From bad to worse

Raymond Fancher

  • Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848-c.1918 by Daniel Pick
    Cambridge, 275 pp, £27.50, October 1989, ISBN 0 521 36021 8
  • Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism 1870-1945 by Paul Weindling
    Cambridge, 641 pp, £55.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 521 36381 0

More than three centuries ago. Sir Thomas Browne noted ‘the humour of many heads to extol the days of their forefathers, and declaim against the wickedness of times present’. He added that these nostalgic declaimers seem always to have been present, and indeed one can find notable examples of them from virtually all periods of human history. Horace’s lament – ‘Our fathers, viler than our grandfathers, begot us who are even viler; we shall bring forth a progeny more degenerate still’ – is still echoed today by those who see society in dangerous decay from causes as diverse as Aids and abortion, pollution and punk rock, drugs and deficit spending. Because these attitudes have been expressed continuously across the centuries, Browne did not take them seriously, and argued that they merely indicated ‘the community of vice’ across all stages of history.

But still, there have been some historical periods when such attitudes were expressed particularly strongly, and some times and places truly worse to live in than others. Daniel Pick’s Faces of Degeneration shows how the general theme of human ‘degeneracy’ assumed particular prominence in European scientific, social and literary thought during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Paul Weindling’s Health, Race and German Politics documents how many of these same ideas contributed to the nightmare of Nazi Germany.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection set much of the context for the general discourse on degeneracy. At first, the theory had seemed to suggest that evolution proceeded in an inevitably progressive direction, slowly but surely transforming life forms from originally simple and ‘primitive’ ancestors to increasingly differentiated, complex, ‘higher’ and ‘more civilised’ organisms – with human beings naturally representing the pinnacle of the evolutionary hierarchy. Darwin himself expressed this view in 1859, declaring in the penultimate paragraph of On the Origin of Species: ‘We may look with some confidence to a secure future ... As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.’

Increasingly, however, Darwin and his followers came to recognise that ‘evolution’ and ‘progress’ were not synonymous. The selective propensities of environment could operate in a multiplicity of ways, and the most adaptive inherited characteristics did not have to be the ‘highest’ or ‘most civilised’ ones. Further, heredity itself did not always proceed smoothly and ‘progressively’; the Darwinians worried especially about instances of ‘reversion’ or ‘atavism’, in which an inherited characteristic skipped one or more generations before reappearing. Although now accounted for by the Mendelian theory of recessive genes, these phenomena seemed to some late 19th-century biologists to represent a backwards form of hereditary transformation, the possible basis of regress instead of progress in evolution. Thus when Darwin wrote The Descent of Man in 1871, he now cautioned his readers that ‘progress is no invariable rule’. Edwin Ray Lankester, one of Darwin’s younger followers, soon called attention to the existence of parasites as apparent examples of regressively evolved life forms. Necessarily arising at a later date than their hosts – who have to pre-exist to provide the environment that selects and supports them – parasites seemed to offer a loathsome and terrifying model for the possible future course of evolution. Lankester’s 1880 book, Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism, expressed these fears while also bringing the first word of its title to general attention in Britain.

A related and even more influential theme was sounded by Darwin’s younger half-cousin, Francis Galton. After reading the Origin of Species, Galton concluded that human beings were still evolving like all other animal species, but that the most likely basis of future human evolution would be inherited intellectual and psychological characteristics, rather than purely physical ones. He argued that evolution could be speeded up – natural selection artificially abetted, as it were – by following the techniques of animal-breeders. The most naturally intelligent young men and women should be identified – here was the original rationale for the development of modern intelligence tests – and encouraged to marry each other and have many children. If their reproductive rate would exceed that of more ordinary couples, and if the selection process would continue over several subsequent generations, then the proportion of highly able people in the population would increase as the ‘race’ gradually became more intelligent. Such was Galton’s original conception of eugenics – a movement that he both founded and named (after the Greek eugenes, ‘wellborn’).

At first, Galton’s idea failed to arouse much general enthusiasm, and even Darwin expressed scepticism about the practicality of his cousin’s hobby-horse. By the turn of the century, however, Britain’s national mood had changed; the expansive optimism of Victorian times had disappeared, and the Army’s dismal performances in the Boer War seemed to many to symbolise an incipient national breakdown. A popular pamphlet in 1905 proclaimed ‘The Decline and Fall of the British Empire’, and ideas for reversing the decline ranged from the purely environmental (such as Baden-Powell’s creation of the Boy Scouts as a means of producing better soldiers) to the biological. In the latter context Galton’s eugenic ideas took hold, only now with their primary emphasis shifted from the positive to the negative – from the promotion of breeding among the highly able to the prevention of such among the hereditarily inferior, whose previously unrestrained reproduction had presumably swamped and undermined the population. Thus eugenics became joined to the battle against degeneration.

In France, years of instability climaxed by the disasters of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune had led to a sense of national decay even earlier than in Britain. To account for the catastrophes, many invoked the concept of dégénérescence, a term that had been introduced by the physician Paul Morel in 1857 to signify a broad variety of presumably hereditary deviations from the ‘normal type’. A person’s underlying dégénérescence could be indicated by varying combinations of purely physical signs (including ‘hernias, goitres, pointed ears, absence of secondary teeth, stunted growth, cranial deviations, deaf and dumbness, blindness, albinism, club-feet, elephantitis, scrofula, tuberculosis, rickets and sterility’) as well as mental symptoms such as feeblemindedness and ‘the noxious tendencies of certain forms of romanticism which resulted in langorous desires, effeteness, reveries, impotence, suicidal tendencies, inertia, melancholy and apathy’. Morel’s colleague Philippe Buchez argued that the gradual spread of dégénérescence within French families had led to the literal creation of new races within the population, ‘so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed as below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure’. From these new and degenerate races came ‘most of the bandits, incendiaries, hard-core criminals ... and on a higher level, even from the well-to-do classes, incorrigible debauchers, false spirits, and people of evil instincts’ who had presumably undermined the intellectual and moral fibre of French society.

While many of these people betrayed their degeneracy with clearly observable physical symptoms, others – afflicted only with the intellectual and moral defects of the condition – bore no obvious stigmata. Thus the identification of normal-looking degenerates seemed an important problem, and the Parisian physician Paul Broca tried to show that precise head and skull measurements could reveal subtle but real similarities between the head shapes of the most degenerate French men, and those of women, ‘savages’ and other groups he assumed to be constitutionally inferior.

In other countries, parallel attempts were made to discover other kinds of physiognomic indicators of degeneracy. Galton in England superimposed upon one another similarly-sized portraits of criminals, consumptives and other degenerate groups, in hopes that the resulting ‘composite portraits’ would accentuate whatever facial features they had in common. And in Italy the criminologist Cesare Lombroso proposed his influential theory of the ‘criminal type’. Concerned that his recently unified country was threatened by the presence of a large class of constitutionally inferior and criminal individuals, he looked for means of identifying them. In 1870, after examining the skull of an infamous deceased brigand, Lombroso had a revelation in which ‘I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal.’ The skull seemed that of ‘an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals’. The constitutional criminal was now ‘explained’ as a regressive evolutionary throwback, clearly marked by ‘enormous jaws, high cheek bones, prominent superciliary arches ... extreme size of the orbits’ and ‘handle-shaped ears’. Lombroso went on to collect and publish innumerable portraits of criminals who conformed to this description, the ‘faces of degeneration’ of Pick’s title. Although his physiognomic theory had no more real validity than Broca’s or Galton’s, it remained influential for many years.

In general, Pick shows how a common ‘language of degeneration’ came to be spoken throughout Europe, although with many distinctively different national and disciplinary dialects. British fiction portrayed possibilities for individual degeneration in characters such as Stoker’s Dracula and Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, for example, while Zola’s novels chronicled the progressive dégénérescence of families in Fin de Siècle France. Theories of crowd behaviour and the Freudian unconscious hinted at the degenerative propensities within everyone, usually latent but occasionally breaking through to the surface.

Pick’s coverage of his theme is selective and illustrative rather than systematic, and could have been extended in several different directions. The intelligence-testing movement, for example, first came to prominence as part of a eugenic programme to halt the perceived progressive degeneration of the population in America. While Galton had originally conceived of the idea of intelligence tests in England, the specific testing procedures he proposed were based on a neurophysiologically oriented theory that did not work. The first practically useful tests were developed in France by Alfred Binet, not as a method for identifying high intelligence as Galton had wished, but for the diagnosis of mental subnormality. And Binet’s tests received their first widespread use not in France but in America, where the degeneracy and eugenics themes had emerged as a widespread fear of ‘the menace of the feeble-minded’. Hereditarily-retarded people who looked normal – labelled ‘morons’ by psychologist Henry Goddard – were feared to be swamping the population, and needed to be identified. Instead of using cranial or physiognomic indicators like Lombroso and Broca, Goddard and the Americans put their faith in the new technology of intelligence tests. When many new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe scored below the borderline for moronity, Goddard attributed their low scores, not to cultural and linguistic handicaps, as we would do today, but to supposedly innate and hereditary mental deficiency. His well-publicised view contributed significantly to an American climate of opinion which produced new and highly restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s. As for the indigenous Americans who tested low, Goddard recommended institutionalisation with strict sexual segregation, so that they could not reproduce. Other eugenicists endorsed more draconian measures, however, and in due course several American States enacted laws under whose terms some nine thousand people diagnosed as morons were involuntarily sterilised.

In a brief section entitled ‘Toward the Final Solution’, Pick acknowledges the important role played by theories of degeneration in the rise of Nazi ideology. He declines to elaborate, however, partly on the grounds that the issue is extensively covered in other sources, including Weindling’s Health, Race and German Politics. The two books do in fact overlap in theme, although they differ sharply in strategy and style. While Pick is deliberately selective and suggestive in treating several broad areas of culture in several countries, Weindling presents a systematic and comprehensive account of the health professions’ role in German public policy between 1870 and 1945. A work of heroic scholarship.

Weindling traces German medicine’s gradual transition from being an agent of ‘emancipatory liberalism’ in the 1870s to the ‘state-oriented expertise’ of the 20th century, its expressed goals shifting from the welfare of individuals to that of the society as a whole. The transition entailed the complex interaction of many factors, including the desire of physicians to carve out secure niches for their emerging specialised fields, and a generalised commitment to eugenics – or Rassenhygiene (‘racial hygiene’), as the movement for genetic improvement came to be called in Germany.

This difference in terminology reflected the Germans’ widespread conception of themselves as constituting an almost mystically distinct racial and ethnic entity, or Volk. Weindling documents the origins of several terms related to this conception, which started out as minor intellectual undercurrents in the relatively liberal 19th century, but later assumed malignant importance. Thus when philologists in the 1860s uncovered the historical and linguistic inter-relatedness of the Indo-Germanic family of languages, the term ‘Aryan’ (from the Sanskrit arya for ‘noble’) was coined to describe the peoples speaking such languages. Jews, previously regarded as differing from ‘Aryan’ groups primarily on religious grounds, were now postulated as a distinct racial group with ‘Semitic’ linguistic background. A Hamburg journalist named Wilhelm Marr coined the term ‘anti-semitism’, while promoting this notion.

Another portentous term arose out of late 19th-century debate over the social significance of high rates of infant and child mortality. According to some eugenist and ‘Social Darwinist’ commentators, high rates might actually be desirable because they signify that the ‘unfit’ are being naturally selected out of the population before they can breed. This idea that lives could have a negative social value, or negativen Lebenswert, was extended by the writer Adolf Jost in 1895 when he argued that the ‘mercy killing’ of the incurably ill could be at once a blessing for the suffering individuals and a benefit to the society which would be relieved of the burden of supporting them.

These ideas assumed increasing importance in the 20th century. Germany’s defeat in World War One, with consequent psychological humiliation and economic deterioration, strengthened the position of racial hygienists whose goals had never depended on military victory in the first place. ‘In the shock of defeat,’ Weindling writes, ‘they were able to rally support and to use racial hygiene as a value by which to judge measures in the spheres of politics and civil society.’ The widespread civil calamities that followed defeat made the possibility of racial degeneration or even extermination seem real to many. Eugenics programmes, working from within to strengthen the society and the race, seemed a possible key to regeneration.

Hygienists went on to make what Weindling calls a ‘Faustian pact’ with the Nazis. Both eugenically-oriented doctors and future Nazi leaders observed and approved of events in America in the early 1920s. Hitler praised the new American restrictive immigration laws in his 1925 Mein Kampf and that same year racial hygienists made a strong but unsuccessful push for German sterilisation laws like those in the United States. Following the Nazi assumption of power in 1933, however, a ‘Law to Prevent Hereditarily Sick Offspring’ and a ‘Law Against Compulsive Criminality’ were speedily enacted. These laws established ‘hereditary courts’, each staffed by a lawyer, a medical officer, and a physician with special training in racial hygiene, to determine which individuals should be legally sterilised. Not only the mentally retarded and ‘habitual criminals’, but also schizophrenics, manic-depressives, Huntington’s choreics, chronic alcoholics, and the congenitally blind, deaf and physically malformed, were subject to these laws. By 1945 360,000 persons, or 1 per cent of the population, had been legally sterilised under these terms; that figure represents only ‘citizens’ and does not include uncounted numbers of foreigners and disenfranchised Jews and gypsies who were sterilised outside the legal system.

In 1939, Hitler’s personal fiat empowered senior medical officials to implement Adolf Jost’s programme and begin the ‘mercy killing’ of patients judged to be incurably ill. Among the first selected for extermination were a group of 5000 retarded children, many with Down’s syndrome. By autumn of 1941 between 70,000 and 95,000 people – mainly diagnosed as schizophrenic, feeble-minded or epileptic – had been deliberately killed. Their murder served as a rehearsal for the enormities to follow in the death camps.

Of course medical expertise and co-operation was required to perform such large-scale sterilisations and exterminations, and Weindling fully documents the extent to which it was forthcoming as a result of the ‘Faustian pact’. He suggests that the doctors were ‘politically naive’, and ‘instead of leading a national revival to a healthy society, the racial hygienists became subordinate to forces leading to war and mass killings.’

In trying to explain why the doctors were so politically naive, Weindling observes that Germany always lacked the tradition of radical opposition to nativistic theories. Although many of the fateful eugenic ideas and practices originated in Britain and the United States, outspoken proponents of civil liberty and the environmental determination of character had also been prominent in those countries to counter and eventually defeat the more exaggerated claims of the nativists. But why such should have been the case in the first place is the unanswered – and perhaps largely unanswerable – question. In any case, Health, Race and German Politics describes in horrifying detail how the German doctors’ fear of an imagined national deterioration of one kind led them into complicity with a government whose degeneracy of another kind was all too real.