Genes vs. Ideas: The quest for the modern population


What is more important in a child’s value to the state, their genes or their ideas?  During the interwar period Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would have answered that question in contradictory ways even though both countries were attempting a massive increase in reproduction.  Hoffman and Timmin in “Utopian Biopolitics” from Beyond Totalitarianism  argued that the summation of a child’s value to the state depended on the ideology propounded by the governing party. ((David L. Hoffmann and Annette F. Timm, “Utopian Biopolitics: Reproductive Policies, Gender Roles, and Sexuality in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 87))  In Germany under the National Socialst party racial hygiene was the most important aspect of the population increase.  The Soviet Union desired a larger population built upon the ideology of the socialist party.  Both states desired an increased population tailored to their idea of the ideal modern state.

Nazi Germany officially and unofficially influenced the German population to reproduce in order to create “Aryan” children.  The repurposing of health centers into eugenics centers counts as only one example of many state sponsored attempts to ensure racial purity among newborns. ((99))  The logical rhetoric that emerged from such gene centric ideas eliminated other social values.  The regime, and Himmler specifically, linked masculinity and prowess in battle to virility.  Therefore, men were encouraged to engage in intra- and extra-marital intercourse; the only caveat being the child produced must be Aryan. ((Hoffmann and Timm, “Utopian Biopolitics” in Beyond Totalitarianism,106))  Thus the genetic “health” of the child overpowered the traditional, middle class nuclear family structure in Nazi politics.  The Soviet Union did the exact opposite in its attempt to raise the next generation of socialists.

The Soviet Union reinforced the nuclear family structure in an attempt to increase the quantity and quality of children produced by socialist couples.  Throughout the 1930s the government passed several laws outlawing abortion, establishing strict child support protocol, and, making birth registration necessary with both parents listed. ((Hoffmann and Timm, “Utopian Biopolitics” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 110))   Moreover, the government sponsored studies analyzing the best ways to ensure women’s reproductive health.  In the 1920s one soviet doctor concluded that “women would optimize their productivity by having three children, all four years apart.” ((Hoffmann and Timm, “Utopian Biopolitics” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 111))  These factors, combined with the increase of pro-paternity propaganda in theory ought to have increased family size and perpetuated solid, stalinist ideas.

The manner in which modern states attempted to increase population during the interwar period in “Utopian Biopolitics” brings up several interesting questions.  Why did neither Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union experience a drastic increase in birth rates?  How much of an effect does state policy truly have on the reproductive choices of its citizens?

5 thoughts on “Genes vs. Ideas: The quest for the modern population

  1. I think one perspective that can answer both questions (with the Soviet Union specifically) is abortion practices. Although there were laws prohibiting abortion, women would go to measures of physical extremity in order to miscarry their baby. This is not only an example of citizens having more control over their body than the State, but is also an explanation for the lack of high birth rates. So, although these women were following reproductive protocol, abortion practices prohibited the birth rate from escalating.

  2. I think the idea became for citizens to appear to the state as though they were interested in the propaganda revolving around pro-natality, but in truth were maintaining the status quo regarding the acts of sexual intercourse and birth. That being said, maintaining the status quo in addition to the new influence from the state would seem to raise birth rates regardless. The great depression can be used as an example for Nazi Germany and Italy, perhaps, but not the Soviet Union due to their collectivization policies at the time. What was happening in the United States during this time period? Did the west have similar pro-natalist policies that Europe did or did the US mirror them differently?

  3. I am unfamiliar with the specific policies, and their efficacy or lack thereof the United States during this period. In response to the questions posed by Victoria, I agree and want to build off of Jackson’s point about pronatality. The differences between the Soviet policies and German policies comes in large part from their adoption of pronatalist measures. Where the Soviet Union adopted almost exclusively pronatalist measures, Germany actively attempted to limit the reproduction of many groups with strongly antinatalist policies. As a result of this difference, Soviet fertility rates actually increases, although very little. This increase in fertility rates stopped at the beginning of WWII, which answers Victoria’s second question. People will ultimately act in their own immediate self interest and if government policies do not truly improve their livelihoods than they will be ineffective. No government stipend or reward could outweigh the financial and emotional strain of raising an enormous family under desperate economic and political circumstances.

  4. The difference between the two regimes was their emphasis for their pro-natality policies. For the Nazis it was to spread the Aryan genes while the Soviet Union wished to create a class embodying ideals from their regime, regardless of what their background was beforehand. However, I agree with Gibson that no government reward outweighs the struggle of raising children in a hard economic time.

  5. In response to Victoria’s questions, I believe that we must take the time period into account. These regimes rose during the interwar period, a time in which Western European nations tried to recover from the long-term damages from the First World War. In addition, as mentioned by Hoffman and Timm, fear of one another was a prime motivating factor in encouraging reproduction and pronatalist policies in these different regimes. Eventually, the outbreak of the Second World War, further hindered the efforts to increase reproduction because of increased mortality rates and changing attitudes towards different regimes throughout time. As mentioned by Gibson and Kristin, attitudes towards abortion is a prime example of the attitudes on the government and how the attitude that the government can’t truly do much to help women in raising children during a period of war and economic hardship outweigh the willingness to obey and participate in these pronatalist policies.

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