Most Americans, it seems, don’t realize the extent to which Hitler drew on the “American model” of eugenics to enact the very laws and policies most liberals now look back on in horror.
Mainstream historical narratives around the rise of Nazism tend to reinforce the idea that Nazi ideology—a form of fascism based on scientific racism and a belief in the superiority of the Aryan race—was a foreign (i.e. un-American) concept. According to these narratives, Nazism was developed by Adolf Hitler and his followers in Germany during the 1930’s and 40’s, and was only put to an end when heroic American military forces liberated the Jewish people from their oppressors in 1945.
With Neo-Nazism again on the rise in the United States (especially since the emergence of the so-called Alt-Right and the election of Donald Trump), it is important to understand where Nazi ideology actually comes from. The idea of separating races into better and worse “types,” with the goal of eventually creating a “perfect Aryan race,” was actually not an idea that suddenly emerged with the election of Adolf Hitler. Instead, it had its origins in the American Eugenics Movement, which gained widespread credence in the United States during the 1920’s, the period preceding the rise of Nazi Germany.
The word eugenics is derived from the Greek word eu (“good” or “well”) and the suffix -genēs (“born”), and was invented by Francis Galton, known as the “father of Eugenics,” around 1883. Galton, a distant cousin of Charles Darwin, popularized the idea that if people with so-called “superior genes” (i.e. blond haired, blue-eyed, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual people) reproduced with other people possessing “superior genes,” then the gene pool of a particular society would eventually improve at a collective level. Just as plant and animal species could be directly improved through cross-breeding, thought Galton, so could humans.
It was no coincidence, of course, that Galton’s theory of eugenics gained widespread popularity in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century, just as it was undergoing the chaotic period of Reconstruction (following the emancipation of formerly enslaved people) as well as unprecedented waves of immigration from Eastern Europe and the Asian continent. Whiteness (specifically Western European, Protestant Christian whiteness) was being threatened, and, in ways that uncannily mirror the present, white people in power responded with state-sponsored violence against those it perceived as threatening.
In an astonishing twenty-seven states out of fifty, it became legal for medical practitioners to forcibly sterilize people they believed to be “unfit”—or in their words, people who were “diluting the gene pool.” The “unfit” basically included anyone who was non-white, poor (especially poor women), disabled, neuro-divergent, or accused of committing a crime. Collectively, approximately 60,000 people in the United States were forcibly sterilized (at least that we know about), with the state of California alone being responsible for almost a third of those. The idea of eugenics enjoyed widespread support by major public figures such as President Roosevelt, as well as financial backing by wealthy tycoons such as the Rockefeller family.
Today, it’s rare that the American Eugenics Movement is included in discussions of American history in public schools, let alone in popular discourse. Most Americans, it seems, don’t realize the extent to which Hitler drew on the “American model” of eugenics to enact the very laws and policies most liberals now look back on in horror. “Such a thing would never happen in the United States,” they say, and yet, it did—just prior to the rise of Nazi Germany, which was literally made in the image of Jim Crow-era America.
Sterilization of the “unfit” was not the only outcome of the American Eugenics Movement. We should also understand the pervasive racial segregation laws enacted under Jim Crow, as well as racist immigration policies barring Jews and Asians from entering the country, as inseparable from the goals of the eugenics movement at large. Many organizations were tasked with identifying so-called “defective” family trees, and subjecting whole families to lifelong segregation and sterilization programs so as too “kill off their bloodlines.” These plans—whose ultimate goal was to neutralize the viability of 10% of the American population to reproduce—were not considered at all extreme or far-fetched. Rather, they were backed by what was then considered to be cutting-edge science, and enshrined in legal and medical policy.
We should understand the United States as a settler-colonial project built on white supremacy from the outset. Nazi ideology as it developed in Hitler’s Germany was an extension of the ideas developed in this country, and it’s not all surprising that Hitler himself openly admitted as much: In “Mein Kampf,” published in 1924, Hitler quoted American eugenic ideology and openly displayed a thorough knowledge of American eugenics. “There is today one state,” he wrote, “in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception (of immigration) are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”
A List of Suggestions for Further Reading: