Eugenics in Britain, Germany & the US


A review of British, German, and American Eugenicists in Transnational Context, c. 1900-1939, by Bradley W. Hart.

Bradley Hart’s British, German, and American Eugenicists in Transnational Context, c. 1900-1939 is, in a word, ambitious. Noting that “the early twentieth century eugenics movement has been the subject of significant scholarly attention in the past,” Hart points out that most of this “existing historiography focuses on the development and impact of hereditarianism in a single geographic area.” (p. 3)  In contrast, Hart seeks to describe eugenics as it was understood and practiced in Great Britain (the birthplace of eugenics), the United States (where it was quickly embraced and translated into myriad policies), and Germany (where the Nazi party used it as the basis for a sweeping set of policies that differentiated between individuals on the grounds of race.)  Drawing upon primary sources from all three countries, this dissertation is in alignment with the current vogue for cross-national studies. The staggering number of archives cited — in London, Berlin, and various American cities — is a testament to the research that went into this beautifully written work and it is a welcome addition to the literature on eugenics.

As if he had not set himself a large-enough challenge with the crafting of a transnational history of eugenics, Bradley Hart also works to correct the contemporary understanding of eugenics as tantamount to Nazism and the Holocaust. Stating that they were all violations of human rights, Hart distinguishes eugenic sterilization and euthanasia from mass killing and deportation, explaining that the former were designed in keeping with the eugenic goal of improving the hereditary makeup of the Aryan race, while the latter were, pure and simple, a purge of those considered undesirable. Hart coherently explains that eugenics was characterized by an ideological flexibility that allowed left, right, and center-leaning groups to use it in support of numerous, and sometimes contradictory, policies. Eugenics could garner support from across the political spectrum because its sole creed was “belief in the power of heredity to positively transform human society.” (p. 12)  Writing that “not all, or perhaps even most, eugenicists were Nazis or racists” and that “the international eugenics movement had mixed views of the Third Reich,” Hart proposes that “if they were alive today” many eugenicists “would undoubtedly be shocked to learn of the reputation their science has gained since the Second World War.” (pp. 11-13)  Just as Hart seeks to break the perceived correlation between eugenics and Nazi beliefs and acts, he also seeks to “dispel the still clearly prevalent idea that Germany was unique in its strong embrace of Social Darwinism or eugenics.” (p. 20)

Hart begins with a review of the relevant historiography, charting two divergent trends in the literature: the early view that the Galtonian eugenics conceived of in Great Britain had little to do with the activities of the Nazis and the later argument that eugenics was a significant source and driver of Nazi policies. Hart situates his dissertation as responding, in particular, to the works of Stefan Kühl and Hans-Walther Schmuhl and to the 2010 Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics; however, he argues that his study is differentiated from such prior works by both its transnational scope and by its documentary sources. Specifically, Hart is the first historian to utilize the personal papers of anthropologist George Pitt-Rivers (1890-1966), a leader of the (British) Eugenics Society. Hart is also the first scholar to make significant use of the personal papers of Leonard Darwin (1850-1943) and Archibald George Church (1886-1954).

The study is divided into four chapters, each with multiple subsections. The first chapter, focusing on the period between 1859 and 1914, examines the origins of eugenics and efforts to foster international collaboration among eugenics supporters. Hart introduces eugenicists and fellow travelers from each of the three nations and traces how ideas spread among them, underscoring Great Britain’s precarious dominance of the new field. In the second chapter, covering 1918-1930, Hart explains that the American eugenics movement, unlike its British and German counterparts, was not significantly derailed by World War I. As a result, it came to overshadow Great Britain, claiming the mantle of most eugenically active nation. With the backing of wealthy and well-connected enthusiasts who connected eugenics to local concerns (in particular, fears about the nation’s influx of immigrants), eugenics-based policies came into effect in the United States on both the state and federal levels. Hart examines the eventual revival of eugenic internationalism during the interwar era, proposing that eugenics became an international scientific-political movement. Furthermore, Hart dissects to what degree the various nations’ eugenicists were concerned with issues of race and “racial hygiene,” a matter that is of central concern in the next chapter.

In Chapter 3, Hart describes Germany outpacing the United States in implementing eugenic-premised policies and becoming the international leader in eugenics. With both the United States and Germany translating eugenic theory into policies, the British eugenics movement was divided between those who sought closer alignment with the international eugenics agenda and those who rejected it, and between those engaged in scientific research and in eugenic propaganda. Hart describes the British effort to enact a voluntary sterilization law, not necessarily for its own merits but in order to finally have a policy success and thereby level the international playing field. Significantly, Hart claims that, while other scholars attribute the failure of the push for a sterilization law to public concerns about the policy’s links with Nazism, “it was the failure of the British eugenicists themselves to form meaningful and significant alliances with political figures… coupled with the intrinsically chaotic and undisciplined nature of British eugenics, that led to this series of defeats.” (p. 139)

In the fourth chapter, Hart takes up British eugenicists’ reactions to and perceptions of Nazi policies. In 1933, the Nazis enacted a eugenic sterilization bill that — unlike the proposed British bill, which was solely voluntary — specified that compulsory sterilization could be imposed on individuals suffering from certain supposedly hereditary problems. Increasingly, in Germany, the emphasis on heredity — the basis of eugenic theory — diminished in favor of an emphasis on racial hygiene. Some British eugenicists initially viewed Germany’s sterilization bill favorably and hoped that it might prompt Great Britain to pass eugenics-based laws. Others found the Nazi policy scientifically dubious or philosophically repulsive. In contrast, many Americans proponents of eugenics viewed the policy favorably, perceiving it as in alignment with their own legislative efforts.

Throughout, Hart seeks to “reorient British eugenics… firmly within” its international context, thereby “demonstrating unequivocally that these national movements were far closer and less differentiated that historians have long believed.” (pp. 44-45)  Comparing the political success eugenics-based policies in Great Britain, the United States, and Germany, Harts asks why the British eugenic movement was comparatively so unable to achieve the majority of its legislative aims, concluding that success was largely determined by three factors that varied from nation to nation: funding levels, success in networking and leveraging local concerns, and the national movement’s internal discipline.

Bradley Hart has made a compelling case that eugenicists were active participants in a transnational exchange of ideas, and his knitting together of three different national eugenic stories provides strong support for his thesis. This dissertation is highly recommended for scholars of eugenics, and it will be of use also for those interested in transnational exchanges between Great Britain, the United States, and Germany; in the transmission of scientific knowledge; in the process of public policymaking; and in the relationship between funding, scientific research, and political activity.

Alison Bateman-House
Department of Sociomedical Sciences
Columbia University

Primary Sources

Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
University Library Manuscripts Room, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Special Colleges, University College London (UCL) Library, United Kingdom
Max-Planck-Instituts für Psychiatrie Historisches Archiv (MPIP-HA), München, Germany
California State University, Sacramento, Library Special Collections and University Archive, Sacramento, California, USA

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2011. 276 pp. Primary Advisor: Richard J. Evans.

Image: Study by London-based Eugenics Society, 1927-1929. Photograph by author.

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