v. Bell, in which the Supreme Court ruled that compulsory sterilization of the ‘unfit’ was constitutional.” The proponents of euthanasia tied their rationale back to the eugenics movement. In fact, the German scientific community based the compulsory Sterilization Law on information learned at conferences held in the United States and by studying British eugenicists. Support for eugenics in the United States grew after the re-emergence of the study of Mendel’s Law in relation to genetics. Proponents of Mendel’s Law sought to use it to breed certain traits in humans. As a way to increase the population of Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, and Germanic peoples, scientists called for tough immigration laws, the prevention of miscegenation, and laws mandating compulsory sterilization (compulsory sterilization also comes into play with the Nazis). Akin to what would be witnessed in Nazi Germany, American eugenicists aimed to rid society of African Americans, Asians, Native Americans, Jews, Hispanics, Eastern Europeans, the poor, and the handicapped.

For the eugenicists to achieve their goals, funding was needed. A vast majority of contributions came from the upper echelons of American society; the Carnegie Institute, the Herriman family, and the Rockefeller family were the three most well known corporate benefactors of the movement. Money from these sources allowed for several developments in American Eugenics. First, the Carnegie Institute established a lab in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. This lab eventually possessed information on thousands of American citizens, and allowed scientists to scheme the excision of certain individuals from society. Second, the Herriman family, who made their fortune in the railroad industry, financed charities in an effort to root out immigrant communities in large cities with goals ranging from deportation to sterilization. John Kellogg, founder of Kellogg’s Cereal, helped found Michigan’s Race Betterment Foundation in 1906. That foundation hosted the first and third national conferences on race betterment. Kellogg’s foundation was co-founded by noted eugenicist Charles Davenport, who also founded the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) with financial assistance from the Carnegie Institute and the Herriman family.

The work of the ERO and the Race Betterment Foundation led to the creation of the Eugenics Registry following the First National Race Betterment Conference in 1914. The registry, also working out of Cold Spring Harbor, sent out questionnaires to American families. The information gathered was compiled, and then used to petition for eugenic backed legislation. Among other goals of the registry, the most stark was to “combat racial decay.” Important here, the ERO trained what became known as eugenic field workers. These field workers would serve as the model of the bureaucratic portion of the Nazi Hereditary Health Courts.. The workers were tasked with accumulating statistics in such categories as mental, physical, and behavioral traits. A number of the field workers, like the doctors and bureaucrats of the Hereditary Health Courts, were sent to examine patients at hospitals and mental institutions. Examining such patients rewarded the ERO with data and research on genetic conditions they wanted to eradicate from the United States. Research completed by the ERO led to the passage of several pieces of legislation, including that which established the Oregon Board of Eugenics in 1917 and the 1924 Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act, upheld in the Supreme Court Opinion of Oliver Wendell Holmes quoted above. The ERO’s research, and its participation in international conferences, shaped the German eugenics movement.

The ERO worked in collaboration with other eugenic societies in the western United States to achieve political goals. Groups such as the Pasadena based Human Betterment Foundation, as well as California’s Office of the American Eugenics Society, coordinated with the ERO to publish journals and newsletters espousing their belief in the benefits of eugenic science. Later, these same groups would assist the Nazis in their propaganda campaigns against the disabled. Their overall plans came to light through published writings or reports following conferences. Relevant here is a Carnegie Institute sponsored publication called: Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeder's Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population.” The report suggested eighteen measures to combat “genetic defectiveness” and suggestion number eight was euthanasia. The report proposed that euthanasia killings should be carried out in gas chambers. This was not an uncommon idea among eugenicists. The textbook Applied Eugenics, written in 1918, argued that “from a historical point of view, the first method which presents itself is execution...its value in keeping up the standard of the race should not be underestimated.” Sparing the lives of many handicapped individuals, thankfully, was the belief that society was not ready for a “lethal solution.” Widespread euthanasia did not occur in the United States, though some doctors engaged in what they termed as “passive euthanasia.” Instead, the eugenics community focused more on legislation through the work of the ERO, the Race Betterment Foundation, and the previously mentioned California organizations to name a few. Forced segregation and sterilization were implemented in many areas, especially California.

In the first twenty-five years of eugenic based legislation, California, without due process, forcibly sterilized over 9,700 people, many of whom were women. Most sterilizations occurred at two California mental hospitals, the Sonoma State Home and Patton State Hospital. Conferences and publications such as books and pamphlets, allowed for the distribution of eugenic ideas from the United States to Germany, where eugenics was first studied by Alfred Ploetz and Wilhelm Schallmayer. The development of the eugenics movement in Germany leading to the passage of laws is inextricably linked to the movement in the United States.

Unlike the United States, German eugenicists were far more centralized. All German eugenic scientists were under the banner of the German Society for Racial Hygiene, founded by Ploetz in 1905. Ernst Rudin, also known for his position on the Committee on Questions of Population and Racial Policy, was an early member as well as Ploetz’s brother in law. Like eugenicists in the United States, the Nordic race was preferred to other races. One of the stated goals of the Society was to re-capture racial purity through selective breeding and sterilization. The popularity of the Society began to increase after the International Hygiene Exhibition, held in Dresden in 1911. By the close of the conference racial hygiene had become an official scientific subject. Further increases in the popularity of German eugenics was helped by California scientists who forwarded German scientists the materials they published touting the benefits of sterilization. In 1927, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology was founded in Berlin, receiving $250,000 (more than $4.3 million in 2023 U.S. Dollars) from the Rockefeller Foundation. The Institute, through its director, Eugen Fischer, worked with the Society for Racial Hygiene, and formed the scientific basis for what would become Nazi eugenic policy positions and legislation. Importantly, Hitler studied eugenics during the 1920s, reading works on racial hygiene during his imprisonment after the failed Beer Hall Putsch.

Hitler adopted many of his beliefs regarding eugenics through his study of American eugenics legislation, with the intent of medicalizing his virulent antisemitism. He studied texts, which incorporated the work of Davenport and Popenoe, as well as the ideas of the president of the American Eugenics Society, Leon Whitney. Hitler also extensively studied Madison Grant’s book The Passing of the Great Race. In his book, Grant discussed his disdain for the mixing of the Nordic race with “Jews, Negroes, Slavs, and others who did not possess blonde hair and blue eyes.” These ideas reinforced Hitler’s confirmation biases. In the same volume, Grant also wrote:

“Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both the elimination of defective infants and the sterilisation of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.”

Grant, Madison, The Passing of the Great Race, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916.

Hitler was such a fan of The Passing of the Great Race that he once corresponded with Grant, calling the book his Bible.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler drew upon American eugenic ideology and according to Black, “displayed a thorough knowledge of American eugenics.” In discussing eugenics with respect to immigration, Hitler wrote:

“There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”

He also opined,

The demand that defective people be prevented from propagating equally defective offspring is a demand of clearest reason and, if systematically executed, represents the most humane act of mankind. It will spare millions of unfortunates undeserved sufferings, and consequently will lead to a rising improvement of health as a whole.

In writings and speeches, Hitler replaced ‘Nordic’ with ‘German’ and ‘Aryan’, but the basic ideas remained.

Paul Nitsche, German psychiatrist and later head of Medical Office of Aktion T4, rather infamously stated: “It is wonderful we can get rid of the ballast and now do proper therapy.”

Photo of Paul Nitsche. Nitsche was found guilty of crimes against humanity and

executed by guillotine in March 1948 in Dresden, Upper Saxony, Germany. Public Domain.

Throughout the 1920's and 1930's American ideas and money aided in the development of German eugenics and their successes wowed American scientists. After Hitler came to power, he began instituting some of these policies and the reaction by the American eugenic community was very positive to these developments.

“....the measures of the euthanasia program will meet more understanding and approval if it is guaranteed and publicly known that in each case of mental illness all possibilities are utilized to cure the patients or at least to improve their condition to such an extent that they...are directed into activities that are of value to the national economy.”

Black, Edwin, “Hitler’s Debt to America”, The Guardian, February 5, 2004,,retrieved 2/16/21

During the Third Reich’s first decade in power, American eugenicists “welcomed Hitler’s plans as the fulfillment of their own decades of research and effort.” Of particular note, and very revealing of the goals of eugenicists worldwide, was the reaction of Joseph DeJarnette, superintendent of Virginia’s Western State Hospital. In an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he observed that the Nazis were “beating us at our own game.” Whitney was quoted as saying “While we were pussy footing around...the Germans were calling a spade a spade.” In 1934, California eugenics leader Charles Goethe wrote to colleague E.S. Gosney, who had previously chartered the Human Betterment Society:

“You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought... I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.”

The 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring was based on a model law by American Harry Laughlin. Laughlin wrote the model law in 1922, and it was included in his book Eugenical Sterilization in the United States. Laughlin’s claim that his model law influenced the Nazis is bolstered by the fact that he was awarded an honorary doctorate at Heidelberg University for his work in “the science of racial cleansing.” Beyond moral and ideological support, the Germans found significant financial support from the United States.

In addition to the $250,000 detailed above, the Rockefeller Foundation donated in excess of $410,000 (over $6.8 million in 2023 Dollars) to “hundreds” of German eugenic scientists and researchers. A separate 1929 Rockefeller grant of $317,000 ($5.5 million in 2023 Dollars) allowed for the expansion of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, and other grants assisted the work of Rudin. With the help of these funds, the Institute became the forerunner of study and experimentation. The Rockefeller Foundation’s money also supported a portion of the Institute which studied twins. According to Black, in 1932, the Institute was gifted $9,000 over three years for “research on twins and effects of later generations of substances toxic for germplasm.” At the time of the 1932 gift, this section of the Institute was led by Professor Otmar Freiherr von Verscheur and Rockefeller funding continued directly and indirectly throughout his tenure. During the Professor’s time there, one of his students and chief assistants was Josef Mengele. Although there is no direct evidence that those in charge of the Rockefeller Foundation or the Carnegie Institute knew of Mengele or his later activities, “The talented men Rockefeller and Carnegie financed, the great institutions they helped found, and the science they helped create took on a scientific momentum of their own.”

Racial hygiene and eugenic science propelled Nazi legislation. In the end, eugenics would play a major role in determining which groups of people would become victims of the murderous regime. According to Black, Hitler embraced “the idea of the gas and lethal chamber.” Aktion T4, the Nazi Euthanasia program, flowed from Nazi eugenic policy and legislation. Stemming from social policy ideas adopted from the United States and aggrandized in Germany, the Nazi regime held tight to the “eugenic ideals of identification, segregation, sterilization, euthanasia, eugenic courts and eventually mass termination in lethal chambers.”

The American Eugenics Society still exists. It has been rebranded as the Society for Biodemography and Social Biology, headed by University of Pennsylvania Sociology professor Dr. Hans-Peter Kohler. Its name was most recently changed in 1973. Frederick Henry Osborne explained the rationale for the name change, stating that “The name was changed because it became evident that changes of a eugenic nature would be made for reasons other than eugenics, and that tying a eugenic label on them would more often hinder than help.”

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