Creating the Master Race

By Alex Joffe
Friday, October 28, 2011

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.

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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