Social Darwinism and National Socialism

Social Darwinism and National Socialism

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I have just come back from a quick trip to the old German city of Jena, close to Weimar.  By one of those unfortunate accidents of history, Jena found itself on the wrong side of the border through the Cold War, so having suffered through thirteen years of the Third Reich and four years of Russian occupation, it had then to endure forty years as part of the grossly misnamed German Democratic Republic (better known to the rest of us as “East Germany”).

This was my first visit to Jenaand indeed my first visit to the East since the Wall came down some ten years ago.  In the early 1980s, I made two trips to the GDR, experiences which shocked me considerably.  Having a stepmother from Frankfurt am Main, I had seen the growth of West Germany since virtually mid-century, and while one sometimes deplored the excesses of consumption – who am I to speak, when you see how I spend money on books and CDs?  – one could not but admire a country which so moved on from the horrors of the first fifty years of the twentieth century.  The GDR was like being caught in a time warp: dirty houses, rotten streets and even more rotten cars, fatty food, and over everything the yellow pall of smoke from soft-coal fires.  Even the professors were caught in the past.  Unlike the West, where one has the cut and thrust of debate, one after another would get up and say: “I want to make a statement.”  And by George they would, until after twenty minutes they sat down and another got up to make a speech.

I am sure that if you lived today in the East for some time, you would see effects of the past.  The unemployment is horrific, for a start.  But overall, the transformation of the last decade is truly remarkable.  The town of Jena is clean and sparkling, with shops and goods for sale, with new cars and efficient trains – no lengthy stops at the border on the way from the West – and much, much more.  The same renaissance holds also of the famous Friedrich-Schiller-University.  It is true that most of the professors are from the West, but not all.  The rector for instance has lived all of his life in the East.  I was treated with respect and my talk was torn to shreds — which is just the reception that visitors should have.  Afterwards we all went for a drink, although I am glad that we ate in an Italian restaurant.  German cuisine is on a par with that of my home country – a precious stone set in the silver sea, somewhere off the coast of France.

A philosopher with biological interests could not but be awed by an invitation to Jena.  Leibniz studied mathematics there, Hegel had taught there before he moved to Berlin, Goethe was (and still is) everywhere.  Then in the second half of the nineteenth century Jena was home to some of the greatest biologists, including the famous morphologist and evolutionist Ernst Haeckel.  Today the “phylogenetic museum” founded by Haeckel still has splendid displays, and Haeckel’s own home has been turned into a research institute for study of theoretical biology as well as the history of science.  Now, with the opening of the East, real scholarship is possible, and major work is continuing on evolutionism and its social effects.  Thousands of letters written by and to Haeckel by everyone of note will surely prove a gold mine, helping us to understand not just the past but also the present.

 Already one provocative work has been published.  Haeckel’s Monism and the Birth of Fascist Ideology, by New York historian Daniel Gasman, continues a theme which he has long promoted, namely that the work and thought of Haeckel in the social realm – what one might loosely refer to as German “Social Darwinism” – was the overridingly major input into the vile authoritarian ideologies of this century.  Although Gasman’s charge goes beyond Germany, at the heart is the claim that National Socialism – the Nazi regime – finds its chief intellectual roots and sources in the thought of Haeckel.  Dictatorship, loathing of democracy and above all deep anti-Semitism go back to the social biologizing of nineteenth-century Jena.

This is a major charge and a serious one, especially for anyone who cares about Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution.  Apart from anything else, Haeckel assumed the mantel of Darwin’s great German supporter – he called his position “Darwinismus” – and if Gasman’s charge is well taken we seem to have a line from Down House (Darwin’s home) and the Origin right through to Auschwitz and the Holocaust.  So let me say straight off that I do not think that Gasman’s charge is a silly one or a malicious one or one that can be ignored as the work of a fanatic.  It is something which has to be considered and answered, positively or negatively.  After all, Hitler and the Third Reich did not appear from nowhere, and if you dismiss all possible causes then you end up with nothing.  To my mind, this search for causes should be high on all of our agendas, particularly those of us concerned about the relationship between science and religion.  How could it be that what was arguably the highest culture the world has ever known – Kant, Hegel, Goethe, Bach, Beethoven, and so many more – sank in the 1930s to such depths – morally, aesthetically, socially, and in every other way?  Dare anyone deny original sin and the corrupting role of science and technology?

It is true that standard and recent accounts of the rise of Hitler and his group make little or no mention of possible biological factors.  Clearly social issues were important.  The Nazis were a fringe group getting a mere 2.6% of the national vote in 1928, beginning their great rise to power in 1933 only when the Depression began and caused horrendous unemployment in Germany.  There was no great tradition of democracy from the days of the Kaiser, and there was much resentment at the loss of the Great War and the punitive restrictions imposed by Versailles – compounded by the French marching into the Ruhr and the subsequent inflation, wiping out middle-class savings.

Clearly intellectual (if one may so call them) issues were important.  Here, Hitler himself – given the extent to which he demanded and got full power – is the key factor.  We know that there were many inputs, given his eclectic understanding of the ideas of the nineteenth century.  As far as the anti-Semitism is concerned, apart from its general influence in pre-War Vienna (where Hitler lived until he moved to Munich), the Wagnerian factor has to be significant.  If not Wagner himself – although the composer certainly was anti-Semitic in respects and there are probably such themes to be found in the operas (Beckmesser as the archetypical Jew in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg for a start) – then the group around and after him at Bayreuth.  His relatives were obsessive and they welcomed in as son-in-law the prophet of what is know as “redemptive anti-Semitism”, the English-born Houston Chamberlain.  Hitler, as is well known, was not quite balanced in his passion for all things Wagnerian.

But the fact that the standard authorities make little mention of biology does not mean that it was not there.  Mein Kampf certainly has its share of basic Social Darwinian sentiments: claims about the need for struggle and so forth.  “He who wants to live must fight, and he who does not want to fight in this world where eternal struggle is the law of life has no right to exist.”  Moreover, there is all sorts of biology of one kind or another underlying the beliefs about the inferiority of the Jews – and the homosexuals, and the gypsies, and the Slavs, and the blacks, and so forth.  (One of the main reasons why Mussolini kept his distance from the race laws, until he was overwhelmed at the end, was that he feared that the sub-groups included short, dark-haired, spaghetti lovers, from the Mediterranean.)  And again and again, one gets quasi-biological analogies and metaphors likening the Jews to vermin or parasites which live on and cripple the main body.  Goebbels’s use of film was particularly effective here.

But should one lay the blame for all of this at the feet of Haeckel and through him to Darwin?  I think we can scotch the Darwin connection pretty quickly.  It is true that Darwin – particularly in the Descent of Man – is given to extensions from biology to social claims.  It is true indeed that we find all sorts of Victorian sentiments about the superiority of the white race, not to mention claims showing the supposed evolutionary dominance of the Scots over the Irish.  But there is no anti-Semitism and the anti-democratic, holistic view of the State on which Nazi ideology is predicated is totally alien.  Like Herbert Spencer, Darwin was a Manchester liberal, believing in free trade and laissez-faire and nigh-libertarian social philosophies.  That is the way that the struggle supposedly leads to progress.

Haeckel, to the contrary, for all that he called himself a “Darwinian,” really had little interest in the Englishman’s ideas as such.  Haeckel was an evolutionist, but he cared naught for individualistic struggle or for the consequent natural selection, or indeed for the whole contingent meandering process that Darwinian evolution really represents.  He drew rather on Germanic sources, Goethe particularly, seeing evolution as an inevitable rise upwards – notoriously, he was the author of the biogenetic law that ontogeny (inevitable individual development) recapitulates phylogeny (inevitable group development).  Moreover, he saw the state as an organic unit, with struggle occurring between states – he worked just at the time of the Franco-Prussian war and of the Bismarckian unification of Germany – and through his philosophy of “Monism” promoted the idea of us all being part of one unity, with parts integrated and divided hierarchically.  No British liberalism here.

But if you separate Haeckel off from Darwin, does this now mean that we can comfortably and properly lay the blame for the Nazis on German biology exclusively?  I have to say that Monism strikes me as having some striking (shall we say) homologies with the Nazi state – organic unification and so forth – although one must be careful not to mistake common cause for cause and effect.  My stepmother’s family were ardent followers of Rudolf Steiner and (especially as a critical English schoolboy) I was always struck with the overlap there between anthroposophy (the Steiner philosophy) and Nazism – the obsession with pure food, for instance, not to mention a fondness for prancing around after dark in fancy dress with torches and bonfires and daft, portentous incantations.  Yet in essence, anything farther from the Nazis than the decent, caring philosophy of Steinerism – banned in the Third Reich – it would be harder to find.  The Rudolf Steiner movement is a shining beacon in the loving care of the mentally handicapped, and we all know what alternative Hitler offered and practiced.  The fact is that there were lots of ideas and attitudes floating around Germany in the early part of this century, which were picked up by the Nazis as they might have been picked up by others.  You must dig beneath superficial similarity if you are to make meaningful connections.

More serious perhaps is the fact that Haeckel was anti-Semitic, although even here one must take care.  Apart from the fact that everyone in Germany at that time was anti-Semitic — so blame is to be shared — Haeckel was no Nazi in his sentiments.  On his evolutionary trees of life, he put Jews high up on the scale of progress.  More than this, he thought the way to deal with the Jewish problem was assimilation not elimination.  Intermarriage is what we need!  The fact is that one must again be wary of easy analogies.  Anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth-century Germany was much concerned with the other, the outsider, the one whose religion makes for strangeness – Haeckel hated Catholicism at least as much as Judaism – and who thereby poses a threat to the liberalism of the Enlightenment.  It is true that Hitler went against the educated German Jews – who thought of themselves as Germans first and Jews second – but the real force of the Holocaust was against the Jews of the East – who (to be frank) were little regarded by the Jews of the Bismarckian state.

None of this is to exonerate Haeckel – any more than it is to exonerate the countries of the West who closed their doors to Jewish immigration – but it is to say that matters are a littl more cloudy than seem at first sight. And on top of this there is the major factor that Haeckel’s evolutionism – anybody’s evolutionism – implies fundamentally that Jews and Slavs and gypsies and all of the others are part of the same family.  We all came by descent from the same roots.  The Nazis may scream and rage and rant and rage as much as they like, but ultimately evolution shows the falsity of their position.  Third Reich centenary celebrations of Haeckel’s birthday were understandably muted.

My conclusion is not that Daniel Gasman is wrong, but that much more work is needed before we can draw final and definitive conclusions between the work and thought of Ernst Haeckel and the rise of National Socialism.  Indeed, I would say that much more work is needed before we can draw final and definitive conclusions between the work and thought of evolutionists generally and the various social doctrines and ideologies of this and the last century.  (Was Engels really right in saying, over the grave of Marx, that Marx had done in the social realm what Darwin had done in the biological realm?)  That such work must be done and that we who care about science and religion (and philosophy and political studies and much more) must stay abreast strikes me as self evident.  The falling of the Wall and the opening of the East – making freely available to scholars the full Haeckel archives from which we can hope to get a scent of the truth – is cause for celebration, and one more sign that the efforts of good people can make a difference and that evil does not always prevail.


Gasman, D. 1998.  Haeckel’s Monism and the Birth of Fascist Ideology.  Frankfurt: Peter Lang.