We know Hitler was evil, writes historian Richard Weikart in From Darwin to Hitler, but how do we explain why Hitler’s diabolical genocide was widely accepted by the Germans, including intellectuals, scientists, and other cultural leaders? What allowed this evil to flourish and why was there so little outcry against it?
To most Germans, Hitler never appeared to be an evildoer, and thus subsequent attempts to portray him as a fanatical madman betray a misunderstanding of the epoch in which he ruled, Weikart argues. Instead, Hitler was very much a man of his age. The moral justifications for the evil he unleashed were developed long before he rose to power.
Weikart writes that the moral antecedents of Nazi genocide rest in the Darwinism that swept the German academies nearly a century before the Nazi period. The road from Darwin to Hitler, however, is crooked with many twists and turns. Many early Darwinists would have recoiled at Nazi brutality, and there were many political, social, and economic factors unrelated to Darwinian thinking that contributed to Hitler’s rise. Even so, Weikart
“…while remaining ever cognizant of the multiple potentialities of Darwinian, eugenic, and racist discourse in the pre-Nazi period, we should not close our eyes to the many similarities and parallels with later Nazi thinking either.”
These “similarities and parallels” were the ideas about social progress that were derived from Darwin’s theory of evolution that would later be appropriated by the Nazis.
Early Darwinists were intoxicated by the scientific character of evolutionary theory and accepted it at face value. Weikart chronicles in considerable detail how Darwinism grew from a theory about biological evolution to become the dominant interpretive paradigm of history, sociology, and anthropology in German intellectual life.
Darwinists believed that natural selection was the force that governed everything in creation – including human society. Their naturalism could not be reconciled to the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, since precepts like the Golden Rule or care for the weak violated the way that the natural order functioned. According to their philosophy, any defense or care of the weak represented human regress since only the strong were preordained to survive:
“Darwinists insisted that morality was not fixed, but historically changing, and though many emphasized the relativism of morality, one factor remained
constant: the evolutionary process itself. Thus many writers on evolutionary ethics exalted evolutionary progress
This emerging moral relativism redefined the value of life and death:
“Darwinism…offered a secular answer to the problem of evil and death…
The Darwinian idea of death as the natural engine of evolutionary progress represented a radical shift from the Christian conception of death as an unnatural, evil foe to be conquered. This shift would bring in its train a whole complex of ideas that would alter ways of thinking about killing and ‘the right to life’.”
Weikart provides an exhaustive account of how this secularized morality took root in German thinking. It began by applying natural selection to the study of heredity, spawning the pseudoscience of eugenics. The killing of the defenseless, weak, and infirmed through abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia was touted as a social good since it conformed to the principles of nature:
“By the early twentieth century Darwinian inegalitarianism was becoming manifest through the increasing use of the German term ‘minderweltig’; (properly translated as ‘inferior,’ but literally meaning ‘having less
value’) to describe certain categories of people. Aside from non-European races, two overlapping categories of people were generally targeted as ‘inferior’ or ‘unfit’: the disabled (especially the mentally ill) and those who were economically unproductive.”
Once the moral barriers fell against killing the defenseless and weak, Darwinists expanded their thinking to include non-European people. If natural selection governed human history, then nations with the highest culture (primarily Germanic) were ordained by nature to prevail over the weaker and less developed ones. The Malthusian doctrine – that as populations grow, resources become scarce – provided strong justification for this emerging racism. The seeds of Hitler’s Lebensraum were sown here.
By the time Hitler rose to power, the Darwinian ethic penetrated German culture so deeply that the received Judeo-Christian moral tradition was effectively overthrown. Hitler was not an “immoral opportunist” or an “amoral nihilist,” Weikart argues, but a principled utopian visionary for whom “war and genocide were not only morally justifiable but morally praiseworthy.” He writes:
“One cannot comprehend Hitler’s immense popularity in Germany without understanding the ethical dimension to his worldview and his political policies…Hitler embraced an evolutionary ethic that made Darwinian fitness and health…and the Darwinian struggle for existence…the only criteria for moral standards.”Why were the Jews the target of Nazi genocide? Weikart says the historical evidence is inconclusive, although it appears that Hitler drew more from a popularized street Darwinism than from the scholarly tracts of intellectuals. Although anti-Semitism was always a feature of Darwinian social dogma, Hitler made it the centerpiece of Nazi social policy.Weikart concludes by reiterating that Darwinism alone does not explain the German descent into Nazi darkness. Political and social factors come into play, as well as the nihilism of Nietzsche and others. Nevertheless, the dependence of the Nazi social vision upon Darwinian ethics is so great that Hitler cannot be properly understood apart from it.From Darwin to Hitler is a valuable work of intellectual history. It is wellwritten, cogently argued, and thoroughly engaging. Read it to understand how the Nazi darkness penetrated the heart of Europe. But be forewarned: many of the arguments that devalued human life in pre-war Germany are the same that we hear in America today.