Book Review: From Darwin to Hitler

By Ken Niemann

Under Hitler, 9 million Gentile and 6 million Jewish civilians were slaughtered in the name of Philosophical Naturalism and Social Darwinism. While most Darwinists rightly claim that a Darwinist does not have to be a Social Darwinist, within the Darwinian worldview there is also no reason not to be a Social Darwinist. Rather, genocide, eugenics, euthanasia, abortion, racism, and war for the sake of selfish gain find comfort in this worldview.

Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler1 is a well thought out catalogue of Darwinian thought among German intellectual elites from the mid 1800’s through the Second World War. Weikart, a professor of modern European history at California State Stanislaus, produced an outstanding historical investigation; the book was very well researched, referenced, and he relentlessly quoted in context. Weikart was also very cautious about the claims he made, posturing himself as more of a detailed reporter of historical events and encouraging the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. It was, therefore, not Weikart’s thesis to claim Darwinism as the primary cause of the atrocities of World War Two. Rather, he adequately demonstrated that Darwinian thought was prevalent and taken seriously among very influential thinkers dating back decades before Hitler assumed power. This would include scientists, Monists, medical doctors (namely psychiatrists), sociologists, and professional societies. Weikart also noted important counter arguments and views that existed contemporaneously as well.

Laying the Foundations for Ethics

Weikart devoted an extraordinary amount of his efforts to discuss the works of Haeckel, a biology professor at the University of Jena and prolific writer, whose influence has spanned generations. One may still find his diagrams in biology texts here in the US as the author of a theory coined “Ontology Recapitulates Phylogeny”. Under this view, mammals such as humans, in the course of embryological development, progress through the various stages of evolution.( The idea heavily criticized by Intelligent Design proponents such a Johnathon Wells.) Haeckel held to an influential religious view known as Monism which considered mind and matter as “inextricably united everywhere” (p12), a form of pantheism. Other Darwinists, such as Buchner were hard core materialists. The position that united them all was that “natural processes could account for all aspects of human society and behavior, including ethics”. (p13) For the Darwinist, evolution explained everything including not only why we behave they way we do, but how we should act. That is, evolutionary ethics are, they held, descriptive and prescriptive. This is a fallacy that could be identified in every major Darwinian thinker. Weikart states: “Darwinism made philosophical materialism and positivism more respectable by providing a nontheistic explanation for the origin of ethics” doing away with both the Judeo-Christian and Kantian ethical systems. (p16) Weikart further explains “Second, Darwinism contributed to the rise of ethical relativism by denying the timeless and transcendent character of ethics. Most Darwinists explained ethics as a product of nature that, like all other natural phenomena, was constantly evolving.” (p16) Darwinism also founded the notion that “human moral sense is a biological instinct”. (p16) Humanity was in an ethical free-for-all. These German thinkers, unlike their modern American counterparts, understood the implications of Darwin’s theory and took them seriously.

Interestingly, Haeckel understood that Darwinism implied a strict determinism which fully explained human psychology and made legal judgments nonsensical. Certainly he saw a place for the jails but never viewed a criminal as being morally liable. Rather, the criminal was just biologically inferior assuming, once again, that one ought to evolve in a certain way. Haeckel was convinced that those who belonged to the biologically inferior lower races (i.e. Africans, Native Americans, etc.) were far more likely to commit crimes on the basis of biological inferiority.

Another major player in Weikart’s book was Carneri, a liberal politician in the Austrian Parliament. This Hegelian turned monist also viewed Darwinism as destroying any understanding of a free will and that “the human no longer needs to have a supernatural soul, and that one no longer needs a purpose to explain creation”. (p26) Darwinian law, then, ruled over all human affairs including ethics. What place then, he says, for natural rights? Carneri also twisted the Kantian Categorical Imperative to a form of utilitarianism stating “Always act such that the maxim of your desires can always serve simultaneously as the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. (p27) As we shall see he didn’t mean this literally for everyone and though he remained a prominent player, this ethic never really took hold among academics. Weikart also states “the two most influential academic philosophers in nineteenth century Germany struggling with the implications of Darwinism for ethical thought- Georg von Gizycki and Friedrich Jodl –followed the same general approach as Carneri.” (p31)

Gizycki was a utilitarian who viewed Darwinism as selection force only. For example, he held that selection processes would weed out those societies that exploit the weak. Apparently, he was confused over how the two ideologies may mesh coherently. He seemed to want his Darwinism and eat it too; for Darwinism has nothing bad to say regarding exploiting the weak, that’s not how it works. Ultimately, utilitarianism assumes a good outside of utilitarianism and is self-referentially refuting.

Jodl, one the other hand, was more pernicious and heavily influenced by Darwinian implications (as well as the writings of Haeckel, Strauss, Fruerbach, and Hume) and this landed him in a positivist, Darwinian worldview. Jodl was an associate of Haeckel and Hellwald who stated “The right of the stronger is a natural law.”

Weikart proceeds through a list of a dozen or so prominent thinkers each, though varying on finer points, all understood Darwinism as implying moral relativism. These include but are not limited to Tille, Schallmayer, Buchner, Forel, Kurella, Sommer, Lombroso, with the latter four playing important roles, along with others, in the eugenics movement. Each person identified had impressive academic titles and professions. In other words, Weikart made his point that while not everyone held these views, they were extremely well represented and could hardly be regarded as being on the fringe.

Ironically, along with this commitment to moral relativism came a firm conviction that there is a moral burden to evolve in a way that is deemed “good”. For example, Christian von Ehrenfels, a eugenist who held the ethical philosophy chair at the German University of Prague in 1896, stated “Evolutionary theory arose and a generation after its founding the freest spirits, the most far sighted pioneers, proclaim the ideal of the regeneration of our blood as the highest ethical goal, as the most pressing demand of evolution”. (p54)

Yet, these articulate thinkers never made a good case for why one sort of evolutionary progress is to be morally preferred over another. Why, for example, is it even “good” to “progress” at all when a naturalistic worldview cannot accommodate value judgments such as “good” or “progress”? They were so quick to see the implications of Darwinism with regards to natural rights and morality, yet failed to grasp the notion that their ideas of “progress” were rendered completely incoherent by Darwinism as well. How can they differentiate “progress” from “not progress” in world completely devoid of values? Every ideal is reduced a mere preference that is no better or worse than any other. Evolution does not care who or what goes extinct or doesn’t go extinct. It’s all the same.

Devaluing Human Life

Under this heading Weikart has three chapters: The Value of Life and the Value of Death, The Specter of Inferiority: Devaluing the Disabled and “Unproductive”, and The Science of Racial Inequality”. One of prevailing Darwinist views in the first of these chapters was that of humanitarianism as misguided and cruel. While death is undesirable for the individual it serves as a benefactor for a species such that progress may be made. For example, if the weak are allowed to live and pass on undesirable hereditary traits, this will, in turn, cause more suffering in the future. It would actually be more merciful to kill a person than to allow for such future suffering and biological degeneration. The view is summarized well by Clemence Royer in her 1862 French translation of Origin of Species: “what is the result of this exclusive and unintelligent protection accorded to the weak, the infirm, the incurable, the wicked, to all those who are ill-favored by nature? It is that the ills which have afflicted them tend to be perpetuated and multiplied indefinitely; that evil is increased instead of diminishing, and tends to grow at the expense of good”. (p89) An anatomy professor at the University of Vienna, Julius Tandler stated in 1916 “As cruel as it may sound, it must be said, that the continuous ever-increasing support of these negative variants is incorrect from the standpoint of human economy and eugenically false” (p99). A person’s value, then, is reduced to biological states. It is cruel and Weikart fills his 231 page book with quotes such as this- all from reputable members of German society.

Weikart particularly fingered the German psychiatrists as spearheading this understanding. For example, Forel, he informs us, was a psychiatrist who sold his eugenist positions to Ploetz who presided over multiple cultural and ethical societies. This is typical; Weikart consistently demonstrated a relational web among these social leaders and thinkers. He identified those who personally knew, studied, and interacted with each other and in many cases researched what books they read and to which social or academic clubs and societies they belonged. In other words, he was not cherry picking quotes or “quote mining” as it is often termed. Many Germans were taking Darwinism seriously.

In 1868 Haeckel produced a diagram with 12 faces (profiles) on it. It ranged from the highest of the humans to the lowest of the apes. Haeckel’s point was to illustrate that the difference between the highest ape and the lowest human (a Tasmanian) was less than the difference between the highest human (a Caucasian naturally) and the lowest human. Thus, some humans are much closer to the apes than they are to the humans. Decades hence, this diagram epitomized prevailing Darwinian views. Moreover, Lenz was not alone in his belief that “everything comes from the ideal of the race: culture, evolution, personality, happiness, and redemption….With every activity and with every inactivity we have to ask ourselves: Does it benefit our race? And to make our decision accordingly.” (p121) Weikart points out that Lenz integrated his eugenics views into his medical curriculum at the University of Munich where “he was appointed the first professorship in Race Hygiene in 1923” (p121) Here, along with Fischer and Baur, he represented his views in the leading text on human genetics. Lenz went on to become the director of eugenics at the University of Berlin under Nazi rule.

Chamberlain, another thinker thought to have heavily influenced Hitler, originally embraced Darwinism then became a skeptic who held to a neo-Kantian ethic and vitalism. Yet, he retained a strong conviction over Darwinian understandings of the struggle for existence and the value of selected breeding that were very much racist.

Eliminating the “Inferior Ones”

Weikart states that “Though eugenists generally agreed that traditional Christian sexual morality was detrimental to the human species, they could not agree on what sexual mores would best promote human health and vitality.” (p130) A diversity of views, then, was represented within the Darwinist camp but none of them recognized an intrinsic value of human beings or natural rights. Rather, value was directly proportional to biological function which could account for everything that could be said about a human being including but not limited to intelligence, productivity, appearance, and culture. Their focus was fixed on sterilization strategies and abortion as well as encouraging mating (of some form) among those viewed as more fit.

However, because there could be no agreement on what constitutes “valuable” or “fit” almost comical absurdities arose. For example, Weikart relates an exchange between Ploetz (considered to be the founder of the eugenics movement) and Stocker, a radical Darwinian feminist:

“However Ploetz objected to supporting all single mothers and, not just because he favored monogamy as the healthiest form of reproduction. Ploetz, in fact, had supported the League for the Protection of Mothers at first, since the founding document of the League had stipulated that only healthy mothers should receive support. When Stocker and her supporters struck the word “healthy” from the League’s platform and insisted that all single mothers should receive assistance, Ploetz protested that this no longer consistent with eugenics ideals.” (p133)

Arguments by Darwinists ensued to make a case for killing the unfit through euthanasia, infanticide and abortion. For example, Swiss psychiatrist Forel asks: “Is it really a duty of conscience to help with the birth and even conception of every cripple, who descends from thoroughly degenerate parents? Is it really a duty to keep alive every idiot (even every blind idiot), every most wretched cripple with three-fourths of the brain damaged?” (p154)

Unfortunately, Forel is being logically consistent with the Darwinian worldview. It is not that one must kill the disabled, ill, blind, or mentally handicapped under the Darwinian worldview, it is that there is no overriding reason not to. Morality becomes nothing more than preferences and those who wish to evolve in a given direction are no more wrong or right than those who wish the contrary. The Darwinian worldview cannot accommodate any objective value of human beings. Moreover, those Forel who feel impressed upon to evolve in a certain manner are just being arbitrary. Evolution, to what ever extent it is true, just is. The philosophical naturalist is to be denied the use of the term “ought” unless he is merely conveying his preferences much the way one would in a discussion about chocolate and vanilla. “Oughtness” is not a material quality- it cannot be weighed or measured or observed in the physical world.

Weikart then directs the reader’s attention to extensive quotes by these Darwinist who looked at the world in terms of a struggle for existence thus justifying war and recognizing its benefits. Violence, as they viewed it, was inevitable in a Malthusian world; the question that remained was who was to survive it and who ought to survive it. Even many of those who identified themselves as pacifists left the door open for mass extermination of inferior people or did not base their pacifism on the idea that human beings had intrinsic value. For example, Haeckel objected to World War One because “A single well educated German warrior, though unfortunately they are now falling in droves, has a higher intellectual and moral value of life than hundreds of the raw primitive peoples, which England and France, Russia and Italy set against us”. (p187)

Hitler’s Ethic

Weikart describes Hitler as “highly moralistic and consistently applied his vision of morality to policy decisions, including waging war and genocide. It may be difficult for us to grasp this but in Hitler’s worldview war and genocide were not only morally justifiable, but morally praiseworthy. Hitler was ultimately so dangerous then, precisely because his policies and decisions were based on coherent, but pernicious, ethical ideas” and with “utopian appeal”. (p209) Weikart further states “Hitler’s morality was not based on traditional Judeo-Christian ethics nor Kant’s categorical imperative, but was a complete repudiation of them. Instead, Hitler embraced an evolutionary ethic that made Darwinian fitness and health the only criteria for moral standards.” (p210) Hitler also made frequent reference to the inescapable struggle for existence and that “all efforts to avoid struggle would be useless in the final analysis, for nature would assert itself and destroy those unwilling to fight for their existence. The only really rational policy, then, would be to conform to the laws of nature”. (p210) In Hitler’s own words “Right alone is of no use to whomever does not have the power to impose his right. The strong has always triumphed…..All of nature is a constant struggle between power and weakness, constant triumph of the strong over the weak”. (p210) Hitler did not believe in any sort of universal and unchanging moral law. It was all in flux and had no real existence outside of the human mind. Parenthetically, this reveals a weakness in Kantian ethics. People must have a real world value, an intrinsic worth that exists outside the human mind, for a deontological ethic to carry weight. For example, we cannot separate the wrongness of killing Jews from the actual Jew himself.

Weikart further points out that Hitler “evaded complete nihilism and moral relativism by adopting a form of evolutionary ethics. He believed that human morality was a product of evolutionary development, representing the highest stage of evolution ever yet reached.” (p211) While Weikart does point out that Hitler “had no objective criteria to determine what is ‘higher’ or ‘better”, he seems to miss the point that these understandings revert right back to nihilism and moral relativism if one were to be consistent. (p211)

While Hitler shared so many of the Darwinian views presented in previous chapters, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint by whom he was directly influenced. Gasman, one of the leading scholarly authorities on the subject, developed the Haeckel to Hitler hypothesis which Weikart rejects based on so many political disparities between the two. Lenz, List, Lehman, Woltmann, and Reimer among others were candidates but especially Chamberlain and von Schonerer seemed more likely to have influenced Hitler. Nonetheless, Hitler did not come up with these ideas independently. If they were not the dominant views during his rise to power, they were at least pervasive and respected ideas among the culturally elite and he did act as if these ideas were true.

1. Weikart, Richard, From Darwin to Hitler (New York: Macmillan, 2004)