The Holocaust
The Holocaust

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The Holocaust

1.3 Eugenics

Just as anti-Semitism was not unique to Nazi Germany, neither were ideas of racial superiority or attempts to create a society peopled by ‘better’ human beings. Politicians, scientists and social commentators in many European countries expressed concern about the ‘degeneracy’ of their respective ‘national stock’ in the years before World War I. Sir Francis Galton – scientist, anthropologist, cousin of Charles Darwin and inspired by his work – had coined the word ‘eugenics’ in 1883. Eugenics was to be ‘the study of the agencies under social control which may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations physically and mentally’. In 1912 the first International Congress of Eugenics was hosted by London University. Heated arguments took place over whether measurable human characteristics could be used to assess laws of human variations, and whether the strong might mate with the physically attractive but feeble-minded to produce satisfactory offspring. The slaughter of World War I accentuated the concerns about ‘national stock’ and impelled many governments to encourage repopulation and to ‘improve’ and ‘reinvigorate’ their citizenry. Eugenics appealed to politicians and thinkers of both the left and the right. On the positive side its influence resulted in the development of housing and welfare policies and the encouragement of physical fitness in schools and elsewhere. But the question of what to do with ‘degenerates’, ‘inferior types’, the ‘mentally deficient’ and the ‘ineducable’ produced what was often an unpleasant, negative side. In Britain the solution to this question was generally seen to be incarceration; thus, for example, many young women who gave birth to illegitimate children were labelled as ‘mentally deficient’ and shut away in asylums for an indefinite period. Elsewhere sterilisation was seen as the answer. Nazi Germany led the field here, with over 200,000 sterilisations by 1937, but was by no means alone. Sweden began a similar policy in the mid-1930s, and it continued for forty years. In 1939 Nazi Germany progressed from sterilisation to the killing of the inmates of asylums as part of its ‘euthanasia’ programme; around 70,000 were killed before the programme began to be run down in 1941 following protests from the public and church leaders.

Moreover, if Nazi Germany stands out for pursuing brutal eugenics policies before the implementation of the so-called ‘Final Solution [Die Endlösung] of the Jewish question’, there were others in influential positions elsewhere who, before the start of the Second World War, were advocating violent policies to restrict the rights of minorities and/or to remove alien ethnic groups from their national territory. In 1919, for example, the new Hungarian state set limits on the number of Jews who could enter university. These restrictions were tightened in 1921, and in 1939 legislation was introduced that banned Jews from white-collar occupations. Vaso Cubrilovic was the youngest of the group of Serbs whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had triggered the events leading to war in 1914. Released from prison on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he went on to become a distinguished historian and philosopher at the University of Belgrade, and eventually served as a minister under Tito. In 1937, in the midst of his academic career, he published a pamphlet which urged the use of ‘the brute force of an organised state’ to make life intolerable for Albanians living in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo and to drive them out either to Albania or Turkey.


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