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Hitler’s Debt to America: The International Eugenics Movement

Posted by Kirsty Dear, Monday 22nd May, 2017

opinion volunteer blog

Photograph showing Nazi hygienists taking racial measurements of a Jewish girl

Nazi hygienists take racial measurements of a Jewish girl; WL10236

I’m currently studying at Queen Mary University of London and having always been interested in the study of the Holocaust. I’ve always been aware of The Wiener Library as one of the largest archival resources for this topic and therefore decided to enquire about volunteering. Recently, this interest in the Holocaust has become focused on the eugenics movement and psychiatric element of Nazi ideology and as a result I plan to write my dissertation on psychiatric systems and eugenics since the 1800s.

Hitler’s Debt to America: The International Eugenics Movement

“The Germans are beating us at our own game.”

- Joseph DeJarnette, Member of Virginia Sterilization Movement (qtd. in Kuhl, 31).

In this article I contend that the popular euthanasia movement of the early twentieth century should be regarded as a predominantly international one, thus disputing claims that it is a phenomenon uniquely and closely associated with the Nazi period. In the 1960s the Sonderweg (English: special path) thesis was constructed by historians in order to put distance between the actions of those in Nazi Germany, and the rest of the western world. This thesis claimed that German history followed a distinct path in terms of morals and ethics compared to those followed elsewhere in Europe and North America (Kocka, 11). Although thoroughly discredited now, the danger of such a myth is that it enables these countries to disassociate themselves from atrocities and similar beliefs held during the period and allows the specific horrors that occurred under the Nazi regime to be viewed from within a vacuum - something easily swept under the heading ‘never again’.

After Germany’s defeat in 1945, Nazi perpetrators were tried at the Nuremberg Trials, one of which became known as the ‘Doctor’s Trial’. This trial, which took place in 1947, investigated those who had conducted medical experiments. One of the defendants, Kurt Blome, who was prosecuted for his medical testing of the plague injection in Dachau, contended that the United States had been involved in the euthanasia programme which had begun prior to the outbreak of war in 1939. His full testimony is contained within the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial Documents held at The Wiener Library (Document Collection 1655/769). This blog pieces discusses this proposition and attempts to understand the international appeal of sterilization during the period.

A Brief History of Sterilization

In 1914, US President Theodore Roosevelt lent his support for sterilization laws arguing that they were a necessity for the ‘feeble-minded’ (Roosevelt, 1914). Shortly afterwards the state of Indiana became the first to legalise sterilization. Historian Gary Gerstle further acknowledges this idea, presenting the United States as being long defined through ethnic nationalism (Gerstle, 1307). Harry Laughlin, one of the leading US activists in the promotion of compulsory sterilization laws estimated at this time that the bottom 10% of the population would require sterilization. Laughlin was later supported in his claim by Austro-Hungarian eugenicist Geza von Hoffman, who emphasised the urgency for the promotion of eugenics.

From this we can infer that the eugenics movement and apparent need for sterilization, far from being a German or even European phenomenon, was mirrored in zeal across the Atlantic. We can perhaps even suggest that the United States were the innovators in this new movement. Fritz Lenz, a prominent German eugenicist claimed that there was little difference between German and American eugenicists, except that Germany lagged behind in the eugenics movement (Kuhl, 19). To some extent this was true; while Germany focused on the promotion of positive eugenics (eugenics which reflected the need to improve the population), America conformed to negative eugenics (eugenics which reflected the need to abolish supposed degenerates). These ideas were discussed at internationally attended conventions, such as those organised by the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science in Germany. More evidence of this international movement comes from the fact that the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was kept afloat during the Great Depression by funding from the Rockefeller Foundation (Kuhl, 21).

In 1935 the Kaiser Wilhelm Society developed into the International Federation of Eugenics Organisations (IFEO), which claimed all participating countries were “united by the deep conviction that eugenic practices of highest and most urgent importance for the existence of all civilized countries” (Kuhl, 27). The sterilization movement itself is thus indisputably an international one. Before the Nazi Party embarked on Aktion T4, a programme which involuntarily euthanized over 70,000 victims from 1939 to 1941, the US committed similar atrocities, albeit on a smaller scale. Between 1907 and 1920 the US sterilised 3233 victims (Kohl, 45). Perhaps more telling was the huge public support that sterilisation held; 66% of the US populace supported the compulsory sterilization of ‘criminals’ in a 1937 survey by Fortune Magazine (Kuhl, 46). This helps us to understand why Nazi officials assumed that the T4 programme would be met with similar levels of acceptance amongst the German population and also goes some way to explaining why women were sent overwhelmingly to the gas chambers (to inhibit them from reproducing).

We should not forget, however, that it was not only the US and Germany that committed such atrocities. Sweden enacted its own sterilization laws in the 1930s, which was extended in 1941 to widen its remit and remove the age of consent limit (Bjorkman, 379). Britain too campaigned for sterilisation laws, proposing in 1931 that a bill be passed calling for the compulsory sterilisation of certain categories of ‘mental patient[s]’ (Brignall, 2010). Although such legislation was never passed in the UK, the movement was popular and counted George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Winston Churchill among its supporters.


Although it sounds perverse to modern ears, sterilization originated as a form of positive eugenics aiming to promote the ‘best aspects’ of human nature. This later deteriorated into negative eugenics aiming to abolish the handicapped within society with Harry H. Laughlin, a leading US eugenicist, in 1929 exclaiming the need to “rid of the burden of its degenerate members” (Kuhl, 25). Whilst it is indisputable that the Nazis euthanized and sterilized many more people than in the United States, German euthanasia did not occur until 1939 with Aktion T4, a shift from positive to negative eugenics (Burleigh). Proponents in the US therefore acted as the leading influencers in the field of eugenics.

Nonetheless, Germany eventually became leaders of the international euthanasia movement, particularly with the establishment of the NS-Tötungsanstalt Hadamar (English: Hadamar Nazi Killing Facility) in 1941. At Hadamar, thousands of so-called ‘handicapped’ adults and children were gassed, despite testimony from Imgrad Huber, a nurse, that “all children were well and healthy” (Wiener Library Document Collection 1655/2647). The fact that the children were healthy is supported by the findings of historian Michael Burleigh who found case studies of perfectly healthy children, who passed away just weeks later. Letters were sent home to parents, saying these children had contracted an unknown disease and unfortunately died; clearly a cover up. In whole, there were thirty different euthanasia clinics in Germany where conditions were notoriously poor. In Bavaria alone, 332 victims are thought to have died from forced starvation (Burleigh, 253).

Propaganda was produced by the German state which emphasised the extent to which handicapped citizens were a drain on society. One film, Erbkrank (English: The Hereditary Defective), directed by Herbert Gerdes in 1936, stated that every handicapped citizen cost the state 2000 Reichmarks per annum. As before, however, the ability to exclude the internationalist aspect of the eugenics movement is impossible. After the Nazis seized power in 1933, leading US eugenicists such as William W. Peter, secretary of the American Public Health Association, travelled around Germany visiting sterilisation centres and returned to the US to justify the legality of the German actions. In an article published in the American Journal of Public Health in 1934, Peter’s judged Germany as the “first modern nation to have reached a goal towards which other nations are just looking, or approaching at a snail’s pace” (Kuhl, 54).

Comparison: Blacks and Jews

Historian Klaus Hoedl presents an interesting argument, in which he compares the racial theory in the US to that in Germany. He argues the racial distinctiveness lead to the alienation of both black people and Jews. These views were legitimised by pseudo-science which depicted both groups as being susceptible to tuberculosis, which was feared amongst the population due to earlier outbreaks in the 1920s (Hoedl, 81). Although, there was an obvious physical difference between the groups, Hoedl argues that there were attempts to define both under similar constructs. Under the Nazi regime Jews, like black people in the US, were increasingly depicted as being susceptible to intellectual disability. This helped undermine the Jewish community, a large number of whom occupied positions of power in Germany’s banking, academic and medical communities. US eugenicists such as the aforementioned William W. Peter refuted claims that eugenics in Germany were popularised for the sole aim of eliminating Jews and thus helped to perpetrate bizarre medical theories, such as the tuberculosis myth. This defence from overseas once again highlights the strong connection between the eugenics movements in the United States and Germany.

The treatment of blacks and Jews too run in parallel through well-known laws and policies, although Hoedl accepts that current historiography into this area lacks depth. In the US, segregation laws that applied restrictions to coloured men and women were in place until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Similar restrictions for Jews were enacted in Germany under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which purged the civil service and effectively enforced segregation. Both of these oppressive systems were legally implemented and widely accepted by the public. Suffice it to say, however, there were also major differences between the two countries. Although the membership of the Ku Klux Klan exceeded four million members in the 1920s and inflicted brutal violence against their chosen ‘other’ on a comparable level to the SS, the KKK was never a public body like the SS were. Neither, of course, did the US embark on genocidal policies.


To conclude then, it seems as though Kurt Blome’s testimony given at his trial in 1947 is correct; the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s was an international one and it seems likely that the United States, if not involved directly, was at least aware of the euthanasia programs carried out in Nazi Germany before the outbreak of war.

Moreover, after 1941, Operation Paperclip was underway. This US operation constituted an attempt to acquit Nazi perpetrators and bring them to the US in order to share the knowledge they developed during the war. Blome was one of those acquitted who later collaborated with the US. It strikes me that the US, in its simultaneous attempts to both condemn Nazi actions and distance themselves from policies of euthanasia and sterilization, and gain information from these morally-reprehensible experiments, did not act as wholly neutral prosecutors. I believe this goes someway to explaining the high rates of acquittal during these trials.

Works Cited:

Bjorkman, Maria and Sven Widmalm. “Selling Eugenics: The Case of Sweden.” The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, vol. 64, 2010: 379-400.

Brignall, Victoria. “The Eugenics Movement Britain Wants to Forget.” New Statesman, 9 December 2010.

Burleigh, Michael and Wolfgang Wippermann. The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Gerdes, Herbert. Erbkrank. Rassenpolitisches Amt der NSDAP, 1936.

Gerstle, Gary. “Theodore Roosevelt and the Divided Character of American Nationalism.” The Journal of American History, vol. 86, no.3, 1999, pp. 1280-1307.

Hoedl, Klaus. “The Black Body and the Jewish body: A Comparison of Medical Images.” Patterns and Prejudice, vol. 36, no.1, 2002, pp. 17-34.

Kocka, Jurgen. “Germany Before Hitler: The Debate about the German Sonderweg.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 23, no.1, 1988, pp. 3-16.

Kuhl, Stefan. The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism and German National Socialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Roosevelt, Theodore. “Twisted Eugenics.” The Outlook, 3 January 1914.

Testimony of Irmgard Huber, former nurse at Hadamar on the killing of Jewish children. 1655/2647

Testimony by Professor Kurt Blome, concerning the status of "Non-Aryans". 1655/769.

Suggested Further Reading:

Visit our Reading Room to consult the many items our Collection which related to the Nazi policy regarding eugenics and euthanasia. Some of this material is listed below:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: eugenics; racial doctrine; racism; disabled people; medicine; blacks; Aktion T4; medical profession; sterilisation; medical crimes.

Please report misuse to our Education team.


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