We know Hitler was evil writes historian Richard Weikart in his new book "From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany,"* but how do we account for the widespread acceptance of his genocidal madness among the German people? Why is there little evidence of resistance to Hitler's ideas before he established his totalitarian rule?
Most Germans did not see in Hitler the genocidal madman that he later proved to be. German culture was afflicted with a moral blindness that had effectively removed all intellectual barriers to Nazi ideology. The post-Nazi world wonders how a man like Hitler could arise in a nation like Germany. Weikart asks what changed in German culture so that a murderous tyrant was welcomed as Fuhrer?
The moral antecedents to Nazi rule do not rest in Mein Kampf but in the social Darwinism of the German academies starting almost a century before Hitler's rise to power. When Darwin's "Origin of the Species" was first published in 1859, it took the German intellectual establishment by storm and captured the minds of German thinkers in ways that few other ideas did. It would cause a cataclysmic cultural shift that paved the way for Hitler.
To German intellectuals, Darwin's theory posited not only biological scheme that described the development of organisms, but also supplied the key that could unlock the mystery about creating a better society. From the mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth century, Darwinism would become the dominant interpretive paradigm in most other disciplines as well including history, and anthropology.
Weikart chronicles the cultural evolution of Darwinism from theory to creed in substantial detail, much of it from original sources. The historical road from Darwin to Hitler is filled with many twists and turns Weikart asserts, and while many Darwinists probably would not have countenanced the evil that social Darwinism would finally unleash, they nevertheless became unwitting contributors to Hitler's rise.
In Darwinian theory, death functions as the engine of evolutionary progress. Weaker organisms are eliminated while stronger organisms survive. Natural selection is construed as a positive good ordained by nature, and the traditional ideas about suffering, dying and death undergo change and revision.
A moral relativism arose that redefined the killing of "undesirables" as socially desirable. Since societies and nations also function by natural selection, that killing of the weak could be justified as aiding social progress. Life was no longer held sacred.
Science trumps religion in the Darwinian moral vision, thus any policy that sanctions the killing of innocents also carried the authoritative imprimatur of science. Programs promoting abortion, infanticide, euthanasia (and the concentration camps that came later) always followed this moral logic in one way or another.
The Darwinian ethic contrasts sharply with the Judeo/Christian moral vision that sees death as an enemy that must be destroyed. Death is defined not as primeval force intrinsic to nature but as an aberration -- something that entered the world after it was already created. The Genesis narrative reads that death entered the world only after "God rested." Death is neither created by God nor "natural" to nature.
Instead, death entered the world through the rebellion of man and thus cannot be construed as a social good. This view imposes the moral obligation that the strong must bear the burdens of the weak rather than kill them. Life is held sacred.
In theological terms, Darwinian natural selection posits a secularized Manichean dualism where nature functions as an authoritative god from which both life and death flow. There is no fixed moral distinction between life and death in the Darwinian vision, and the moral value given to life and death is determined solely by arbitrary, socially conditioned, criteria.
Social Darwinism did not arise in a cultural vacuum. Other factors contributed to the Darwinian ascendancy that served to affirm its claim as the key to understanding social progress.
Chief among them was a cult of progress that dominated most of Europe at the time. Many thinkers shared a belief in the inevitable march of progress drawn from a generalized positivism not yet challenged by the carnage of WWI. Second, Malthusian ideas (as a populations increase, natural resources decrease) also contributed. Natural selection fit Malthusian doctrine hand in glove and provided a strong sense of moral justification when the genocidal ideas were put into practice, particularly against non-Germans. Third, the radical materialism of Nietzsche and others defined the transcendent out of existence thus muting the moral reproof of Darwinian relativism intrinsic to the Judeo/Christian tradition.
Darwinism was able to assimilate these currents and give them a coherent and concrete unity under the rubric of objective science. Here is where the value of Weikart's book is most apparent. We see how quickly the Darwinian social ethic took hold in Germany.
Hospitals became killing centers so that by 1939 for example, over 70,000 Germans already perished in the Nazi eugenics program with the full approval and concrete aid of the German medical establishment. The penetration of the Darwinian social ethic ran so deep that the entire Judeo/Christian moral tradition was overthrown. Diabolical crackpots like Joseph Mengele actually believed their experiments would help the human race.
After Auschwitz and the Gulags, it shouldn't be difficult to recognize the speciousness of the claim that totalitarian ideologies are in any way "scientific." The millions killed in the name of Nazism and Marxism alone should evoke some humility toward the limits of science, and reveal the transparency of attempts to confer authority where in fact none exists. In pre-war Germany however, the faith that secular ideology could improve human society towered as high as Babel and would not waver until the bombs rained down on Berlin.
In due course the Darwinian moral logic would be applied to nations. Germany saw itself as the most educated and cultivated in Europe, and by the light of social Darwinism the German advancement served as proof of German supremacy. These racist ideas would fuel German aggression first as colonial occupiers (Germany was notoriously brutal towards the populations they subjugated), and later as European conquerors. The seeds of Hitler's Aryan supremacy and lebensraum were sown here.
By the time Hitler rose to power, social Darwinism was firmly entrenched in German culture. Hitler was able to direct the machinery of state towards genocide without any appreciable public resistance because the moral barriers against this evil were overturned long before he came to power. Germans could already justify killing their own. Killing others would prove even easier to justify.
Why did Hitler single out the Jews? Weikart writes that finding an answer is difficult because the historical evidence is scarce. Anti-Semitism was always present among Darwinian social engineers but usually at the fringes. Popular anti-Semitism was more prevalent and there is some evidence Hitler drew from these populist writings. Beyond this Weikart does not tread.
Darwinism did not produce the Holocaust, writes Weikart, but without it the social and scientific underpinnings would not have existed that justified genocide as morally beneficent by Hitler and his followers. Darwinism turned Judeo/Christian morality on its head. By elevating death as progress and jettisoning any notion that life is inherently sacred, the moral foundation for unprecedented barbarism was laid.
Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is a Greek Orthodox priest and edits the website www.orthodoxytoday.org.
*From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany
Palgrave Macmillan Press
Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is a Greek Orthodox priest and edits the website www.OrthodoxyToday.org.