Roots of Genocide

Roots of Genocide

INTERVIEW: Richard Weikart on how Hitler was Darwin's ideological grandson

by Marvin Olasky

[This interview was originally published in World magazine in April 2005 and is available at their website:

Phillip Johnson, leader of the Intelligent Design movement, writes, "The philosophy that fueled German militarism and Hitlerism is taught as fact in every American public school, with no disagreement allowed."

That philosophy is Darwinism, and its influence on Adolf Hitler has been much debated, but Richard Weikart, a professor at California State University-Stanislaus and a Research Fellow at the Discovery Institute, should close the debate with a well-researched, scholarly book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). He shows how Darwinism made abortion and racial extermination keys to progress rather than reversions to barbarism, and convincingly argues that Hitler built his view of ethics on Darwinian rather than nihilistic principles.

WORLD: When late 19th- and early 20th-century Darwinians examined the value of human life through their new lens, what did they tend to find?

WEIKART: Not all Darwinists agreed, but many leading Darwinists, such as Ernst Haeckel, claimed that the descent of humans from animals overthrew the "anthropocentric fable." In their zeal to explain all human traits naturalistically, Darwin and Haeckel denied that humans have a soul. Because of this, many Darwinists rejected the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-human-life ethic. Further, since the human struggle for existence produces mass death, many Darwinists saw the death of the "unfit" as a means to evolutionary progress. Some even took the next step to propose that killing the "unfit" (i.e., the disabled and inferior races) would benefit humanity.

WORLD: How did Darwinism contribute to moral relativism and make evolutionary progress, supposedly brought about by racial struggle, the greatest good?

WEIKART: Darwin argued that morality evolved from "social instincts" of animals. He explained that moral characteristics, such as loyalty or honesty, are biological traits favoring groups who possessed them in the human struggle for existence. In his autobiography Darwin confessed that one "can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones." Ironically, while relativizing morality, many Darwinists inconsistently made evolutionary progress a new moral goal: Whatever contributed to the health and vitality of the human species was morally justified, and whatever led to biological degeneration was evil.

WORLD: What are the major historical connections between Darwinism and Hitler's ideology?

WEIKART: German biologists, anthropologists, physicians, and other scholars used Darwinian theory to promote eugenics, euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, and racial extermination long before Hitler arrived on the scene. Many of these thinkers would have been aghast at the Holocaust, since few were as rabidly anti-Semitic as Hitler, and some were even Jews themselves. Nonetheless, their philosophy of death for the "unfit" had a strong influence on Hitler's ideology. The world-renowned geneticist Fritz Lenz even bragged that Hitler's worldview was shaped by Lenz's writings on human heredity, eugenics, and racism.

WORLD: How did Hitler's Mein Kampf reflect a belief in an inescapable Darwinian struggle for existence?

WEIKART: Darwinist terminology and concepts are prominent in many of Hitler's writings and speeches. In Mein Kampf he stated, "If reproduction as such is limited and the number of births decreased, then the natural struggle for existence, which only allows the strongest and healthiest to survive, will be replaced by the obvious desire to save at any cost even the weakest and sickest; thereby a progeny is produced, which must become ever more miserable, the longer this mocking of nature and its will persists. . . . A stronger race will supplant the weaker, since the drive for life in its final form will decimate every ridiculous fetter of the so-called humaneness of individuals, in order to make place for the humaneness of nature, which destroys the weak to make place for the strong." This quotation illustrates my assertion that Hitler promoted an evolutionary ethic.