January 8, 2005
The Tainted Science of Nazi Atrocities
The welcoming image could not be more inspiring. Or more creepy. It is a "glass man" standing in an alcove, his red veins lining his transparent shell, his multicolored organs neatly stacked in his abdomen, his arms raised aloft like his gaze, reaching toward the heavens, glorying in the display of his inner self.
He was constructed in 1935 by the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden for an exhibition about genetic health that traveled to the United States. One of his clones was given to the Buffalo Museum of Science. But about 50 years later, with some belated embarrassment, the museum sent back the glass man, queasy over the company he once kept and the ideals he once represented. He even appears in a 1935 photo in Dresden, gazed at by admiring Nazi officials.
Guilt by association, perhaps? Not unfair, given that this powerful exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, called "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," shows how the Nazis took a widely respected idea and step by step stripped off its admired flesh, showing in one horror after another, the awful possibilities latent within it. That idea was eugenics, which once heralded better living through genetic intervention. It is an idea that lost all respectability from its Nazi associations, though not all its relevance, as contemporary debates about abortion, euthanasia and the genome project make clear.
That is one reason that this exhibition, which will be on display through Oct. 16, should be a part of every citizen's experience.
Its curator, Susan Bachrach, shaped an imposing collection of objects and images into a narrative of imposing power: the copy of "On the Origin of Species" given by Charles Darwin to his cousin Sir Francis Galton, who coined the term "eugenics" in 1883; a scarred wooden door from an isolation cell used at the Eichberg Psychiatric Clinic in Eltville, Germany; calipers and hair color samples used by Dr. Ernst Rüdin to specify physical and racial traits in his genetic research; posters urging Germans to screen their lovers' families for genetic flaws.
There are instruments of sterilization like those forcibly used on 400,000 men and women in the Nazi era - perhaps 1 percent of the German population of child-bearing age deemed mentally or physically unfit ("It is better to sterilize too many rather than too few," was the official doctrine); and a photograph of blind German children being taught to recognize different races by running their hands over plaster busts.
And more horribly: samples of the sedatives Luminal and Veronal like those dispensed by pediatricians to infants at "pediatric wards," in order to execute 5,000 undesirable children. Then, when it seems as if nothing more could shock, one walks into a reproduction of the "shower stalls" used at six facilities in Germany and Austria where the Nazi program for what Hitler called "mercy deaths" expanded its ambitions.
Using carbon monoxide gas, more than 70,000 adults were poisoned, including schizophrenic artists, whose drawings and paintings are mounted here on the walls, under the shower heads. By 1945, 200,000 adults had been killed in various Nazi "euthanasia" programs.
Ultimately, of course, the techniques perfected on the feebleminded and deformed were turned against the country's primary "typhus," as one poster puts it. "Sterilize the Jew," reads a stamp that was pasted on envelopes, advertising one idea; but that procedure was too time-consuming. So the medical teams who had helped refine Germany's gene pool were dispatched to death camps like Sobibor and Treblinka in Poland to execute the Final Solution.
For all its gargantuan horror, this exhibit makes those millions of deaths seem an outgrowth of what came before, a more radical extension of genetics into the netherworld.
Much of this has been little known and little acknowledged, even in Germany, where in the 1990's, psychiatric institutions were still finding traces of this unsavory past in files and in jars of preserved specimens, and where many Nazi eugenicists enjoyed prosperous later careers.
But at the exhibition everything emerges with a kind of tragic restraint, weighted with carefully outlined detail. There is no resort to cliché or posturing. The opening sections even cause a certain uneasiness, because they make it clear that before the 1930's, eugenic ideas were commonplace. Galton had written: "If the twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle what a galaxy of genius might we not create!"
Such enthusiasm was infectious. The ideas, as the historian Daniel J. Kevles points out in the exhibition catalogue, "could and did strike root almost everywhere." "Only healthy seed must be sown," reads a British eugenics poster from 1930. Swedes worried about the genetic effects of Finnish blood. British worried about the Irish. In the United States, such fears helped inspire the restrictive 1924 immigration laws. And in 1927, in the case Buck v. Bell, eight Supreme Court justices agreed that a feeble-minded woman should be sterilized; Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. concluded after considering her genetic history: "Three imbecile generations are enough." By the late 1920's, eugenic sterilization was practiced in two dozen states, with California accounting for more than half of the 16,000 operations between 1907 and 1933.
So some ideas and procedures were widely accepted. Moreover, the racial inquiries undertaken by the Germans were also part of physical anthropology as it was then practiced. The study of difference and the tracing of genetic lineage was a legitimate subject of inquiry.
Is the Nazi case different because of degree rather than kind? Was German medicine and science so dehumanizing that they caused everything to go awry? Was the element of anti-Semitism decisive, perhaps, leading the anthropologist Josef Wastl to purchase skulls and death masks of Polish Jews and steal 220 Jewish skeletons from a Viennese cemetery for further study?
No, it seems that something else took place in Germany in the years after Hitler consulted Fritz Lenz's 1921 treatise, "Foundations of Human Genetics and Racial Hygiene" and invoked its ideas in "Mein Kampf." Eugenics was not incidental to the construction of the Nazi state; it was at its heart. As one slogan said: "National Socialism is the political expression of our biological knowledge."
The Nazi state rested on what Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, called "applied biology." One exhibited brochure creates an analogy between societies and organisms; Hitler is the brain guiding the state's biological "regeneration." Its laws were often biological laws (like the "Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring"), its solutions biological solutions. By 1942, 10 million registry cards had been collected documenting the genetic trees of German families. Josef Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, boasted in 1938: "Our starting point is not the individual"; the goal is a "healthy people."
There was, of course, some acknowledgment that other things mattered. There was an urge to justify and an urge to conceal. In one chilling document, "euthanasia" gassings are rationalized by meticulously calculating how much food will be saved by the state over the course of a decade, including 13,492,440 kilograms of meat and sausage.
And however open Nazi doctrines were about their ruthless prosecution of their biological goals, the "euthanasia" program, given the code name Operation T-4, was considered so extreme in its killings of non-Jewish Germans, that it was conducted in secrecy. Gradually, though, there were slip-ups: two urns of ashes sent to puzzled relatives rather than one; a woman's brooch found in a man's effects; and the peculiar case of 2,000 people dying of natural causes in 40 days at an asylum that had only 100 beds. The gassings eventually stopped because of public pressure, whereupon energies were fully turned to more fundamental ambitions of biological elimination.
In these utilitarian justifications and secret machinations, though, there may have also been some sense that these acts were violating other kinds of principles, suggesting that humanity does not live by genes alone. But such hints are slight. And what, after all, could such ethical principles be? The exhibition properly resists the temptations that now seem to haunt all such exhibitions, to create morals, to turn the museum into a therapeutic agency, to generalize from the particular so pain is turned into platitude. We are simply given the facts, shown the objects.
As for the ethical principles governing eugenics, in contemporary culture they still remain curiously unsettled. There may be no other realm in which the absolute of Nazi evil has come to seem so bendable. The philosopher Peter Singer, for example, has attained academic respectability while advocating euthanasia and arguing that the killing of an infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. And if eugenics is unambiguously evil, then why do we accept genetic screening of human fetuses for possible abortion? If racial breeding is so offensive, why is the prospect of designer genes considered so appealing? If euthanasia shocks because it was forced, what about if it is welcomed? The ethical issues are rarely presented as starkly as they were in Nazi Germany. This exhibition doesn't make the answers any simpler, but that is one of its virtues.