Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress
by Richard Weikart
Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
(254 pages, $79.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Joe Keysor
This book provides an invaluable antidote to fuzzy thinking about the Hitler-Darwin link and the Nazi dictator’s relation to Christianity. Neither an attack on Darwinism nor a defense of Christianity, it emphasizes that Hitler was neither a nihilist who delighted only in destruction, nor a cynical opportunist, but that he had a real system of ethics in which conventional evils became right, just, and good, if only they served the evolutionary advance of the human race.
Weikart does not “claim in this book to provide a complete explanation for Nazi ideology,” and he recognizes that there were significant ideological elements in Nazism that preceded Darwinism; but, relying on extensive quotes from Hitler himself (primarily from his speeches and writings but also from conversational remarks generally accepted as authentic by scholars), he establishes Hitler’s belief in the evolutionary origins of man and in the concept of life as the progress and development of higher life forms (including human life) through a pitiless struggle in which the strong survive and the weak die.
Hitler regarded Aryans as the vanguard of evolutionary development, so to protect the German “race” and lead it to world domination was to ensure the evolutionary advance of humanity. Whatever helped toward this goal was right and moral; whatever hindered it was wrong and immoral. As Weikart explains,
Evolutionary ethics underlay or influenced almost every major feature of Nazi policy: eugenics (i.e., measures to improve human heredity, including compulsory sterilization), euthanasia, racism, population expansion, offensive warfare, and racial extermination. The drive to foster evolutionary progress—and to avoid biological degeneration—was fundamental to Hitler’s ideology and policies.
Hitler opposed homosexuality, abortion (by healthy German women at least), and birth control, not because they violated any divine law, but because they interfered with the growth and progress of the German race. His imperialism was intended to ensure the domination of those highest on the evolutionary scale. Extermination or enslavement of the weak was meant to protect and benefit those best suited to lead.
Weikart concludes that Hitler was not a moral monstrosity who delighted in doing what he knew to be evil, but a well-intentioned ideologue, thinking himself a benefactor of the human race—he had a high aim and purpose, believing he could cleanse the world, purify it, and make it a better place. He is careful to point out, however, that “the purpose of my analysis of Hitler’s ethic is by no means to exonerate him for his crimes against humanity by explaining that he really had ‘good intentions.’ On the contrary, the point is that evil can be—and often is—perpetrated under the guise of doing good.”
A significant feature of the book is its demonstration that Hitler’s ideas were well entrenched in influential segments of German society before Hitler himself came to power in 1933. Though this situation was described much more thoroughly in Weikart’s earlier book, From Darwin to Hitler, this second book by itself provides ample documentation of the fact that Hitler’s ideas were not just his personal inventions or eccentricities.
Also worth noting is Weikart’s observation that historians of science are increasingly reluctant to dismiss Nazi racial science as mere pseudoscience. If we define legitimate science as “what most scientists accept as valid at any given time, even if later those ideas are shown to be mistaken,” then applying the label “pseudoscience” to Nazi racial theories may be anachronistic. Many authoritative and respected medical professors, doctors, educators, biologists, and anthropologists of the time accepted racism and other aspects of Hitler’s program as scientifically valid.
Weikart does not fully integrate Hitler’s hatred of Jews into his evolutionary value system. This is a perennially baffling riddle, and it would not be fair to criticize Weikart for not solving it. Yet, since he spends a chapter presenting Hitler’s views on the subject (Chapter 4, “Morally Upright Aryans and Immoral Jews”), he might have done more to clarify the transition from traditional religious anti-Semitism to more virulent secular and racial forms.
Details in the book provide disquieting insights into our own society: Darwinism mandated in the schools, babies considered not fully human and hence liable to be killed for some period even after they are born, health care for certain people considered a waste of resources, mercy killing, the belief that we are only animals and that human ethics should therefore be derived from Darwinism—these remind us that the spirit animating Hitler and his many followers did not vanish in 1945.
This book will make it more difficult to reduce Hitler to merely a criminal lunatic or a power-hungry madman. It shows that he was instead a variety of moralist with a mission, an ethic, a goal, and an ideal—a man of strong principles that, in his mind, justified lying, murder, hatred, cruelty, and oppression for the good of humanity. These meshed seamlessly with, and to a great extent emerged from, a theory of life as the result of amoral evolutionary struggle.
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