Racial hygiene

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Hereditary diseases (Erbkrankheiten) are among the greatest threats to the continued existence of a race. Strangely enough, eradicating this from animals is considered necessary and honorable. Combating this in people with the methods of racial hygiene, however, is considered "racist" and even "evil". In 1921, with Eugen Fischer and Erwin Baur, Rudolf Martin published a textbook on Human Heredity and Eugenics (Grundriss der Menschlichen Erblichkeitslehre und Rassenhygiene) which strongly influenced the German debate on racial hygiene. Fritz Lenz believed in psychological differences between races, and advocated a Nordicist brand of racial hygiene; he wanted to associate anthropology closely with the racial hygiene movement and turn the discipline into the study of human genetic variation.

Racial hygiene (German: Rassenhygiene), also known as race cultivation (German: Rassenpflege) or hereditary health cultivation (German: Erbgesundheitspflege ), is often considered a German synonym for eugenics. It would purify the German people from alien influences and interbreeding. The term for this scientific field was created already in 1895 and was well-known in the German Empire and the Weimar Republic, but also, contrary to popular opinion, in other European countries.

"Racial hygiene" was the common term in Germany and Scandinavia, while eugenics was used in the Anglophone world. Due to the foreign infiltration (mass immigration) and population change (Great Replacement) in northern Europe in the 21st century, many concerned people are calling for a renewed focus on the issue of necessary racial hygiene.


Norwegian psychiatrist Prof. Dr. Ragnar Vogt (1870–1943) agreed with Norwegen chemist Jon Alfred Hansen Mjøen (1860–1939), one of the champions of racial hygiene, in placing the long-skulled and blond northern European race at the top of a racial hierarchy and in affirming that a main goal of racial hygiene would strengthen this race. Vogt believed that the progress of human civilisation went hand in hand with the worldwide expansion of the Germanic peoples. Like Mjøen, he upheld racial purity as an ideal, believed miscegenation to be detrimental and welcomed the dying-out of inferior races. He stated that a racially-pure nation would share common ideals and mentalities and have a strong sense of community and loyalty.
Eugen Fischer and physicist Max Planck; Fischer founded in 1909, as he returned from Africa, the local group Freiburg of the "German Society for Race Hygiene" (Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Rassenhygiene, founded 1905 by Alfred Ploetz), and specialised in racial anthropometry.
Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales (Australia).jpg

The history of eugenics and racial hygiene (coined by Dr. med. Alfred Ploetz in 1895) starts in the 19th century. The term "eugenics" was coined by British naturalist Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911) in 1883. Eugenics – meaning ‘good breeding’ – describes ‘the science which deals with all influences which improve the inborn qualities of a race’. Galton linked the ideas about the »struggle for existence« influenced by Charles Darwin (1809–1882) with other racial doctrines. In order to prevent any degeneration of the populace and promote the higher development of mankind, undesirable sections of the population should be eradicated through sterilization or the selection of newborns (»negative eugenics«), while in contrast, desired ones were to be supported by measures relating to population policy and social welfare (»positive eugenics«).

The nineteenth century saw the rise of a scientific worldview whereby humans were ranked in a hierarchy according to their degree of biological, cultural and moral advancement. This evolutionary worldview was marked by profound faith in human progress, but also by dread of degeneration. Around the turn of the century, members of the educated Western elite began to fear that the evolution of the human species was coming to a halt because modern society was out of step with nature. This anxiety fuelled the growth of the racial hygiene movement to counteract the biological degeneration of humankind. After the turn of the twentieth century Mendelian genetics arose as a new and prestigious field of research. This helped strengthen the notion of human nature as something innate, unchangeable and calculable. In such a setting, anthropological racial science acquired new social relevance by being linked to racial hygiene and new meaning in light of the Mendelian approach to biological heredity. [...] The idea of racial hygiene, or eugenics, was developed in the 1880s and 1890s; two of its leading advocates were the Englishman Francis Galton and the German Alfred Ploetz. In 1905, the world’s first organisation for racial hygiene was established in Germany on the initiative of Ploetz. During the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, the idea of racial hygiene became increasingly popular, and eugenics organisations were established all over the world. In the period from World War I until the late 1920s, much of the international scientific research and debate on human genetics and race was strongly related to the eugenics debate. The eugenics movement was nourished by a general worry about the biological degeneration of the populations of the Western world. There was a widespread belief that the mechanisms of natural evolution had been corrupted by modern, industrialised society, and that ‘inferior’ individuals were therefore reproducing faster than the ‘superior’. The task of racial hygiene was to make sure that valuable genetic material was passed on at the expense of the less valuable. Advocates of racial hygiene usually assumed that the lower social strata, and in particular the ‘asocial’ groups at the bottom of society, were of generally lesser biological quality than the middle class and the elites. Racial hygiene, however, was not a scientifically or politically homogeneous movement. Ploetz and Galton, who developed their ideas independently of each other, represented two different strands of eugenic thought. Ploetz was a völkish nationalist, and the idea of the Nordic race played a crucial role in the type of racial hygiene that he advocated. But Galton’s style of eugenics was closely connected to the British movement for social reform and social hygiene. [...]
The first initiatives for organised international cooperation came from a völkish-oriented group of racial hygienists in Munich, and by 1907 they had established an International Society for Racial Hygiene, the objective of which was to promote cooperation between nations with predominantly Nordic populations. Attracting members from Scandinavia — the presumed heartland of the Nordic race — was high on the agenda, and the first foreign members included the Norwegian chemist Jon Alfred Mjøen and the famous Danish geneticist Wilhelm Johannsen. In 1909, a recruitment campaign in Sweden led to the enrolment of twenty new members and the establishment of the Swedish Racial Hygienic Society (Svenskt sällskapet för rashygien). Ten years later, when Sweden founded a State Institute for Racial Biology (Statens institut för asbiologi) in the university town of Uppsala, it became an important centre for a strand of racial hygiene that was strongly committed to preserving the Nordic race. The race-oriented style of eugenics was strong in the United States as well. The anthropological concept of a ‘Nordic race’ coincided to a great degree with the politically, socially and economically dominant ethnic group in American society — white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Increasing immigration from southern and eastern Europe, a growing number of African-Americans and their own declining fertility rates, led to WASP fear of being outnumbered by ‘non-Nordic’ racial elements. The geneticist Charles Davenport attained a leading position in American eugenics and managed to raise money for a comprehensive research programme. By gathering extensive genealogical and medical data, Davenport’s research project aimed to uncover the genetic causes behind psychological disorders and other supposedly heritable pathologies. He also led research on the effect of racial mixing and differences on intelligence. In 1912 there was a huge eugenics conference in London, assembling people from all over the Western world and representing a broad range of political and scientific views. It was a mixed group of feminists, industrial capitalists, religious leaders, statisticians, sociologists, anthropologists, politicians, military officers, biologists, medical doctors and others. The heterogeneity of the participants is exemplified by the two Norwegian attendees, Katti Anker Møller and Jon Alfred Mjøen. Møller was a feminist who advocated sexual education and legalising the marketing of contraceptives. Mjøen was primarily worried about what he saw as the dangers fall in the fertility of the blond, fair-skinned population of northwestern Europe, and he was opposed not only to contraception but also to sexual education and feminism. Support for eugenics grew after the conference. A committee was entrusted with the task of writing a joint policy statement and establishing an international organisation. In the following years, international cooperation between eugenicists would come to be dominated by this organisation, which from 1925 was called the International Federation of Eugenics Organizations (IFEO). The conferences arranged by the IFEO were, until the late 1920s, the most important international meeting-place for scientists doing human genetic research. Public interest in racial hygiene was fuelled by World War I. The physically fittest young men were sent to the front where they were systematically killed in the worst bloodshed the world had ever witnessed. The first ‘industrialised’ war was seen as an extreme example of the counter-evolutionary forces that threatened modern society and caused many influential people to worry about the biological quality of European populations.
It was during the years around World War I that Herman Lundborg established himself as the leading figure in the Swedish racial hygiene movement. Lundborg was a noted scientist both in Sweden and internationally. His academic prestige was mainly based on his mammoth work Medical-biological family studies within a 2232-person strong peasant family in Sweden. In this work, which mirrored studies undertaken by Davenport in the U. S., Lundborg argued that a series of apparently different diseases occurring within this big family were, in reality, various manifestations of an inherited type of epilepsy. Like Davenport and Ploetz, Lundborg was worried about the future of the Nordic race, and he did not limit himself to the scientific study of the question. Along with a network of likeminded adherents of eugenics, he worked hard to preach the gospel of the Nordic race. In 1918 he set up an exhibition of ‘folk types’ (folktypsutställning) that toured Sweden with models of ‘Swedish racial types’, and he also helped organise a beauty contest to find the ideal ‘Swedish-Germanic racial type’. After its establishment in 1922, the State Institute for Racial Biology became, under Lundborg’s leadership, a key institution for physical anthropology and human genetics in Sweden. Jon Alfred Mjøen was the foremost spokesman for racial hygiene in Norway. He considered himself a member of the ‘first small circle of believers’ and had been a personal friend of Alfred Ploetz since the late 1880s. Like Lundborg, Mjøen had an influential network of contacts within the eugenics movement and became internationally renowned as one of the movement’s pioneers. At a meeting in 1908 of the Association of Norwegian Medical Students (Medicinerforeningen) he put forward the first version of what was later to be known as the Norwegian Programme of Racial Hygiene (Det norske program for rasehygiene). This was the model for the international statement on eugenics written after the First International Eugenics Congress in 1912. Mjøen held that the goal of racial hygiene was to fight for the survival of ‘our own race’— the Germanics. In his view, the future of the Norwegian nation and indeed of Western civilisation was at stake. [...] According to Mjøen, modern civilisation had disrupted the natural struggle for existence among human beings. New medical therapies, bacteriology and better individual hygiene had ruined the quality of the race by helping weak individuals to survive. The same was true of social insurance and the establishment of institutions to take care of mentally retarded, insane, deaf or epileptic children. Even modern warfare counteracted natural selection, with the strongest men killed at the front while the weak were allowed to stay at home and procreate. Mjøen, who had a German doctoral degree in organic chemistry, also held that various chemical substances, like alcohol and industrial emissions, were leading to genetic deterioration. [...] Mjøen continued to maintain the private Vindern Biological Laboratory, which became his main institutional bridgehead for racial hygiene research and activism. He also initiated and managed the Norwegian Consultative Committee for Racial Hygiene (Den norske konsultative komiteen for rasehygiene), a national committee connected to the IFEO, and edited the journal The Nordic Race (Den nordiske rase) along with an international board of directors consisting of likeminded eugenicists from Sweden, Great Britain, Germany and the U.S. [...]
During the 1920s, Fritz Lenz gained growing support for his definition of anthropology. A new generation entered the discipline, bringing in new ideas. Anthropology was drawing closer to racial hygiene, and after the death of Rudolf Martin in 1925, the idea of physical anthropology as a purely descriptive science began to wane. In the late 1920s, a new set of research problems were incorporated into the scope of anthropology: human genetics, constitutional medicine, blood group research, genetic psychology and genetic pathology. Questions about the mental abilities of races, which in Martin’s textbook were an untreated topic, became a core field of inquiry. A new style of anthropology arose, one that combined the established anthropological study of bodily variation with a new interest in the psychological differences between races. After Martin’s death, Eugen Fischer attained a key position in the German anthropological community. He became Professor of Anthropology at Berlin University, as well as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics (founded in 1927). In a speech in 1928, he claimed that the great progress of genetics during the preceding two decades had led to a major transformation of anthropology. From descriptive mapping the distribution of bodily characteristics, anthropologists were now moving into a new scientific era, one in which they would examine how these bodily characteristics were formed and transformed. According to Fischer, this genetically-informed anthropology was of great societal value. He saw the deterioration of the population’s biological quality as one of the greatest challenges for Western civilisation. Different genetic lineages had differing cultural abilities, he claimed, but the low fertility, disrupted social structures and racial mixing typical of modern industrial societies were helping to destroy the culturally creative biological elements. Fischer hailed eugenics as the cure against this evil. It had the same function in the life of a people as medical expertise had in the life of individual human beings. The task of eugenics was to consider what was good and what was bad for the social organism, and to implement proper treatment. The cure should be based on scientific knowledge of the biological quality of human beings, and it was anthropologists first and foremost who possessed this necessary knowledge. Eugenic assessment should therefore be based on anthropological knowledge. Eugenics was applied anthropology.[1]

See also

Further reading


  1. Racial Hygiene and the Nordic Race, 1900–1933, in: "Measuring the Master Race Physical Anthropology in Norway 1890–1945" by Jon Røyne Kyllingstad, (Archive)
  2. Wilser, a very active member of several anthropological societies, the author of hundreds of articles and book reviews as well as a handful of books, assisted the anthropologist Otto Amnion (1842–1916) with mass anthropological examinations. Quoting his mentor Prof. Dr. med. Johann Alexander Ecker (1816–1887), a Freiburg anatomist and anthropologist, he called anthropology the most noble auxiliary science of history”. Wilser spoke of a “Nordic centre of creation” and he statetd that for millions of years higher and higher forms of life had emerged from an Arctic evolution centre. According to him, the Homo europäus dolichocephalus flavus had been subjected to the Nordic selection conditions for the longest time and consequendy was the highest race, destined to rule the world, and one look into history and present times should be enough to see that. He saw modern Germans as “the descendants of those Germanics who have stayed pure and unmixed for the longest time”. See also: Online Books by Ludwig Wilser