Reflecting on the legacies of eugenics

This article was originally published by the The Wiener Holocaust Library, London (link to original here) on July 26th, 2021. We had the permission of the author to share it on ARCHER’s blog. 

Eugenics is based on the erroneous claim that most human activity, whether physical or mental, is determined by heredity. To control heredity, eugenicists claim, is to ensure the betterment of future generations and the survival of the species. Another erroneous claim is that our society is under constant threat from those with physical and mental disabilities. Eugenicists want to prevent these people from having children. Finally, eugenics promises a solution to social problems as varied as crimes, alcoholism, and poverty. None of these claims are substantiated by credible scientific evidence, and none are socially or morally justified. In the 20th century, eugenic beliefs supported the murder of millions of people belonging to religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities, and those living with disabilities. It motivated the institutional confinement and sterilisation of those deemed a ‘threat’ to society which continues to this day.

Reinvented in late 19th century Britain, modern eugenics married together with a range of academic disciplines such as sociology, statistics, anthropology, and medicine. Incorporating ideas from the medical, social, and natural sciences, eugenics blended opposing visions of human improvement into a new form of scientific knowledge, based on theories of evolution and heredity. Its aims were social and political, including the monitoring of the quality of population, the restriction of immigration, and securing the dominance of certain racial groups. By the 1920s, national eugenics societies were established in most countries, and international congresses allowed eugenicists to meet and share their ideas.

A portrait of Sir Francis Galton, founder of modern eugenics.
Sir Francis Galton, founder of modern eugenics. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The internationalisation of eugenics reflected a general appreciation in many parts of the world that science was the sufficient and necessary foundation for the long-awaited renewal of the human race. As a self-styled scientific theory of human betterment and planned breeding, eugenics was based on the principle that people who were deemed socially and biologically ‘unworthy’ of reproduction should be excluded. In the name of future generations, eugenicists dissolved aspects of the private sphere, scrutinising, and working to curtail reproductive, individual, gender, religious and indigenous rights.

Left: The Relation of Eugenics to Other Sciences, Third International Congress of Eugenics held at the American Museum of Natural History, 1932. Right: ‘Eugenic Family’, c. 1930. Source of both images: Wellcome Collection

The boundary between the private and public spheres was blurred by the idea of public responsibility for the nation and the race which came to dominate both. In the 20th century, the state and the society at large increasingly adopted a eugenic worldview, even though none of it was based on proven scientific arguments. Instead, eugenics relied on speculations about social norms, cultural, ethnic, and gender differences, and racial worth. Ideas of economic and social productivity also flowed readily from eugenic arguments, and eugenicists argued that if an individual was found to be socially ‘unfit’, it was appropriate for them to be ‘weeded out’. ‘Unfit’ had become a label for those members of society who were deemed ‘pathological’, ‘criminal’, ‘asocial’, ‘foreign’, and ‘undesired’.

A poster calling for the end of forced sterilization of women.
Stop Forced Sterilization, poster by Rachael Romero, 1977. Source: Library of Congress

It may surprise some people today, but eugenics successfully spread across the political spectrum. Both the right and the left, for their own different reasons, sought to exorcise the ‘unfit’ for the salvation of the ‘fit’. Pursuing a political project in the name of science, eugenicists fused ideas of heredity and cultural determinism with modern visions of a ‘new society’ and a ‘new man/new woman’, insisting that both demanded the same goal: to prevent further degeneration of the human race and to save it from imploding under the weight of overpopulation.

Left: Poster board saying
Left: Some people are born to be a burden on the rest, poster c. 1926. Source: American Philosophical Society. Right: The Birth Control Review, 1921. Source: Cornell University Library

Constructing a quasi-mythical eugenic person was one ambition that eugenics shared with other modern political ideologies such as communism, fascism and Nazism, and with nationalism, racism and imperialism.

In addition to offering protection for the population’s racial health, eugenics further provided a defensive biological strategy for particular social, gender, and ethnic groups. Profound socio-political changes brought about by industrialisation, the First World War, and the Great Depression created the need to generate a powerful sense of social cohesion and shared national identity. Trying to meet this need, eugenicists often employed discriminatory arguments to justify their visions of national improvement. A person’s life was to be determined by biological, social, and cultural boundaries, separating those who belonged to the ‘chosen’ community from foreigners and outsiders, who were viewed as aliens of potential enemies. At the same time, eugenics created a complementary system of ‘internal cleansing’, which separated those members of society deemed ‘unhealthy’, ‘diseased’, and ‘anti-social’ from the ‘healthy’ majority. The ‘dysgenic’ individuals were often segregated, sterilised, and, in some cases, like Nazi Germany, murdered.

Left: Poster of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin depicting a golden, idealized athlete. Right: A Romanian poster from 1938 depicting the idealized Romanian people as Carpathian falcons, extorting values such as vigor, conscience, and discipline.
Left: Olympic Games in Berlin, poster 1936. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Right: Carpathian Falcons, Cluj, 1938 cover. Source: Cluj University Library

The centenary of the Second International Eugenics Congress creates a critical moment to review how myriad assumptions and attitudes rooted in eugenics continue to affect our world in ways both obvious and hidden. Engaging with, and contributing to, a global anti-eugenic movement of reckoning with the past, the exhibition “We Are Not Alone”: Legacies of Eugenics reveals the shifting and fluid meanings that characterised ideas of human betterment in different national and international contexts. It offers a historically informed account of our eugenic past, present, and future, balancing various elements of continuity and discontinuity, of idiosyncrasy and similarity. Continued education about and engagement with eugenics, as well as its public condemnation, are essential components of our efforts to understand a hidden and tenebrous past, while at the same time, continuing work towards a fair and just society.

A horrible poster in German warning about the dangers of letting the
‘The Proliferation of the Unfit’, Volk und Rasse, August 1936.

Suggested further readings:
• The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia by Mark B. Adams
• The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics by Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine
• Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilizartion Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finalnd by Gunnar Broberg, Nils Roll-Hansen eds.
• Struggle for National Survival: Chinese Eugenics in a Transitional Context, 1896-1945 by Yuehtsen Juliette Chung
• Seeing Race again: Countering Colorblindness across the Disciplines by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw et. al. eds.
• Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa by Saul Dubow
• In the Name Of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity by Daniel J. Kevles
• The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism by Stefan Kühl
• A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era by Paul A. Lombardo
• Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, its Sources and its Critics in Britain by Pauline M. H. Mazumdar
• Eugenics at the Edges of Empire New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa by Diane B. Paul et. al. eds.
• Quality and Quantity: The Quest for Biological Regeneration in Twentieth-Century France by William H. Schneider
• “The Hour of Eugenics”: Race, Gender and Nation in Latin America by Nancy Leys Stepan
• Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America by Alexandra Minna Stern
• Modernism and Eugenics by Marius Turda
• The History of East-Central European Eugenics, 1900-1944: Texts and Commentaries by Marius Turda
• The Eugenic Mind Project by Robert A. Wilson

make your voice heard


Enter your email to start participating in the conversation.

Skip to content