Darwin’s Dangerous Ideapaper. Here is how Weikart summarizes the ways that Nazi racial thought was shaped by Darwinism:
First, almost all Nazi racial theorists believed that humans had evolved from primates. Second, they provided evolutionary explanations for the development of different human races, including the Nordic or Aryan race (these two terms were used synonymously). Specifically, they believed that the Nordic race had become superior because harsh climatic conditions in north-central Europe during the Ice Ages had sharpened the struggle for existence, causing the weak to perish and leaving only the most vigorous. Third, they believed that the differential evolutionary development of the races provided scientific evidence for racial inequality. Fourth, they held that the different and unequal human races were locked in an ineluctable struggle for existence. Fifth, they thought that the way for their own race to triumph in the struggle for existence was to procreate more prolifically than competing races and to gain more “living space” (Lebensraum) into which to expand. Sixth, many argued that Darwinism promoted a collectivist ideal. These six points—derived from the view that humans and human races evolved and are still evolving through the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection—profoundly impacted Nazi policy. They formed the backdrop for eugenics, killing the disabled, the quest for “living space,” and racial extermination.
Of course Nazi racial ideology was not derived exclusively from Darwinism or evolutionary biology, but evolution provided a key part of the foundation. Indeed many German anthropologists and biologists supported Nazi racism as they were already committed to it before the Nazis came to power. And as Weikart explains, evolution was an important theme in Hitler’s ideas:
In his writings and speeches Hitler regularly invoked Darwinian concepts, such as evolution (Entwicklung), higher evolution (Höherentwicklung), struggle for existence (Existenzkampf or Daseinskampf ), struggle for life (Lebenskampf ), and selection (Auslese). In a 1937 speech he not only expressed belief in human evolution, but also endorsed Haeckel’s theory that each organism in its embryological development repeats earlier stages of evolutionary history. … Hitler clearly thought the Nordic race had evolved, as he explained in a 1920 speech, “Why We are Anti-Semites.” The Nordic race, Hitler averred, had developed its key traits, especially its propensity for hard work and its moral fiber, but also its physical prowess, due to the harsh northern climate.
Of course Nazi curriculum and texts also espoused Darwinism:
In 1938 the Ministry of Education published an official curriculum handbook for the schools. This handbook mandated teaching evolution, including the evolution of human races, which evolved through “selection and elimination.” It stipulated, “The student must accept as something self-evident this most essential and most important natural law of elimination [of unfit] together with evolution and reproduction.” In the fifth class, teachers were instructed to teach about the “emergence of the primitive human races (in connection with the evolution of animals).” In the eighth class, students were to be taught evolution even more extensively, including lessons on “Lamarckism and Darwinism and their worldview and political implications,” as well as the “origin and evolution of humanity and its races,” which included segments on “prehistoric humanity and its races” and “contemporary human races in view of evolutionary history.”
This mandate to teach evolution and indoctrinate students reflected the position of the National Socialist Teachers’ League:
The Ministry of Education’s 1938 biology curriculum reflected the biology curriculum developed by the National Socialist Teachers’ League in 1936–37, which likewise heavily emphasized evolution, including the evolution of human races. The Teachers’ League document, authored by H. Linder and R. Lotze, encouraged teachers to stress evolution, because “The individual organism is temporary, the life of the species to which it belongs, is lasting, but is also a member in the great evolution of life in the course of geological times. Humans are also included in this life.” Thus evolution was supposed to support the Nazis’ collectivist ideals—the importance of the species or race over the individual. This biology curriculum called for teaching plant and animal evolution in classes three and four and human evolution in class five. Of the ten topics required for biology instruction in the upper grades, one was evolution and another was human evolution, which included instruction on the origin of human races.
The position of the National Socialist Teachers’ League, as summarized above, illustrates how evolutionary dogma, that the species are the result of blind materialism, has important political implications. This was also evident in later biology textbooks:
Jakob Graf’s 1942 biology textbook has an entire chapter on “Evolution and Its Importance for Worldview.” Therein Graf combated Lamarckism and promoted Darwinian evolution through natural selection. He claimed that knowing about human evolution is important, because it shows that humans are not special among organisms. He also argued that evolution substantiates human inequality. In the following chapter on “Racial Science” Graf spent about fifteen pages discussing human evolution and insisted that humans and apes have common ancestors. Erich Meyer and Karl Zimmermann likewise discuss human evolution in their biology textbook. They state … As seen in these examples, human evolution was standard fare in Nazi biology texts. … A 1942 biology text by Hermann Wiehle and Marie Harm gave extended attention to human evolution. Of the ten main chapters, two were on evolution generally and another one was devoted exclusively to human evolution. One of the recommended activities for classes was a zoo visit to view the primates: “Since in the curriculum we have covered evolution and the origin of humanity, during a visit to the zoo the primates will especially grip us.” As this text and the accompanying activity make clear, German school children during the Third Reich were encouraged to see primates as their evolutionary relatives.
Evolution underwrote human inequality (i.e., racism). But this is only the beginning and there is much more to Weikart’s paper. This chapter in history is another unfortunate example of how ideas have consequences.
Religion drives science, and it matters.