Racial hygiene

The term racial hygiene was used to describe an approach to eugenics in the early 20th century, which found its most extensive implementation in Nazi Germany (Nazi eugenics). It was marked by efforts to avoid miscegenation, analogous to an animal breeder seeking purebred animals. This was often motivated by the belief in the existence of a racial hierarchy and the related fear that lower races would "contaminate" a higher one. As with most eugenicists at the time, racial hygienists believed that the lack of eugenics would lead to rapid social degeneration, the decline of civilization by the spread of inferior characteristics.


The German eugenicist Alfred Ploetz introduced the term Rassenhygiene in his "Racial hygiene basics" (Grundlinien einer Rassenhygiene) in 1895. He discussed the importance of avoiding "counterselective forces" such as war, inbreeding, free healthcare for the poor, alcohol and venereal disease.[1] In its earliest incarnation it was more concerned by the declining birthrate of the German state and the increasing number of mentally-ill and disabled people in state-run institutions (and their costs to the state) than it was by the "Jewish question" and the "degeneration of the Nordic race" (Entnordung) which would come to dominate its philosophy in Germany from the 1920s to the Second World War.

During the last years of the 19th century, the German racial hygienists Alfred Ploetz and Wilhelm Schallmayer regarded certain people as inferior, and they opposed their ability to procreate. These theorists believed that all human behaviors, including crime, alcoholism and divorce, were caused by genetics.[2]

Nazi Germany

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1986-044-08, Stein-Pfalz, Eva Justin bei Schädelmessung
Eva Justin checking the facial characteristics of a Romani woman, as part of her "racial studies"

During the 1930s and 1940s institutes in Nazi Germany studied genetics, created genetic registries and researched twins. Nazi scientists also studied blood, and developed theories on the supposed racial specificity of blood types, with the goal of distinguishing an "Aryan" from a Jew by examining their blood. In the 1930s, Josef Mengele, a doctor in the Schutzstaffel (SS), provided human remains that were taken from Auschwitz – blood, limbs and other body parts – to be studied at the institutes. Harnessing racial hygiene as a justification, the scientists used prisoners from Auschwitz and other concentration camps as test subjects for their human experiments.[2]

In Nazi propaganda, the term "race" was often interchangeably used to mean the "Aryan" or Germanic "Übermenschen", which was said to represent an ideal and pure master race that was biologically superior to all other races.[3] In the 1930s, under eugenicist Ernst Rüdin, National Socialist ideology embraced this latter use of "racial hygiene", which demanded Aryan racial purity and condemned miscegenation. That belief in the importance of German racial purity often served as the theoretical backbone of Nazi policies of racial superiority and later genocide. The policies began in 1935, when the National Socialists enacted the Nuremberg Laws, which legislated racial purity by forbidding sexual relations and marriages between Aryans and non-Aryans as Rassenschande (racial shame).

Theories on racial hygiene led to an elaborate sterilization program, with the goal of eliminating what the Nazis regarded as diseases harmful to the human race. Sterilized individuals, reasoned the Nazis, would not pass on their diseases to their children. The Sterilization Law, passed on July 14, 1933, also known as the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, called for the sterilization of any person who had a genetically determined illness. The Sterilization Law was drafted by some of Germany's top racial hygienists, including: Fritz Lenz, Alfred Ploetz, Ernst Rudin, Heinrich Himmler, Gerhard Wagner and Fritz Thyssen. Robert N. Proctor has shown that the list of illnesses which the law targeted included "feeblemindedness, schizophrenia, manic depression, epilepsy, Huntington's chorea, genetic blindness, and "severe alcoholism."" The estimated number of citizens who were sterilized in Nazi Germany ranges from 350,00 to 400,000. As a result of the Sterilization Law, sterilization medicine and research soon became one of the largest medical industries.[2]

Racial hygienists played key roles in the Holocaust, the German National Socialist effort to purge Europe of Jews, Romani people, Poles, Serbs (along with the majority of the other Slavs), Blacks, mixed race people, and physically or intellectually disabled people.[4] In the Aktion T4 program, Hitler ordered the execution of mentally-ill patients by euthanasia under the cover of deaths from strokes and illnesses.[2] The methods and equipment that had been used in the murder of thousands of mentally ill were then transferred to concentration camps because the materials and resources needed to efficiently kill large numbers of people existed and had been proven successful. The nurses and the staff who had assisted and performed the killings were then moved along with the gas chambers to the concentration camps, which were being built in order to be able to replicate the mass murders repeatedly.[2]

Herero chained
Herero chained by German captors during the 1904 rebellion in South-west Africa

The doctors who carried out experiments on the prisoners in concentration camps specialised in racial hygiene and used the supposed science to back their medical experiments. Some of the experiments were used for general medical research, for example by injecting prisoners with known diseases to test vaccines or possible cures. Other experiments were used to further the Germans' war strategy by putting prisoners in vacuum chambers to see what could happen to pilots' bodies if they were ejected at a high altitude or immerse prisoners in ice water to see how long they would survive and what materials could be used to prolong life if worn by German pilots shot down over the English Channel.[5] The precursors of this notion were earlier medical experiments which German doctors performed on African prisoners of war in concentration camps in Namibia during the Herero and Namaqua Genocide.[6]

A key aspect of National Socialism was the concept of racial hygiene and it was elevated to the primary philosophy of the German medical community, first by activist physicians within the medical profession, particularly amongst psychiatrists. That was later codified and institutionalized during and after the Nazis' rise to power in 1933, during the process of Gleichschaltung (literally, "coordination" or "unification"), which streamlined the medical and mental hygiene (mental health) profession into a rigid hierarchy with National Socialist-sanctioned leadership at the top.[7]

The blueprint for Nazism's attitude toward other races was written by Erwin Baur, Fritz Lenz and Eugen Fischer and published under the title Human Heredity Theory and Racial Hygiene (1936).

After World War II

After World War II, the idea of "racial hygiene" was not promoted. The racialist ideology was denounced as unscientific by many,[8] but there continued to be supporters and enforcers of eugenics even after there was widespread awareness of the nature of Nazi eugenics. After 1945, eugenics proponents included Julian Huxley and Marie Stopes, but they typically removed or downplayed the racial aspects of their theories.[9]

See also



  1. ^ Turda, Marius; Weindling, Paul (2007). Blood and Homeland": Eugenics and Racial Nationalism In Central and Southeast Europe, 1900–1940. Budapest: Central European University Press. p. 1.
  2. ^ a b c d e Proctor, Robert N. (1982) "Nazi Doctors, Racial Medicine, and the Human Experimentation", in Annas, George J. and Grodin, Michael A. editors, The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 17–31.
  3. ^ Peter Longerich (2010). Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews. Oxford University Press. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-19-280436-5.
  4. ^ Gumkowski, Janusz; Leszczynski, Kazimierz; Robert, Edward (translator) (1961). Hitler's Plans for Eastern Europe (Paperback). Poland Under Nazi Occupation (First ed.). Polonia Pub. House. p. 219. ASIN B0006BXJZ6. Retrieved 12 March 2014. at Wayback machine.
  5. ^ Proctor, Robert N. (1982). "Nazi Doctors, Racial Medicine, and the Human Experimentation", in Annas, George J. and Grodin, Michael A. editors, The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 25–26.
  6. ^ Lusane, Clarence (2002). Hitler's black victims: The historical experiences of Afro-Germans, European Blacks, Africans, and African Americans in the Nazi era. pp. 44, 217. ISBN 978-0415932950.
  7. ^ Herzog, Dagmar (2005). Sexuality and German Fascism. Berghahn Books. p. 167.
  8. ^ Wentz S, Proctor RN, Weiss SF (1989). "Racial hygiene: the pseudo-science of Nazi medicine". Medical Humanities Review. 3 (1): 13–18. PMID 11621731.
  9. ^ Rose, June (1993). Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution. London: Faber and Faber. p. 244.

Further reading

Agnes Bluhm

Agnes Bluhm (9 January 1862 – 12 November 1943) was a German winner of a Goethe medal. She was trained as a medical doctor and won prizes for her research. She believed that German women could improve the race using eugenics and forced sterilisation. She wrote that the "female psyche" made her gender predisposed towards working for "racial hygiene".

Aktion T4

Aktion T4 (German, pronounced [akˈtsi̯oːn teː fiːɐ]) was a postwar name for mass murder through involuntary euthanasia in Nazi Germany. The name T4 is an abbreviation of Tiergartenstraße 4, a street address of the Chancellery department set up in the spring of 1940, in the Berlin borough of Tiergarten, which recruited and paid personnel associated with T4. Certain German physicians were authorised to select patients "deemed incurably sick, after most critical medical examination" and then administer to them a "mercy death" (Gnadentod). In October 1939, Adolf Hitler signed a "euthanasia note", backdated to 1 September 1939, which authorised his physician Karl Brandt and Reichsleiter Philipp Bouhler to implement the programme.

The killings took place from September 1939 until the end of the war in 1945; from 275,000 to 300,000 people were killed in psychiatric hospitals in Germany and Austria, occupied Poland and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic). The number of victims was originally recorded as 70,273 but this number has been increased by the discovery of victims listed in the archives of the former East Germany. About half of those killed were taken from church-run asylums, often with the approval of the Protestant or Catholic authorities of the institutions. The Holy See announced on 2 December 1940 that the policy was contrary to the natural and positive Divine law and that "the direct killing of an innocent person because of mental or physical defects is not allowed" but the declaration was not upheld by some Catholic authorities in Germany. In the summer of 1941, protests were led in Germany by the Bishop of Münster, Clemens von Galen, whose intervention led to "the strongest, most explicit and most widespread protest movement against any policy since the beginning of the Third Reich", according to Richard J. Evans.Several reasons have been suggested for the killings, including eugenics, compassion, reducing suffering, racial hygiene and saving money. Physicians in German and Austrian asylums continued many of the practices of Aktion T4 until the defeat of Germany in 1945, in spite of its official cessation in August 1941. The informal continuation of the policy led to 93,521 "beds emptied" by the end of 1941. Technology developed under Aktion T4 was taken over by the medical division of the Reich Interior Ministry, particularly the use of lethal gas to kill large numbers of people, along with the personnel of Aktion T4, who participated in Operation Reinhard. The programme was authorised by Hitler but the killings have since come to be viewed as murders in Germany. The number of people killed was about 200,000 in Germany and Austria, with about 100,000 victims in other European countries.

Alfred Ploetz

Alfred Ploetz (August 22, 1860 – March 20, 1940) was a German physician, biologist and eugenicist known for coining the term racial hygiene (Rassenhygiene) and promoting the concept in Germany. Rassenhygiene is a form of eugenics.

Early timeline of Nazism

The early timeline of Nazism begins with its origins and continues until Hitler's rise to power.

Ernst Rüdin

Ernst Rüdin (April 19, 1874 in St. Gallen – October 22, 1952) was a Swiss-born German psychiatrist, geneticist, eugenicist and Nazi. Rising to prominence under Emil Kraepelin and assuming his directorship at what is now called the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, he has long been scientifically honoured and cited internationally as the pioneer of psychiatric inheritance studies. He also argued for, designed, justified and funded the mass sterilization and clinical killing of adults and children.

German Society for Racial Hygiene

The German Society for Racial Hygiene (German: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene) was a German eugenic organization founded on 22 June 1905 by the physician Alfred Ploetz in Berlin. Its goal was "for society to return to a healthy and blooming, strong and beautiful life" as Ploetz put it. The Nordic race was supposed to regain its "purity" through selective reproduction and sterilization. The society became defunct after World War II.

Geza von Hoffmann

Geza von Hoffmann (1885–1921) was a prominent Austrian-Hungarian eugenicist and writer. He lived for a time in California as the Austrian Vice-Consulate where he observed and wrote on eugenics practices in the United States.

His best known book, Die Rassenhygiene in den Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika (Racial Hygiene in the United States of America) described his observations in America.His reports on American eugenicist activity influenced German and especially Berlin eugenicists up to the first World War. He served as a key connection between American and German eugenics activities.

Hermann Werner Siemens

Hermann Werner Siemens (August 20, 1891 (Charlottenberg) -1969) was a German dermatologist who first described multiple skin diseases and was one of the inventors of the twin study. Siemens' work in twin studies is influential in modern genetics and is used to address the environmental and genetic impacts upon traits. Siemens was involved in racial hygiene and affiliated with the Nazi Party.

Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring

Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring (Ger. Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses) or "Sterilisation Law" was a statute in Nazi Germany enacted on July 14, 1933, (and made active in January 1934) which allowed the compulsory sterilisation of any citizen who in the opinion of a "Genetic Health Court" (Gr. Erbgesundheitsgericht) suffered from a list of alleged genetic disorders – many of which were not, in fact, genetic. The elaborate interpretive commentary on the law was written by three dominant figures in the racial hygiene movement: Ernst Rüdin, Arthur Gütt and the lawyer Falk Ruttke. The law itself was based on a 'model' American law developed by Harry H. Laughlin.

List of Nazi ideologues

This is a list of people whose ideas became part of Nazi ideology. The ideas, writings, and speeches of these thinkers were incorporated into what became Nazism, including antisemitism, eugenics, racial hygiene, the concept of the master race, and Lebensraum. The list includes people whose ideas were incorporated, even if they did not live in the Nazi era.

Marion Louisa Piddington

Marion Louisa Piddington (1869–1950) was an Australian publicist active in the promotion of eugenics and sex education. The wife of a high profile judge and politician, and related to Australian literary and political figures, she sought to promote ideas of racial hygiene and single mothers through association with several organisations and progressive movements. Piddington was most well known for her advocacy of contraception, 'celibate motherhood', racialist theory and social legislation in Australia during the interwar period of the nineteen twenties and thirties, works that were neglected until the nineteen eighties; Peddingtons first biographer concludes, "She defied modern categories such as 'puritan' or 'libertarian', being in some curious measure both."

National Socialist Movement of Norway

The National Socialist Movement of Norway (Norwegian: Norges Nasjonalsosialistiske Bevegelse, NNSB), formerly Zorn 88, is a Norwegian neo-Nazi group with an estimated fifty members, led by Erik Rune Hansen. Founded in 1988, it is a secretive group with tight membership regulation.The NNSB expresses admiration for Adolf Hitler and Vidkun Quisling, and is focused on historical revisionism and antisemitism, particularly Holocaust denial. It publishes the magazine Gjallarhorn, and in 1999 published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Other recurrent topics include racial hygiene and Norse religion. Several of its members were active Nazis and members of Nasjonal Samling during World War II. The group has had ties to Erik Blücher and the magazine Folk og Land, and to Varg Vikernes. It has been part of international networks along with the World Union of National Socialists, the National Socialist Movement of Denmark, the (now-defunct) Swedish National Socialist Front, and Blood & Honour. Along with Scandinavian groups it has taken part in celebrations and memorials to Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess.In November 2007, a memorial ceremony at the German war cemetery in Oslo was attacked by anti-fascists, leaving five NNSB-members wounded, one severely. The NNSB pledged that it had no intentions of retaliating the attack.

Nazi eugenics

Nazi eugenics (German: Nationalsozialistische Rassenhygiene, "National Socialist racial hygiene") were Nazi Germany's racially based social policies that placed the biological improvement of the Aryan race or Germanic "Übermenschen" master race through eugenics at the center of Nazi ideology. In Germany, eugenics were mostly known under the synonymous term racial hygiene. Following the Second World War, both terms effectively vanished and were replaced by Humangenetik (human genetics).

Eugenics research in Germany before and during the Nazi period was similar to that in the United States (particularly California), by which it had been partly inspired. However, its prominence rose sharply under Adolf Hitler's leadership when wealthy Nazi supporters started heavily investing in it. The programs were subsequently shaped to complement Nazi racial policies.Those humans targeted for destruction under Nazi eugenics policies were largely living in private and state-operated institutions, identified as "life unworthy of life" (German: Lebensunwertes Leben), including prisoners, "degenerates", dissidents, people with congenital cognitive and physical disabilities (including people who were "feeble-minded", epileptic, schizophrenic, manic-depressive, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, deaf, blind) (German: erbkranken), homosexual, idle, insane, and the weak, for elimination from the chain of heredity. More than 400,000 people were sterilized against their will, while up to 300,000 were killed under Action T4, a euthanasia program. In June 1935, Hitler and his cabinet made a list of seven new decrees, number 5 was to speed up the investigations of sterilization.

Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer

Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer (16 July 1896 – 8 August 1969) was a German human biologist and geneticist, who was the Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Münster until his 1965 retirement. A member of the Dutch noble Verschuer family, his title Freiherr is often translated as baron.

He was regarded as a pioneer in the twin methodology in genetics research and in the study of the inheritance of diseases and anomalies, and was a prominent eugenicist with an interest in racial hygiene and an advocate of compulsory sterilization programs in the first half of the 20th century. Among his many students were Josef Mengele.

He successfully redefined himself as a geneticist in the postwar era. During the 1950s and 1960s he was noted for research on the effects of nuclear radiation on humans and for his warnings against the possibility of creating "scientifically improved" human beings offered by genetic science.

Verschuer was the director of the Institute for Genetic Biology and Racial Hygiene from 1935 to 1942 and director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics from 1942 to 1948. From 1951 to 1965 he was Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Münster, where he also served as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. At Münster he established one of the largest centers of genetics research in West Germany, and remained one of the world's most prominent genetics researchers until his death. He became Professor Emeritus in 1965; he received numerous memberships in learned societies. In 1952 he was elected President of the German Anthropological Association. His son Helmut von Verschuer was a high-ranking official of the European Commission.

Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales

The Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales was an Australian-based association founded in 1926 by Lillie Goodisson and Ruby Rich of the Women's Reform League. The association was originally known as the Racial Improvement Society until 1928.The association was involved in promoting sex education, preventing and eradicating venereal disease and the education of the public in eugenics. Goodisson served as general secretary for the association. She advocated the selective breeding of future generations for the elimination of hereditary disease and defects and campaigned unsuccessfully for the segregation and sterilisation of the mentally deficient and for the introduction of pre-marital health examinations. Although Goodisson campaigned for her association's eugenics goals, her own interest in the topic is not clear; her main interests were in contraception and politics. Goodisson's entry in the ADB hints at the reason for her interest. She married Albert Elliot Goodisson, business manager, on 11 June 1904 but he went to Batavia in September 1913 for 'health reasons'. He died on 4 February 1914, in the lunatic asylum where he had been committed for 'general paralysis' and derangement. These are symptoms of Tertiary syphilis - if Goodisson, a trained nurse, had married her second husband without knowing he had venereal disease this would explain why she became an anti-VD campaigner and promoted pre-marital health checks and sex education for children.

The association produced several booklets to further these aims, including "What Parents Should Tell Their Children" and "Sex in Life: Young Women". The RHA claimed to have published the booklets but they were really produced in London by the British Social Hygiene Council in the 1920s and were reissued by the RHA in the 1930s (without permission). They are: "Sex in Life: Young Men", by Douglas White and Dr Otto May; "Sex in Life: Young Women", by Violet D Swaisland and Mary B Douie, and "What Parents Should Tell Their Children", by Mary Scharlieb and Kenneth Wills.The first birth control clinic in Sydney was founded by the association in 1933.

Robert Ritter

Robert Ritter (14 May 1901 – 15 April 1951) was a "racial scientist" doctor of psychology and medicine, with a background in child psychiatry and the biology of criminality. In Berlin in 1936, Ritter was appointed head of the Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology Research Unit of Nazi Germany's Criminal Police, to establish the genealogical histories of the German "Gypsies", both Roma and Sinti. His work in classifying these populations of Germany aided the Nazi government in the systematic persecution of them, toward a goal of "racial purity".

Scientific racism

Scientific racism (sometimes referred to as race biology), is the pseudoscientific belief that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racism (racial discrimination), racial inferiority, or racial superiority. Historically, scientific racist ideas received credence in the scientific community but are no longer considered scientific.Scientific racism employs anthropology (notably physical anthropology), anthropometry, craniometry, and other disciplines or pseudo-disciplines, in proposing anthropological typologies supporting the classification of human populations into physically discrete human races, that might be asserted to be superior or inferior. Scientific racism was common during the period from 1600s to the end of World War I. Since the second half of the 20th century, scientific racism has been criticized as obsolete and discredited, yet historically has persistently been used to support or validate racist world-views, based upon belief in the existence and significance of racial categories and a hierarchy of superior and inferior races.After the end of World War II, scientific racism in theory and action was formally denounced, especially in UNESCO's early antiracist statement "The Race Question" (1950): "The biological fact of race and the myth of 'race' should be distinguished. For all practical social purposes 'race' is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth. The myth of 'race' has created an enormous amount of human and social damage. In recent years, it has taken a heavy toll in human lives, and caused untold suffering". Such "biological fact" has not reached a consensus as developments in human evolutionary genetics showed that human genetic differences are often gradual.The term "scientific racism" is generally used pejoratively as applied to more modern theories, as in The Bell Curve (1994). Critics argue that such works postulate racist conclusions unsupported by available evidence such as a connection between race and intelligence. Publications such as the Mankind Quarterly, founded explicitly as a "race-conscious" journal, are generally regarded as platforms of scientific racism for publishing articles on fringe interpretations of human evolution, intelligence, ethnography, language, mythology, archaeology, and race subjects.

Social hygiene movement

The social hygiene movement was an attempt by Progressive-era reformers to control venereal disease, regulate prostitution and vice, and disseminate sexual education through the use of scientific research methods and modern media techniques. Social hygiene as a profession grew alongside social work and other public health movements of the era. Social hygienists emphasized sexual continence and strict self-discipline as a solution to societal ills, tracing prostitution, drug use and illegitimacy to rapid urbanization. The movement remained alive throughout much of the 20th century and found its way into American schools, where it was transmitted in the form of classroom films about menstruation, sexually transmitted disease, drug abuse and acceptable sexual behavior in addition to an array of pamphlets, posters, textbooks and films.

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