February 5, 2005


REVIEW: of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany By Richard Weikart (Johannes L. Jacobse, Townhall)

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. [...]

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—and everything that contributed to it—to the status of highest moral good. Health and sickness became criteria for making moral judgments, since they influence 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 "minderwetig"; (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. [...]

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."

If only there were a difference between "secularized morality" and amoral nihilism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 5, 2005 6:43 AM

Very interesting. The story is told that Hitler, at the end, opined that the German people had failed and thus merited extinction. Of course it had been the ideas of National Socialism which had failed and were paying evolution's price.

Chief among these failed ideas was the Nazis' rejection of "weak" Christian ethics and of the "alien" Jewish concept of an all-powerful God who establishes justice. The fools failed to understand that the West had surpassed the rest because of, and not in spite of, these very ideas. These are the cultural systems which keep our individualism and vigor in balance, thereby enabling the creation and employment of wealth and power.

By attempting to "progress" back to their German forest-bunny heritage, the Nazis demonstrated the operation of cultural selection for all to see.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 5, 2005 4:18 PM

Well, I think I'll take my seat right here while we wait for Harry to come along and tell us how Christianity did it first and did it worst.

Posted by: Li'l Billy at February 5, 2005 11:44 PM

Weren't there secularists before Darwin?

Wasn't part of Nazi ideology based on the claim that Germans needed Lebensraum which, in a "finite" world, could only be taken from somebody else and didn't that theory predate Darwin?

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at February 6, 2005 1:42 AM


Of course there were, Darwinism is just a product of secularism.

Posted by: oj at February 6, 2005 8:14 AM

Got it in one, Billy.

Hitler was a baroque version of a German militarist. German militarism was rooted in Lutheranism, though it had begun developing its exterminationist tendencies even before the Reformation.

Hitlerism, as such, had no more to do with darwinism than it did with marxism, even though 'socialist' was its middle name.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 6, 2005 7:27 PM

Baroque? As in urbane? Archaic? Subtle? Repetitive? Mellifluous?

Hitler was bestial, through and through. Sure, he gave good speeches and 'seduced' the intellectuals, but he was sanguine first and last. Himmler, Eichmann, Bormann, and Heydrich were the same. It can be debated whether Hitler followed Darwin (in a direct fashion), but it is surely clear that he followed Nietzsche almost word for word. Nothing baroque about that.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 6, 2005 8:00 PM

Nietzsche was a Darwinist.

Posted by: oj at February 6, 2005 8:53 PM

Harry, I'll be happy to grant you that "Hilterism" was a perversion of Darwinism (the scientific theory) the moment you grant that for Catholics to have collaborated with the Ustashi was a perversion of Christianity.

Guys, should I bother holding my breath?

Posted by: Li'l Billy at February 7, 2005 2:40 AM



But you're wrong at any rate. Genocide is just applied Darwinism. If Nature is going to select your type of genes or those of some other ethnic group it's obvious you should make the selection for it.

Judeo-Christianity requires no such thing.

Posted by: oj at February 7, 2005 7:46 AM

It's funny how the Judeo-Christian moral tradition could be overthrown right out from under the feet of the practicing Christians who supported Hitler. Funny how they didn't notice.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at February 8, 2005 6:02 PM


Why? There's nothing easier than getting rid of moral restraints--no one wants them. The hard part is maintaining them or trying to restore them.

Nazism was a function of German secularization, not its cause.

Posted by: oj at February 8, 2005 6:25 PM