by Edwin Black
November 9, 2003
Edwin Black is author of the award-winning "IBM and the Holocaust" and the
recently released "War Against the Weak" (published by Four Walls Eight
Windows), from which this article is adapted.
This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Hitler and his henchmen victimized an entire continent and exterminated
millions in his quest for a so-called Master Race.
But the concept of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race
didn't originate with Hitler. The idea was created in the United States, and
cultivated in California, decades before Hitler came to power. California
eugenicists played an important, although little-known, role in the American
eugenics movement's campaign for ethnic cleansing.
Eugenics was the pseudoscience aimed at "improving" the human race. In its
extreme, racist form, this meant wiping away all human beings deemed
"unfit," preserving only those who conformed to a Nordic stereotype.
Elements of the philosophy were enshrined as national policy by forced
sterilization and segregation laws, as well as marriage restrictions,
enacted in 27 states.
In 1909, California became the third state to adopt
Ultimately, eugenics practitioners coercively sterilized some
60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated
thousands in "colonies," and persecuted untold numbers in ways we are just
learning. Before World War II, nearly half of coercive sterilizations were
done in California, and even after the war, the state accounted for a third
of all such surgeries.
California was considered an epicenter of the American eugenics movement.
During the 20th century's first decades, California's eugenicists included
potent but little-known race scientists, such as Army venereal disease
specialist Dr. Paul Popenoe, citrus magnate Paul Gosney, Sacramento banker
Charles Goethe, as well as members of the California state Board of
Charities and Corrections and the University of California Board of Regents.
Eugenics would have been so much bizarre parlor talk had it not been for
extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically,
They were all in league with some of America's most respected scientists
from such prestigious universities as Stanford, Yale, Harvard and Princeton.
These academicians espoused race theory and race science, and then faked and
twisted data to serve eugenics' racist aims.
Stanford President David Starr Jordan originated the notion of "race and
blood" in his 1902 racial epistle "Blood of a Nation," in which the
university scholar declared that human qualities and conditions such as
talent and poverty were passed through the blood.
In 1904, the Carnegie Institution established a laboratory complex at Cold
Spring Harbor on Long Island that stockpiled millions of index cards on
ordinary Americans, as researchers carefully plotted the removal of
families, bloodlines and whole peoples.
From Cold Spring Harbor, eugenics
advocates agitated in the legislatures of America, as well as the nation's
social service agencies and associations.
The Harriman railroad fortune paid local charities, such as the New York
Bureau of Industries and Immigration, to seek out Jewish, Italian and other
immigrants in New York and other crowded cities and subject them to
deportation, confinement or forced sterilization.
The Rockefeller Foundation helped found the German eugenics program and even
funded the program that Josef Mengele worked in before he went to Auschwitz.
Much of the spiritual guidance and political agitation for the American
eugenics movement came from California's quasi-autonomous eugenic societies,
such as Pasadena's Human Betterment Foundation and the California branch of
the American Eugenics Society, which coordinated much of their activity with
the Eugenics Research Society in Long Island.
These organizations - which
functioned as part of a closely-knit network - published racist eugenic
newsletters and pseudoscientific journals, such as Eugenical News and
and propagandized for the Nazis.
Eugenics was born as a scientific curiosity in the Victorian age.
Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, theorized that if talented
people married only other talented people, the result would be measurably
better offspring. At the turn of the last century, Galton's ideas were
imported to the United States just as Gregor Mendel's principles of heredity
American eugenics advocates believed with religious
fervor that the same Mendelian concepts determining the color and size of
peas, corn and cattle also governed the social and intellectual character of
In a United States demographically reeling from immigration upheaval and
torn by post-Reconstruction chaos, race conflict was everywhere in the early
20th century. Elitists, utopians and so-called progressives fused their
smoldering race fears and class bias with their desire to make a better
world. They reinvented Galton's eugenics into a repressive and racist
Populate the Earth with vastly more of their own
socioeconomic and biological kind - and less or none of everyone else.
The superior species the eugenics movement sought was populated not merely
by tall, strong, talented people. Eugenicists craved blond, blue-eyed Nordic
This group alone, they believed, was fit to inherit the Earth. In the
process, the movement intended to subtract,
dark- haired hill
...and anyone classified outside the gentrified
genetic lines drawn up by American raceologists.
By identifying so-called defective family trees and subjecting them to
lifelong segregation and sterilization programs to kill their bloodlines.
The grand plan was to literally wipe away the reproductive capability of
those deemed weak and inferior - the so-called unfit. The eugenicists hoped
to neutralize the viability of 10 percent of the population at a sweep,
until none were left except themselves.
Eighteen solutions were explored in a Carnegie-supported 1911,
Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeder's
Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting
Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population."
Point No. 8 was
The most commonly suggested method of eugenicide in the United States was a
"lethal chamber" or public, locally operated gas chambers.
In 1918, Popenoe,
the Army venereal disease specialist during World War I, co-wrote the widely
used textbook, "Applied Eugenics," which argued,
"From an historical point
of view, the first method which presents itself is execution... Its value
in keeping up the standard of the race should not be underestimated."
"Applied Eugenics" also devoted a chapter to "Lethal Selection," which
operated "through the destruction of the individual by some adverse feature
of the environment, such as excessive cold, or bacteria, or by bodily
Eugenic breeders believed American society was not ready to implement an
organized lethal solution.
But many mental institutions and doctors
practiced improvised medical lethality and passive euthanasia on their own.
One institution in Lincoln, Ill., fed its incoming patients milk from
tubercular cows believing a eugenically strong individual would be immune.
Thirty to 40 percent annual death rates resulted at Lincoln. Some doctors
practiced passive eugenicide one newborn infant at a time.
Others doctors at
mental institutions engaged in lethal neglect.
Nonetheless, with eugenicide marginalized, the main solution for eugenicists
was the rapid expansion of forced segregation and sterilization, as well as
more marriage restrictions. California led the nation, performing nearly all
sterilization procedures with little or no due process. In its first 25
years of eugenics legislation, California sterilized 9,782 individuals,
Many were classified as "bad girls," diagnosed as
"passionate," "oversexed" or "sexually wayward."
At the Sonoma State Home,
some women were sterilized because of what was deemed an abnormally large
clitoris or labia.
In 1933 alone, at least 1,278 coercive sterilizations were performed, 700 on
women. The state's two leading sterilization mills in 1933 were Sonoma State
Home with 388 operations and Patton State Hospital with 363 operations.
Other sterilization centers included,
Even the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed aspects of eugenics.
In its infamous
1927 decision, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote,
better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate
offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can
prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind...
Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
This decision opened the
floodgates for thousands to be coercively sterilized or otherwise persecuted
Years later, the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials quoted Holmes'
words in their own defense.
Only after eugenics became entrenched in the United States was the campaign
transplanted into Germany, in no small measure through the efforts of
California eugenicists, who published booklets idealizing sterilization and
circulated them to German officials and scientists.
Hitler studied American eugenics laws. He tried to legitimize his anti-
Semitism by medicalizing it, and wrapping it in the more palatable
pseudoscientific facade of eugenics. Hitler was able to recruit more
followers among reasonable Germans by claiming that science was on his side.
Hitler's race hatred sprung from his own mind, but the intellectual outlines
of the eugenics Hitler adopted in 1924 were made in America.
During the '20s, Carnegie Institution eugenic scientists cultivated deep
personal and professional relationships with Germany's fascist eugenicists.
In "Mein Kampf," published in 1924, Hitler quoted American eugenic ideology
and openly displayed a thorough knowledge of American eugenics.
today one state," wrote Hitler, "in which at least weak beginnings toward a
better conception (of immigration) are noticeable. Of course, it is not our
model German Republic, but the United States."
Hitler proudly told his comrades just how closely he followed the progress
of the American eugenics movement.
"I have studied with great interest," he
told a fellow Nazi, "the laws of several American states concerning
prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all
probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock."
Hitler even wrote a fan letter to American eugenics leader Madison Grant,
calling his race-based eugenics book, "The Passing of the Great Race," his
Now, the American term "Nordic" was freely exchanged with "Germanic" or
Race science, racial purity and racial dominance became the driving
force behind Hitler's Nazism. Nazi eugenics would ultimately dictate who
would be persecuted in a Reich-dominated Europe, how people would live, and
how they would die. Nazi doctors would become the unseen generals in
Hitler's war against the Jews and other Europeans deemed inferior.
would create the science, devise the eugenic formulas, and hand-select the
victims for sterilization, euthanasia and mass extermination.
During the Reich's early years, eugenicists across America welcomed Hitler's
plans as the logical fulfillment of their own decades of research and
effort. California eugenicists republished Nazi propaganda for American
They also arranged for Nazi scientific exhibits, such as an
August 1934 display at the L.A. County Museum, for the annual meeting of the
American Public Health Association.
In 1934, as Germany's sterilizations were accelerating beyond 5,000 per
month, the California eugenics leader C.M. Goethe, upon returning from
Germany, ebulliently bragged to a colleague,
"You will be interested to know
that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the
group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program.
Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by
American thought... I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought
with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action
a great government of 60 million people."
That same year, 10 years after Virginia passed its sterilization act,
Joseph DeJarnette, superintendent of Virginia's Western State Hospital, observed in
the Richmond Times-Dispatch,
More than just providing the scientific roadmap, America funded Germany's
By 1926, Rockefeller had donated some $410,000 - almost $4 million in
today's money - to hundreds of German researchers. In May 1926, Rockefeller
awarded $250,000 toward creation of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for
Psychiatry. Among the leading psychiatrists at the German Psychiatric
Institute was Ernst Rüdin, who became director and eventually an architect
of Hitler's systematic medical repression.
Another in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute's complex of eugenics institutions
was the Institute for Brain Research.
Since 1915, it had operated out of a
single room. Everything changed when Rockefeller money arrived in 1929. A
grant of $317,000 allowed the institute to construct a major building and
take center stage in German race biology. The institute received additional
grants from the Rockefeller Foundation during the next several years.
Leading the institute, once again, was Hitler's medical henchman Ernst Rüdin.
Rüdin's organization became a prime director and recipient of the murderous
experimentation and research conducted on Jews, Gypsies and others.
Beginning in 1940, thousands of Germans
taken from old age homes, mental institutions and other custodial
facilities were systematically gassed. Between 50,000 and 100,000
were eventually killed.
Leon Whitney, executive secretary of the
American Eugenics Society, declared
A special recipient of
Rockefeller funding was the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute
for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Berlin.
American eugenicists had craved twins to advance their research into
The Institute was now prepared to undertake such research on an
On May 13, 1932, the Rockefeller Foundation in New York
dispatched a radiogram to its Paris office:
At the time of Rockefeller's endowment,
Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a hero
in American eugenics circles, functioned as a head of the Institute for
Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics.
Rockefeller funding of that
institute continued both directly and through other research conduits during Verschuer's early tenure.
In 1935, Verschuer left the institute to form a
rival eugenics facility in Frankfurt that was much heralded in the American
eugenics press. Research on twins in the Third Reich exploded, backed by
government decrees. Verschuer wrote in Der Erbarzt, a eugenics doctor's
journal he edited, that Germany's war would yield a "total solution to the
Verschuer had a longtime assistant. His name was
On May 30, 1943, Mengele arrived at Auschwitz.
Verschuer notified the German
"My assistant, Dr. Josef Mengele (M.D., Ph.D.) joined me
in this branch of research. He is presently employed as Hauptsturmführer
(captain) and camp physician in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Anthropological testing of the most diverse racial groups in this
concentration camp is being carried out with permission of the SS
Mengele began searching the boxcar arrivals for twins.
When he found them,
he performed beastly experiments, scrupulously wrote up the reports and sent
the paperwork back to Verschuer's institute for evaluation. Often, cadavers,
eyes and other body parts were also dispatched to Berlin's eugenic
Rockefeller executives never knew of Mengele.
With few exceptions, the
foundation had ceased all eugenics studies in Nazi-occupied Europe before
the war erupted in 1939. But by that time the die had been cast. The
talented men Rockefeller and Carnegie financed, the great institutions they
helped found, and the science they helped create took on a scientific
momentum of their own.
After the war, eugenics was declared a crime against humanity - an act of
genocide. Germans were tried and they cited the California statutes in their
defense - to no avail. They were found guilty.
However, Mengele's boss Verschuer escaped prosecution. Verschuer re-
established his connections with California eugenicists who had gone
underground and renamed their crusade "human genetics."
Typical was an
exchange July 25, 1946, when Popenoe wrote Verschuer,
Popenoe offered tidbits about various American eugenics luminaries
and then sent various eugenics publications.
In a separate package, Popenoe
sent some cocoa, coffee and other goodies.
Verschuer wrote back,
Soon, Verschuer again became a respected scientist in Germany and around the
world. In 1949, he became a corresponding member of the newly formed
American Society of Human Genetics, organized by American eugenicists and
In the fall of 1950, the University of Münster offered Verschuer a position
at its new Institute of Human Genetics, where he later became a dean.
early and mid-1950s, Verschuer became an honorary member of numerous prestigious societies, including,
the Italian Society of Genetics
Anthropological Society of Vienna
the Japanese Society for Human Genetics
Human genetics' genocidal roots in eugenics were ignored by a victorious
generation that refused to link itself to the crimes of Nazism and by
succeeding generations that never knew the truth of the years leading up to
Now governors of five states, including California, have issued public
apologies to their citizens, past and present, for sterilization and other
abuses spawned by the eugenics movement.
Human genetics became an enlightened endeavor in the late 20th century.
Hard-working, devoted scientists finally cracked the human code through the
Human Genome Project. Now, every individual can be biologically identified
and classified by trait and ancestry. Yet even now, some leading voices in
the genetic world are calling for a cleansing of the unwanted among us, and
even a master human species.
There is understandable wariness about more ordinary forms of abuse, for
example, in denying insurance or employment based on genetic tests.
the United States' first genetic anti-discrimination legislation passed the
Senate by unanimous vote. Yet because genetics research is global, no single
nation's law can stop the threats.