Home » 9th Season (2021-2022) » 2021-2022 v.03 (May) » The American Eugenics Movement and its Influence on Nazi Germany

The American Eugenics Movement and its Influence on Nazi Germany

By Caroline Sullivan, VI Form

The American Eugenics Movement and its Influence on Nazi Germany

It’s the early 1930s. A young woman, twenty years old, is out to lunch with her mother when all of the sudden she feels sharp stomach pains tearing through her abdomen. She dismisses them as merely an upset stomach, but they grow worse. Her driver rushes her to a hospital. When she arrives at the hospital, the doctors barely examine her before diagnosing her with appendicitis. They inform her that she must undergo emergency surgery to remove her appendix before it ruptures. However, upon waking up from the surgery she notices that something was different. All around her, doctors were whispering and acting suspiciously. New doctors, ones that she had never seen before, were coming in to observe her as if she was a sort of experiment. Confused, the girl begins searching for answers as to what had happened during surgery. She listened and overheard the doctors calling her offensive names such as “dumb,” “feebleminded,” and “idiot.” Finally, she connected the dots. While in surgery, the doctors had sterilized her, stripping her of her right to have children. 

It’s 1958, and the parents of a four-year-old child admit their son, Mark, to a mental hospital for Cerebral Palsy. His mother goes to the hospital every Wednesday to visit, but one week the hospital tells her she cannot come anymore. A few days later, the family receives a devastating call: their six-year-old boy has passed away. Upon requesting further information about his death, the hospital refuses to share anything. It even fails to provide a death certificate when the family asks for one. The family is destroyed, his parents lost a child, and his three sisters lost their little brother. Even worse, they struggle to find closure as the hospital gave them so little information about his death. Their quest for answers finally gets results decades later when the government declassifies records from the state hospital. The family is horrified to learn that their, innocent, six-year-old child died an excruciatingly painful death from radiation poisoning at the state hospital.

These two stories have more in common than their raw horror. They did not occur in some far away totalitarian country overseas. Instead, they took place within the United States, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government. These tragedies occurred in the very country that idealizes its democracy, grounded in the ideal of freedom. These procedures were legal under the U.S. justice system, a system created to promote liberty. Instead, The Constitution allowed states to deprive the most vulnerable members of society of liberty under a program called eugenics. 

Eugenics first started in the United States in the 1900s, with a few states introducing the first eugenics legislation in 1907. Eugenicists were a group of predominantly white reformers who sought to bring order to a country that they deemed chaotic. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century brought many changes within American society and politics. A new age of inventions in technology and big business, as well as immigration and urbanization, was reshaping American society. In 1896, Henry Ford built his first car, which transformed the way Americans traveled. Additionally, this period produced the airplane and the transcontinental railroad. The country, and the world, was advancing before Americans’ eyes, however, these advancements were not welcomed by all. There was a growing debate between urban and rural that divided Americans. Additionally, there were many changes within business at this time. With Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line, drives towards increased efficiency in the workplace, and a new wave of immigrants that brought unskilled workers, companies grew at rapid rates. This growth caused turbulence within American society as the gap between management and labor increased, compromising the rights of workers. These workers formed unions to demand more rights, however, Americans often perceived these unions as creating more chaos within America as in a few instances, they incited violence. This further divided Americans into people who supported big business and trusts, and those who supported workers’ rights. Additionally, during this time, the U.S. emerged as an imperialist nation, which created a further divide within America. People argued over the role the country should play in the international domain. The abundance of changes occurring in the US during this period dividend Americans. 

Many Americans perceived these new changes as chaotic. They believed that with all the change occurring in the country, America was losing order. This group of reformers yearned to find something that would help bring stability to America. They found this in a theory called eugenics, which was emerging in Europe as a race-based science. They believed that this “science” could help explain many of the issues they saw in America; chronic poverty, alcoholism, and “idiocy” among them. They began promoting the idea that certain people possessed “superior” genes that allowed them to succeed, while others possessed “weaker” genes that caused them to struggle. These reformers also used eugenics to explain how people inherited certain traits, both mental and physical, and that humans could use this information to intervene, creating a more elite gene pool. This science had dangerous implications when executed within American society, as people used it to strip citizens of their liberty. Beyond America, this very movement influenced campaigns overseas, including in the Holocaust. 

This paper will discuss the origins of eugenics, how scientists implemented eugenic theories within American society, and how the American movement influenced the eugenics campaign in Germany. First, it will discuss the European scientists at the heart of eugenics. These were the men who first created the term eugenics and were responsible for establishing the European campaign. Following this, it will address how the movement traveled to America and the differences between the two campaigns. Specifically, it will reference the eugenics crusade in California, which was large in scope and serves as a case study of how local politicians enforced eugenic policies on the state level. Finally, it will analyze the extent to which the American campaign influenced Nazi Germany by discussing what kinds of eugenics policies both countries established, along with the scale of the campaigns.

Click HERE to read Caroline’s full Fellowship paper

Caroline Sullivan is a VI Form boarding student.

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