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Darwinism influenced Hitler, Nazism and white nationalism

Germans, Nazism, Ukrainians, Darwinism, Senate

Opinion

Darwinism influenced Hitler, Nazism and white nationalism

Hitler was seen as a lone madman, unconnected to previous history or culture, and Nazism almost as a kind of virus – an alien force that infected otherwise innocent Germans. Writes Danusha V Goska

Suffering is a commodity. Two recent events demonstrated this. On March 27, 2022, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Academy Awards. Many prominent African Americans, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wanda Sykes, condemned Smith’s choice to resort to violence. Race hustlers, though, depicted Will Smith as a victim of white supremacy. The Guardian ran a piece calling reaction to Will Smith an example of “downright racist … anti-blackness … inequality in plain sight.” “Race scholar” and Loyola Marymount University Professor Maia Niguel Hoskin wrote that the slap “is about … White supremacist culture designed to police the behavior of Blacks.” Others focused on Jada Pinkett Smith as a victim. “How a black woman’s hair grows out of her head has been a constant battle in this country … while at the same time celebrating white women for fitting your styles … Humiliating a black woman fighting for equality is not a ha-ha moment. Making fun of a black woman a week after we saw Ketanji Brown Jackson’s ambush” proves that “racism always finds a way,” wrote columnist Jeneé Osterheldt.

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A similar process of victim-mongering occurred after Ketanji Brown Jackson was nominated for the Supreme Court. My Facebook page was flooded with memes depicting Jackson as a helpless Little Match Girl facing off against big, scary, white male dragons.

In fact, of course, Smith is worth an estimated $350 million. He is one of the most profitable and popular film stars who has ever lived. Jackson is the child of two professionals. She attended Harvard and married surgeon Patrick Jackson, a Boston Brahmin and descendant of a Continental Congress delegate and also a relative of Oliver Wendell Holmes and former House Speaker Paul Ryan. She is a millionaire. White male Joe Biden guaranteed her elevation by vowing, in a political promise to help him win an election, to nominate only black women to the SCOTUS. Ilya Shapiro, a white man, tweeted that Sri Srinavasan, an Indian immigrant, was the best qualified person to be the next SCOTUS nominee. Shapiro was suspended from his job for this tweet. Neither alleged “white male privilege” nor the first amendment guarantee of free speech protected Shapiro from workplace retaliation for expressing his opinion. Senate questions for Jackson were brief and mild compared to the trials-by-fire endured by conservative nominees Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

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Slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy are all too real and unspeakably evil. But rushing to attribute criticism of Will Smith or the Senate questioning of Ketanji Brown Jackson to past evils is not warranted by the facts. People made those connections because they commodify suffering to gain political ends. In this approach, suffering belongs exclusively to African Americans. Race hustlers are currently depicting war-ravaged Ukrainians as enjoying white privilege, as Joy Reid did in her March 7, 2022 broadcast.

Evil, like suffering, is also commodified. Powerbrokers rush to monopolize the evil Nazis committed to serve their own narrative ends. This commodification and monopolizing of evil interferes with our desire to understand.

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Americans have been struggling for ninety years in their effort to tell the Nazi story accurately. This effort is recorded, inter alia, in Peter Novick’s 2000 book, The Holocaust in American Life, Tom Segev’s The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, the This American Life episode “Before It Had a Name” and the documentary “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.” It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Hollywood moguls were fearful of making accurate films addressing Nazism. There was a time when Holocaust survivors and those who recorded their stories, both in the US and in Israel, were ignored and silenced. In the Soviet Bloc, the unique victimization of Jews under Nazism was suppressed to near invisibility. There was a time, even after the publication of Mein Kampf, when mainstream American and British magazines focused on the interior decorating of Hitler’s homes. In these articles, Hitler was referred to as “charming.”

In much American media produced before, during, and immediately after World War II, Hitler was seen as a lone madman, unconnected to previous history or culture, and Nazism almost as a kind of virus – an alien force that infected otherwise innocent Germans. There was a great deal of emphasis on depicting “good Germans,” so that Americans could learn to hate Nazis while not hating all Germans, because Germans were an important part of America’s cultural and economic life. This process of condemning Nazism while shielding German identity from hatred is exemplified by the 1951 best-picture-nominee, “Decision before Dawn.” See a discussion of how diligently this film works to exculpate “ordinary Germans” from any guilt, here.

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In profound contrast to this approach, in 1996, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. This book became a bestseller and an international sensation. The book was accused, by serious scholars, of being racist against Germans. Goldhagen, his critics alleged, depicted Germanness itself as the guilty party. “No Germans, no Holocaust,” as Goldhagen put it. While others pointed to a perfect storm leading up to Hitler’s rise, including Germany’s defeat in World War I, the violent rise of Communism in Russia, the Versailles Treaty, the Depression, etc, Goldhagen insisted that “Not economic hardship, not the coercive means of a totalitarian state, not social psychological pressure,” caused Germans to kill, but rather their own anti-Semitism. Raul Hilberg, the “founder of the academic field of Holocaust studies,” said that Goldhagen depicted Germans as being possessed of “a medieval-like incubus, a demon latent in the German mind … waiting for the chance to strike out.” Hilberg said that Goldhagen is “totally wrong about everything.”

Another big change in how the story of Nazism has been told is in how various retellings depict Christians and Christianity. Nazism’s ultimate goal was to eliminate Christianity (see hereherehereherehere.) See, for example, this photo of a Nazi shooting Father Piotr Sosnowski to death, or priests murdered in Bydgoszcz, here. In material produced before and during the war, journalists and filmmakers recorded Nazi persecution of Christians. See, for example, “Nazi Persecution of the Catholic Church Shows They Fear It,” from the June 1, 1936 New York Timesor “3 Faiths Protest Nazi Persecution: A Catholic, Protestant and Jew Represent the Conquered Peoples at Meeting Here” from the November 14, 1941 issue.

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The Times covered clergy who resisted the Nazis, including Dutch Archbishop Johannes de Jong, German Bishop von Galen, Belgian Cardinal van Roey, Norwegian Lutheran Bishop Eivind Berggrav, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Gavrilo, and the Swiss Calvinist Karl Barth.

The 1943 Hollywood feature film, Hitler’s Madman dramatized the real-life assassination of top Nazi Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovak partisans, and the subsequent retaliatory Nazi massacre of the Czech village of Lidice. In that film, Heydrich plows his car through a Czech Christian festival, and one of Heydrich’s men shoots the village priest dead. In real life, Heydrich was anti-Christian and he identified “clerics” as well as Jews as among the German people’s “eternal” “enemies.” Heydrich devised ways to close and limit operation of churches.

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Popular attention to Nazi persecution of Catholics and other Christians changed dramatically after the 1963 play, “The Deputy.” “The Deputy” insinuated that Pope Pius XII shared guilt for the Holocaust. One image promoting the work depicts a monstrous face wearing a grotesque caricature of Catholic vestments. One of the eyes in the face is replaced with a swastika. Nazism = Catholicism, the image communicates. Playwright Rolf Hochhuth was a former Hitler Youth member. Hochhuth went on to make other shocking allegations. For example, his 1967 play Soldiers, An Obituary for Geneva suggested that Winston Churchill plotted the murder of the Prime Minister of the Polish Government in Exile, General Wladyslaw Sikorski.

There is clearly a pattern here; Hochhuth wrote plays that denigrated WW II heroes of the Allied side. Hochhuth also praised Holocaust-denier David Irving as a “fabulous pioneer of contemporary history.” Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest ranking defector from the Soviet Bloc to the West, and author of the book Disinformation, alleged that Hochhuth’s play was part of a KGB campaign. Whether Hochhuth intended it or not, his tarnishing of Western anti-Nazi figures like Churchill and Pope Pius XII served Soviet interests.

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John Cornwell’s 1999 book Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s 2003 book A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair are representational of more recent works condemning Catholics and Catholicism for Holocaust guilt. Both works were criticized as severely flawed (see herehere and here).

Anti-Semitism from Christians is an undeniable historical fact, and confronting that fact in an honest way with a view to repentance and reconciliation is a good thing, and has been pursued by the Vatican for decades, and, indeed, for centuries. Too many Christians were at worst complicit in genocide and were at least not as heroic as, say, Franz JägerstätterSophie SchollDietrich Bonhoeffer, or the Ulma Family, all of whom were martyred for their resistance to Nazism. What is not a good thing is the distortion of history by politics. “History is politics projected into the past,” said Mikhail Pokrovsky, the Russian Marxist historian. We deserve a better approach to history.

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In fact the Catholic Church was notorious among intellectual elites one hundred years ago. It was notorious because official Catholic teaching insisted on human equality, an insistence that defied then current scientific racism, that argued against human equality on scientific grounds. Noteworthy Catholic documents on the equality of humans include, for example, the 1537 Sublimis Deus, which argues for the full humanity of the then recently discovered Native Americans; the 1888 In Plurimis, which argues for the full humanity of enslaved persons; Pius XI’s 1938 statement that “Anti-Semitism is inadmissible. Spiritually, we are Semites,” as well as his 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge. Yes, Catholics have certainly been bigoted and have committed crimes inspired by their bigotry. But official Catholic Church teaching has insisted, for centuries, on human equality, and, again, during the rise of scientific racism one hundred years ago, this stance was seen as backward and anti-science.

Today, though, it has become conventional in university classrooms, in the press and in popular books and films, to conflate Nazism with Christianity. For one example, see this 2022 Reddit thread. An author attributes the Holocaust to an alleged Christian “two thousand year hatred” for Jews without which “there never could have been the Holocaust.”

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For the “Nazism is Christian” narrative to work, one must forget that the first

and last victims of a Nazi mass killing campaign were not Jews, but were, rather, handicapped Germans. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum lists the following numbers for civilians killed: Jews, six million. Soviet civilians, seven million. Non-Jewish Polish civilians, 1.8 million.

Further down, the list records deaths of hundreds of thousands of Serb civilians, people with handicaps, Roma, aka Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “asocials,” German political prisoners, and homosexuals. Nazis persecuted mixed-race Germans, that is Germans with one African parent, forcing them to undergo sterilization. Nazis murdered three million Soviet POWs. Soviet POWs were the first to be gassed with Zyklon B. They were also shot and starved to death. German Nazis did not treat American or British POWs this way. If the death toll includes military deaths, Nazis killed 24 million Soviet citizens. How to explain these deaths?

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No group suffered the same percentage loss as Jews. Nazis murdered over 60% of all Europe’s pre-war Jewish population. Numbers of Gypsies killed are uncertain; by one estimate, half of Europe’s Gypsies were killed by Nazis. Most of these Gypsies were Christian. Even hard-hit Slavic countries like Poland, Belarus, and Russia did not lose that high a percentage of their non-Jewish populations. Even so, we are still talking about millions dead. To personalize those millions of non-Jewish, largely Slavic deaths, think of Czeslawa Kwoka. This sweet-faced, 14-year-old Polish Catholic girl was imprisoned, beaten, and died in Auschwitz. Why did Nazis murder Polish Catholic children, not just in Auschwitz but also in Kinder-KZ Litzmannstadt, a Nazi concentration camp specifically for Polish, Catholic children, children as young as two years old? Why did an SS man force children to watch as he decapitated a 12-year-old Polish Catholic boy? Why did Nazis place 7-year-old Halina Bukowiecka on a train with other Polish Catholic children, without food or water, for a days-long trip to Germany, where she and others would be mistreated and sometimes killed? The Nazism = Christianity explanation fails to explain these atrocities against largely Christian, civilian victims. We need another explanation.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen exercises “considerable distortion” to write off the persecution of non-Jews as “incidental … mere tactical operations.”

Goldhagen’s dismissal is wrong. Soviet POWs, handicapped Germans, persons with one African and one German parent, Polish Catholic two-year-olds: what ties all these targeted populations together is not Christian anti-Semitism, but rather Nazism’s biological focus, a focus sometimes called “scientific racism,” “social Darwinism,” or “eugenics.” All of these diverse populations, in their millions, were deemed “life unworthy of life,” and a biological threat to Germany.

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Nazism advanced a new ethic, a new ethic that explicitly rejected Christianity and was informed by scientific racism. Germans should be kind and loving – to other Germans. Germans should ruthlessly exploit and then mass murder those not conducive to German advancement. SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, in his speeches, stated this new ethic quite succinctly.

“We will have to deal with Christianity in a tougher way than hitherto. We must settle accounts with this Christianity, this greatest of plagues that could have happened to us in our history, which has weakened us in every conflict … We shall once again have to find a new scale of values for our people … everything that we do must be justifiable vis-à-vis the clan, our ancestors. If we do not secure this moral foundation which is the deepest and best because the most natural, we will not be able to overcome Christianity on this plane and create the Germanic Reich which will be a blessing for the earth … We must be honest, decent, loyal, and comradely to members of our own blood and nobody else … Whether nations live in prosperity or starve to death interests me only in so far as we need them as slaves for our culture … Whether ten thousand Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an anti-tank ditch interests me only in so far as the anti-tank ditch for Germany is finished.”

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Himmler stated the Nazi ethic explicitly in recorded speeches. Why, then, does one still encounter, in social media debates on the internet, in college classrooms, and in high-profile published books and journalism, so little about the role scientific racism played in Nazism, and so much about Christian anti-Semitism? Because evil and suffering are commodities. If one can attribute absolute evil to Christianity, then one has struck a blow against Christianity, against religious belief, and against Western Civilization; and one has struck a blow for their competitors, including scientism, relativism, Marxism, and Atheism.

Atheists like to say that religion has killed more people than any other cause. This statement is fabricated out of thin air, but one hears it frequently, without support, of course. Atheists like to present Atheism as the panacea. If only we could all wise up and acknowledge that there is no God, war would cease. If only we could replace backward, superstitious religious belief with scientism, human life would improve stratospherically.

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John Lennon’s “Imagine” encapsulates this approach. “Imagine there’s no heaven … No hell below us … Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion, too … Imagine all the people livin’ life in peace.” Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, corelates “The Escalator of Reason,” that is a posited increase in rational thought, to a decline in human violence. The title of Michael Shermer’s 2015 book The Moral Arc: How Science Leads Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom announces the book’s thesis.

Oxford Fellow and atheist Peter Atkins argues in a 2018 article that “only science can answer all the big questions” while religion offers only “the sword, the bomb or the flame.” To acknowledge that top theorists justified Nazi crimes with an explicit rejection of the Judeo-Christian ethic and with reference to science and rationality is a bridge too far for devout Atheists.

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The very best author to read on Nazism’s roots in scientific racism is Richard Weikart. A great place to start reading Weikart is his brief, accessible, 2022 book, Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism. Richard Weikart has been publishing on Germany, Nazism, and Darwin for over twenty years. His work has been published by the University of Chicago Press and it has appeared in peer-reviewed journals. He has presented at numerous academic conferences. He is an emeritus professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus. Weikart is fluent in German, was a Fulbright scholar in Germany, and lived in Germany for five years. His work has been called, by his fellow scholars, “masterful,” “outstanding,” “sober,” ” insightful, thoughtful, informative, and highly readable.”

Why, then, has Weikart’s work not made the same splash as work by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen or John Cornwell? Why do some Amazon readers award Weikart’s books one-star, as does this poorly punctuated three-sentence review: “Hitler was baptized as a Christian and died a Christian. I would not even give this book 1 star not even worth reading” (sic). Why does Robert J. Richards, the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Chicago, dismiss Weikart as a “religious conservative” who sees shapes in clouds? Why is Richards an endowed chair at the prestigious University of Chicago, why is John Cornwell at Cambridge, and why did Goldhagen teach at Harvard, while Weikart spent his career at a less prestigious school? Why? Because Richard Weikart tells unpopular truths. Nazism was inspired by Darwinism. It is simply less popular to state that basic truth than to pump out yet another trite attack on Catholicism in particular and religious belief in general.

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In his books that I have read, Weikart never exculpates Christianity, or denies Christian anti-Semitism, or Nazism’s exploitation of pre-existing anti-Semitism to accomplish its evil ends. Weikart never claims that being a Christian or any other kind of religious believer exempts one from committing atrocities. He makes clear that Darwin was no Nazi, and that believing in Darwinism does not turn one into a Nazi. Weikart emphasizes that many factors, having nothing to do with Darwinism, contributed to the rise of Nazism. But Weikart is crystal clear and irrefutable on his main point: Nazis themselves cited a Darwinian evolutionary worldview as foundational to their ethic and their genocidal behavior.

Nazis rejected the Judeo-Christian ethic that had been foundational to Western Civilization. Nazis rejected the concept, unique to the Hebrew Bible’s book of Genesis, that all humans were equally created in the image of God, and that, therefore, unjustly ending any human life carries an eternal cost. Nazis regarded human beings as comparable to animals, the very animals we slaughter without much thought. Nazis rejected Christian concepts of compassion. Nazis embraced the idea that human groups are arranged on an evolutionary hierarchy, with higher and lower forms. Nazis enthusiastically embraced the idea of struggle as perfecting the species, of “survival of the fittest” as the highest and unquestionable good, and of death as the just destroyer of uncompetitive life. Nazis reduced “life unworthy of life” to a biological threat to the German species. Jews, handicapped Germans, Christian Gypsies and Slavs, were biological threats that needed to be destroyed just as rats or lice are destroyed in order to enable the flourishing of the desired species. Any “Christian compassion” extended to non-group members was deleterious and condemnable. Nazis spelled out these beliefs in document after document, speech after speech, textbook after textbook. Weikart documents this in exhaustive detail.

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Is Weikart threatening Darwinian evolution as a scientific theory? Not for this reader. I accept Darwinian evolution and I have never read anything by Weikart that caused me to doubt Darwinian evolution. But Weikart’s work makes plain that powerful people accepted Darwinian evolution and made the immediate leap into genocide.

One can witness the leap from Darwin to genocide in German Darwinian Ernst Haeckel’s ironically titled 1904 book The Wonders of LifeOn page 121, Haeckel argues strenuously against the belief in “the immortality of the soul” or in “an all loving God.” How could a human being who was “utterly ruined … born an idiot” enjoy eternal life in Heaven, Haeckel asks.

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“Pathology, the science of the diseased organism” obliterates faith in God. On page 122, Haeckel argues that “the widespread belief that man is bound under all circumstances to maintain and prolong life” is a senseless religious dogma. “Lunatics, lepers, people with cancer” Haeckel protests, are kept alive “without the slightest profit to themselves or the general body.” “What a huge public and private expenditure!” he mourns, on page 123. “A dose of morphia” or a “dose of some painless and rapid poison” “under the control of an authoritative commission” would solve the problem. Then, just as the Nazis did – see the opening of Leni Riefenstahl film Olympia – Haeckel jumps over 2,000 years of Christian influence on ethics and returns to the ancient, Pagan world, where parents had the good sense to commit infanticide of their defective offspring. “The ancient Spartans” owed their “bodily strength and beauty as well as their mental energy and capacity” to the infanticide of the “weak or crippled.” “Religious journals” protest with “pious indignation” “as always happens when pure reason” “opposes prejudices and traditional beliefs” “Religion” is “irrational and superstitious.”

Haeckel’s argument is not unique. Similar intellectual journeys were taken by others, including Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, two big names in American scientific racism. Stoddard’s 1922 book, The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under Man, praises Darwin as making Stoddard’s own racist ideas possible. Stoddard positions Darwin as an authoritative opponent of “The Christian doctrine of the equality of all souls before God.” He blames this doctrine for “appeals to altruism” which mistakenly encourage efforts to improve “inferior” lives. Stoddard denigrates the compassion springing from Christian teachings of “equality” as “emotional” “mystic faith.” To replace these inferior approaches, Stoddard recommends “science” and “reason” because both inarguably demonstrate that some human lives are worthless. “During the past ten years biology and kindred sciences have refuted practically all the intellectual arguments on which the doctrine of ‘natural equality’ relies.” Stoddard spent time in Nazi Germany and reported the chummy conversations he shared with Himmler. He observed Nazi eugenics procedures and granted those procedures his stamp of approval. Nazis were “weeding out the worst strains in the Germanic stock in a scientific and truly humanitarian way.”

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Margaret Sanger, who founded what would become Planned Parenthood, cited Darwin when, in 1920, she bemoaned “philanthropies and charities” that “build asylums and hospitals and keep the medical profession busy preserving those who could not otherwise survive.” Sanger voiced an opinion that would appear again and again in Darwin-inspired commentary, including that produced by Nazis: that there is a greater difference between the highest and lowest human and that lowest human and an animal. Because of this differential between more highly evolved humans and less evolved ones, Sanger argued, external control of human reproduction is necessary. In 1916, Sanger wrote, “the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets.” Compare this Sanger statement to one by Ernst Haeckel, “The distance between the thinking soul of the cultured human and the thoughtless animal soul of the wild natural human is extremely vast, greater than the distance between the latter and the soul of a dog.” And compare Sanger and Haeckel to this statement: “The gulf between the lowest creature which can still be styled man and our highest races is greater than that between the lowest type of man and the highest ape.” The final speaker is Hitler.

In 1916, Madison Grant published The Passing of the Great Race, a book

Hitler called his “bible.” Scholar Jonathan Spiro writes that “Mein Kampf is riddled with passages that seem directly inspired by The Passing of the Great Race” some “encapsulate all the aspects of Grantian thought including the primacy of race” and “the worship of modern science.” Grant wrote, “The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit, and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race … The church assumes a serious responsibility toward the future of the race whenever it steps in and preserves a defective strain … A rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak or unfit – in other words, social failures – would solve the whole question in one hundred years.”

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Grant, an environmentalist who cofounded the Bronx Zoo, played a role in placing Ota Benga, a Pygmy, on display with primates in 1906. The goal was to demonstrate that Benga was close to a monkey himself. The Evening Post reported that Benga “has a great influence with the beasts …  including the orang-outang with whom he plays as though one of them … chattering to them in his own guttural tongue, which they seem to understand.” The Rev. James H. Gordon said, “The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity, and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted.” The always enlightened New York Times responded that Ota Benga “belongs to a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale…The idea that men are all much alike … is now far out of date.” Benga, being low on the evolutionary scale, was, the Times wrote, not capable of experiencing “humiliation and degradation.” Benga eventually committed suicide.

Nor did Grant, Stoddard, and other Darwin-citing, scientific racists limit their disdain to dark-skinned people. Eastern and Southern Europeans were also deemed racially inferior. America’s mainstream and even scholarly presses – including the New York TimesThe Saturday Evening PostThe American Anthropologist, Colliers and The Atlantic were flooded with inflammatory racist material denigrating Poles, Slovaks, Jews, and Italians as subhuman. As sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross put it, “A Slav can live in dirt that would kill a white man.” Ironically, Grant, a self-declared member of the superior Nordic race, but, an arthritic, was too frail to testify in front of Congress. Even so, through lobbying, Grant influenced Congress to pass immigration restriction targeting allegedly racially inferior Eastern and Southern Europeans.

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This history violates the monopoly race hustlers claim over evil and suffering. Eastern and Southern Europeans were white and largely Christian. These white, Christian peasants were subject to murderous and hateful racism. They were lynched, exploited at work sites, and defamed.

In short, those seeking the roots of Nazism in Christianity are commodifying evil and suffering to serve their own petty vendetta against faith and to shield science from critique. Those genuinely about the heartbreaking, demanding work of understanding atrocity will benefit from reading Richard Weikart.

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Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism, is a must-read intro to Weikart’s entire oeuvre. Though jam-packed with facts and citations, Darwinian Racism is an easier, quicker read than Weikart’s more scholarly works.

Weikart proves that Nazis themselves believed themselves to be good Darwinians. They got this idea not from fringe publications or conspiracy theories but from esteemed scientists. Chapter one of Weikart’s book includes Darwin quotes which, even if you have encountered them in other contexts, are newly shocking in the context of a discussion of genocide. “We may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant … that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply … Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows” (emphasis added). These exact words could appear in a Himmler speech justifying the Einsatzgruppen. Obviously, Darwin and Himmler would apply a different valence to the words. Compare that quote to this one, “War is thus the unalterable law of all life, the precondition for the natural selection of the strong … What appears to people thereby as cruel is from the standpoint of nature obviously wise.” The speaker of this last quote is Hitler.

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Weikart shows, in chapter two, that Hitler held to a Darwinian worldview. In chapter three, Weikart amply demonstrates that Darwinian evolution was advanced by Nazis in Nazi-mandated school curricula. “Nature eliminates everything sick and weak. All life is struggle. The weak perish,” reads the captions on a series of drawings depicting a fox eating a rabbit, a bird falling from the sky, and other cheerful, very non-Disney themes pounded into the heads of German tots. Catholics protested; Konrad Lorenz, who would later win a Nobel Prize, countered, “evolution provided an even more elevated ideal” than Catholicism did. The elevated ideal the church of Darwin promised was “the higher evolution of humanity.” “For us the race and volk are everything … the individual person as good as nothing.”

Lorenz was a Nazi Party member. His ethic directly contradicts the Talmud’s commentary on Genesis’ insistence that we all descend, not from a plethora of diverse creations, but from one couple, Adam and Eve. This descent, the Talmud informs us, means that to murder one person is to murder the entire world. Similarly, the Talmud teaches that after Cain murders Abel, not just Abel’s “blood,” but his “bloods,” plural, cry out from the ground. Why is “blood” plural? The Talmud explains: “This teaches that it was also the blood of his children and his children’s children, and all his future generations, until the end of the human line, that would have one day descended from him.

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They all stood up and cried out before the Holy Blessed One. (So you learn from this that one person is considered as important as the entire work of Creation.)” Clearly, in the ethic of the Hebrew Bible, murder is a big deal. To the Darwin-inspired Nazi, to kill an individual who is not a member of one’s own volk, “the individual person is as good as nothing.”

Chapter four of Weikart’s book records the many other Darwinian Nazi scientists at work during the Third Reich. Hans Weinert, one of the scientists Weikart discusses in chapter four, was a university anthropologist. In the interest of advancing Darwinian science, Weinert proposed inseminating a chimpanzee with sperm from a Pygmy. Such hideous proposals are not limited to Nazi scientists from decades ago. In 2001, Richard Dawkins, arguably the most famous, celebrated, and charismatic atheist and Darwinian in the world today, encouraged his fellow scientists to use genetic engineering to create a “missing link” between apes and humans. “The same benefits in moral education would be delivered by a successful hybridisation of a human and a chimpanzee … it would shatter our speciesist illusions very effectively.” Dawkins goes on to compare aborting a human fetus to eating beef, using that as an illustration of “speciesism.” Himmler similarly complained of “speciesism.” “Man is nothing special at all … He has no idea how a fly is constructed – however unpleasant, it is a miracle,” Himmler said, in one of his speeches justifying the genocide of human beings.

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In chapter five, Weikart covers eugenics and euthanasia. Those adopting these policies believed themselves to be Darwinists. They cited Darwin’s statements like, “Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” Weikart quotes Darwin contrasting the “hard reason” that might encourage callous treatment of handicapped persons with “sympathy.” In the Christian worldview, “sympathy” is not the opposite of “hard reason.” Rather, Christians like the geophysicist and Catholic Xavier le Pichon, regard handicapped persons as necessary and beneficial parts of God’s creation.

Chapter six documents Nazi propaganda’s promotion of Darwinism. Nazi propaganda did “not just mention Darwinism in passing, but accorded it a prominent place in Nazi racial ideology.” Chapter seven charts Nazi Germany’s treatment of German Darwinian Ernst Haeckel. The above-mentioned Robert J. Richards claims that Nazi Germany rejected Haeckel. Weikart proves Richards’ claim false. Heinz Brucher was a world class botanist, a Nazi Party member, an SS Sammelkommando – that is, one who stole seed research from the Soviet Union – and, after the war, a biology advisor to UNESCO. Before Nazis began their T4 euthanasia program, “Heinz Brucher was publicly lauding Haeckel for advocating the killing of disabled people.” Heinrich Schmidt, Haeckel’s protegee and director of the Haeckel house, wrote in 1934 that, “In the new Reich, his [Haeckel’s] ideas about biology … are celebrating a surprisingly powerful resurrection. The religious trajectory of the present is often traveling in the course of his simple, yet sublime nature religion.”

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In chapter eight, Weikart lists American neo-Nazis and white supremacists who embrace Darwinism. He cites the 1896 book Might is Right, which repeatedly cites Darwin as the new gospel. The book is available for free at white supremacist websites. “As Darwin commands, let the strongest live,” author Ragnar Redbeard writes. No longer should humanity follow the “hypnotic myth that centers around the execution of a Hebrew slave.”

“Christ was a pariah Jew.” “Darwinism is the mortal foe of Hebraism.” We must reject “the Gospel of Ineffectuality.” Our heroes must be “brutal,” made so through “brutal warfare, brutal personal encounters, brutal thoughts.” “A man is brutal who will not turn the other cheek.” Redbeard parodies the Christian beatitudes. He writes, “Cursed are the unfit for they shall be righteously exterminated.” Like the Nazis, Haeckel, and many New Atheists today who regret the Judeo-Christian influence on Western Civilization, Redbeard wishes to turn the clock back to Ancient Paganism, focused, as it was, on amoral beauty, strength, health, youth, selfish desires, and raw power. Redbeard writes, “In ancient Rome, it was considered the height of impiety, heresy, and treason, for free born citizens to adore a circumcised Asiatic [Jesus], but in America it is considered pious and fashionable and highly commendable to do so.” Redbeard also bemoans Christianity’s negative influence on manly Nordic Pagans. Christians banned the “holmgang,” a one-on-one fight to settle disputes. “When Clericalism abolished the holmgang the pride of Norland silently waned away … when it banned gladiatorial contests, the Eternal City had its day.”

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Robert J. Richards has written “Was Hitler a Darwinian?” a 2013, 54-page rebuttal to Richard Weikart’s work. Richards repeatedly resorts to ad hominem commentary, referring to anyone who mentions Darwinism’s influence on Nazism as a “conservative” “religious” thinker; in fact Richards does this in his first sentence, and repeats the ad hominem comment four times; “religious” is also used to dismiss other “constricted” “thinkers” four times, as in “a myriad of religious and politically constricted thinkers.” Such thinkers are not “reputable.” Richards explicitly blames Christianity for Nazism. Richards claims that Hitler admired Christianity’s “greatness.” Richards draws a straight line from Martin Luther to Nazism.

In 1919, Julius Streicher helped to found the Deutschsozialistische Partei a nationalist, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic party. Soon thereafter he joined the Nazi party. In 1923, he began publishing Der Sturmer, an anti-Semitic and also an anti-Catholic newspaper. In 1937, Streicher was given a copy of Martin Luther’s “The Jews and their Lies” for his birthday. Many authors cite this as Streicher’s first encounter with Luther’s work. Streicher was 52 at the time. He had been a leading German anti-Semite for at least 18 years. He had been publishing the most notorious anti-Semitic newspaper in history for 14 years. Streicher is not alone. Johannes Wallmann argues against the idea that Luther’s sixteenth-century tract was continuously influential in Germany. In any case, Luther raged violently against the Catholic Church, and his Reformation was followed by two centuries of vicious blood-letting by Catholics and Protestants on each other. The Nazis did not oppose Catholicism because of Martin Luther. The Nazis opposed Catholicism for their own reasons.

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The most notorious Nazi anti-Semitic film, The Eternal Jew, conflated Jews and rats. It depicted Jews as biological and economic threats. The most successful Nazi propaganda film, Jud Suss, relied on images of Jews as middleman minorities who manipulated the powerful to their own economic enrichment and the impoverishment of the German middle and lower classes. Nazis did not choose Luther’s tract as their primary propaganda instrument. They choose biological and economic imagery. Aligning their anti-Semitism most significantly with Christianity did not meet Nazi ideological ends. Presenting their anti-Semitism as rooted in biology, economics, and culture did.

Richards mentions only Jews as victims of the Nazis, and anti-Semitism as the only Nazi hate. Richards thus never has to address why Nazis murdered handicapped Germans, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, Polish children, and why Nazis sterilized Germans of African descent. Richards creates a strawman, insisting that Weikart cannot prove Darwinian evolution to be incorrect. I don’t think Weikart ever attempts to do that, certainly not in the book under review here. Richards writes that Haeckel’s “own moral theory certainly did not abandon Judeo-Christian precepts.” In fact, as the above quotes show, it certainly did exactly that. Richards makes a mistake many invested in the “white privilege” assumption about racism make. Only whites are racist; only non-whites are victims of racism. Richards identifies Madison Grant as prejudiced against Slavs – he was – but Richards inexplicably calls “Poles, Czechs, and Russians” “swarthy.” In other words, because Grant denigrated Slavs, Slavs must be dark-skinned. Most Slavs are in fact quite pale. Richards claims that “nowhere does Hitler even use” “any word that obviously refers to evolutionary theory.” In fact Hitler does, and he also refers to the “struggle for existence,” for example, “the natural struggle for existence which allows only healthy and strong individuals to survive is replaced by a sheer craze to ‘save’ feeble and even diseased creatures at any cost.” I asked Weikart about the specific term “evolution” in Mein Kampf in the original German. Weikart wrote back that Richards “argued that the German term ‘Entwicklung,’ which can be translated as ‘development’ or ‘evolution’ was no longer being used by biologists during Hitler’s time to refer to biological evolution. This is completely false.

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Biologists during the entire twentieth century used the term ‘Entwicklung‘ to mean evolution.”

As I write this, Russians are committing atrocities in Ukraine. In one intercepted phone call, a laughing Russian woman tells her man to wear a condom when raping Ukrainian women. A Russian soldier has been arrested for filming assaults on babies. He apparently hoped to market the videos. Commodifying evil and suffering to insist that white skin or Christianity explains wrongdoing, and even reactions to Will Smith’s Oscar slap, is abhorrent. The Judeo-Christian tradition insists on a different approach. We are all culpable – white, black, rich, poor, believer, Atheist – “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We must all monitor our behavior in order to comply with God’s commands based on the premise that we are all made in the image and likeness of God.

We may never be fully able to get into the minds of individual Nazis who committed atrocities. But we can read, in clear prose, their justifications for genocide. Those justifications were, more often than not, written out in the logic of scientific racism and a rejection of the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.

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