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The German turn toward the subject of Rassenhygiene (racial hygiene), or “cleansing of the races,” in the middle and late nineteenth century mirrored the international interest in two ideas: (1) the perfectibility of humankind, and (2) the danger of rapid population growth among the lower socioeconomic classes. For many, the improvement of the genetic basis of a nation through the selective breeding of those embodying “ideal” physical characteristics seemed within reach.

Arthur Comte de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the inequality of the human race) (1853–1855) placed race in the forefront of causation for the rise and decline of nation-states, giving the concept of race both immediacy and a practical application. In a similar vein, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, explained in Origin of Species (1859), brought about an interest in the concept of “survival of the fittest,” which was inappropriately adapted to the realm of humans by social Darwinists. Thus, individuals such as Stuart Chamberlain, Francis Galton, and Charles Daven-port took leading roles in turning social Darwinism from a theory into a program of practical action called eugenics. In 1905 Alfred Ploetz founded the German Society for Racial Hygiene (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene), which later was subsumed by the International Society for Racial Hygiene. Among its members were some of the most prominent scientists and business people in the United States.

The notion of race gained momentum among the scientific community in the context of making the population stronger, healthier, and more uniform. The term race was generally used without a definition, and it could thus be manipulated to fit any circumstance. There was no agreement among scientists on how many races there were in the world, nor even how many races might be found in Germany. There was even less agreement on the identity of the races. Several national studies were undertaken in Germany between 1900 and 1930 by biological and social scientists to determine the answers to those dilemmas, but no determination was made.

German biologists and anthropologists began to move from theoretical involvement with the topic of race to a more practical approach in racial hygiene. Eugen Fischer, Fritz Lenz, and Erwin Baur joined forces to write Grundriss der menschlichen Erblichkeitslehre und Rassenhygiene (Human Hereditary Teaching and Racial Hygiene), a widely used textbook, in 1921. A revised second edition appeared in 1923. Their goal was to use Mendelian genetics and social Darwinist principals to explain the process of inheritance of desired, as well as degenerate, characteristics within populations. It was in this publication that the first use of the term “Nordic Ideal” was used to refer to Ploetz’s earlier claim of Nordic supremacy.

Eugen Fischer, who was named the first director of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics in 1927, was soon in a position to put a major effort into mapping the racial characteristics of the German nation. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, he mobilized a team of leading anthropologists and biological scientists to investigate numerous communities throughout the nation to establish the number and variety of racial groups. The results were disappointing, but the ideas they engendered endured.

With the advent of Hitler’s regime in 1933, racial hygiene suddenly had immense political backing. As laws came into effect restricting Jews in all areas of employment and social life, many were forced to seek certificates (Gutachten) to prove their Aryan, or non-Jewish, genealogy. Fischer’s institute, as well as universities, hospitals, and other institutions, set up experts in the certifying process. To do this job, more than 1,100 doctors were trained in racial hygiene to assist in the process of sorting the country into racial groups. As World War II started, the idea of sorting people in order to maintain and advance “racial quality” continued in Poland, where Germans certified non-Jewish Poles.

Implementation of racial hygiene at first urged the “positive selection” of genetic characteristics valued by the predominantly white male proponents. People with “good characteristics” were to marry and have many children, and to provide a healthy, safe, and nurturing environment for these children. “Negative selection” began with discouraging marriage and procreation, but it soon evolved into the sterilization of those considered unworthy to contribute to the genetic mix.

As the Nazi era continued, negative selection came to mean euthanasia and the elimination of “life unworthy of life.” Children were the first to be selected for euthanasia, followed by the mentally ill and eventually those working in concentration camps and as slave laborers who could no longer work due to injury, starvation, or illness. Racial hygiene, which began as a theory of improving the genetic stock of a nation, had evolved into wanton murder and, ultimately, genocide.

SEE ALSO Ethnic Cleansing; Eugenics, History of; Genocide; Genocide and Ethnocide.


Aly, Götyz, Peter Chroust, and Christian Pross. 1994. Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Friedlander, Henry. 1995. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Kühl, Stefan. 1994. The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Proctor, Robert. 1988. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schafft, Gretchen E. 2003. From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Gretchen E. Schafft