Wednesday 20 November 2013

Alfred Ploetz: Racial Hygiene before 1933

Alfred Ploetz

This selection was excluded from That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) for reasons of space.
The inflammatory rhetoric, that fulminated against “Jewish race polluters,” culminating in legalized apartheid, had generally been confined to the underbrush of hard-core Nazis during the 1920s. Their bellicosity and paranoia about the health of the nation, however, threaded connections to the learned and highly respected members of the scientific elite that included physicians and professors in the postwar era. Even before the war, like their counterparts in Britain, Scandinavia and America, a growing number of eugenicistsphysicians, lawyers, and scientistswere disturbed by the falling birth rate of the so-called gifted members of society. What exercised them even more was the proliferation of individuals suffering from alcoholism, tuberculosis, mental illness and criminality, which threatened social stability or posed a financial burden on society. The majority of physicians, especially in the Wilhelmine prewar era, were not Volkisch racists.

Alfred Ploetz, whose career spanned five decades, started out as a non-Marxist socialist who embraced Darwinism. He sought out improvements in housing, in clothing made from mammals to ward off germs and give the body immunity from infection, and in sanitation, as a way of advancing evolutionary development. But his work as a physician treating childhood diseases, his life- long passion to eliminate the scourge of alcoholism and his acceptance of August Weismann’s germ plasma theory, forced him to concede that environmental changes had limited impact on improving the racial stock. Ploetz, who coined the term racial hygiene in a monograph as early as 1895, believed that scientific solutions, specifically hereditary biology, were the means to control and eradicate polluting germs. Like his colleagues in Britain, Francis Galton, who was a mentor, and Karl Pearson, with whom he maintained contact, he attempted to ensure that the ideology of racial hygiene was not based on cultural myths and racial stereotypes, but on biology. At times, however, he rejected their meritocratic or class-based approach. Still, eugenics in Britain and Germany suffered from the flawed premise that it was possible for selective breeding to improve the capabilities and productivity of one segment of the population while ridding itself of its burdensome element. From this supposition flowed dubious science proclaiming that if people were poor, physically disabled or mentally impaired, survived by working in the sex trade, or even if their family history disclosed any of these conditions, they were genetically programmed to live out desperate lives. It followed that the afflicted could only be kept alive with resources that placed undue sacrifice on others. Even before World War I, scientists such as Ploetz were troubled that the social ills of poverty, vagrancy, alcoholism, violence and crime burdened both the state and the family. The degenerate and the weak were kept alive through sickness insurance, and the family and community were saddled with maintaining the chronically ill and the disabled in institutions.
Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics

Consequently, Ploetz warned that the “growing protection of the weak” threatened the “outstanding civilized race” of Germans. Christian humanitarianism that saved individual cripples threatened to incapacitate the race. As a social Darwinian who believed in natural selection, he argued that childhood diseases should be left untreated so that the weak could be weeded from the chain of heredity. He once proposed a scheme whereby a team of doctors would examine every child at birth. If a deformed child was born, a physician should prepare a “gentle death.” At puberty another examination would occur to determine whether the adolescent, regardless of family income, had the intellectual and moral qualities to marry. Every detail of society should be regulated to ensure that natural selection would work as effectively in society as it had in nature. Medicare care should be prohibited for the weak, especially those of childbearing age; otherwise, if they survived, they could reproduce. Those who failed in life should be left to starve. But Ploetz was horrified at his own authoritarian blueprint, jettisoned it and proposed instead that the challenge should focus on positive eugenics, on efforts to encourage the better elements in society to produce children, a recommendation that moved him closer to the position of his British colleagues. Even though he believed his alternative solution was vague at best, Ploetz’s warning had posed a challenge to physicians to question their priorities; traditional medical care did help individuals, but if it weakened the race, was not the price too high?  He eventually arrived at that conclusion when he supported involuntary euthanasia. 

Whether Hitler read any of this literature is unlikely, but what remains certain is that he would never have shared the moral quandary expressed by Ploetz. As a simplistic Darwinian, he fully endorsed the law of the jungle that the fittest should thrive, the weak should perish, and that any sensitivity toward the sick or fragile and the criminal was tantamount to racial suicide. He expressed a similar social Darwinist sentiment that only the healthy should sire children. He would have had sterilization in mind, if not euthanasia, when he asserted that the state "must declare unfit for propagation all who are in any way visibly sick or who have inherited a disease, and therefore can pass it on.” Hitler was explicitly warning that when his movement acquired power, it would be the state, not individuals or families in concert with their physicians that would decide on the fate of individuals, whom it deemed unlikely to make a substantial contribution to the Volk.
Pro-eugenics propaganda: it would cost the Volk 60,000 DM to feed this man

Before World War Ι, most eugenicists would not have shared these harsh sentiments, even as they worried about the quality of German bloodlines. But, like almost all Europeans, they did not even remotely believe in the equality of races. Ploetz, who belonged to a secret Nordic society, ascribed to the superiority of the white man over other races especially blacks. His interest in the anti-miscegenation laws in several southern states motivated him to travel to America where he established a short-lived utopian egalitarian colony, an experiment which he later repudiated. Increasingly xenophobic and agitated about the “yellow peril” and the “Slav threat” in the years after 1918, but encouraged by the racially restrictive immigration laws of the United States, conservative nationalists were able to establish links between racial hygiene movements and the Nordic Nazi ideology. Still, not all those who belonged to Nordic societies should be painted with the same broad stroke. Despite Ploetz’s personal antipathy to Jews, he excluded it from his writing because he believed that anti-Semitism was a useless, unscientific ploy since there were no pure races, that race mixing had always occurred, and that it was not harmful.  
People with disabilities were called "useless eaters"

The combination of massive war losses and the scissoring of their territorial integrity after the imposition of the Versailles treaty that resulted in the decline of the German population elevated eugenics from what had been a minor intellectual movement into a significant force during the years of the Weimar Republic. After the Nazis came to power, eugenics, or at least their interpretation of it, became a dominant component in their ideological armory. His early opposition to anti-Semitism notwithstanding, the elderly Ploetz honoured Hitler as the “man who had the will to implement racial hygiene.” The Nazis in turn elevated the scientist to heroic status for having provided the “biological foundations” for the Nazi racial state. Despite some misgivings about Ploetz’s aversion to war, the Nazis appropriated for their own purposes public comments he delivered in 1934 about the differences between Nordic peoples and Jews. Starting from the position that wars were a disaster for the race because the best specimens of the race were sacrificed, Ploetz argued that if they had to be fought, only inferior persons should be sent to the front. The experience of the last war had confirmed his position. In a future war, he now warned, the Nordic stock, the most “virile males,” who would be more willing to fight for their ideas, would be annihilated because they would be sent to the front. The evidence that Jews enrolled in the armed services and had shed their blood in disproportionate numbers did not preclude him from offering absurdly, illogical views. The Jews, he believed would suffer less because of smaller physiques and weaker constitutions and because they would receive less support from their fellow citizens and the state. Through his public statements, Ploetz would legitimatize Nazi policies, if not their underlying premise of blood purity. It was not the last time the Reich would co-opt scientists who did not conform to their perception of an ideologically programmed Nazi. Provided they could be useful and were not racially tainted, it did not matter whether scientists fitted their ideal profile.


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