Eugenics: An embarrassed silence and a hidden history
Eugenics was one of the great enthusiasms of the prewar Left. In the 1920s and 1930's, Socialists everywhere embraced it, including National Socialists in Germany.
The abiding mark of socialists is that they want to change the world -- change it into what they think will be a better place. And eugenics fitted that perfectly. If they removed the "weeds" from the human race, that would make a greatly improved world. And Leftist legislatures worldwide passed eugenic laws of varying severity: Sweden, Germany and the United States being prominent examples
The man who took it furthest was however Adolf Hitler. He killed "useless eaters" in droves. So the military defeat of Hitler led to him and all his works being discredited: So suddenly there were no longer any differences between races and eugenics was immoral. Hitler had been a such a great menace and ended up such an abject failure that any similarities with him had to be denied.
Leftists everywhere dropped eugenics like a sizzling potato. They no longer advocated it. More significant, however was that they succeeded in casting a cloak of silence over it. They succeeded in blanking out all memory of their association with eugenics. Hardly anyone now knows what a great enthusiasm eugenics once was for the Left. Were it well known, their great enthusiasms of the present -- such as global warming and transgenderism -- might also be viewed skeptically
Eugenics and scientific racism in the United States emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century and lasted through the 1930s. It claimed that heredity was the fundamental determinant of an individual’s ability to contribute to society. Eugenics claimed the scientific ability to classify individuals and groups as “fit” or “unfit.” The unfit were defined by race, mental and physical disabilities, country of origin, and poverty. Eugenics was widely accepted by academics, politicians, intellectuals, government, the U.S. Supreme Court, and especially progressives, who supported eugenics-inspired policies as policy instruments to be utilized by an interventionist administrative state to establish a healthy and productive society. Those who questioned the “settled science” of eugenics were dismissed as “deniers,” much like those who question the “settled science” of climate change are today dismissed as “deniers.”
Eugenics and slavery share much common ground in their inherent racist view of blacks; however, the inherent racist perspective of eugenics was broader in that the set of those considered unfit included individuals and groups beyond those who were black. Eugenics provided the scientific foundation for involuntary sterilization policies in thirty-two states, supported the racist immigration policies in the first part of the twentieth century, and supported a variety of de jure and de facto policies designed to limit those defined as “unfit” to less than full-citizenship status. More troubling, eugenics and eugenics-inspired policies in the United States were admired by Adolf Hitler. American and German eugenicists interacted and exchanged views up to the late 1930s, and sterilization laws, immigration restrictions based on race or ethnicity, and efforts to prevent full citizenship to the unfit in the United States became the model for the Nuremburg Laws of 1935. Stefan Kühl (1994) was the first to document in detail the American–German eugenics connection. In Hitler’s American Model (2017), James Whitman extended this research to illustrate how U.S. policies influenced Nazi race law in the 1930s and the Nuremberg Laws in particular. The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left (2017) by Dinesh D’Souza is the most recent effort to bring public attention to eugenics and the American–German connection.
The widespread acceptance of eugenics in the United States, especially by progressives, is a troubling part of U.S. history unknown to many Americans, and the role model America provided for Nazi race law is even more troubling. The conventional wisdom in the United States places blame for scientific racism on Germany, but the opposite is an inconvenient truth that continues to receive little public attention. The fall of the Third Reich revealed the logical outcome of eugenics. Eugenics disappeared almost overnight from public discourse and became an embarrassment to many who had supported it and its policy implications.
I have covered eugenics and related topics in my lectures on the history of economic ideas for many years and have been surprised at two reactions from students: first, many students find eugenics and related topics the most interesting part of the course, and, second, with only a few exceptions the students have never heard of eugenics in the United States and, especially, its relationship to Nazi Germany. This lack of awareness suggests a question and the catalyst for this paper: To what degree are high school students exposed to the history of eugenics?
One would expect that with the current political focus on discrimination and racism, eugenics would be an important topic in U.S. history and related courses at the high school level. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As I show in this paper, high school history textbooks essentially ignore the topic. Although our high school textbooks are impressive in presentation, length, and number of topics covered, eugenics and its influence on public policy in the United States and its relationship to Nazi Germany are ignored and when mentioned are presented as an incidental part of U.S. history.
I first discuss how eugenics emerged from a combination of the political economy of population growth initiated by Thomas Malthus (1798) and subsequent developments in human biology in the second half of the nineteenth century. Next I discuss how the United States became the center of eugenic research and policy, the relationship between eugenics and the progressive movement, and the degree to which eugenics in the United States influenced Germany and the Nuremburg Laws of 1935. Then I look in particular at nine high school textbooks and other textbook materials to determine the degree to which eugenics is covered in high school. In the concluding section, I offer conjectures to account for the omission and the missed opportunities to educate students resulting from the omission.