Book Review: The Nazi Connection – Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism

By Ken Niemann

National Socialism is nothing but applied Biology”- Fritz Lenz


Stefan Kuhl’s The Nazi Connection1, is an international account of the eugenics movement in pre and post Nazi Germany. The book arose from his work with the mentally handicapped in Munich and a deep concern for their natural rights. Early in his studies he found “a more complete examination of the complex interaction between German and non-German eugenicists has been lacking” and sought to correct this. It was not Kuhl’s objective to offer a critique of philosophical naturalism or Darwinism, but rather to make it clear that Nazism shared racist ideals with countries often considered too advanced or sophisticated to do so, including the United States. In fact, as we shall see, Nazism often looked to the United States for a greater understanding of its own racial policies and eugenics. “Eugenics”, as defined by Pearson, is “the practical application of genetic science toward the improvement of the genetic health of future generations”. (p4)

Pearson, Kuhl explains, is an American anthropologist offering “probably the most comprehensive defense of scientific racism in the United States since 1945” and “has been promoting the theory that the white race is endangered by inferior genetic stock for more than 30 years”. (p3) Pearson’s work has been supported by what is known as the Pioneer Fund which was instituted by Laughlin and Osborn, two leaders in the early American eugenics movement and supporters of Hitler’s race policy. It is here that Kuhl launches his very well referenced and researched historical quest, as in the post World  War II decades, the Pioneer Fund supported a host of racially biased genetic studies by respected institutions and leaders in the field of genetics.

The New Scientific Racism

Kuhl walks his readers through a litany of Pioneer funded studies. For example, speaking of Arthur Jensen he states “In 1969, the Berkeley psychologist published an article in which he argued that, on average, blacks were born intellectually inferior to whites”. (p6) His colleague, Nobel Laureate William Shockley purposed a plan for blacks and others of low intelligence to undergo a voluntary and paid sterilization. Disciples of Shockley and Jensen, notably Philippe Rushton, continued their work throughout the eighties and early nineties. Although Kuhl will trace the history of the Pioneer Fund to deep connections within the Nazi Party, he confesses that “In disputes with scientists active in race research, it is not enough to cry Nazi”. (p11) That is, he understands he has burden to identify and demonstrate shared ideologies between the two.

German-American Relations within the International Eugenics Movement before 1933

Kuhl states that “In an interview for the Berliner Tageblatt, Alfred Ploetz, the German founder of the science of racial hygiene, discussed his experience at the first International Congress for Eugenics held in London in 1912. Ploetz who served as president of the International Society for Racial Hygiene, described the United States as a bold leader in the realm of eugenics” (p13) Ploetz statement here is the outstanding theme of Kuhl’s efforts. Leonard Darwin, ironically, presided over the 1912 conference which had representatives from a host of different countries. It was Ploetz’s hope that more and more non-Germans would be joining the society and he was very active in his recruiting efforts.

Kuhl points out that “Geza von Hoffmann, who spent several years as the Austrian vice consulate in California, regularly informed his German colleagues and the German public about eugenic developments in the United States”. (p16) As evidence, Hoffman quoted President Wilson: “that the whole nation has awakened too and recognizes the extraordinary importance of the science of heredity, as well as its application to the ennoblement of the human family”.

World War I temporarily interrupted relations between Germans and Americans and the second congress met in New York in 1921 with the absence of the Germans. Davenport, who organized the conference, sent his regrets to Ploetz and expressed his hopes that international complications would soon not hinder their joint efforts. By 1925, this indeed took place and Hoffmann and Lenz served as the main ambassadors. Hoffmann reported to the International Society for Racial Hygiene that Laughlin proposed to the American Genetic Association that “the lowest 10%” of the American population be sterilized. (p18). Hoffman did, however, believe that the American Constitution thwarted efforts by eugenicists. At about this same time, Lenz and Fischer authored a leading eugenics text in Germany. Also, American foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation provided research support funding for German eugenics programs. Other American collaborators were the Carnegie Institute and Cold Spring Harbor Research Laboratories.

The International Context: The Support of the Nazi Race Policy through the International Eugenics Movement

Kuhl further makes the case that German eugenicists continually pointed to international approval of their sterilization programs and viewed themselves and the United States as playing the dominant role in advancing the movement. Ruttke, “a lawyer and member of both the S.S. (Hitler’s elite guard) and the committee for Population and Race Policies in the Reich Ministry of the Interior” stated that “Hereditary traits are not only given to us but carry a moral obligation to pursue the highest biological development possible. This not only calls for work on behalf of the Volk, into which the individual is born and with which he is connected through blood ties, but also on behalf of all humankind. This is thus extremely important work toward the maintenance of peace.” (p31). Here Ruttke was basically identifying biological defects as a Darwinian sin. Another international congress took place in 1935 where the American eugenics representative, Campbell, praised the Nazi policy saying “It sets the pattern which other nations and other racial groups must follow, if they do not wish to fall behind in their racial quality, in their racial accomplishment, and in their prospect for survival”. (p34) Kuhl points out that “Campbell was the most frequently cited non-German scientist in the Nazi press” and had also received the praise of Fischer. (p35) Campbell served as the president of the American Eugenics Research Association.


From Disciple to Model: Sterilization in Germany and the United States

Kuhl also produced a shocking quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes that appeared in the Nazi press in 1934: “It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustained compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover the cutting of the Fallopian Tubes.” (p38)

The Germans were following very highly controversial studies taking place in America with regards to the cost imposed on society by degeneracy. For example, Max Juke was found to have cost the New York tax payers 1.3 million between 1730 and 1874 by mating with a “degenerate wife and produced and astonishingly large line of ‘white trash’. Of 709 descendents Dugdale claimed to have located, he identified 181 prostitutes, 106 illegitimate births, and 142 beggars. Furthermore, he stated that 64 descendents were housed at public expense and 70 had been convicted of crimes, 7 for murder.” (p40) A similar study took place with the Kallikaks and each ended up in the German press. Degeneracy, it was concluded, was hereditary. The Nazi also very closely watched Californian sterilizations laws in this era, reported on them, and used them as a model.

There also remained widespread support by Americans for Nazi sterilization laws in Eugenics News where Davenport, Johnson, and Laughlin were editors. This publication “served as the official organ of three major eugenics societies in the United States”. (p46) Laughlin even went as far as purchasing and distributing a Nazi film titled Erbkrank (meaning “Hereditary Defective”) which played at the Carnegie Institution and public schools. The Pioneer Fund was largely responsible for its distribution.

American Eugenicists in Nazi Germany

In 1933 and 1934, William Peter, who served as secretary to the American Public Health Association, spent six months observing eugenics programs in Germany. With regards to the care of the handicapped, he stated “How long, how long shall this huge burden of misery press down upon mankind?” (p55) Others had similar experiences such as Kopp and Goethe who was “Campbell’s successor as president of the Eugenics Research Association” and “equally enthusiastic about the development of the race policies in Nazi Germany”. (p57)

American geneticist Ellinger had similar views during his visits to Germany even after World War Two had already begun. This included meetings with the S.S, Officer Wolfgang Abel. Ellinger claimed that Nazi policies toward Jews had nothing to do with religious persecution but was “entirely a large scale breeding project, with the purpose of eliminating from the nation the hereditary attributes of the Semitic race” (p60) Kuhl also states “In 1942, the year that witnessed the installation of the gas chambers at Auschwitz, Ellinger argued that if he cruelties ‘were accomplished, the Jewish problem would solve itself in a generation, but it would have been a great deal more merciful to kill the unfortunate outright”.(p60) Stoddard who reported for the North American Newspaper Alliance, received praise at one time from Hoover with regards to his racial views, and testified before Congress on Immigration, was even more pro-Nazi and Ellinger.


Science and Racism: The Influence of Different Concepts of Race on Attitudes toward Nazi Race Policies

Kuhl distinguishes between four types of eugenicists: mainline eugenicists, racial anthropologists, reform eugenicists, and social eugenicists, none of which had clear cut boundaries. Kuhl describes mainline eugenicists as dominating into the 1930’s and “believed in white superiority, yet argued that the white race also needed further improvement”. (p73) They “explained the inequality between the races as the result of superior adaptation by some groups in the struggle for existence”. (p73) Though most were anti-Semitic, many did openly champion Nazi policies for fear that they would impede efforts in the United States. Stoddard and Campbell were examples of racial anthropologists and more overtly supported Nazi racial ideology. Reform eugenicists sought to distance themselves from the Nazis and generally held the belief that “biological differences between groups were negligible compared to the much more significant differences existing between individuals.” (p74)


The Influence of Nazi Race Policies on the Transformation of Eugenics in the United States

Kuhl devoted another chapter to the social eugenicists who actively opposed the ethnic racism of Nazi Germany focusing many on the scientific basis of Nazi ideology such as the assumption of Nordic superiority. The Genetico Manifesto was produced at the Edinburgh Congress in 1939. Though it “condemned ethnic racism”, but did so because it was “critical only of the arbitrary definition of different races and the discrimination against ethnic minorities”. (p79) Kuhl further explains: “it was primarily a struggle between scientists with differing conceptions of race improvement and different positions as to how science, economics, and politics should be used to realize these goals”. (p79)


The Reception and Function of American Support in Nazi Germany

Both Grant and Whitney received a personal, handwritten thank-you from Adolf Hitler for their works on eugenics. Hitler even stated that Grant’s book was his Bible.

In this chapter, Kuhl focuses on how the Nazi propaganda machine used literature, studies, and quotations from American eugenicists to convince the German people that what they were doing was not only normative but praiseworthy among foreign intellectuals. Dissension was consistently blamed on the Jewish controlled media in the United States.

The Temporary End of the Relations between German and American Eugenicists

In the late 1930’s, American eugenicists distanced themselves from their Nazi counterparts and “it was not primarily because American eugenicists recognized the negative consequences of the implementation of eugenics principles.” (p97) More so, it was the rejection of anti-Semitism. The movement ceased to reference the Nazis altogether in the aftermath of World War Two. Importantly, however, the defense strategy by the Nazi doctors at the Nuremberg Trials was to point to wide spread international acceptance of “the scientific basis” of their work. (p101) “Elimination of inferior elements was not unique to Germany. The 1927 United States Supreme Court decision affirming the legitimacy of a eugenic compulsory sterilization in the United States was used by a German doctor as an example of the precedents for Nazi racial hygiene”. (p101)


This book was an historical account of the outcome of unchecked philosophical naturalism rather than a defense or critique of this particular worldview. The eugenicists were simply acting as if a Darwinist worldview was true. Though they lacked any objective grounds whatsoever to claim a moral burden to evolve in a particular fashion, and fabricated a “good” that is not permissible in a materialistic universe, they were, largely, acting consistently with Darwinism where humans are not ontologically distinct, spiritual beings made in the image of God. Common to all eugenicists was a denial of natural rights and an intrinsic value that independent of some sort of biological function. We may also see this as a lesson in how the mind of man is wired for teleology even when contorted. The eugenicists were incomplete denial and that there is no aim in Darwinian evolution and their ideals of inferior or superior were merely preferences with no real world qualitative difference between the two.

This work should remind us of our own culpability as Americans.

1. Kuhl, Stefan, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)