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Creating the Master Race

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan's peaceful Battery Park is an unlikely place to explore some of the 20th century's most horrific evils.  Deadly Medicine, an exhibit on Nazi racial science (originally presented at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) is a sobering examination of the intertwined history of science and evil. Modern questions dog every part of the exhibit.

Relevant Links
Ordinary Doctors?  Robert N. Proctor, Borden Institute, U.S. Army. A comprehensive review of Nazi medicine. (PDF)
The Ethics of Using Nazi Medical Data  Baruch C. Cohen, Jewish Law. Does the use of medical data from Nazi experiments present an ethical dilemma? A lawyer presents a legal and Jewish perspective.

At the beginning of the exhibit stand Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, as the founding thinkers of evolution and genetics, respectively. The understanding they brought regarding heredity and descent (mediated in part through the late-19th-century Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and especially Francis Galton), were the sparks of the early-20th-century eugenics movement—the very model of progressive global science. Eugenics offered modernists the means to escape the random chance of biological reproduction and the opportunity to scientifically shape individuals and populations. The instruments on display make the obsessions of eugenics frighteningly tangible. The chromed calipers speak to the fascination with measurements. The surgical instruments were tools to prune humanity through sterilization.

Eugenics was far from exclusively a German, much less a Nazi, story. American scientists and organizations like the American Public Health Association and the Carnegie Institute were key promoters of eugenics even after the rise of Hitler, and forced and "voluntary" sterilization were vigorously pursued throughout the United States. The logic of sterilizing "inferiors" appeared to offer a twofold mercy. To the individual, it meant no longer facing the possibility of reproducing their "feeblemindedness" or other disability. To society as a whole, it meant lightening the burden of caring for the "inferior," and the possibility of creating a new, more fit population. It was medical therapy for society and for the future itself.

But the coming of Nazism provided the perfect environment for racial science to blossom. Eugenics was already widespread in German medicine and biological sciences, including anthropology, and when Hitler became the "physician of the nation," his obsessions became those of all Germany and then beyond. Nazi racismthe fusion of eugenics, anti-Semitism, and bizarre völkisch and occult ideasbecame the ultimate patron and enabler of racial science.

This science took both theoretical and applied forms. Indeed, Rudolf Hess called Nazism "applied biology," and the Reich pursued its agenda decisively. On the one hand, the public heath was a high priority.  The Nazis launched the first ever campaigns against smoking as well as against drinking alcohol during pregnancy, and celebrated exercise and, more ominously, the ideal "Aryan" physique. Mothers who bore eight or more "Aryan" children were awarded gold medals, on which the swastika set into a black cross was encircled by the words "Der Deutschen Mutter."

On the other hand, laws against marriages between "Aryans" and "non-Aryans," as well as against homosexuality and abortion, were enforced with escalating ruthlessness.  German society was further pruned by the removal of Jews from German medicine and the promotion of doctors and researchers obsessed by race.  Once intended strictly for physicians and scientists, the exhibit's charts of skin and eye color, and model heads of different "races" were now distributed for all Germans to internalize. In fact, the effort extended beyond Germany itself. Unmentioned by the exhibit were Nazi expeditions to Finland, Italy, and even Tibet and other far reaches in search of the Nordic or "Aryan" predecessors of modern Germans. These were antecedents of interventions to come, in which pseudoscientific investigations would be conducted alongside total war and genocide.

Unassailable political power brought the opportunity to prune German society of "suffering" at mass scales. The 1934 "Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring" legitimized the sterilization of some 400,000 Germans. The mentally illa category that included those with depression, "feeblemindedness," alcoholism, or blindnesswere brought before "Hereditary Health Courts" for judgment. But photos of carefully arranged SS marriages also show that the Reich was happy to encourage the right sort of mating.

Deadly Medicine cannily weaves visitors through a medicalized setting, guided by white curtains and white tile walls, with public health posters interspersed with photos of studious Nazi doctors. The austere design also signifies the shockingly simple transition to the next phase: mass euthanasia of over 5,000 German infants and children, and the gassing of some 70,000 institutionalized German adults.

In this way, although the exhibit does not put it in these terms, "scientific" aspects of the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" were effectively pioneered against fellow Germans.  Growing public awareness forced an end to the program of "mercy deaths" for the institutionalized in 1941but by that time, useful work had been done on how to murder large numbers of people using gas.  The Final Solution itself was the opportunity to conduct racial science at previously unimaginable scales, and against the Aryan nation's most dire enemy. Extermination of the Jews was by then the obvious answer: how else to deal with the public health problem of "lice"? The exhibit does not shrink from the ghastly medical experiments conducted in the camps, on twins, women, and others, by Josef Mengele and his ilk. But somehow, when these panels are reached, the visitor is (or should be) in a state of numbness. The closing displays relating how many of the most evil Nazi doctors were never prosecuted and went on to become stalwarts of German medicine in the second half of the 20th century seem almost predictable. These are the exhibit's weakest points, as if its creators, too, were exhausted by the end of their task.

The progression from sterilization to euthanasia to mass murder was not a proverbial slippery slope, but rather followed a precise scientific logic. Medicalized decisions regarding the fate of individuals flowed into the manipulation and eventually the slaughter of whole peoples. These issues remain with us today, in debates over abortion, stem cell research, health care funding, and utilitarian bioethics that weigh the costs and benefits of treatment and "quality of life"at least for certain types of patients.

So while the implications of Deadly Medicine are far-reaching, it is difficult to pin them down. Is the problem the inescapable fact of human difference and the human propensity to grasp at difference as a rationale or motive for hatred?  Or is the problem 'race' in all its various meanings? Science in the cause of evil is another problem, of which Nazi biology was an especially sinister manifestation.

But this is entirely too easy an explanation. Nazi physicians and biologists saw themselves as serving both science and the nationhigher causes that trumped any conventional morality. Arguably, science itself may be the source of modernist evils like Nazi eugenics, the Promethean effort to discern the universal pattern and control causality. We need only look around us to see the same searches for control over nature today, in medicine, biological science, and in the 'social sciences.' Unrestrained by religion, convention, or sometimes common sense, all of these efforts teeter on the edge of amorality and monstrosity. The indictment of Deadly Medicine is ultimately of the human intellect itself, and that is the most frightening possibility of all.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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art.the.nerd on October 28, 2011 at 12:33 pm (Reply)
With respect, I must take exception to the phrase in your opening paragraph, "the intertwined history of science and evil." Alas, I can think of no human endeavour that has not been, at some point, entangled with evil. Literature? Music? Art? Film? All have been used to further evil ends, or were created by people whose beliefs we now call evil (ant-semitic, anti-gay, pro-slavery, etc).

Perhaps cooking gets a pass, depending on your beliefs about animal rights.
Jerry Blaz on October 28, 2011 at 6:25 pm (Reply)
This article actually downplays the American aspect of what was known, and widely known in the U.S., as the "eugenics movement." Human biology books of the 1920s were rife with theories about family histories. Families like the Kalikaks and the Jukes were widely-mentioned examples of "bad breeding."

While there were no overt anti-Semitic aspects that I've connected to the American Eugenics movement (but I haven't done any particular research in this area), Jews still carried the designation of race, which was a term that was a carryover from an earlier period when even philosemites would refer to the "Jewish race." Certainly, Blacks were probably the first targets of many American eugenicists at that time. I believe that it was the awfully "good science" of the American Eugenics movement that assisted the Nazis in developing their theories of Teutonic superiority and Jewish "untermenschlichkeit."
SW on October 29, 2011 at 2:35 pm (Reply)
"The progression from sterilization to euthanasia to mass murder was not a proverbial slippery slope, but rather followed a precise scientific logic."

The enslavement and genocide of a class of people have always followed a "precise" and often sadly efficient logic. But today's greatest holocaust of well-rationalized and politically-supported eugenics--through abortion of the "unwanted" in the West, courtesy of the "right to choose" argument, and, in the case of China and some other nations, the second and following pregnancies' being forcibly, though legally, terminated--also follow today's precise and scientific logic, complete with Malthusian "overpopulation" scientific prognostications and justifications--against which, when one speaks, one is berated as being "religious" to the point of fundamentalism.

It seems Joffe's admirable turn of phrase tells a horror tale of then and now as well.
Bklynguy on November 2, 2011 at 12:49 pm (Reply)
There was no scientific logic leading from steriliztion to genocide; rather it was ideological or political. Eugenics was not the universal viepoint of the scientific community. Key comonents of eugenics had been refuted before 1920. Had German scientists been truly free to explore eugenics, they would never have supported forced sterilization and the murder of "defectives," for they would have confirmed that eugenics was a pseudo-science with no validity. It was Nazi ideology and state power that drove these policies, not science. Also, one cannot compare the pro-choice position with Nazi and Chinese compulsory abortion, let alone calling pro-choice a "holocaust." One provdes individual freedom to choose to carry a fetus to term; the other is the opposite, no individual choice at all but compliance with state policies. Only a polity based on inalienable individual rights and the freedom to inquire can ensure the demise of eugenics and other policies that trample on human decency.
SW on November 3, 2011 at 6:24 am (Reply)
The "scientific logic" to "pro-choice" is what, exactly? The observation that science, in its range and freedom of expression, was not allowed through the heavy hand of ideology and state power is correct. The state's and ideology's hand in the argument of "pro-choice" is also demonstrable, when one sees the laws that not only legalize but subsidize abortion in the millions each year.
Bklynguy on November 3, 2011 at 12:20 pm (Reply)
There is no "scientific" logic to pro- or anti-choice--in America, at least. This is a political, moral, and legal issue, not a scientific one. The ability to choose whether or not to abort has been affirmed by the Supreme Court as a constitutional right, so the law no more legalizes abortion than it legalizes other affirmed rights like freedom of speech. Thus, there is no more a state policy in America for abortion than there is one for freedom of the press. It's a right. Contrast this with Nazi Germany or China, which had or has publicly stated reasons for abortions that have nothing whatsoever to do with the rights of women to choose to have one. In America, a country founded on inalienable rights, abortion is a rights issue, not a policy issue.

Subsidizing abortion is no more evidence of ideological or state policy in support of abortion than subsidies to providing attorneys for the poor is evidence of a state policy to support the poor. The courts have said that everyone accused of a crime has the right to an attorney, and the state must honor this right by paying for an attorney if the defendant can't afford one. It makes no difference if the state otherwise supports the rich or the poor; the state must comply with the right by subsidizing attorneys' fees for the poor. Also, there are laws that do restrict federal government subsidies for abortion that have survived constitutional scrutiny, so it is not true that abortions are subsidized in the "millions."
SW on November 3, 2011 at 3:20 pm (Reply)
Given the welfare state and the many sorts of assistance available through the state, which funds its outreach to some by taking from others, the argument that there is no "state policy to support the poor" is disproven by many examples, involving everything from earned income tax credits to tuition assistance to increased subsidies per child--for the poor, from the state, legally, enshrined in laws aplenty. Is it true to say that the state subsidized abortions in the millions? I think so, given the numbers offered us openly by the Guttmacher Institute as well as others. If the state did not subsidize abortion, the current grappling in Congress over cutting certain funding would not be an issue. This debate is precisely about providing financial support for activities that some people say are not otherwise supported financially.

If you argue that terminating an abortion is a right, then you might well employ similar terminology and call it a right to kill unborn children, or say it is a right to apply eugenic procedures to "unwanted" human beings, depending on who makes the decision. I merely point out that six million dead is a called a Holocaust, several million dead a Holomodor and, according to Bklynguy's parlance, 55 million dead is called a right to choose--55 million constitutionally scrutinized, state-funding-supported deaths--otherwise known, now, as "choice." That is the legality and the ethics of it as it stands.

Master-race behavior, whether applied at the national or the individual level, remains the removal of humans via killing. It's just that now we want to be more "civil" and employ nice terms to keep us from seeing the tragedy painted large.
Bklynguy on November 3, 2011 at 4:54 pm (Reply)
You didn't get the point. It is irrelevant whether the government supports the poor or not; there are rights the government must respect regardles of its predilections, and one of those is the right to choose. It is not "master race" behavior, since abortions are performed pursuant to an individual's right to choose and each individual has her own reasons for choosing why she needs one, not in the service of some agenda. By the way, in both Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia, abortions by women of the "Master Race," or the proletariat, were forbidden, and the women could be punished for having one. This is what happens with governments that do not repsect rights. The federal government does not subsidize mass abortions. Check out the Hyde Amendment for verification.
SW on November 3, 2011 at 6:51 pm (Reply)
Of course, the federal government does not subsidize "mass" abortions. It does support abortion financially through grants to Planned Parenthood and similar institutions, as well as by requiring private insurance to fund abortions.

Nevertheless, and no matter how pleasant one makes it, the reality is that the Holocaust numbered six million, the Holodomor multiple millions, and abortion in the United States and Canada alone numbers 55 million.

These are the statistics. Spin them a thousand ways. Western civilization's marvelous new "choice" is more lethal that the Holocaust and Holodomor combined. Ah, such choice. Such rights. Such ethics.

Where does traditional Judaism stand with this? Not on the side of another holocaust. Not on the side of fifty-five million "terminations."
Bklynguy on November 7, 2011 at 11:49 am (Reply)
Abortion is not equivalent to the Holocaust because no human beings are killed by abortion, only potential humans. If you think that destroying a blastocyst or embryo is the same as killing a fully-developed human being, then how do you explain the willingnes of most abortion opponents to leave exceptions for women impregnated by incest or rape or for whom carrying the fetus to term would be life-endangering? If the fetus were just as human as the mother, these exceptions would be wrong. Also, if abortion is the killing of a human, then women who have abortions and doctors who perform them are murderers, both just as criminally liable as a contract killer and the contractor. Is that your position, then, that is it right to sentence women and doctors who have and perform abortions to the same type of punishment as hit men? Should they be executed, or would life in prison without parole satisfy justice? I think the purpose of this article has nothing to do with abortion but is to show how monstrous it is to allow the state to dictate how one should lead one's personal life, which happens when there is a state founded on principles that deny the existence of inalienable rights. We may not like the ways in which people exercise these rights, but history has shown conclusively that alternatives to rights-based polities are far worse. By the way, I don't think abortion is flat-out prohibited in traditional Judaism.
SW on November 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm (Reply)
There is no question that "abortion is not the equivalent to the Holocaust," because the Holocaust numbered a mere one-tenth of the terminations. As to traditional Jewish law, the major concept is one of a fetus as human, and the most significant justification for abortion is the threat to the life of the mother, in which case the fetus is classed as "rodef." I will let one interested further explore this, should one choose. But the panic of those who avidly support over 50 million abortions as all somehow medically necessary is amazing. Fifty million abortions being justified is a far larger population of "non-humans" than the supposed "sub-humans" identified in "master race" eugenics. Abortion is certainly not "flat out" prohibited in traditional Judaism. It is, however, deeply pondered and frowned upon, such that it is hard to conceive of "Holocaust" numbers of abortions based on traditional views and impossible to conceive of ten times "Holocaust" numbers tallied up as the terminations to date. Master race eugenics managed to define "sub-human," and passing off "blastocyst or embryo" as the modern version of this is a not-too-clever debate tactic. Parents are quite often delighted to learn that they have a "blastocyst" when so chosen. Sometimes even when not chosen, as was I. There have been people deemed disposable throughout history for a variety of reasons. The greatest numbers of disposable "sub-humans" have come from the most pleasant, sunny word of modern Western politics, "choice." Congratulations on defining openly a disposable "sub-human," which I would think would be most assuredly a human being in time. "Embryo" has now become a choice to terminate--a rather lethal choice. As to a rights-based polity, those rights are what any given culture legally deems rights. It was the right of the Aztec state to sacrifice tens of thousands; this is no argument for morality. It was the right of the slave traders--even those today in the north of Africa--to steal human beings and trade them; this is not an argument for morality. That a nation defines "right" and that there are "rights-based" polities has been and remains a variable standard. Fifty-five million is a very large number to define away and dispose of. It was "eugenics" that distinguished between those approved and those not approved. It is a eugenic argument to define "potential humans" as disposable. But in the bright and modern light of contemporary nice people and their devotion to rights, it seems ever more simple to define away and thereby dispose of humans--by determining them to be merely and disposably "potential" humans.
Bklynguy on November 7, 2011 at 6:20 pm (Reply)
I am sorry, but you do not seem to get thepoint I am trying to make about rights. I am referring to the inalienable rights of that individuals have from the state of nature or given to them by God--the rights referred to by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. This has nothing in common with the claimed rights of states, from Aztec to Nazi, which are nothing more than widnow-dressing for the exercise of absolute power. The choice of individuals to abort is an exercise of the former, the compulsory abortion forced upon the unwilling an example of the latter. One is the result of choices made by people for a variety of reasons, good or bad, but not the result of some state-sanctioned policy like eugenics; the other is the crude exercise of power over individuals in furtherance of some policy, which could very well be eugenics. You have not dealt with the fact that blastocysts and embryos are not human; they could become human over time, and that makes all the difference. They are not fully human, and you can't show that they are. Accordingly, no one is being arbitrarily characterized as "subhuman" to further some totalitarian agenda. If you disagree, you must stand for the proposition that all women who have abortions are murderers and should be punished as such. So, I repeat: should women who have them be sentenced to death, or would life imprisonment be OK?
Jerry Blaz on November 7, 2011 at 9:09 pm (Reply)
Conflating the holocaust with abortion is one of the tactics of a group of people who believe that life begins at conception. The holocaust victims were already born and could have contributed to the improvement of mankind. Indeed, some of the survivors have done exactly that. While abortion is never a happy choice, it is a choice that a woman must make on some very sad occasions. I believe, though, it is a woman's responsibility to make that choice as early as possible in the pregnancy, and certainly never past the age when a fetus can be viable.

SW on November 8, 2011 at 5:22 am (Reply)
Of fetuses, Bklynguy writes, "They are not fully human..." The Nazis liked such phrases, so similar to "Lebensunwertes Lebe."-those unworthy of life. Mr. Blaz writes, "While abortion is never a happy choice, it is a choice that a woman must make on some very sad occasions." Bklynguy arrives at his conclusion not via traditional Jewish ideas--something towards which this site is aimed--but rather to the old "not fully human" argument. "Inalienable rights" to him therefore only devolve to those he deems fully human; to all others, there are no such rights. Mr. Blaz suggests that abortion should never be "past the age when a fetus can be viable." I am curious to know what age that is, given the continuing downward number of weeks based on advances in fetal health practices. "Conflating the holocaust with abortion" is not my argument, per se. I rather am clearly and now repetitively saying that "choice" is ten times more lethal than master race eugenics. As we learn from many new sources, the eugenics of the modern world and its "choice" is eugenics nonetheless.
Bklynguy on November 8, 2011 at 12:19 pm (Reply)
Do you believe that life begins at conception, SW? If so, then you must believe that a woman who takes a "morning after" pill, which destroys a fertilized egg, is committing an act equivalent to the killing of a fully-developed human. Then, you must either insist that such a woman spend her life behind bars or be executed for a capital offense or acknowledge the absurdity of your position. Comparing pro-choice to Nazism is just as absurd, as one is based on the primacy of individual rights and limits to state power and the other is its polar opposite--a totalitarian state with no concept of rights or limitations on state power. A woman in a rights-based society who chooses to abort has no power whatsoever to make any other woman abort, because she has no right to impose her choice on anyone other than herself; but Nazis did whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted, with no limitation on their power. Their power to make choices for millions was unlimited. It is therefore an affront to reason to compare pro-choice to Nazism. Also, what authority do you claim to make choices for women considering abortion? There's nothing in halakha that I know of that flat-out prohibits abortion under all circumstances or takes the power of choice from women and their consciences and gives it to the state. The world has suffered immeasurably more damage from out-of-control states than from individual choices, no matter how poorly made.
SW on November 8, 2011 at 1:14 pm (Reply)
There is no "flat-out" prohibition against abortion in traditional halakha, but there is also no justification for ten times the lethality of a Holocaust or Holomodor, for this too is eugenics on a rather grand scale. That it is so blithely dismissed and that arguments as mine raise such complaint suggest to me that we have become dulled to the enormity of so many terminations and now think it just part of being modern. That is not Jewish in a world where "choose life" is supposed to have a resonance greater than "a woman's right to choose," especially when states and insurance support this many deaths of--well, I guess the consensus here from two interlocutors seems just blastocysts. Out-of-control states? Out-of-control individuals, too, might be included in the picture. It's just too easy to whitewash 55 million terminations, or perhaps kick them under the proverbial--and, apparently, eugenically ethical--rug.
Bklynguy on November 8, 2011 at 2:45 pm (Reply)
You have yet to answer the question of how pro-choice fits into eugenics. One is a matter of choice, the other is a state-based policy to "improve the race." When one considers that it usually is the better-educated and better-off who have abortions and their opposites who carry to term, pro-choice would seem to be against eugenics as that term has been historically defined. You also have yet to answer the questions of how aknowledging a woman's right to choose "improves the race" and why women who have abortions shouldn't have to face the punishment doled out to murderers.
SW on November 8, 2011 at 3:46 pm (Reply)
Pro-choice and eugenics? From Wiki's article on eugenics, under Implementation Methods: "There are three main ways by which the methods of eugenics can be applied. One is mandatory eugenics . . . . Another is promotional voluntary eugenics . . . . The third is private eugenics, which is practiced voluntarily by individuals and groups . . . ." The "pro-choice" position is not against eugenics; it is a form of eugenics as historically defined, per the above. As to punishment, abortion is punishment enough for many women in retrospect, but the few physicians who practice this would, in another legal environment, be charged with whatever form of punishment that society chose to legislate. In the moment, legal suits are going through courts. Much remains in flux. But given other articles on JID, please explain why the defence of 55 million terminations is a measure of Jewish morality and religious enlightenment.
Jerry Blaz on November 8, 2011 at 4:57 pm (Reply)
Conflation of eugenics with the holocaust adds heat to the discussion but little light. Only a doctor in concert with the pregnant woman can determine what is a "viable fetus." True, as SW points out, that date has been receding--not on any specious "moral grounds" but because of advances in neonatal science. As SW notes, there is private eugenics practiced; I may not like it, but it is the prerogative of parents in conjunction with an ob-gyn. More drastic practices, such as aborting female fetuses, brought about the social problems that arise as a generation of males find they do not have mates. This is the problem China is facing as a by-product of the government's "one child" policy. Government intervention in this very personal matter did not work out very well. As the world has just surpassed a population of seven billion, we must find ways of providing for all human beings. Today, what is conveyed by the term master-race? In general, it is one of the most idiotic horrors, of which we as Jews were victims. But for me as an individual in 2011, I only know a few members of the master race--who are, coincidentally, my children and grandchildren.
Bklynguy on November 8, 2011 at 5:15 pm (Reply)
Some women may choose abortion for eugenic purposes, but most do not. So, your argument that pro-choice is voluntary eugenics fails--since you did not complete the definition of eugenics, which is to "improve" the human race. Most women who choose to have abortions have no concern whatever for improving the race; they are doing it for private reasons that have nothing to do with eugenics. Having children who are wanted fits within any definiton of Jewish morality. Having children who are not wanted leads to child abuse, neglect and abandonment. There is nothing moral about that.
SW on November 9, 2011 at 1:27 am (Reply)
Gentlemen, thank you for the clarification of your views. Eugenics is a philosophy and process of getting rid of the "unwanted." One "improves" the race by ridding society of these "unwanted." Since you both have made the argument that the "unwanted" are those that individual choice rids society and individuals of, you have made the eugenic argument yourselves. Voluntary eugenics is still eugenics, a most inconvenient fact for those who advocate its goal without wanting to accept its name.
Bklynguy on November 9, 2011 at 10:26 am (Reply)
Eugenics is "improving" the race through selective breeding. It is most always a self-conscious state-directed policy. Eugenics is racist and inhuman, since it, by its very nature, is involuntary. I would not want my wife to abort a child; but, unlike you, I don't presume to compel anyone else to accept my choice. You, like eugenicists, do presume to inflict your choices on the unwilling.

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