November 7: The Eugenic Atlantic: Building a Better Citizenry

This week, we will focus on the eugenics movement(s).  While the history of the eugenics movement has often been placed in transnational context, especially transatlantic context, scholars have only recently begun to investigate the role of concepts of disability in eugenics and the effects on the lives of people with disabilities.

Please use the comment function to post two discussion questions about this week’s readings by Thursday at 2 pm.  Focus on intriguing or controversial points in the readings that you think will spark discussion.  Strong discussion questions are open-ended, engage with major points in author(s)’ arguments, and are not factual in nature.

Please also post one of the following:

  • a short description (1-3 sentences) of your “muddiest point,” that is, what important point of the author’s argument did you have trouble grasping
  • your “most interesting connection” for this week’s reading

If you refer to a specific point or quote in one of the readings, please provide the author and page number.



1)     Stefan Kühl, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism (Oxford University Press, 2002)

2)     “Disability and Nazi Culture” in Carol Poore, Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture (University of Michigan Press, 2009), 67-134 (MavSpace)

3)     Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford, “Introduction: Eugenics and the Modern World,” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, eds. Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine (Oxford University Press, 2010), 1-25 (MavSpace)

4)     Choose one of the following case studies:

  • Pamela Block, “Institutional Utopias, Eugenics, and Intellectual Disability in Brazil,” History and Anthropology 18, no. (June 2007): 177-196 (MavSpace)
  • “‘To End the Degeneration of a Nation’:  Debates on Eugenic Sterilization in Interwar Romania,” Medical History 53(1) (January 2009):  77-104 (MavSpace)

7 Responses to “November 7: The Eugenic Atlantic: Building a Better Citizenry”

  1. Dalton Boyd says:

    Question 1: Stefan Kuhl’s The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism shows a connection between Nazi Germany’s extreme use of eugenics as a racial purification technique, its connection to American eugenics, and how American eugenicists tried to first support and then reject their connection with the political use of Nazi eugenics. Why would American eugenicists try to distance themselves from the “political” use of Nazi eugenics when American eugenicists were getting politicians to pass pro-eugenics laws in about thirty-eight states in the United States? Was it just because they wanted to distance themselves from the mass murder committed by the Nazis? If so than how is that different than the thousands that American eugenicists had forcibly sterilized, since both stop these “inferior” people from passing their genes on to the next generation? American eugenicists stated that they should place the “undesirables” in institutions until they were cured, which at times meant they were placed there as permanent places. How could permanently placing these “undesirables” in institutions make these people a lesser burden on society?
    Question 2: Block argues that Brazilian eugenics differed from the mainstream form of eugenics in the United States and other parts of the world. Brazilian eugenicists used Lamarckian eugenics to improve the genetics of people through public health and public establishment reforms. So why did the Brazilians use Lamarckian eugenics instead of the mainstream eugenics? Could it be because of the fact that the majority of Brazilians are culturally Catholic or could it be because they have a history of having a mixed race populace? Could this be the related to why Brazil was not a part of the 1911 International Hygiene exhibition in Dresden, which is discussed in The Nazi Connection? Why was Lamarckian eugenics not part of the mainstream of eugenics throughout the Atlantic Basin instead of just in Latin America? Was it about principle or economics?
    Muddiest Point: After reading The Nazi Connection I am still confused about the difference between ethnic and eugenic racism. Both seem very similar with each other and eugenicists throughout the Atlantic Basin use both of these ideas about racism to support their ideas and policies.

  2. Lydia Towns says:

    1. One of the things that really stood out to me in The Nazi Connection was the prevalence of German propaganda in the United States. From Gerhard Boeters requesting that his model law be distributed to fifty German newspapers in America, to the distribution of Nazi propaganda films during the 30’s by American eugenicists, the spread of German propaganda in the United States had a major influence on the mindset in scientific circles regarding the Nazi eugenics movement. One of the things that I find most surprising about this is that this sharing of information challenges the later claims that Americans were completely and totally unaware of the extent of Nazi eugenics programs. On the same note, American eugenicists who had visited Germany were used to counter the negative reports by Jews and the politically progressive German scientists who had been forced to leave Germany. These forced immigrants tried to inform the American public of the atrocities of the Nazi policy, but their accounts were silenced by eugenicists. It makes me wonder how much Washington D.C. really knew of what was going on in the concentration camps and also begs the question of whether or not the eugenicists were complicit, in a way, in these war crimes. Or at the very least, in support of the Nazi programs.

    2. As the Nazi programs progressed into ethnic cleansing one of the things that the American eugenicists kept pointing to was that as long as the sterilization laws were not applied to race, but were only applied to hereditary degeneracy then the laws would work without any corruption. This seems a bit naive as eugenics targets hereditary degeneracy which is a main idea behind ethnic racism. When criticism for the German treatment of Jews was brought up the Germans pointed out that what they were doing was not all that different from the treatment of African Americans in the United States. African Americans were not allowed to marry white Americans as that would taint the bloodline. Germany simply took this one step further when they began the mass extermination of the Jews, eliminating the “inferior elements” of their society.

    3. Connection:
    I find it interesting that the propaganda for eugenicist movements pointed out how much degenerates cost society. Eugenicists were able to put a dollar sign on these people, so to speak. Eugenicists justified their actions on the basis that degenerates cost the tax payers too much money to maintain. I wonder, what would happen in today’s society if we began to put a dollar sign on people, if we were to suggest that certain people cost the tax payers too much money.

  3. Jacob Jones says:

    The transnational character of eugenics is examined in The Nazi Connection, but the scope could be expanded. Though the aim of the book necessarily makes it so, there are some additions that could be useful. The British eugenics movement takes an important place beside those of Germany and the United States early in the work, essentially culminating in the British lead of the International Congress in 1912. Is their a continued connection between the British, American, and German transnational eugenics movement that is only muted due to the limited aim of the book? Or does the so called Nazi Connection primarily involve only the United States and Germany?

    The muted presence of eugenics in Brazil, as described by Pamela Block, brings some interesting questions to mind. She notes the lack of central organization in the role of education and or care for people with mental disabilities. As we have seen, state policies influenced by medical opinion have dominated much of the more recent trends in services for people with disabilities. This biomedical model has led to much of the stigmatization and negative effect on lived experience of people with disabilities, notably in this weeks concentration, the eugenics movement. Does a decentralized approach necessitate a more individual approach such as Antipoff’s? This work also shows an extremely limited connection to the European continent, and the eugenic movement is Brazil is only seen in the comments of one eugenicist. Is this from an actually limited connection to the transnational medical/scientific community? Or does it speak to a limited influence of that connection in Brazil?

    My muddiest point also focuses on terminology. In the Nazi Connection, several terms are used that seem to indicate different facets of a eugenic movement. In addition to eugenics, racial hygiene and population science are used referring to organizations and approaches. Are these essentially the same in practice and origin? If different in origin to they begin to converge or diverge in the early 20th century?

  4. Robert Caldwell says:

    Stefan Kuhl illustrates the deep mutual influence of U.S. and German eugenics during the interwar years. He implicates the Rockefeller Foundation as an important example of eastward-bound transatlantic support for eugenic institutes in Germany during the interwar years. Kuhl argues that mainstream historians have ignored these connections because they limit their study to the nation-state and that that the eugenic programs are seen as differing in important ways. Is it possible that U.S. (and the “allied powers”) have de-emphisized these connections as a way to distance “their” countries politically from Nazi race ideology? Why wasn’t this connection made previously by German historians? Could it be that an implication of the U.S. would be seen as shifting blame from the wholly-discredited Nazi state?

    Muddiest Point:
    Kuhl points out the immense impact of so-called degenerate family studies on eugenics and public policy and the hidden longevity of rightwing eugenicist policy embodied in the Pioneer Fund. Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (1981, revised 1996 after publication of The Bell Curve ) thoroughly exposed the folly of biological determinism. Why does this line of thinking persist?

    -Kuhl implicates Benno Chajes, a Jewish member of the SPD, for furthering sterilization legislation in the 1920s (23). The much more interesting question is what might have Chajes contributed to the Eugenics of British mandate Palestine in the 1930s, after fleeing the Nazis ascendency.

    Random Thought:
    – It is fascinating that the book doesn’t mention eugenic influences on or from Japan. Japan is also notably absent from Levine and Bashford’s geographical survey of eugenics movements. Perhaps an understudied third country, profoundly influenced by racial “science” from both the U.S. and Japan (although admittedly not without a heavy mix of Shinto and distinctly Japanese ideas) could shed additional light on the continuing practice of Eugenics post-war under (not unlike Block’s essay regarding Brazil) but under the supervision of the United States.

  5. Jacque Tinkler says:

    1. In “Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture,” Carol Poore states that a major tenant of German national socialist ideology was the glorification of the disabled war heroes so badly neglected and even condemned by the Weimar Republic which treated them as second class citizens and welfare recipients. A major commitment of Nazi propagandists was their pledge to respect, honor, and care for disabled veterans. However, as time went on national socialists placed increasing emphasis on productive workers “preferring the strong to the weak” and moving to decrease state support for the unproductive. A negative image of the disabled was strongly cultivated, eventually going so far as to condemn “unproductive eaters” who were provided for through the hard work of productive Germans. How, then, were Nazi propagandists able to reconcile these two very different policies?
    2. In “Introduction: Eugenics and the Modern World,” Levine and Bashford show that far from being a German-American development the eugenics movement was considered and supported on a world-wide basis. Such very different kinds of nation-states as those of Eastern Europe, Central and South America, Japan, Great Britain, France, South-east Asia, India, and Australia all studied, and to varying degrees, were sympathetic to eugenic practices. Discuss the over-riding political ideologies or movements that encouraged the acceptance of eugenics in such very different kinds of nation-states.
    Muddiest Point: In The Nazi Connection Stefan Kuhl does a comprehensive analysis of the development of eugenic thinking among scientists in the United States and Germany before, after, and even during World War II. On both sides of the Atlantic there was a consensus of opinion regarding various aspects of eugenics as well as points of disagreement. I would be interested in knowing how much of this ideology was known by the general public and how much support existed outside “scientific” circles and government policy makers before the war.

  6. Christopher Malmberg says:

    All of the readings, except Carol Poore’s article, stress the transnational nature of the eugenics movement. Philippa Levine and the contributors to her edited work all stress that period is much more important than place when examining the history of eugenics. Stefan Kuhl’s book also addresses this issue by examining the history of eugenics by looking at roots of Germany’s eugenics movement in the United States. Marius Turda’s “To End the Degeneration of a Nation”, while looking specifically at interwar Romania, also examines outside influences. Yet all of these, while pointing to the global development of eugenics, still put their studies in nationalist terms. They are all comparative wherein American eugenicists, British eugenicists, German eugenicists etc… are put up against each other and examined. At first I thought that it seemed ridiculous to talk about the scientific community at large in nationalist terms. Second, I began wondering why all these histories continue to be written from the stand point of the nation. Marius Turda quotes a Romanian eugenicist “The only way to regain control over the body of the nation [is] the mass sterilization of degenerates”. It then hit me that the reason the history of eugenics continues to be told in this way is because of its extremely intimate connection with the rise of the nation state and the rise of “national” identities.

    Carol Poore’s article examines the ways in which disabled people in Germany were portrayed and used in Nazi propaganda and politics. Most histories of eugenics in Nazi Germany tell the story of mass sterilizations and executions of disabled people during the period around WWII. Poore’s study looks at this aspect of disability in the history of the Third Reich, but goes further in order to bring to light the different ways the rhetoric and image of disability was used. For instance, the Third Reich criticized the Weimar Republic for neglecting Germany’s “war heroes” and idealized the “war injured”. Yet at the same time the soldier was only valorized if he was useful to society. While she does not specifically state this, it seems that the soldiers “continued utility” was their visibility in the propaganda for support of the war. Her article connects well with past readings where we saw the creation of a disability hierarchy in which soldiers occupy a special place due to the fact that they were injured in a particular setting.

  7. Matthew Speight says:

    1. As we examine the transnational exchanges in the period, how should these events be written into the narrative concerning WW2 and the development of the medical field?

    2. Does the eugenic movement and questions regarding medical professional opinion have lingering effects today? Did the push for sterilization and euthanasia cause the public to later reflect negatively or poorly upon the field?


    As with several weeks, why has the U.S. influence on the eugenics movement, specifically the German experience, been largely left out of the narrative?

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