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?

The Modernity Debate

In the article “European Modernity and Soviet Socialism,” David Hoffman strives to eradicate the notion of Russia being unique in comparison with other European countries (and therefore backwards and uncivilized).  While Russia did not follow the path of “…liberal democracy and industrial capitalism which characterized the political and economic systems of England, France, and the United States,” (Hoffman, 245) Russia certainly can be perceived as modern, if only the very definition of modernity be broadened.

Hoffman notes that in Western Europe, the definition of modernity and what constitutes as “modern” is very specific. Modernity in this instance entails the development of nation-states, the establishment of parliamentary procedures, and the spread of industrial capitalism. By this definition, Russia is certainly not modern. Subsequently, Hoffman argues that “…it is important to consider more universal trends associated with the coming of modernity. A number of aspects of Soviet socialism paralleled developments throughout Europe during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (Hoffman, 245). Indeed, several ideals commonplace in Enlightenment thought are very prevalent in Russia. The belief in progress, faith in reason, veneration of science, and the disparagement of religion and tradition all characterized the Soviet system in various ways, as Hoffman continuously demonstrates.

Hoffman offers countless instances of Soviet modernity initiatives that were replicated all over Europe and in the United States. For example, the Soviets focused especially on the study of Eugenics. Eugenics is the belief that by sorting through and rooting out deficiencies (both mental and physical) found in humans, a new and vastly improved race could be achieved. While Germany certainly took this study and used it as justification for their racial cleanse, the United States expressed interest in Eugenics as well. Specifically, “In 1907 the state of Indiana passed a law that allowed sterilization of the ‘degenerate’ and in 1927 the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of compulsory sterilization ” (Hoffman, 254-255). Simultaneously, a strong Eugenics movement developed in the Soviet Union. Though this is a specific example, Hoffman’s point is made extremely clear. Russia can easily be seen as modern, once a definition is expanded. The idea of modernity can include a wide array of requirements or stipulations. By broadening our definition, Hoffman states we are better enabled to explain the wide array of modern proposals designed to reorder society on a rational basis.

Nazis 25 points: Modern eugenics taken to the extreme.

The 25 points, is a document which outlined the main goals of the burgeoning Nazi party in the 1920’s. The party gained mass support for there extreme combination of nationalist,  militarist, and socialist ideas throughout Germany. The party was seen as an organization that would be able to rise Germany from the destruction that followed after the end of World War One. At this time the liberal minded government of the Weimar Republic was seen as weak. The strong armed ideas of the party in regards to the state ex.(2,3,25) and the populous ex.(9,10,11) were met with great acclaim.

The ideas put forth by the Nazi’s seemed to be a policy of extreme eugenics. The Nazi’s wanted to cleanse the country ex. (4.8) of all foreign and especially those of Jewish blood. These unwanted minorities could only pollute the pure aryan blood line, and they were to be expelled the Reich. This could only make the Volk stronger and unadulterated. The party also wanted to unite and strengthen the populous ex. (10,20,21). These policies in specific the movement to increase the health of all Germans, are made by the Party to improve the vitality and power of the entire country. The Nazi’s goal of expansion could not be put into action without a strong population. That is why this party turned to the idea of eugenics. Eugenics in theory creates a healthier population and roots out the undesirables and this fit perfectly with the Nazi’s anti-semetic and militarist view. A land with no Jews and a healthier populous would be ideal. Unlike most other countries the Nazi’s were able to implement there policy of eugenics on a large scale, to horrific results. The complete and total eradication of Jews, the mentally ill, gypsies and many others were systematically targeted and killed. Is there ever a way to implement eugenics without such horrific results?

Russell – The Future of Science

In this article, Russell likens the progress of science to the inventions of Daedalus and the inherent selfishness of mankind as Icarus. As the myth goes, Icarus flies too close to the sun, has his wings melted and falls to his death. He predicts a similar fate for humankind if they are given the technology to fly towards the sun.

This article has many metaphors and summaries about technological development, but from reading his introduction and conclusion, one gets the impression that he is using science as an example to debate the human psyche. One impression he makes, is to talk about the consistent hope through history that mankind will develop an inherent kindness. However, by the end of the article he seems resigned to the conclusion that man will continue to use science, the most powerful of all historical progresses, to satisfy the prejudices of the masses and those in power. In his mind, only a strong global power can solve this problem, which is a confusing statement considering Russell’s lack of explanation. However, he debases this method as well, stating that the historical stagnation of the last great power, the Roman Republic, shows that the fall of civilization may the best answer to the combination of scientific progress and human flaws.

This theory is partially disproved by Stone, as he talks about one of Russell’s themes, eugenics, and describes its conclusion after the fact. His description of the Head of the Eugenics Society in Britain who changes his stand from pro-race eugenics to ‘parental obligations’ after the Holocaust, is symptomatic of the societal pressures of responsibility that the combination of scientific progress and human flaws can create (Stone, 99). However, it is hard to completely discredit Russell’s ideas as he does not give a time line for his projection of the fall of civilization. The themes, if not the specifics, of his article would be responsive of the dangers of scientific progress today.

The “Seeds” of Eugenics



In this overt example of interwar propaganda, the practice of eugenics is promoted through a poignant visual and textual analogy to agriculture.  The double meaning of the key term “seed” is utilized in a comparison between spreading healthy plant seed for a bountiful harvest and spreading healthy human “seed” for the purposes of procreation, specifically the creation of a physically fit, mentally proficient, racially pure population.

The first block of text that appears at the top of the poster, “Only healthy seed must be sown!”, alludes to the exclusionist principles of eugenics.  People who were deficient in physical or mental health were considered unfit to procreate.  More generally, anyone incapable of making an economic contribution to the state through gainful employment were subject to the scorn of negative eugenics (Mazower, 96).  Such members of the population were considered sources of “bad seeds,” so to speak, a threat to the purity and longevity of the nation in question.

The textual motif of the poster stands in contrast to the bright and optimistic image of the farmer, portrayed as a literally shining example of the robust and productive citizens that eugenicists aimed to create.  As Mark Mazower states in Dark Continent, eugenicists “believed that it was indeed possible to produce ‘better’ human beings through the right kind of social policies.” (91)  This logic was employed by several European nations during the interwar period, most notably Great Britain, Russia, and Germany, the latter applying the simplistically and deceptively positive term “racial hygiene” to the practice of eugenics. (Mazower, 92).

This poster is a pithy snapshot of the dangerous ideological ground being tread by interwar governments in Europe.  While the calculated and “logical” attributes of eugenics (as discussed in class) held several appeals for the recovering European governments after WWI, the concomitant dehumanization of the population in the eyes of the state may have in fact planted the “seeds” of social tension and injustice that helped steer the continent toward WWII. (Mazower, 97-98)

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Eugenics in Interwar Europe

“Eugenics is the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage,” states Francis Galton in his article, Eugenics: It’s Definition, Scope, and Aims in July 1904. Eugenic ideas spread through out Europe following the First World War. While eugenics is supposed to be about race quality, it became prevalent in interwar Europe mainly due to fear, and the need to transfer blame.

In National Self-Sufficiency, John Maynard Keynes states that England’s vast trading network was “the explanation before man and the justification before Heaven of her economic supremacy.” This statement reflects the views of most European countries; their respective races were superiorto all others. After WWI, Europe began to lose control of its colonies. For example, the British were facing resistance to their rule in India. In addition to this, natives of those colonies were immigrating to the mother nations; there were Algerians in France and Chinese in England, to name a few. To nations that had been mainly of homogenous race up to this point, this immigration was a shock and an unwelcome change. Fear began to spread among whites of these people with different skin color, culture and language. Whites needed a way to establish themselves as the superior race and to keep their race pure. Thus, they turned to eugenics.

Not only was Europe physically destroyed by WWI, the global economic crisis of 1929 ruined its still weak economies. A general sense that someone needed to be blamed was felt through out the continent; who better to blame than these new races or less superior races within European nations? Especially in Germany, who shouldered the majority of the blame, according to the Treaty of Versailles, for WWI, this need was felt; the blame was placed mainly the Jews. During WWI, Jews held the majority of the seats in German parliament, and were the ones who agreed to a cease-fire. After the war, German officers came forward and said that they could have won if it weren’t for the armistice. This fueled hatred for the Jews. Eugenics became popular as a scientific way to justify this hatred. In this German eugenics propaganda poster, Germans are being told that they must take the burden for degenerates and those who are not as genetically fit. Taking these attitudes into account, it is not surprising that the Holocaust occurred.

Eugenics was a recognized science in Europe during the interwar period. Eugenists and those who supported eugenics were not extremists, but were close to mainstream thought. Eugenics was driven by fear and the search for an outlet for blame, and was itself an underlying factor in the Second World War.

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British Eugenics: Race Versus Class

This eugenicist poster presents the differences between different African faces, highlighting the features of the so-considered “criminal” and “civil insane.”  I found it to be a good demonstration of the belief within eugenics that someone’s facial features could be used to determine their personality type.  Eugenicists believed that one’s personality could be determined by their appearance.  Having a “shorter, broader, higher head” for example could classify one as a criminal according to this poster.  Biology and anthropology were used as both logical proof and a moral conscience for these claims.  It was thought processes like this that allowed for racism to flourish from eugenics in interwar Europe.

Another interesting aspect of this poster is the fact that it comes from Britain, where eugenics were supposedly based more in social class than in race.  It helps to prove Stone’s argument in Breeding Superman that racial eugenics were more prominent in Britain than the nation’s eugenicists preferred to lead on.  After the atrocities committed by Germany that used eugenics as their logic were exposed, Britain claimed that their eugenics programs were based around preserving the traditional class system that had been becoming obsolete.  However, as an empire that spanned almost all the continents of the world, as well as the peoples of different races that resided on them, Britain felt it necessary to assert its dominance over the natives of their colonies.  Therefore, eugenics was used to “prove” white supremacy.  This poster shows how the British did this by using the reasoning that Africans were naturally savages who would disrupt the social order with their “natural” tendencies toward violence.  Documents such as this could have easily manipulated the mindsets of the middle class through its fear tactics.

After having become aware of how British eugenics were based around similar ideals as those in the more extreme Nazi Germany, it fascinates me how one country used these ideas to justify a mass genocide, while the other fought against these actions.  Could Britain have eventually reached a tipping point that would have caused the nation to undertake similar actions as Germany?

Eugenics in the Modern Socialist State

Nazi Eugenics Poster

Nazi Eugenics Poster

With the rise of the modern socialist state, states now found themselves responsible for the well-being of their citizens. Because of the physical and mental capabilities of some citizens, many countries in Europe during the inter-war period began to advocate and implement eugenics programs in order to decrease the strain and burden on the bureaucratic system.

States such as France and Germany began to give benefits to its working class; the right to vote, improved health care, education, etc to name a few. All of these rights have costs and benefits to the state, costs that are worth every penny IF the citizen is a healthy and productive member of society. However, in the case of unproductive members (mentally challenged, “undesirables”, crippled, etc) they can act as a burden on the state. Thus, in order to provide for productive members in times of an economic crisis, citizens began to advocate and help implement eugenics into European society.

As demonstrated above, eugenics were not promoted by showing the end result of the people in question; rather, eugenics was promoted through propaganda using imagery designed to show the dead weight that the “unproductive” citizens were sharing with those who were productive. The ubermensch German is shown to carry the sick and deformed as part of their duty to the state while the freeloaders ride on his shoulders. This sort of imagery in the times of a recession agreed with citizens view points on making sure that they survived the crisis. Because of this agreement, citizens began to implement such programs as eugenics, leading to the Holocaust.


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Eugenics in Europe

Eugenics, the science of improving a countries human stock through specific breeding, had a significant impact on interwar Europe. Stone and Auslander both give their interpretations of how eugenics affected Europe. Stone discusses how, contrary to popular belief, eugenics in Britain was not exclusively targeted towards class, but how it was inadvertently also about race. Auslander explains how eugenics in interwar Europe manifests itself in the citizens aesthetic lifestyle choices, which reflects the sense of the countries nationalist philosophies.

The reality behind the eugenics movement and Britain was not that it primarily focused on class, but focused on race as well. Similar to Nazi Germany, there were also revered, racist British eugenicists. For example, Rentoul, a famous British eugenicist, saw blacks as sexual beasts that shouldn’t breed with whites. “The negro is seldom content with sexual intercourse with a white woman, but culminates his sexual furor by killing the woman, sometimes taking out her womb and eating it”. (Stone, 96) This popularized racist though process led to British sterilization laws. The main issue with claiming that the movement was solely about class, was that there was too much overlap between the lower class, which consisted of a lot of immigrants, and race.  Although many saw these eugenics views as extreme, they still had an impact on the eugenics movement. After World War II, and the newfound widespread disdain for the extreme German eugenics movement, Britain claimed that their eugenics was class oriented, and they did this to disassociate with Nazi Germany.

Auslander describes the lifestyle choices and aesthetic tastes that the French, German’s, and Jew’s had in the interwar era when the national sense of belonging came from different ideologies. For example, Auslander gives us the idea that “…in Germany…citizens are understood to be born rather than made…”. (Auslander, 110) The foundation for German citizenship came from genetics, while French citizens were “French” through cultural adaptation. This reflects the national ideology of eugenics in the time period. Germany was more exclusive in the national sense, even if you were born in Germany but had non-German parents, you were not considered German. In France, however, anyone could be considered “French” as long as you spoke French, and engaged in the proper French activities.

Eugenics had a considerable influence on nationalist ideologies, a sense of belonging, and racism during the inter-war era in Europe. When confronted with the topic of racial exclusion in Europe during this era, almost all will point directly towards Nazi Germany. While it is true that Nazi Germany was the most extreme with their execution of eugenics philosophies, they were widespread throughout Europe at the time.

Eugenics in Interwar Europe


This is a German poster for a government scripted movie, entitled the “The Eternal Jew”. It is described as a documentary, but a cursory glance at the poster reveals that it is a eugenics motivated propaganda film. The features of the Jew on the cover are deliberately depicted as ugly and evil, reminiscent of a witch from the tales of the Brothers Grimm. This movie was released in 1940, and represents the exaggerated European eugenicist view of “degenerates” (Stone, 98) during the interwar period.

The Nazi racialization of the state is well known, but according to Stone, race was a primary criterion even in Britain (Stone, 95). The image of a class based British Eugenicist Society was created by the Society after the Second World War and the disastrous culmination of racial eugenics in the Third Reich (Stone, 98-9). The difference between British eugenics and continental eugenics was their motive. Britain used eugenics to maintain the social hierarchy within the nation (Stone, 94), and to maintain supremacy over the Empire (Stone, 97). On the other hand, Italian and German ‘research’ was motivated by state ideology. Additionally, the methods implemented were very different. While Britain (Stone, 98), Italy (Willson, 84-6), and Germany (Mazower, 76) all advocated pro-natalism in a racial capacity, the former two were only able to legislate moderate laws, which were largely ineffective (Willson, 92-3), whereas the latter had more control over state policy and policing. Thus Eugenics had a greater effect in a German State that believed that blood descent, rather than assimilation, was the only claim to citizenship (Auslander, 110). Finally, while France believed that one could become a citizen through assimilation (Auslander, 110), they were still a colonial power who believed in the natural savageness of their colonial subjects.

In conclusion, it can be noted that Eugenics was an important debate in interwar Europe, but to varying degrees of implementation and success. State policies on women and families might have been influenced by these debates, but it must also be remembered that Europe had just suffered a large population loss due to the Great War. Therefore, these policies were also influenced by economic motives.