Katholizismus und Eugenik in der Weimarer Republik und im Dritten Reich: Zwischen Sittlichkeitsreform und Rassenhygiene
(Catholicism and Eugenics in the Weimar Republic and in the Third Reich : Between a Reform in Morality and Racial Hygiene)
Ingrid Richter
Ferdinand Schöningh, 2001, 572 pages
ISBN 3-506-79993-2

Review by John Glad

As Richter points out, it is no longer possible to lump all the Christian denominations together as an undifferentiated “anti-eugenic bulwark.” There was not only a Catholic but also a Protestant eugenics, although it would be a gross mistake to view these disparate movements as being motivated by a unified worldview. Prominent Catholic priests in Germany supported the eugenics movement, each with his own ideological platform.

It may come as a surprise to many that even today the Catholic Church is not opposed to eugenics per se, but only to contraception and abortion, as well as to Neo-Malthusianism, which is closely intertwined with eugenic thinking. Such a statement might appear to be self-contradictory, but not in the eyes of Catholic theologians. The Church considers sexual abstinence to be the most holy state for humans, and thus there can be no objection to a person abstaining from marriage if he or she fears passing on a genetically heritable disease (negative eugenics). And the Church actively encourages healthy couples to have large families (positive eugenics). Thus, the Church believes that Christian love for children should not prevent Catholics from pursuing eugenic goals, but disagrees with mainstream eugenics over methods.

A second source of confusion underlying the topic of Christian eugenics has been the indiscriminate equating of eugenics with racism and genocide. This lack of a differentiated understanding of the topic has been engendered not only by populist ideologues intent on manipulating public opinion but also by some participants in the eugenics movement itself. The very term “racial hygiene (Rassenhygiene) leaves the listener confused as to whether it refers to the general human race or specific human races. The result has been a high emotional pitch that renders dispassionate scholarly discussion virtually impossible.

As early as 1910, population management had become a prominent topic in Germany, but the Church’s negative attitude toward Darwinism generally restrained public discussion. The “birth dearth” had begun to worry many, and the slaughter of World War I led still others to muse bitterly about both its quantitative and qualitative consequences. Thus it was the War that made eugenics politikfähig (acceptable as a political issue).

The original thrust of concern was strictly quantitative: without soldiers how could Germany maintain its military superiority on a continent so burdened by war? Still, “negative racial hygiene of the American variety” was generally rejected.

As early as 1918 the Gesellschaft für Bevölkerungspolitik (Society for Population Policy) had 1,337 members with 188 fraternities and was affiliated with 100 organizations. During the Weimar period the conservatives (proponents of racial hygiene) favored such publications as Archiv für Rassen- und Gesellschaftsbiologie (The Racial and Social-Biology Archive), while liberals and leftists supported such eugenic and moderate periodicals as Vorwärts (Forward) and Schönere Zukunft (The More Beautiful Future). The left wing favored encouraging healthy children to have more children and supported only voluntary sterilization.

Pro-eugenics Catholics attempted to use the venereal disease issue as a vehicle for promoting eugenics. In 1916 the German Society for Social Hygiene proposed a pre-marital exchange of health certificates. Amalie Lauter (1882-1950), a Catholic professor of education in Cologne, supported the initiative so as to forestall infection of the spouse and children. In 1922 the Prussian Minister of Social Welfare picked up the idea, and in Catholic Cologne Bishop Josef Stoffels (1875-1923) sided with the Catholic Hermann Muckermann (1877-1962), who was known as “the Pope of positive eugenics.” While Stoffel’s initiative was purely quantitative, the Catholic nurse Marianne Koerbling argued that health certificates should not be limited to venereal diseases, but should also deal with heritable diseases. To the objection that such prognostications were still too uncertain, she responded that people in everyday life had to cope with uncertainties.

Catholic thinkers hoped to introduce an alternative, a “third route” (dritter Weg) to eugenics – one that would be based on voluntary restraint and stress positive eugenics, i.e. large healthy families. Richter writes that Catholic skepticism with regard to negative eugenics was “palpable.”

There was a campaign for a voluntary exchange of premarital health certificates, but it foundered for lack of support on the part of the government, partly out of inertia, partly because it was perceived as an intrusion into the personal sphere, and partly because of a pronatalist fear that it would pose an additional barrier to marriage and as such would undermine an already declining birthrate. The eugenics fallback position was sex counseling, generally favored on an international level, but the Church expressed reservations to the effect that such consultations could lead to an excessively libertine attitude toward sex.

The abortion debate in the Weimar Republic was startlingly similar to that currently taking place in the United States. German Reich legislation dating back to 1871 was still in effect, criminalizing the procedure[1], but abortion was permitted if the mother’s life was in danger. For its part the Catholic Church distinguished between “direct” and “indirect” abortion, the former indicating termination of pregnancy as intentional and premeditated, as opposed to being simply a byproduct of a life-saving medical procedure.[2] Even the Catholic Priest, theologian and declared eugenicist Joseph Mayer (1886-1967) opposed “direct” abortion, so that the pre-1930 debate within the Church was solely over “indirect” abortion. The Communist Party categorically advocated what today would be called a “pro-choice” position, while the Social Democrats were split.[3]

In 1926 it was proposed that abortion without medical indication be reclassified from felony to misdemeanor, and that abortions be authorized when judged essential to the mother’s health.[4] Father Joseph Mayer proclaimed an “era of practical cooperation between physician and theologian.”[5]

Helene Weber (1881-1962) of the Catholic League of German women occupied the political center in opposing abortion but favoring “moral education that would promote eugenically motivated self-restraint,” pleading for “a sort of natural selection.”[6] All these attempts at relegislating the abortion question were voted down by the German government.

By 1930, however, Catholics became more and more concerned with qualitative decline. Eugenic institutionalization as an alternative to sterilization was favored by Helene Wessel and Elisabeth Zillken, both representing Catholic Charities for Girls, Women, and Children. Whereas previous discussions had centered on protecting mothers, the stress gradually shifted to protecting babies. In 1931 Muckermann began to lay more stress on negative eugenics, and in 1932 Prussia approved of voluntary sterilization. Both Wessel and Mayer voted in favor of the new law.[7]

After the failure of the eugenics initiatives in Prussia, the national discussion switched from eugenic isolation to eugenic sterilization, with the latter enjoying broad support across virtually the entire political spectrum. The Church’s position was that only infertility that resulted inadvertently as a result of medical treatment (once more the term “indirect” sterilization) was legitimate. The chief ecclesiastical argument against sterilization of the medically ill was that man is a sub specie aeternitatis: he exists as a self-defined goal and is not amenable to scientific objectification. Furthermore the Church was and remains generally opposed to a separation of the sexual act from procreation. Nevertheless there remained a temporary legal gray area within Church doctrine.

Mayer argued a) if the scientific aspects of the trait in question were resolved, b) if a national emergency could be said to exist, and c) if all other methods had been tried and had failed, the interdiction of sterilization should not be regarded as absolute: “The mentally ill person… does not have the moral right to beget children.”[8] Bonum commune should have precedence over bonum particulare.[9] Mayer was supported by the Catholic moral theologian Fritz Tillman. Another theologian Otto Schilling (b. 1874) originally supported Mayer, but then backed off. Other Catholic theologians began to take issue with Mayer over mandatory sterilization, but many argued that it was legitimate to pressure the mentally ill to voluntarily agree to sterilization. Meanwhile Catholic theologians in America displayed considerably less reluctance. Within Germany the Jewish socialist eugenicist Henriette Fürth enthusiastically supported Mayer, as did the prominent Catholic politician Erich Emminger. Muckerman advocated sterilization of “genetically encumbered” criminals.

In 1930 Mayer’s position was resolutely rejected by the Papal encyclical Casti Connubii, which forbade contraception, abortion, sterilization, and marital prohibition. Although it was directed largely toward stressing reproduction as the chief goal of marriage and dealt largely with topics other than eugenics, it was evident that Pope Pius XI was keenly aware of the broad acceptance of eugenic thought in society at the time and had a mixed attitude toward the topic:

66. What is asserted in favor of the social and eugenic "indication" may and must be accepted, provided lawful and upright methods are employed within the proper limits....

68. Finally, that pernicious practice must be condemned which closely touches upon the natural right of man to enter matrimony but affects also in a real way the welfare of the offspring. For there are some who over solicitous for the cause of eugenics, not only give salutary counsel for more certainly procuring the strength and health of the future child – which, indeed, is not contrary to right reason – but put eugenics before aims of a higher order, and by public authority wish to prevent from marrying all those whom, even though naturally fit for marriage, they consider, according to the norms and conjectures of their investigations, would, through hereditary transmission, bring forth defective offspring. And more, they wish to legislate to deprive these of that natural faculty by medical action despite their unwillingness; and this they do not propose as an infliction of grave punishment under the authority of the state for a crime committed, not to prevent future crimes by guilty persons, but against every right and good they wish the civil authority to arrogate to itself a power over a faculty which it never had and can never legitimately possess.

69. Those who act in this way are at fault in losing sight of the fact that the family is more sacred than the State and that men are begotten not for the earth and for time, but for Heaven and eternity. Although often these individuals are to be dissuaded from entering into matrimony, certainly it is wrong to brand men with the stigma of crime because they contract marriage, on the ground that, despite the fact that they are in every respect capable of matrimony, they will give birth only to defective children, even though they use all care and diligence.

The decree demonstrated clearly just how thorny the question of Catholic eugenics could be. Although it rejected many of the chief instruments in the toolbox of negative eugenics and stressed voluntarism, Casti Connubii was interpreted as permitting eugenic “asylum” or institutionalization, and also marital counseling. Furthermore “indirect sterilization” upon “medical indication” was permitted by the Church, and the question of sterilization of criminals as a means of punishment or prevention was left open.

Displeased with Casti Connubi, the eugenicist Fritz Lenz decided to appeal to an ecclesiastic figure higher than the Pope – Jesus Christ: “If your hand offends you, cut it off” (Mark 9:42-50). (Casti Connubii did not really distinguish between castration and sterilization.) Thus, despite all the practices of negative eugenics that were judged inadmissible, the encyclical in some ways actually served to legitimize the eugenics debate within the Church.

In 1931 the Vatican followed up on Casti Connubii with a still more conservative instruction, attacking both eugenics and sex education, which it was feared could lead to a slackening of sexual morality. A common lay response was irritation with theologians interfering in matters of biology.

During the late Weimar period, Prussia formed Germany’s “political-eugenic avant-garde,” and it was in Prussia that a law was drafted proposing – with Catholic support – a series of eugenics measures ranging from tax incentives to non-mandatory sterilization, but the exclusively voluntary nature of the proposal was dismissed by Lenz as “the sterilization of eugenics.”[10] The National Socialist government agreed with Lenz’s assessment of the voluntary eugenics of the Weimar period as hopelessly ineffective, and the Prussian draft law became a moot point.

At the 1929 Nürnberg Party Congress Hitler had called for a negative eugenics that would weed out 800,000 genetically unfit children annually.[11] Once he had assumed office, he was not about to tolerate religious genetic counseling, and the Catholic marital counseling centers folded. Muckerman was forced to step down from his position in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Inheritance, and Eugenics. Both he and Mayer attempted to build bridges to the new regime, but were restrained by Casti Connubii.

The new government attempt to conceptualize eugenics within the context of racial anthropology. Minister of Health Leonardo Conti (1900-1945): “I do not consider it possible for eugenics, if it is to be successful, to systematically avoid concepts of race and national uniqueness (Volkstum) over extended periods of time.”[12]

In the fall of 1933 the government launched a eugenics campaign under the slogan “A Christian People – A Healthy People”: “Every Catholic should be aware of his responsibility to future generations.” But the campaign was doomed to failure because of the ideological distance between Church and State.

Nevertheless a shift in eugenic paradigm had occurred, sweeping aside voluntarism and “self-restraint” as a “watering down” of eugenic principles. As for eugenic asylum, favored by the Catholic Church, it was judged to be too expensive.

The July 14, 1933, law on sterilization marked a pro-eugenics turning point, although perhaps not as decisive a turning point as Richter would have readers believe. The new law mandated sterilization in instances of 1) heritable feeblemindedness, 2) schizophrenia, 3) manic-depressive illness, 4) heritable epilepsy, 5) heritable Huntington’s chorea, 6) heritable blindness, 7) heritable deafness, 8) severe physical deformity, and 9) severe alcoholism.[13]

The response of prominent Catholic clergy was not entirely uniform. A bishops’ conference in Fulda ruled that sterilization was permissible only as punishment for crime or as essential medical treatment of the pregnant woman. Bishop Michael Buchberger (b. 1874) initially was willing to negotiate sterilization with the government; the Catholic theologian Franz Hürth reasoned that it could be “tolerated” – but only as a voluntary measure; Wendelin Rauch (1885-1954), who was to be appointed Archbishop of Freiburg in 1948, argued that Catholic ethics and eugenics were inherently linked[14]; and the Catholic theologian Franz Keller frankly welcomed the new law. But there still remained Casti Connubii, and the Catholic Church is, after all is said and done, a disciplined organization. Thus the Church found itself at loggerheads with the German government.

From the moment the new law entered into force until December 1937 Richter’s statistics, which are broken down by institution, indicate that 2,582 women and 2,793 men were sterilized.[15] These are startlingly low figures, at least one source claims that from 1934 to 1939 two million persons may have been sterilized.[16] Most others claim figures in the range of hundreds of thousands. Richter herself points out that her statistics are incomplete since they are missing some hospitals and do not cover the period 1938-1945. But it is doubtful that statistics from the war period are reliable or that Germany could even have allowed itself the luxury during the war of concerning itself with occupying itself on such a scale with a low-priority procedure.

Literature on the topic tends to be highly emotional, and the various sources ultimately end up simply quoting each other. But there is a report by Major Leo Alexander, MC, AUS, submitted to The Combined Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee from occupied Germany shortly after the end of the war:

Despite the exaggerated hopes concerning the eugenic effects of compulsory sterilization, which were constantly kept alive by the agitation of Dr. [Ernst] Rüdin and his associates, the practice of sterilization nevertheless fell gradually into disuse in Nazi Germany, as inexorably as it had fallen into disuse in those American Sates which had enacted sterilization laws long before the arrival of the Nazis to power in Germany.  The main reason advanced for this change in practical policy in Germany (the sterilization law remained on the statute books, but its enforcement "fell asleep") by neuropsychiatrists in pos2ton of authority whom I questioned was that it had been realized since shortly before the war that most insane do not descend from other insane, and therefore, according to studies by Essen-Moeller, only 3% of the insane in the next generation could be eliminated by sterilizing the insane of the present generation; and while those tainted with schizophrenia could thus be eliminated from a given family group within 9 generations, these same strains were bound to die out anyway within 12 generations, because of the diminished marriage rate and propagation rate of schizophrenia.   This was exactly the view taken several years before, namely in 1935, by a committee of the American Neurological Association of which I was a member, the findings of which were published in book form (A.Myerson, J.B Ayer, T.J.Putnam, L.Alexander, and C.Keeler: Eugenical Sterilization: A Reorientation of the Problem. MacMillan New York, 1936).[17]

So just how many abortions were performed under the National Socialist government? Despite the wide range of estimates, the following quote from an official source appears believable with regard to at least one period:

According to the official statistics of the German Ministry of Justice, 84,525 petitions for sterilization were made in the course of 1934 to the respective Courts. Men numbered 42,903 cases and women 41,622. That represents one for every 772 inhabitants. Up to 31 December, 1934, 64,466 cases were dealt with, i.e., 75% of the total number of petitions. Sterilization was ordered in 56,244 cases of which 28,286 were men and 27,958 women. Sterilization was refused in 3692 cases. The number of cases dealt with in other ways was 4563. Therefore, in 93.8% of the cases dealt with, sterilization was ordered to be carried out and in 6.2% it was refused.

An appeal against the judgment for the carrying out of sterilization was made in 8219 cases (14.6%). Up to the end of 1934, 5245 of these appeals were dealt with at the Courts with the result that the appeal was granted in 377 cases (7.2%) and refused in 4559 cases; a small number of cases were dealt with in other ways. For the sake of comparison it is worth noticing that in the U.S.A. for the period from 1905 until 1933 or 1934 there were about 16,000 cases of compulsory or authorized sterilization. [18]

As might be expected, the Catholic Church opposed abortion without “medical indication.” Nevertheless eugenic abortions were permitted by the government, but officially only on a voluntary basis. Instances of coerced eugenic abortions did take place in violation of the law.

It was a tempest in a teapot: physicians who objected to abortion could not be obliged to perform them, and only 7,000 eugenic abortions were performed in the entire Reich.[19] (By contrast, 7,000 abortions were performed in the United States in 2001 every three days.[20])

Anticipating war casualties, Hitler in 1938 launched the clandestine euthanasia operation T4. Richter points out that the euthanasia campaign had no relevance to eugenics in as much as the victims were already institutionalized and could not have reproduced in any case. She also states unambiguously that most – but not all – eugenics proponents opposed euthanasia. And she asks rhetorically: “Is there no difference between vasectomy/tubectomy and the gas chamber?” At the same time she favors the slippery-slope line of reasoning – that a purely scientific-biological methodology to human populations contributed to the undermining of the right to life to the subordination of individual rights to the rights of the community.

In conclusion, this is a fine scholarly study, admirable not only in its objectivity and fairness, but also revealing in the balanced and often sympathetic approach of a Catholic author. She concludes her book with the following words:

A future eugenics policy will have to erect barriers against all coercive eugenics. For theologians the eugenics discussion remains fraught with problems in as much as any consideration of negative eugenics as applied to handicapped or mentally ill persons essentially denies them the right to existence, even though they have been created in God’s image.

One cannot help but wonder if she was really was the one to come up with this conflation – so uncharacteristic of the book as a whole – of existence and reproduction, or whether it was a prompt from a well meaning academic advisor seeking to make a dissertation acceptable at a Catholic institution.

It is unfortunate that the book is not available in English.

This article was published in Mankind Quarterly, vol. SLVI, No. 4, Summer, 2006, 497-507.

[1] 145

[2] 141

[3] 146

[4] 152

[5] 159

[6] 162

[7] 196

[8] 211

[9] 209

[10] 306

[11] 273

[12] 322

[13] 377

[14] 345

[15] 450-451

[16] Barry Mehler, "Eliminating the Inferior: American and Nazi Sterilization Programs," Science for the People (Nov-Dec 1987) pp. 14-18, Archives, Institute for the Study of Academic Racism, 6/3/2006, http://www.ferris.edu/isar/archives/mehler/eliminating.htm

[17] Restricted, Public Mental Health Practices in Germany, “Sterilization and Execution of Patients Suffering from Nervous or Mental Disease,” Reported by Leo Alexander, Major, M.C., AUS, CIOS Item 24, Medical, Combin ed Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee, Part I, A. Sterilization of Patients Suffering From Nervous or Mental Disease, compiled by Stuart D. Stein, Stuart.Stein@uwe.ac.uk, http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/genocide/alexrep1.htm, 6/4/2006.

[18] Sterilization Law in Germany: Statistical Survey Concerning Obligatory Sterilization in Germany, Catholic Culture, http://www.catholicculture.org/docs/doc_view.cfm?recnum=615, 6/4/2006. Source quoted: Deutsche Justiz, Rechtspflege and Rechtspolitik. Amtliches Blatt der deutschen Rechtspflege, Vol. 97, no. 21, Edition A, 24 May, 1935, pp. 780-782.

[19] 489

[20] Abortion Surveillance --- United States, 2001, Lilo T. Strauss, M.A., Joy Herndon, M.S., Jeani Chang, M.P.H., Wilda Y. Parker, Sonya V. Bowens, M.S., Suzanne B. Zane, D.V.M., Cynthia J. Berg, M.D., Division of Reproductive Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, corresponding address: CDC/National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion/Division of Reproductive Health, 1600 Clifton Rd., NE, MS K-21, Atlanta, GA 30333; E-mail: cdcinfo@cdc.gov.