How American Eugenics Programs Inspired The Nazis

Published December 13, 2016
Updated March 20, 2018

"There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the American Union." – Adolf Hitler

American Eugenics Program

American Philosophical Society/WikimediaWinners of a Fitter Family contest stand outside the Eugenics Building at the Kansas Free Fair in Topeka, KS, where families are registered for the contests judging which family was most likely to produce good children.

In 1942, a North Carolina social worker remanded the 14-year-old Virginia Brooks to state custody. Brooks had no idea what the government had in store for her.

Temporarily placed in an apartment building that doubled as a state hospital, authorities told Brooks that she had to have her appendix removed. Instead, doctors gave her a radical hysterectomy and told her that she could never have children.

With this act of medical mutilation, which North Carolina law sanctioned at the time, Brooks became one of more than 7,600 young people in her state alone — and more than 60,000 nationwide — sterilized under the United States’ eugenics policies.

These policies ran for decades in the U.S., and even after the Supreme Court reviewed cases stemming from them. Between World War I and the early 1970s, some 32 states passed laws restricting citizens’ rights to have children, most specifically targeting racial and ethnic minorities and the poor.

The Theory of Eugenics

The late 19th century brought about increased scientific understanding of heredity and selective breeding, and a number of thinkers began to wonder whether the same principles farmers used to breed good stock could also apply to humans.

The idea took flight, and proponents of the new “eugenics” (the name means “good breeding”) societies were quick to claim the mantle of objective science in their quest to engineer a society of enhanced humans.

Of course, these “enhanced” humans often reflected the appearance of those calling for eugenics in the first place. They tended to be white, and they were almost always financially successful.

Old money families from Europe and North America viewed themselves as the pinnacle of the human race, and thus started to pour millions of dollars into international efforts to promote good breeding and to reduce what they called “the multiplication of the unfit.”

Plans for achieving this varied across the legal climates in different nations.

Some plans focused on “positive eugenics,” which rewarded favored parents for having children. Others proposed “negative eugenics,” a catchall term that covered everything from voluntary abstinence and sterilization programs to forced deportations and mass murder.

The irony is that it all began with good intentions.

The Early Days of Eugenics

Eugenics Tree Illustration

Wikimedia Commons

The idea that some people simply clutter up the Earth isn’t new. After all, some say that the ancient Greeks abandoned weak infants in the wild, lest they grow up to be burdens to the state.

In more modern times, as far back as 1798, an Anglican churchman named Robert Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principles of Population, in which he argued in favor of Ireland’s infamous Corn Laws. These imposed starvation laws, Malthus argued, could have a salutary effect on the Irish peasantry by eliminating excess population.

Without the laws, he argued, the Irish would breed beyond all measure and cause a greater catastrophe down the road. Powerful players in the British Empire took this line of reasoning seriously for half a century, and didn’t repeal the laws that prohibited importing food to Ireland until years into the 1840s’ deadly famine.

Though the word “eugenics” hadn’t yet been coined, the principles were clearly visible in British policy toward Ireland: Deny food, let the famine kill hundreds of thousands, and write it off as the natural effect of an oversized population of unfit humans.

The “scientific” age of eugenics began shortly after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. It’s important to point out that Darwin never associated with “good eugenics,” nor is he known to have had a kind word to say about applying survival of the fittest principles to human beings. If anything, Darwin’s keen insight into the death and misery natural selection imposed on nature may have made him hesitant to support anything similar for people.

Darwin died in 1882. One year later, Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, coined the term “eugenics” and began proselytizing the new faith. By 1910, professors taught eugenics as an academic discipline at scores of universities, and well-funded political action groups had sprung up to push legislation in a direction which would encourage eugenics. By and large, they succeeded.

“Three Generations of Imbeciles”

Eugenics Protest

Wikimedia Commons

The British Eugenics Society came to life in 1907, and began hosting international symposia on improving the human “germ line.” The Society aimed to stamp out congenital, physical and psychological disability, reduce criminality, and promote “improved” human populations. The traits that counted as improvements went largely unsaid; presumably they were whatever traits the upper-class British possessed.

Everywhere eugenics societies operated, they succeeded in recruiting support from institutions. In England, the Society appealed to clergy and industrial leaders; in America, the most productive approach was through politics and racism. By 1921, the American Society had formed, and it quickly got restrictive anti-miscegenation laws passed in several states.

Still, some forms of resistance developed. Immediately following World War I, the Wilson Administration worked to segregate the Executive Branch of the government, and with great success.

The Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, spent 1919 and 1920 vigorously persecuting labor leaders such as Eugene Debs. In response, several civil rights groups combined to form the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), with the explicit aim of using the court system to force showdowns over civil rights.

One of their first cases they took on was Buck v. Bell, which the Supreme Court heard in 1927.

Carrie Buck

University of VirginiaCarrie Buck (left), with her mother.

The details of the Buck v. Bell case were fairly straightforward. Carrie Buck, whose unmarried mother was committed to an insane asylum while Buck was a teenager, was remanded into the custody of a foster family in her native Virginia. When the underage Carrie Buck got pregnant, she couldn’t say whether the baby belonged to her foster father or foster brother, but she did report abuse to her social worker.

Instead of filing charges against the family that had taken Buck in (and then raped her), the state remanded the girl to a state hospital. While there, the warden gave Buck a choice: She could leave the hospital if she agreed to sterilization, or she could give up her baby and languish in the facility forever. Reaching out to the ACLU, Buck sued.

When the case got to the Supreme Court, the issue at stake was whether the state had an interest in regulating reproduction that exceeded the rights of “feebleminded” citizens to breed.

After hearing the case, no less than Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes issued the 8-1 decision that the “promiscuous” Carrie Buck’s rights were subordinate to Virginia’s right to limit breeding among the unfit, and that compulsory and coerced sterilization do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

To quote directly from the majority opinion, which Holmes wrote himself:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. 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 sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.

Holmes concluded with the opinion that “three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

To date, the Supreme Court has never definitively overturned this ruling, and it remains the controlling precedent, though Virginia’s eugenics law was repealed in 1974. Incidentally, no evidence shows that Carrie Buck’s mother was actually insane, nor did Buck ever demonstrate mental instability herself.

The Scope of the American Project

Eugenics Certificate

Robert Bogdan Collection

Carrie Buck’s misfortune was just a drop in the ocean. By the mid-1930s, 32 states had laws on the books regulating residents’ reproductive rights. Some took a “soft” line and outlawed race mixing, while others empowered civil servants to round up children and carry out invasive surgical procedures with varying levels of consent.

Some, like Virginia Brooks, were lied to about what was being done. Others were taken from their families and told they couldn’t go home unless they “consented” to either a tubal ligation, a hysterectomy, or a vasectomy. California alone carried out an estimated 20,000 forced sterilizations between 1909 and the 1960s.

In 1942, the same year the North Carolina government sterilized Brooks, the Supreme Court revisited the issue. In an Oklahoma case, the Court ruled against the sterilization of incarcerated criminals on Equal Protection grounds.

This did not reverse the 1927 Buck case, but expanded it. The Court said that Oklahoma could not wantonly sterilize violent criminals…unless it also sterilized white collar criminals.

Other states took notice and expanded their programs accordingly. In North Carolina, arguably the most aggressive eugenics promoter, social workers had only to bring individuals (often black and Hispanic resident, or white hillbillies) before a board and demonstrate that the individual had a sub-70 IQ. The boards almost never rejected a proposal to sterilize.


Eugenics German Propaganda

4 Archive

Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, European eugenicists envied their American counterparts’ success.

European countries, with long histories and heavy cultural norms to overcome, proved resistant to eugenics at first. Even the Catholic Church lodged an objection to the proposed laws; not because it violated people’s rights, but because surgical contraception does nothing to limit promiscuity and other sins.

In this climate, it would take a dramatic upheaval to change Europe’s foot-dragging approach to state control over the means of reproduction.

Precisely that kind of upheaval came in 1933, when the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. Over the next 12 years, the Third Reich would impose such a brutal regime of eugenic social manipulation that even the staunchest eugenics proponents abroad would halt their operations.

Lebensborn Nursery

Wikimedia CommonsA German Lebensborn clinic, where the future of the Aryan race was to be bred.

Nazi Germany’s flirtation with eugenics began with a set of 1933 laws that excluded Jews from trade, professions, and civil service. Eventually, these policies would bear fruit in the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which made it a criminal offense for Germans to marry Jews or to have their children. Couples wishing to marry would have to present valid ID and swear under oath that they were pure Aryans.

The Reich disallowed name changes, even though they required all Jewish men to take the middle name “Israel,” and Jewish women “Sarah.” They also deported thousands of Polish immigrants, many of them Jewish, from Reich territory.

Sometime in 1938, a regional Nazi organizer sent a letter to Hitler’s Reich Chancellery office. In the letter, the man complained that his physically disabled son burdened his family, and requested that the boy be “put down.” Hitler passed the request to his own physician (who would later be executed for war crimes) and had the child killed by lethal injection.

This sparked a new industry in Germany practically overnight. Sensing the will of the Fuhrer, the Party opened an office at 4 Tiergartenstrasse in Berlin, from which the T-4 program got its name.

Eventually, every live birth in Germany required that the attending doctor or midwife fill out a form noting any apparent physical or mental disability in the baby. If any appeared, they would mark the corner of the form with a cross. A second doctor would then review the documents and approve removing the child to one of half a dozen special killing centers and end its life.

Older children, disabled adults, and the elderly were snared in the project as well. Nazis would drive the subjects to facilities, where they would receive paper gowns to wear during their “delousing.” After the Nazis had sealed the shower rooms, they would pump carbon monoxide in to kill them.

Word of the program eventually leaked, and opposition from the Church forced a halt to the killings in 1941, after perhaps 60,000 people had died.

Nazi eugenics wasn’t all mass murder, however. If a girl happened to be of a favored racial background, the Nazis entitled her to join the Lebensborn program, which SS leader Heinrich Himmler described as the closest to his own heart. Lebensborn girls had one purpose — breed.

Program administrators would organize huge events for thousands of German girls to meet soldiers and SS men and set up temporary cohabitations in order to get the girls pregnant. Himmler went out of his way to quash rumors that the project was a brothel, even prohibiting SS men from visiting the girls in the large estates the SS took over to house them.

During the war, no matter how bad things were for civilians, girls at the Lebensborn houses always had fresh food and easy living. The young mothers could decide for themselves whether they would raise their babies themselves or give them up to state orphanages.

In all, the Lebensborn program may have produced some 25,000 children. After the war, these children and their “collaborator” mothers were subjected to brutal retaliation, prompting many — including Anni-Frid Lyngstad of ABBA, whose mother was Norwegian and her father in the Wehrmacht — to flee to Sweden.

Disrepute and Scorn

Nazi Eugenics Program

The vengeance that occupied people took on Lebensborn children points to the general disgust that the world felt for eugenics after World War II.

Suddenly, with images of concentration camps like Dachau etched into people’s brains, it became acutely dangerous to promote breeding control or social engineering projects. Powerful people who had spent the ’30s crowing about sterilization were suddenly confronted with horror stories from Slavs and Jews whose ovaries had been torn out, and men whose testicles had been fried with X-rays.

Overnight, without any fanfare, the various eugenics societies folded up and went away. States gradually repealed their sterilization laws, and the the Supreme Court swept away remaining anti-miscegenation codes with its 1967 ruling on Loving v. Virginia.

Incidentally, eugenics may yet have some life in it.

Actually-scientific research has identified individual genes and gene complexes behind identifiable congenital disorders, from deafness or Huntington’s disease to genetic predispositions toward certain types of cancer. Direct manipulation of genes is increasingly cost-effective, and the prospect of “designer babies” has been on the public’s mind for years.

If eugenics does make a comeback, it will thus probably be on a somewhat tighter leash than it was the first time around.

Next, read about the 30-year human radiation experiments that the U.S. government conducted on its own people. Then, discover four of the most evil science experiments ever performed.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.