General Response to Critics

General Response to Critics

Though my book, From Darwin to Hitler, has received many positive reviews, it has also aroused some criticism. Unfortunately, many of my critics have misrepresented my position, so I need to set the record straight.

The two most common criticisms of my book by scholars run something like this:

Weikart incorrectly argues

  • that all forms of Darwinism lead to Nazism (sometimes this charge is couched as: Weikart is imbalanced in his presentation, because he doesn't discuss Darwinists and forms of Darwinism that didn't lead to Nazism);
  • that all of Nazi ideology and policies derive from Darwinism (sometimes this charge is presented as: Weikart is imbalanced in his presentation, because he doesn't discuss all the other factors that produced Nazi ideology and practices).

I have read these criticisms with some bewilderment and consternation, because not only did I not make these arguments in my book, but I overtly denied them.

Lest anyone think I'm inventing or distorting the positions of my critics, here are some concrete examples:

In the prestigious Journal of Modern History, the reviewer of my book stated that Weikart takes the position: "All Darwinian thinkers advocated the violation of the 'right to life' through measures such as birth control, abortion, voluntary and compulsory 'euthanasia,' voluntary and compulsory sterilization, infanticide, and genocide. And all Darwinian thought led inevitably to Auschwitz."

Robert Richards, professor of the history of science at the University of Chicago, has criticized my book thus: "They [Weikart and others] have not, for instance, properly weighed the significance of the many other causal lines that led to Hitler's behavior--the social, political, cultural, and psychological strands that many other historians have in fact emphasize [sic]. And thus that [sic] they have produced a mono-causal analysis which quite distorts the historical picture."

The biggest problem with these critiques is that I specifically denied these interpretations of Darwinism and Nazism in my book.

Concerning the first charge (that I claim that every form of Darwinism led to Nazism), I stated quite clearly in the introduction: "Obviously, Darwin was no Hitler. The contrast between the personal lives and dispositions of these two men could hardly be greater. Darwin eschewed politics, retreating to his country home in Down for solitude to conduct biological research and to write. Hitler as a demagogue lived and breathed politics, stirring the passions of crowds through frenzied speeches. Politically Darwin was a typical English liberal, supporting laissez-faire economics and opposing slavery. Like most of his contemporaries, Darwin considered non-European races inferior to Europeans, but he never embraced Aryan racism or rabid anti-Semitism, central features of Hitler's political philosophy." (p. 3) I specifically denied that Darwinist thinkers are proto-Nazi. I also explained in my introduction: "The opposing viewthat Hitler hijacked Darwinismhas significant supporting arguments, for many scholars have pointed out that Darwinism did not lead to any one particular political philosophy or practice. Social Democrats with impeccable Marxist credentials were enthusiastic about Darwinism and even considered it a corroboration of their own worldview. After reading Darwins Origin of Species, Karl Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels, 'Although developed in a coarse English manner, this is the book that contains the foundation in natural history for our view.' Furthermore, many pacifists, feminists, birth control advocates, and homosexual rights activistssome of whom were persecuted and even killed by the Naziswere enthusiastic Darwinists and used Darwinian arguments to support their political and social agendas. Eugenics discourse was commonplace all across the political spectrum, causing the historian Atina Grossmann to convincingly argue that the path from eugenics and sex reform to Nazism was 'a convoluted and highly contested route.' Nazism was not predetermined in Darwinism or eugenics, not even in racist forms of eugenics." It's hard for me to understand how anyone could read the introduction to my book and make the ridiculous claim that I argue that all Darwinists promoted euthanasia or genocide. These scholars apparently are unaware that I wrote a previous book, Socialist Darwinism: Evolution in German Socialist Thought from Marx to Bernstein, in which I explained the reception of Darwinism by German socialists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. No, all Darwinism didn't lead to Nazism, and I of all people know this quite well. If my critics skipped the introduction of my book, they could also have learned my views in the conclusion, where I stated: "It would be foolish to blame Darwinism for the Holocaust, as though Darwinism leads logically to the Holocaust. No, Darwinism by itself did not produce Hitler's worldview, and many Darwinists drew quite different conclusions from Darwinism for ethics and social thought than did Hitler." (p. 232) So where did my critics get the idea that I argued that "all Darwinian thought led inevitably to Auschwitz"?

Concerning the second charge (that Nazism depends entirely on Darwinian thought), I specifically confronted this issue in my book, too, stating: "The multivalence of Darwinism and eugenics ideology, especially when applied to ethical, political, and social thought, together with the multiple roots of Nazi ideology, should make us suspicious of monocausal arguments about the origins of the Nazi worldview." (p. 4) I further clarify: "I would also like to make clear from the outset that, while stressing intellectual history in this work, I recognize the influence of political, social, economic, and other factors in the development of ideologies in general and of Nazism in particular--but these topics are outside the scope of this study." (p. 5) In a class I teach at my university on the Nazi era, I discuss many factors shaping Nazi ideology: nationalism, the effects of World War I, economic problems, Christian antisemitism, etc. I do not believe that Nazism has one cause, and in my book I overtly reject a monocausal explanation. The reason I only discussed the role of social Darwinism and evolutionary ethics in the shaping of Nazi ideology should be obvious. My book is not primarily about Nazism. It is about evolutionary ethics. I never claimed that Darwinism or evolutionary ethics is the only cause of Nazi ideology, and I specifically denied that interpretation.

Why, then, you will ask, have several scholars erred so egregiously by misinterpreting my book? I refuse to speculate on this issue, but I should note that many reviewers have understood my argument perfectly well. The reviewer on H-Ideas noted that Weikart "also itemizes the variants of Darwinism and eugenics ideology as they were applied to ethical, political, and social thought and is aware of the many roots of Nazi ideology, thus clearly refusing any monocausal explanations of Nazism." The reviewer in German Studies Review wrote: "This does not mean, Weikart insists, that Darwinism should be blamed for the Holocaust." In Science and Theology News the reviewer wrote: "Darwins ideas are not directly responsible for the Holocaust, Weikart claims, because the principles of evolution do not necessarily lead to Hitlers destructive philosophy."

What I demonstrated in detail in my book is that many leading Darwinists themselves argued overtly that Darwinism did indeed undermine the sanctity-of-life ethic, and they overtly appealed to Darwinism when they promoted infanticide, euthanasia, racial extermination, etc. I specifically noted that not all Darwinists took this position, but those who did were leading Darwinian biologists, medical professors, psychiatrists, etc. They were not some fringe group of ignorant fanatics; they were mainstream Darwinists. Also, I did not simply show that leading Darwinists supported eugenics, infanticide, euthanasia, and racial extermination; I showed that they appealed overtly to Darwinism to justify their position. So, it is not Weikart who is reading Darwinism into the record. Darwinists themselves made these arguments. Therefore, critics of the position that Darwinism devalues human life should not attack me, but rather should attack those Darwinists I exposed in my work.

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