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Hitler as social Darwinist?: Another salvo in the controversy

Over the past few months,  The Post-Darwinist has been host to quite the little controversy over whether Hitler was a social Darwinist or a creationist. If you want to pursue that in detail, try

“Does Darwinism devalue human life?” (July 2, 2006)

What did Hitler believe abut evolution? (September 2006)

“Hitler as a Darwinist: Prof accused of academic dishonesty” (September 15, 2006)

Recent posts (October 9, 2006) (Scroll down to Coral Ridge for the Anti-Defamation League flap.)

Now, I was brought up to believe that Hitler was one sick puppy. Indeed, I have Jewish friends who will not use his name, calling him only “that man.” So I don’t know how much it matters in principle what he thought about origins. But having listened to both sides, I think that he was, for all practical purposes, a social Darwinist who doubted the creative power of natural selection alone.

Anyway, Professor Richard Weikart , an expert on Nazi ideology, has often been the target of Darwinists who need to believe that Hitler was exclusively a creationist, which Weikart can hardly confirm for them. Prof. Weikart writes me to say:

Nick Matzke at Panda’s Thumb has been critiquing my book, and his latest salvo from early Oct. deserves a response, I think (but it’s too late to respond to the discussion board on that blogsite, since the discussion on it ceased long ago). I e-mailed Nick to ask him to post the following response to Panda’s Thumb, but thus far I haven’t heard a peep from him. Maybe I don’t have his correct e-mail address. In any case, I’m wondering if you would mind posting this response on your ID blogsite.

 

Here is the text:

 

Recently Nick Matzke unearthed a neat piece of evidence that he (and others at Panda’s Thumb) thinks delivers a knock-out blow to my arguments in From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. Unfortunately, his evidence is to the history of Nazism what the Nebraska Man is to evolutionary theory an extrapolation of fragmentary evidence that wildly misses the mark. To be fair, Matzke makes a few comments showing that he recognizes some of the problems with his evidence, but nonetheless he persists with nonsequitur comments, such as: “The above lists do not prove that books by Darwin or Haeckel were actually physically burned, only banned [by the Nazis];” Do they really?

 

Before I get to this, though, I’d like to clear up one big misunderstanding about my book that Matzke promotes. He has claimed more than once that my thesis is hopelessly confused because: a) I criticize Daniel Gasman’s Haeckel to Hitler thesis, b) I argue for a Darwin to Hitler thesis, but c) Haeckel was obviously a bigger and closer influence on Hitler than Darwin was. Matzke’s objection fails, however, because while I concede point c), points a) and b) are misleading, at least to those who haven’t read both Gasman’s book and mine. Gasman claimed that Haeckel was THE progenitor of Nazi ideology (and in his second book, he argues the same for European fascism in general). My approach is quite different, because I overtly state in my book that Darwinism does not lead logically to Nazism nor the Holocaust (Gasman thinks Haeckel’s ideas do lead inevitably to Nazism), and that Darwinism is not the sole influence on Nazi ideology (Gasman thinks Haeckel’s ideas are the only significant influences). My book confirms the point that Haeckel was a bigger influence on Hitler than Darwin was (you only need to look in the index to see that I spend a lot more time discussing Haeckel than I do discussing Darwin). In fact, you might be interested to learn that I seriously considered entitling my book, _From Haeckel to Hitler_. I finally decided against it, because a) few people know who Haeckel is; and b) I didn’t want my position to be confused with Gasman’s.

 

So just how do Matzke’s objections destroy my thesis, which properly stated is this: Darwinism [note: not just Darwin I discuss many Darwinian-inspired scientists and scholars] produced new thinking about morality and ethics, especially medical ethics, helping bring about [note: I didn't say "inevitably producing"] the rise of ideologies such as eugenics, infanticide, euthanasia, and racial extermination. I never claimed Darwinism was the only influence on these ideologies (I stated the exact opposite in my book). However, even if Darwin had believed in the equality of races (he didn’t), even if he denied that races were annihilating each other in the struggle for existence (he argued the contrary), even if he completely rejected eugenics (he only rejected compulsory eugenics measures), and even if he viewed infanticide and euthanasia as immoral (lo and behold, he did!), and even if he was anti-militarist (he was, and I say so in my book); this would not undermine my point that leading Darwinian biologists, anthropologists, medical professors, physicians, and other social thinkers in Germany overtly used Darwinian principles to promote eugenics, infanticide, euthanasia, and racial extermination. I’m sorry if you don’t like this, but it happened. Instead of criticizing me for pointing it out, you should argue with these nineteenth and early twentieth-century Darwinists.

 

Having cleared this up, what is this new evidence that Matzke produced in his October 1, 2006, blog, that allegedly demolishes my thesis? He perceptively discovered that in guidelines for banned books issued by the Nazis in 1935, one of the categories of banned books were those about “primitive Darwinism and Monism (Haeckel).” Matzke then claims that Darwin was banned under the Nazis (once he concedes that it might just have been something called “primitive Darwinism,” so he apparently recognizes one of the huge problems with his claim but he persists nonetheless).

 

There are many reasons why Matzke’s discovery, interesting though it is, does not present a serious challenge to my own scholarship.

 

First of all, Matzke himself apparently realized that by modifying Darwinism with the word primitive, this list did not really mean Darwinism per se. Good observation, but then why does he persist in maintaining that Darwin’s works were banned? Darwinian biologists (and Darwinian theory) under the Nazi regime were promoted, not silenced. There are many good scholarly books that clarify this issue, such as Ute Deichmann’s Biologists under Hitler (Harvard UP, 1996)and Paul Weindling’s Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism, 1870-1945 (Cambridge UP, 1989). These works and many others show that Darwinian biologists thrived under Nazism. Hans F. K. Guenther, who was appointed to a professorship in social anthropology by the Nazi minister Frick after the Nazis came to power in the state of Thuringia (against the objections of the faculty there), was committed to Darwinian theory. Eugen Fischer, a Darwinian anthropologist and eugenicist, was named rector of the University of Berlin in July 1933, and he headed up the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute on Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, a leading research institute. In 1944 (that’s still under Nazi rule) the institute was even named after Fischer! Many other Darwinian biologists landed in important positions under Nazism: Fritz Lenz, Emil Abderhalden, Konrad Lorenz, and the list could go on and on.

 

Another problem for Matzke’s critique of my position is that just about all historians discussing Nazi eugenics, euthanasia, and racism have mentioned the importance of Darwinism as a precursor to Nazi ideology and policies. Also, most historians writing about Hitler’s ideology have discussed the role of Darwinism in his thinking. Many other Nazi leaders were enthusiastic about Darwinism, too. Sure, some of these historians may call it “vulgar Darwinism” or “social Darwinism,” or some other such appellation, but these still all had Darwinian elements of some sort. You cannot be a “social Darwinist” without first embracing Darwinism. This should be an obvious point, but apparently it eludes some people.

 

Finally, you might be interested to learn that historians (including myself) already know that Haeckel’s ideas were not universally well-received in Nazi circles. An essay I published in 2002 about the Monist League showed that Haeckel and the Monist League supported pacifism and feminism, which did not sit well with the Nazis. Also, the Monist League had many socialist members, making it suspect. No wonder the Nazis dissolved the Monist League when they came to power. But it had nothing to do with any supposed antipathy toward Darwinism. (My article is: ” Evolutionare Aufklarung’? Zur Geschichte des Monistenbundes” in Wissenschaft, Politik, und â„¢ffentlichkeit: Von der Wiener Moderne bis zur Gegenwart, ed. Mitchell G. Ash and Christian H. Stifter, Vienna: WUV Universitatsverlag, 2002. pp. 131-48).

 

The infighting about Haeckel (but not about Darwinism!!) merely shows what many historians have been saying for years: Nazism was not a monolith (Matzke points this out, to his credit, but he doesn’t point out that it undermines his critique of me, since I only discussed Hitler in my final chapter, not Nazism in general). There were considerable disagreements within Nazism. Weindling and others have shown that Haeckel’s views were contested: some Nazis liked his views and others didn’t. According to Deichmann, Walter Gross, the head of the Nazi Office of Racial Policy, was an avid Darwinist, but opposed Haeckel’s monistic philosophy. However, Karl Astel, rector at the University of Jena, along with SS member and biologist Gerhard Heberer and biologist Viktor Franz, were all enthusiastic about Haeckel, as was Heinz Bruecher, who in 1935 published a tribute to Haeckel in the Nationalsozialistische Monatschrifte. This article, by the way, was published in a major Nazi journal the same year that the banned book list included Haeckel on the list!

 

So, Matzke’s piece of evidence only proved what I already knew not all Nazis liked Haeckel. So what?

Note: If anyone with access to Panda’s Thumb sees this, please post this or a link to this to Panda’s Thumb. I e-mailed Nick Matzke asking him to post this, but I received no response, so maybe I don’t have the right e-mail address for him.
Okay, Prof, I posted it. If anyone needs a link for this blog post, here is one.

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19 Responses to Hitler as social Darwinist?: Another salvo in the controversy

  1. The Post-Darwinist has been host to quite the little controversy over whether Hitler was a social Darwinist or a creationist.

    These aren’t mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, many folks on the far right of both social and economic thought could probably be described as both.

  2. Additionally, Denyse, unless you are in fact “Great White Wonder,” Larry Fafarman, DaveScot, or John A. Davison, I’m pretty sure that you have access to the Panda’s Thumb. Just post a link in any of the comment threads.

  3. The Nazis were strongly influenced by the American eugenics movement, which itself was linked to Darwinism. See —

    http://im-from-missouri.blogsp.....itler.html

    http://im-from-missouri.blogsp.....itler.html

    http://im-from-missouri.blogsp.....atory.html

    I think that it is absurd to argue that there is no connection at all between Darwinism and the social policies of the Nazis.

  4. Richard Weikart says: “You cannot be a “social Darwinist” without first embracing Darwinism. This should be an obvious point, but apparently it eludes some people.”

    It is far more correct to say that one cannot adopt social darwinism if they have an intelectually honest understanding of Darwinism. In other words to be a social darwinist you have to take bits and peices of Darwinism and glue them on to your world view thereby by ignoring the enitirety of theory and the consequent realization that it says nothing about human cultures.

    I think that is the crux of the problem that many darwinists have with Weikart. He seems to think that social darwinism is a valid interpretation of darwinism. He says darwinists need to argue with social thinkers of the 19th and early twentieth century. Well those arguments were settled long ago and to pretend that those issues are not settled presents a misleading picture to the unaware. Perhaps he does say so at some point in his book. However his response fails to include that crucial admission and implies that it was never made.

  5. Larry

    I agree that it is absurd to think there is no connection, but to assert the connection without aknowleging the distortion presents a dishonestly narrow/negligent interpretation that feeds contemporary and similar distortions of darwinism.

  6. From moderator Denyse:

    HodorH, watch it. I complied with an academic’s request to publish information on my blog that he had originally wished to appear on the Thumb. I would not run errands in such a venue, and that much ought to have been obvious to you. – d.

  7. From commentor HodorH:

    I see. You’re above commenting in a place such as Panda’s Thumb, but you think that your readers aren’t, and ought to run your errands for you. I suppose it should have been obvious that someone so privileged as to have her picture on the front page need not make the frightful passage through the Darwinist blogosphere, enduring insults from anonymous commentors and repetitive questions from Lenny Flank, as fellow contributor Salvador Cordova has. But sometimes I just don’t catch these things. Perhaps I’d fit into the ID movement better if I were one for hero worship.

  8. From moderator denyse:

    HodorH, you would fit in better if you showed more common courtesy and common sense. This is your second warning from me. – d.

  9. jmcd wrote:

    It is far more correct to say that one cannot adopt social darwinism if they have an intelectually honest understanding of Darwinism. In other words to be a social darwinist you have to take bits and peices of Darwinism and glue them on to your world view thereby by ignoring the enitirety of theory and the consequent realization that it says nothing about human cultures.

    If someone has an “intellectualy honest understanding of Darwinism” how does that automatically prevent them from embracing Social Darwinism? Darwinism teaches that all species are undergoing a fight for survival of the fittest. Social Darwinism proposes to get involved in that fight and not to simply leave it to nature. And in fact even today much of modern geneticism has as it’s raison d’ etre to be involved in the fight for survival, to improve on nature.

  10. Mentok

    Because Darwinism has nothing to do with human society. Darwinism is not a “fight.” It is a process of uninterntional and uncontroable adaptation to a changing environment. In a stable environment there is little in the way of evolution going on. Neutral mutations will accumulate and may later prove beneficial, deleterious, or remain neutral depending on how the environment changes. There is no struggle just dumb luck.

    “Survival of the fittest” was a horribly oversimplifying media buz phrase from the 19th century that unfortunately stuck. It boggles my mind that it is still heard so often.

    Human society is obviously not governed by the principles of nature. Being an intellectually honest social darwinist requires that one equate nature, the endlessly complex interaction of physical forces outside of and inside of living, relatively unthinking beigns, with human governance. That is a fairly difficult position to argue.

  11. jmcd you didn’t really answer why an “honest darwinist” is compelled to reject social darwinism. There is nothing about darwinism of either variety (honest or dishonest, whatever that means) which compels someone to reject social darwinism. Social Darwinists were for the most part working under the belief that they were aiding evolution for the good of humanity. It was Malthus whose essay instilled fear in them about overpopulation, combined with Darwinism that made them fear that humanity was doomed because technological progress had affected “natural selection” (is that better then survival of the fittest?) for the worse by allowing lower quality humans to breed unrestrictedly. Whereas before the technological advances of the 19th century people without intelligence or skills, or the lame and sick, would be more likely die off, or so they believed. Rather then being antagonistic to “honest darwinism” the social darwinism of that time was a logical consequence of the belief that it was “natures way” that the strongest or most adapative members of a species are the ones that are naturally destined to carry on the forward march of evolution i.e to an ever increasing quality of species. But since humans were interfering with natures way of eliminating the “weak” on a new and larger scale then in the past some of them believed they needed to make up for that human interference. While others took the next logical step and believed they could speed up evolution by not only getting rid of the weak but also by managing child birth (the nazi SS was about creating a super race by allowing only the coupling of those with “pure” blood or those with supposedly the most superior physical traits amongst humans e.g. nordic heritage, no disabilities etc)

  12. “Human society is obviously not governed by the principles of nature. Being an intellectually honest social darwinist requires that one equate nature, the endlessly complex interaction of physical forces outside of and inside of living, relatively unthinking beigns, with human governance. That is a fairly difficult position to argue. ”

    How is human society, for a darwinist, not governed by principles of nature? If human society is the product of nature, why should it not be governed by those principals? For the darwinist , human governance is simply part of ‘the endlessly complex interaction of physical forces outside of and inside of living, relatively unthinking beigns’.

  13. StephenA- Precisely what came to my mind when I read the comment.

    If humans (our bodies and our minds) are merely the result of blind chance coupled with reproductive success (in general, that would make the whole process unguided, unplanned, without a goal, haprhazard, etc)- then EVERYTHING about us stems from that same uncauses, unguided, unplanned series of haphazard events. You can’t have it both ways, I don’t think…evolution “created” us on accident, but human society has somehow broken free of the same reigns that supposedly control humans in general?

    Makes me think of the question I often have of darwinists who go over the top in their agenda to “protect” various species from humans. If humans are merely part of nature, as are all other living things, then humans killing off entire species is simply part of that entire process. They want humans to be natural, or nature, and nothing more…UNTIL they want to demand that humans stop doing A B and C to protect animals or wetlands or whatever else. If it’s all just a game of chance and luck with humans coming out on top, it’s that way from the bottom to the top…no changing the rules in the middle.

  14. 14

    jmcd said ( Nov 21st 2006 at 10:32 am ) in comment #4,

    It is far more correct to say that one cannot adopt social darwinism if they have an intelectually honest understanding of Darwinism. In other words to be a social darwinist you have to take bits and peices of Darwinism and glue them on to your world view thereby by ignoring the enitirety of theory and the consequent realization that it says nothing about human cultures.

    It is noteworthy that the “Eugenics Record Office” merged with the “Station for Experimental Evolution” to form the Department of Genetics at the Carnegie Institution —

    Eugenics Record Office was founded in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, as a center for the study of human heredity and a repository for genetic data on human traits. It merged with the Station for Experimental Evolution in 1920 to become the Department of Genetics at the Carnegie Institution, and under the direction of Charles B. Davenport and later of Albert Blakeslee and Milislav Demerec, it became the most important center for eugenic research in the nation. — from http://www.lycos.com/info/euge.....ffice.html

    jmcd said ( Nov 21st 2006 at 10:42 am ) in comment #5,

    Larry

    I agree that it is absurd to think there is no connection, but to assert the connection without aknowleging the distortion presents a dishonestly narrow/negligent interpretation that feeds contemporary and similar distortions of darwinism.

    Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman had a conniption fit over the mere suggestion that there was a link between Darwinism and Nazism — see
    http://im-from-missouri.blogsp.....er-is.html

  15. From commentor HodorH:

    Denyse, I generally consider it common courtesy to reply to a person with an equivalent amount of respect as that person has offered you. I have no idea why you got snippy with me after my comment #2, as your request for someone with “access” to Panda’s Thumb should post a link there implied to me you thought you had no access. Hence the joke suggesting you might be one of a few well-known banned commentors at PT. When you reply by suggesting it is obvious that you would never run such an “errand,” but that a commentor here might, it is an insult to every reader of this board. Furthermore, it can hardly be considered “obvious” that you wouldn’t go to Pandas Thumb, since you are perfectly willing to share contributor responsibilities with someone who has referred to you as “that smarmy Canadian cross dresser.” I suppose it was my deficient common sense that led me to the conclusion that you must have thick skin. I consider your comment worth every bit of scorn I put into my own.

    Back on topic, I think the whole Darwin to Hitler thing is absolutely silly. Saying that anyone who accepts the darwinian narrative for the history of life should be a social darwinist is like saying anyone who accepts newtonian concepts of gravity shouldn’t fly a plane. Conversely, even if we are the products of special creation, and our instinctive moral values are part of that package, there is no good reason why we should accept those values prima facia as better than others that we might come up with on our own. The whole conversation is just one giant red herring.

  16. “Saying that anyone who accepts the darwinian narrative for the history of life should be a social darwinist…”

    That is not what is being said. We are saying that every social darwinist is a darwinist, and you cannot have social darwinism without darwinism.

  17. But since humans were interfering with natures way of eliminating the “weak” on a new and larger scale then in the past some of them believed they needed to make up for that human interference. While others took the next logical step and believed they could speed up evolution by not only getting rid of the weak but also by managing child birth

    StephenA (THE Stephen A?), I guess this comment is the closest I could find in this thread. But it looks like you’re probably right, no one’s made the above argument here (although I know I’ve seen it on this site before). But I also reject the notion that without Darwin, nobody would have thought of “survival of the fittest” as a morally defensible philosophy. They may not have based it on biology, but that’s simply a tautology.

  18. Not sure what you mean by “THE Stephen A”. I don’t have any PHDs and haven’t written any books if that is what you mean.

    Perhaps some would have come up with a philosophy based on “survival of the fittest” without darwin, but without the supposed authority of science behind it, it would have lost much of it’s appeal.

  19. THE Stephen A is of course, Stephen A Smith:
    http://www.yard-work.org/pix/sasmith.jpg
    Anyway, Hitler made appeals to god for his work, which I guess would have given him supposed authority as well. That shouldn’t count as a strike against the idea of a god. Likewise, the harping on the whole Darwin=>Hitler is just pointless. It has nothing to do with science, is lousy philosophy, and doesn’t inform us in any way of how to conduct social policy.

    The only lesson I can think of as coming out of the whole issue is that science can inform our opinions on ethics, but that mimicking scientific principles to form our society is patently ridiculous. Kind of like lying as close to the ground as possible, ‘cuz gravity says that we should be drawn to the earth.

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