The Nazi Obsession with Race
In the 1930s and 40s, Nazi Germany systematically exterminated tens of millions of people in what came to be known as the Holocaust, the worst genocide in recorded human history. Fortunately, the Nazis along with the rest of the Axis Powers were defeated and prevented from carrying out any further crimes against humanity. Now imagine what would have happened if the Axis Powers won World War II and defeated the United States in their allies. This is the scenario presented in Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Caste, a novel that Frank Spotnitz later used as the premise for a television series by the same name. The series and book differ greatly from one another, but both share the same general premise of Japan controlling the Western United States (Japanese Pacific States) and Nazi Germany controlling the Midwest and East Coast (Great Nazi Reich). The series is much more detailed in its depiction of life in the Nazi Reich including the racial beliefs and practices that are central to the Nazi ideology. The racism of the Nazis portrayed in the novel and series, and throughout actual history, was not just based on some fringe conspiracy that Hitler came up with while writing Mein Kampf. Nazi racial ideology was rooted in a long history of eugenics, and pseudoscientific research that provided evidence for certain races being genetically superior. It is now known, of course, that eugenics in practice can lead to horrible atrocities such as forced sterilization and mass genocide.
Eugenics is essentially the idea of improving the genetic quality of humans, while Social Darwinism, an idea very similar eugenics is the concept of natural selection applied to human society. The idea of Eugenics was around long before the coinage of the actual term, as Plato was noted as suggesting using selective breeding for humans (Buxton 201). The modern eugenics movement gained traction with Sir Francis Galton, who actually coined the term ‘eugenics’ and defined it as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally” (Galton 321). Galton was a statistician who closely studied the works of his half-cousin, Charles Darwin, and extrapolated in an article titled, “Hereditary Talent and Character,” that societies were going against natural selection by protecting minorities, and that these societies were subject to a “reversion towards mediocrity” without policy changes (Galton, 1865). Galton’s writings inspired many others to continue his work and hypothesize further on how eugenics could benefit society. In the early 1900s, American scientist Charles Davenport, widely considered one of history’s leading eugenicists, began performing research to support the eugenics movement. Davenport became the director of the internationally renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1904, and established the Eugenics Record Office in 1910. Davenport’s research mainly focused on the heredity of negative personality and mental traits, and using his conclusions, advocated for eugenics to be implemented through legislation. Davenport is credited for turning eugenics from a scientific idea into worldwide movement that was implemented in many countries (Black 34). Eugenics movements in the United States led to laws banning interracial marriages, anti-immigration laws, and even state laws calling for forced sterilization, but this was nothing compared to what would happen in Germany in the years to follow.
After the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Germany was left in a severe economic depression. They were left to pay most of the damages for what had occurred in the Great War. In the 1920s, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, known as the Nazi Party for short, gained traction among the German people, presenting themselves under the platform of a strong central government, increased living space for Germanic people, and a national and cultural renewal based on racial cleansing. This idea of racial cleansing was heavily based on the works of prominent eugenicists, with the belief that those not of Germanic or Nordic descent, specifically Jews, were genetically inferior and a burden on society. In 1929 when the market crashed, Hitler and the Nazis used the mass hysteria to gain support by promising economic stability. In 1932, the Nazi Party became the majority, and Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany a year later.
In Hitler’s autobiography titled Mein Kampf (My Struggle), he outlines how he became anti-Semitic, his political ideology, and his future plans for Germany. At one point, Hitler describes how his ideology is partially inspired by American eugenics movements: “There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the American Union” (Hitler, Vol. 2, Ch. 3). This is a great example of how the eugenics of Nazi racial ideology was more than just a narrowly held fringe belief. Hitler repeatedly demonstrates his belief that Aryans, those of Germanic and Nordic descent, are the superior race, and describes them as “the true culture founders of this Earth,” (Hitler, Vol. 1, Ch. 11). Hitler also goes into detail about how the Jews, as a non-white race, are inferior, and must be stopped in their quest to take over the world. believed that “Jews were responsible for bringing Negroes into the Rhineland, with the ultimate idea of bastardizing the white race which they hate and thus lowering its cultural and political level so that the Jew might dominate” (Hitler, Vol. 1, Ch 11).
Many historians describe the decline in eugenics as a popular belief beginning when the Nazis started to implement their extreme policies, specifically towards Jews. Never before had the world seen eugenics influencing government behavior to the extent of what was done by the Nazis. Race was no longer only a classification of skin color, but also one of heredity, head shape, facial structure, and even religion. What was so outrageous about this was that those who identified with a certain religion were classified as a race, regardless of the genetic background. In one part of Dick’s novel, the mutual exclusiveness of Jewishness and other identifying traits is demonstrated when Frank Frink, a Jew, is talking to the police: “‘I’m an American,” Frank Frink said. ‘You’re a Jew,’ the cop said” (Dick 158-159). This is a great example of how Jewishness took a central role regardless of other identifying traits. Pictured below is a segment of an exposition depicting the ‘typical’ facial structures of Jews:
These guidelines for facial structure were determined by years of pseudoscientific research conducted by Nazi scientists who measured the bone structures of people from many different backgrounds. In The Man in the High Castle television series, the measuring of bone structure is demonstrated when Juliana Crane is attempting establish residency in the Great Nazi Reich:
Source: The Man in the High Castle, Season 2, Ep. 3 “Travelers” (Amazon)
This is further evidence of the Nazis’ radical obsession with race and racial purity.
The Nazis were influenced by early eugenicists, but they took the idea of eugenics to a new level. In addition to forced sterilization, they also systematically exterminated and euthanized tens of millions of people, solely based on their race, ability, and beliefs, among other things. It is mentioned in Dick’s novel that the Nazis had continued their quest for racial purity by attempting to free Africa of blacks (Dick 57). This is a further demonstration of how the Nazis would stop at nothing to achieve racial purity. In the television show, the historically factual Lebensborn program is mentioned when Joe discovers that his birth was a result of the program (The Man in the High Castle, Season 2, Ep. 5). This program was funded by the German government in order to increase the Aryan birthrate. SS agents would extramarital relations with non-married women who were considered ‘racially valuable,’ and the children born in the program were considered the most genetically superior Aryans (Crossland, 2006). The program took a turn for the worse, as with most Nazi programs, when children from surrounding Nazi occupied countries were forcibly kidnapped and adopted to German families. This was one of the many programs instituted by the Nazi government heavily based eugenicist ideology.
Today, the world is well aware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and it is important to note that their ideology was not just some radical belief that Hitler developed while sitting in prison writing Mein Kampf. Reputable scientists developed the foundation for eugenics, and many countries instituted eugenicist policies long before Nazis did. Not even 100 years ago, many states in the US had forced sterilization policies, and it was not even until 1967 that laws banning interracial marriages were deemed unconstitutional on a federal level (Loving v. Virginia). Fortunately, advancements have been made in science to disprove many aspects of eugenics. For example, we now know that genetic mutations can occur regardless of how similar genomes are in a population, and that low genetic diversity attributes itself to a higher rate of birth defects. There is now even technology to edit the genome, rendering most eugenics concepts as invalid. We have made great progress, but there are still people today who believe in eugenics, and we must remain vigilant as a society to prevent anything like the holocaust from ever happening again.
Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. Putnam, 1962.
The Man in the High Castle: Season 2, Produced by Frank Spotnitz and Ridley Scott, Amazon Studios, 2016.
Buxton, Richard G. A. From Myth to Reason?: Studies in the Development of Greek Thought.
Oxford Univ. Press, 2005.
Galton, Francis. “Hereditary Talent and Character.” Macmillan’s Magazine, 1865, pp. 157–166.
Galton, Francis. Memories of My Life. Methuen & Company, 1908.
Black, Edwin. War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master
Race. Basic Books, 2003.
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Eher Verlag, 1925.
Crossland, David. “Nazi Program to Breed Master Race: Lebensborn Children Break Silence –
SPIEGEL ONLINE – International.” SPIEGEL ONLINE, SPIEGEL ONLINE, 7 Nov. 2006, http://www.spiegel.de/international/nazi-program-to-breed-master-race-lebensborn-children-break-silence-a-446978.html.
Loving v. Virginia. United States Supreme Court. 12 June 1967. N.p., n.d. Web.