Wednesday, 18 February 2015


BLACK                SOCIAL             HISTORY                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  German science and black racism—roots of the Nazi
Franc¸ois Haas1
New York University Institute of Community Health and Research, New York University School of
Medicine, New York, New York, USA
ABSTRACT The Nazi’s cornerstone precept of “racial
hygiene” gave birth to their policy of “racial
cleansing” that led to the murders of millions. It was
developed by German physicians and scientists in the
late 19th century and is rooted in the period’s Social
Darwinism that placed blacks at the bottom of the racial
ladder. This program was first manifested in the nearextermination
of the African Herero people during the
German colonial period. After WWI, the fear among
the German populace that occupying African troops
and their Afro-German children would lead to “bastardization”
of the German people formed a unifying racial
principle that the Nazis exploited. They extended this
mind-set to a variety of “unworthy” groups, leading to
the physician-administered racial Nuremberg laws, the
Sterilization laws, the secret sterilization of Afro-Germans,
and the German euthanasia program. This culminated
in the extermination camps.—Haas, F. German
Science and Black Racism—Roots of the Nazi
Holocaust. FASEB J. 22, 332–337 (2008)
Key Words: eugenics racial hygiene Nazi medicine Social
Darwinism Herero
If the physician presumes to take into consideration in his
work whether a life has value or not, the consequences are
boundless and the physician becomes the most dangerous
man in the state.
Christopher Willhelm Hufeland (1762–1836) (1)
Although the slaughter of innocents has been a
repeating theme throughout human history, only the
Nazi-led extermination of millions of people deemed
undesirable was framed in the scientific context of
“racial hygiene.” At the core of Nazi philosophy was the
view of the nation as a living organism. Using Herder’s
concept of Volk,
2 Hitler viewed German society as an
organism with its own health. “Our people is also a
biological entity. . . .German people forms one great
relationship, a blood society. . . .This biological unity of
people will be known as the people-body (2).” Because
individual human beings were regarded as functional
or dysfunctional parts of this larger whole and thus
affecting the health of the people-body, racial hygiene
became seminal to Hitler’s thinking. As Bavarian Cabinet
Minister Hans Schemm declared in 1934, “National
Socialism is nothing but applied biology (3).”
The rise of science-based medicine combined with
physicians’ roles in national health reform during the
late 19th century (4) to give physicians first-time political
leverage and continuous and unprecedented levels
of public recognition (5). Hitler and the Nazis reached
out early to physicians:
I could, if need be, do without lawyers, engineers, and
builders,, you National Socialist doctors, I
cannot do without you for a single day, not a single hour. fail me, then all is lost. For what good are our
struggles, if the health of our people is in danger? (3)
Physicians responded in kind (Table 1): “The National
Socialist Physicians’ League proved its political reliability
to the Nazi cause long before the Nazis seizure of
power, and with an enthusiasm, and an energy, unlike
that of any other professional group (3).”
Central to this affinity was the 19th century etiologic
notion evolving from Social Darwinism that certain
diseases (e.g., mental illness, feeblemindedness, criminality,
epilepsy, hysteria, alcoholism) are genetically
determined. The physicians who had developed this
theory—primarily psychiatrists, neurologists, and anthropologists
(6)—became Germany’s eugenicists and
authored the country’s racial policy, and it was primarily
these physicians and their disciples who eventually
led the Nazi government’s policy of ethnic cleansing.
This program evolved in a series of discrete steps of
ever-increasing barbarism that emerged during the
German colonial period in Africa and terminated in
the extermination camps of the Holocaust.
1 Correspondence: 400 East 34th St., RR114, New York, NY
10016, USA. E-Mail:
doi: 10.1096/fj.08-0202ufm
2 Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), a German
physician, theologian, and linguist, introduced concepts of
ethnic study and nationalism. He defined the Volk (the
people) a group bound together organically by language,
religion, education, inherited tradition, folk songs, ritual, and
speech. This bond, which was spiritual in nature, he termed