Fischer, (Leopold Franz) Eugen
FISCHER, (LEOPOLD FRANZ) EUGEN
(b. Karlsruhe, Germany, 5 June 1874; d. Freiburg im Breisgau, 9 July 1967)
anatomy, anthropology, biological anthropology, genetics, eugenics.
Fischer began his career as an anatomist, but dedicated his investigational effort to anthropological work that sought biological grounds for human traits and their hereditary transmission. He called his method “anthropo-biology” and argued that human heredity follows Mendelian patterns. Even more important than his research work, however, were his administrative efforts. He spent 1927–1942 as the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics (KWIA) in Berlin. Through this position he put significant scientific resources directly in the service of Nazi racial policy. Fischer thus demonstrates the ways in which biomedical scientists’ social interests, investigational goals, and persuasive strategies drove them to participate in the complex networks through which the Nazi state and its officials generated and exploited complicity in their ideologies and crimes.
Training and Early Researc . Eugen Fischer grew up in Freiburg im Breisgau, where he also studied and spent most of his career before 1927. He remained personally attached to Freiburg and southwestern Germany for the rest of his life and supported amateur archaeological work about the region. He received his doctorate of medicine in 1898 and his habilitation, in “anatomy with special consideration of anthropology,” in 1900. Despite a slow process of academic promotion, his administrative skills and energetic advocacy of anthropological methods in biomedicine quickly impressed important colleagues. In 1903 he participated in the German Anthropological Society’s survey of the entire population of the German Empire. This brought him into close contact with other major anthropologists, especially Felix von Luschan. Fischer’s interest in eugenics and racial hygiene took concrete form in 1910, when Alfred Ploetz, the founder of the German Society for Racial Hygiene, convinced him to organize the society’s Freiburg branch.
The political controversies generated by the German colonies in Africa and the Pacific led to Fischer’s breakthrough as a scientific investigator. Fischer personally supported an active German colonial policy, and sought to become an expert on racial questions in the colonies. He hypothesized that a hybrid European-African population in German Southwest Africa (Namibia) should demonstrate the Mendelian hereditary patterns that had become central to biological inquiry after 1900. Financed by the Prussian Academy of Sciences, he traveled to Africa in July–October 1908. The resulting monograph, Die Rehobother Bastards, appeared in 1913. Fischer constructed elaborate family trees of the Rehoboth population and then classified three sub-populations (“European,” “mixed,” and “Hottentot”) based on traits including hair form, eye color, hair color, skin color, skull shape, eye shape, and nose shape. He also argued that the Rehoboth population showed signs of “hybrid vigor,” despite his expressed belief that African populations showed a lack of creativity and leadership qualities, and were therefore “inferior.” Anthropologists and biologists long accepted that Fischer’s work demonstrated conclusively that human traits were subject to Mendelian laws. In further works of this period, Fischer argued that human racial differences appeared through a process akin to domestication in plants and animals. He believed that Europeans had “auto-domesticated” through quasi-conscious selection for “blondness, light eye color, and light skin,” and he used histological comparisons of pigmentation in brown bears and polar bears to support his
arguments against natural selection as the cause of human racial differentiation. Both of Fischer’s major research claims, however, were founded on analogies drawn from unreflective acceptance of the superiority of European races. They were not supported by sophisticated statistical reasoning, and have since been discredited.
Advocacy and Administration . The Rehoboth monograph was highly regarded in its day, and made Fischer into a leading expert on the relationship between biological principles and human variation. He had thus attained sufficient status to dedicate himself to administration and advocacy of inquiry into eugenic practices, human heredity, race differences, and their political consequences. He further increased his prestige through collaborations with geneticists and eugenicists, including the American Charles B. Davenport. He also supported partisans of racial ideology such as Hans F. K. Günther. Fischer’s best known scientific publication, the textbook of human heredity and racial hygiene coauthored with Erwin Baur and Fritz Lenz, known as the “Baur-Fischer-Lenz,” reveals how his later work contained more collaborative advocacy than new investigation. Initially published in 1921, the book went through five editions and translations into English and Swedish by 1940. Reviewers from many disciplines praised the book; it was widely cited by international geneticists and eugenicists in the 1920s and 1930s, and it became the leading textbook of heredity and eugenics in Nazi Germany. Fischer’s section of the work was largely a summary of his interpretation of the historical development of human variation and the current range of human variability, with focus on the same traits that he had investigated among the Rehoboth population.
In 1918, after wartime medical service, Fischer was made full professor of anatomy and director of the Anatomical Institute in Freiburg. Nonetheless, he still sought a more prestigious position from which to expand his advocacy. In 1927 he was made professor of anthropology and founding director of the new KWIA, in Berlin. At KWIA he administered research and publication work in the three departments indicated by its name, and oversaw what he himself called “eugenic propaganda.” The content of Fischer’s “propaganda” changed little after the transition from the parliamentary Weimar government to the Nazi regime. He was made rector of the University of Berlin in 1933, despite some Nazi Party opposition.
Fischer’s propagation of the idea of hybrid vigor among human races led some Nazi factions to denounce him in 1933 and 1934 as a “race-mixer,” which ran counter to Nazi racial policy. From this experience he learned how to profile himself within the Nazi regime, and made the kind of “Faustian bargain” with the Nazi state described by Robert Jay Lifton in The Nazi Doctors(1986). He perceived his institute as part of a national political project and willingly modulated his advocacy and administrative work into congruence with the varied forms of Nazi racial and anti-Semitic policy. He thus transformed KWIA into the most significant source of scientific legitimation for Nazi racial policy. Fischer and his colleagues participated in the Nazi “genetic health courts” established to administer the regime’s sterilization program; supported forced sterilizations on racial grounds (especially of the children of German women and French-African soldiers occupying the Ruhr area after World War I); trained race-policy bureaucrats and SS physicians; defended the Nazi regime at international scientific meetings; and gained research data from human subjects exploited and murdered in Nazi ghettos, camps, and penal institutions. Fischer retired in 1942, accepted the Nazis’ highest scientific honors, and chose as his successor at KWIA his student and colleague Otmar von Verschuer. It was under Verschuer and his student Josef Mengele that many of the most flagrant violations of ethics in research on human beings in the Third Reich took place (infecting twins with virulent disease organisms, removal of body parts for analysis of phenotypic similarities and differences, etc.). While Fischer was not directly responsible for such atrocities, he laid the groundwork by putting the resources of the KWIA unfailingly in the service of the Nazi government.
After the war Fischer escaped denazification proceedings with a fine of three hundred marks. He then refrained from publication and scientific activity for some years. After 1950 he revived his work in local archaeology and actively advocated for the careers of his former students and colleagues such as Verschuer. He thus remained until his death a significant participant in the spheres of German anthropology, biology, and genetics. Fischer’s career is far more than just a cautionary tale. It represents the full complexity of the cultural and political embeddedness of the German life sciences in the early twentieth century.
Lösch, Rasse als Konstrukt, contains a complete bibliography of publications by Fischer and KWIA, and evaluates public and private archival sources on Fischer.
WORKS BY FISCHER
Die Rehobother Bastards und das Bastardierungsproblem beim Menschen: Anthropologische und ethnographische Studien am Rehobother Bastardvolk in Deutsch-Südwest-Afrika. Jena, Germany: Gustav Fischer, 1913. Reprint, Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1961.
With Erwin Baur and Fritz Lenz. Grundriß der menschlichen Erblichkeitslehre und Rassenhygiene. 2 vols. Munich, Germany: J.F. Lehmann, 1921. English translation, Human Heredity, 1 vol., translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. New York: Macmillan, 1931.
Berez, Thomas M., and Sheila Faith Weiss. “The Nazi Symbiosis: Politics and Human Genetics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.” Endeavour 28, no. 4 (2004): 172–177.
Gessler, Bernhard. Eugen Fischer, 1874–1967: Leben und Werk des Freiburger Anatomen, Anthropologen und Rassenhygienikers bis 1927. Frankfurt, Germany, and New York: Lang, 2000.
Lösch, Niels C. Rasse als Konstrukt: Leben und Werk Eugen Fischers. Frankfurt, Germany, and New York: Lang, 1997.
Massin, Benoit. “From Virchow to Fischer: Physical Anthropology and ‘Modern Race Theories’ in Wilhelmine Germany.” In Volksgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition, edited by George W. Stocking Jr., 79–154. History of Anthropology, vol. 8. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.
Proctor, Robert. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Weindling, Paul J. Health, Race, and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism, 1870–1945. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Kevin S. Amidon