One of the aspects of Ben Stein’s documentary, Expelled, which has been particularly controversial is the film’s examination of the connection between Darwinism and the Holocaust. Of course the film as a whole has attracted bitter criticism for its critical stance towards the scientific establishment’s absolute rejection of any criticism of the theory of Natural Selection, and its persecution of those scientists who claim that the theory is wrong. However, Stein and the movie’s producers have been particularly attacked for stating the link between Darwinism and the Holocaust. The film’s many critics have declared that Nazism was not based on Darwin’s theories, and that evolutionary scientists today absolutely condemn biological racism and the genocide perpetrated by the Third Reich.
Evolutionary Theory and the Development of Fascist Racial Ideology
Now historians of fascism have pointed to the strong influence Natural Selection had on the development of Fascist ideology. The historian Roger Eatwell has noted that
‘Arguably the most important nineteenth-century scientific development in its impact on political ideology was Darwinism. Charles Darwin published The Origins of Species in 1859. Others quickly realized that some of the key ideas, especially “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection,” could be adapted for political ends-though there were diagrements over what the implications were. In one version, Darwinism seemed to point to the need for minimal state intervention in order to allow free competition. In another, Darwinism was taken as highlighting the need for the state to take on the role fo selection to ensure survival-especially in the battle with the less developed but virile and martial races. The strong appeal of the latter position needs understanding against a more general background of scientific-racial-thought. In particular, further impetus toward statist-racism came in the form of eugenics, which was pioneered by leading scientists such as the German Ernst Haeckel. The eugenicists were worried about the way that moral laws prevented the working of natural selection, for example in taboos on euthansia. A critical theme of theirs was the need to regenerate national or European racial stock.’ 1
Social Darwinist views similarly developed in Britain, where ‘the development of the understanding of the principle of heredity and the laws of genetics led to frighteningly utopian ideas of scientific breeding and pure racial types achieved through eugenic experiments.’ 2 The principle of survival of the fittest, when applied to humanity, was interpreted to mean that the most technologically advanced groups and races were the fittest, and thus superior to other ethnic groups. 3 In fact it’s moot how much of the scientific racism and eugenic policies of the Nazis goes back to Darwin himself. The British Fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, attempted to support his racist views using quotations from Darwin, Huxley and contemporary evolutionary scientists. 4 However, Darwinism was not the only theory of evolution to influence British scientific racist theorising. Neo-Lamarckian biologists, such as Benjamin Kidd, had proposed a theory of ‘social heredity’ in which human groups or races could inherit characteristics acquired through learning. This was later used by Fascists to suggest that changes in the leadership of the state would produce rapid changes in society over a short period. In fact, Lamarckianism was disproved by Galton’s Stirp theory and Weissmann’s experiments, which seemed to show that there was no link between reproductive cells and those of the rest of the body. Racial characteristics were not acquired, but were the products of genetic inheritance. 19th and early 20th century scientific racists also viewed racial mixing as an unsuitable ‘outcrossing’, which would weaken the parent gene pool. Most Fascists, however, ignored the fact that evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetics did not imply this conclusion.
The difference between the Darwinian and Lamarckian views of evolution held by the various British Fascist groups did not result in the mutual contradiction of their respective racist ideas, but merely a difference in emphasis, though expressed in vehement ideological debates over whether culture created race, or whether race determined culture. 5 Lamarckianism, however, had anti-racist implications through its suggestion that races could acquire new values and psychological perspectives through learning and culture. In fact, however, 19th century racial theorists declared that such Lamarckian evolution only operated within the more advanced races, as those who were considered inferior were declared to have come to the end of their evolution and were no longer able to respond to environmental challenges. 6
As for Mosley, before the Second World War his racial theories were Neo-Lamarckian in origin, deriving his views on race from the heroic vitalism of Thomas Carlyle, Nietzsche, Spengler and Wagner, and particularly George Bernard Shaw’s critique of Darwinism in Back to the Methuselah, which stated that humanity had the mind and will power to evolve to a higher type, rather than being simply the product of Natural Selection. However, Shaw considered that the creation of this superior humanity would partly be the product of eugenic breeding. 7
In Germany Social Darwinism was promoted in the 19th and early 20th centuries through Ernst Haeckel’s pantheistic Monistenbund or Monist League. Haeckel’s view of evolution differed so radically from Darwin’s that it effectively replaced Darwinism. 8 In particular, it was Haeckel’s follower, Wilhelm Ostwald, who became president of the Monistic League in 1911, who founded a ‘Monistic Cloister’ devoted to advocating Social Darwinist policies in economics, eugenics and euthanasia. 9 Hitler himself seems to have taken his views of a racial struggle between aryans and their racial inferiors from racist, Neo-pagan magazines such as Lanz Von liebenfels’ Ostara, which he had read as a destitute drifter in Vienna. As early as 1930 August M. Knoll of the university of Vienna ridiculed the Nazis in front of his students by pointing out the similarity of the Fuhrer’s ideas and those of the notorious Neo-pagan magazine. 10 Hitler does not cite Darwin in either Mein Kampf or his Table Talk. Undoubtedly he picked up his ideas on evolution second or third-hand. Nevertheless, the conception of evolution as the struggle between the fittest, conceived as the most brutal or predatory, was a strong component of Hitler’s entire world-view. ‘The earth continues to go round, whether it’s the man who kills the tiger or the tiger who eats the man. The stronger asserts his will, it’s the law of nature. The world doesn’t change; its laws are eternal.’ 11 Unfortunately, just because Hitler took his view of race and the ‘survival of the fittest’ from low, fringe magazines does not mean that the ideas themselves were at all disreputable. They weren’t. Although race was debated at the popular level in cafes throughout Europe, and racial ideas publicised in cheap pamphlets in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna, the belief that race was ‘the key to the achievement recorded in a nation’s history’ was general. 12 Such racist theorising extended throughout society, from the lower to the ruling classes. The British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, stated that ‘no man will treat with indifference the principle of race. It is the key to history.’ 13 There was little that was new in the Nazis’ racial and eugenics policies. In 1895 Ernst Hasse, supporting the 1891demands of the Pan-German League, had advocated the deportation of Jews and Slavs and the annexation of Poland, Ruthenia, Serbia, Belgium, Romania and the Baltic States with the statement ‘We want territory even if it belongs to aliens, so that we may fashion the future according to our own needs’. 14 It was the Nazi demands for lebensraum in all but name. As for the Nazi eugenics programme, every aspect of it ‘had been anticipated by the spokesmen of various schools of social Darwinism; and even though they had not demanded the extermination of whole nationalities, their ideas were in line with the inhuman projects which showed such a basic contempt for human life.’ 15 Tragically and horrifically, radical racialism and eugenics was not simply the province of a few marginal, fringe ideologues, but was was acceptable and influenced a considerable part of the European and American political and scientific establishment. Now Darwin certainly was not responsible for scientific racism. That was the product of racial theorists such as Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau in France and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who became Wagner’s son-in-law, in Germany. 16 However, Darwin certainly considered that there were racial differences, and his theory of evolution offered further scientific justification for already existing theories that viewed human progress as the product of struggle.
Fascism as Partial Product of 18th Century Enlightenment Political Theory
Obviously much of the criticism of Stein’s suggestion in Expelled that there was a direct link between Darwin’s ideas and the Holocaust comes from supporters of Darwinism who believe that this misrepresents and maligns both Darwin’s theory and Darwin himself, if not the whole of contemporary biology, following Theodosius Dobzhansky’s comment that ‘nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution’. Yet the suggested link between Darwinism and the Holocaust goes beyond questioning the morality of a specific scientific theory, but by implication renders the assumed relationship between rational knowledge and morality itself extremely questionable. Since Plato it’s been assumed that rational knowledge and the usse of reason in understanding the world leads to moral progress. During the Enlightenment, rational knowledge and the search for truth through reason became associated with the sciences, and it was through science that ignorance, superstition and barbarism could be combatted.
Thus, in the view of the Enlightenment philosophes, ‘a logically connected structure of rules, laws, generalisations, susceptible of demonstration or, at least in practice, of a high degree of confirmation (and, where required, of application appropriate to differing circumstances) could, at least in principle, be constructed, and could replace the chaotic amalgam of ignorance, laziness, guesswork, superstition, prejudice, dogma, fantasy, and above all, what Helvetius called ‘interested error”, which enabled the cunning and the strong to dominate and exploit the stupid, ignorant and weak, and had throughout human history been largely responsible for the vices, follies, and miseries of mankind. Only knowledge, that is, the growth of the sciences, could rescue mankind from these largely self-induced evils.’ 17 However, this assumption that science leads to freedom, wisdom and moral progress, in short, enlightenment in the fullest sense of the word, becomes extremely problematic with the connection between the genocidal tyranny of the Nazi regime and the basis of their policies in evolutionary biology. After all, in their brutality, intolerance, militarism and absolute rejection of democracy in favour of a fanatical personal cult of the leader, the Nazis represent the complete opposite of Enlightenment values and civilisation. Indeed, some historians have suggested that Fascism ‘was a negation of the Enlightenment, part of a counterrevolution that rejected the basic assumptions of “modernity”.’ 18 For historians such as Ernst Nolte, Fascism was not part of the great political projects of Liberalism and Marxism, and so could only be explained as the product of the reactionary traditions following, and attempting to counteract, the French Revolution. 19 Yet in many respects Fascism was also a product of Enlightenment political theories. The idea of politics as an activist campaign against evil, in which the individual should surrender to the general will, is found in Rousseau. 20 Similarly, the French Revolution in its attempts to establish who possessed legitimate power, created the distinction within democracy, considered as popular sovereignty, between those who were held to be the true, proper possessors of political power and their opponents, who should be excluded from it, even exterminated. Thus, one French revolutionary declared that only those of his species were truly human. The aristocracy weren’t members of his species, and so he shot them. 21 Thus the French Fascist, Robert Brasillach, enthusiastically remarked on how little the French Revolution had to do with individual liberty and international peace, declaring that with the Revolution ‘a lost bell rang out beginning a long night of turmoil sleeplessness. Everywhere peoples could be heard singing, each in in their own way, “Nation, Awake! Arise!”.’22 Similarly, the concern of Enlightenment political theorists, such as Rousseau, with an inner freedom corresponding to modern notions of self-realization, and the identification of the citizen’s real self with the general will, produced a collectivist ideal of freedom that did not necessarily correspond to any constitutional state. Indeed, Rousseau considered that true freedom might involve absolute submission to a sole legislator, who was the only person able to express the general will of the people, a concept almost identical to the Fascist notion that true freedom consisted in the absolute submission of the people to their leader. The scholar J. Hallowell, remarking on the similarity between Rousseau’s and the Fascist idea of the leader expressing the people’s general will, stated that in that sense Fascism had not murdered Liberalism, but that Liberalism had committed suicide. 23 Fascism characteristically viewed life as struggle. Mussolini, in his The Doctrine of Fascism, declared that Fascist ethics viewed life as ‘duty, ascent, conquest’, an attitude not very different from Kant’s statement in The Dispute of the Faculties that ‘the being endowed with freedom is not content to enjoy a pleasant life.’ 24 Thus, although Hitler and the other leading Nazis propounded an ideology of struggle using the terminology of Social Darwinism, it was not based in the details of Darwinism but in Haeckel’s use of Darwinian theory to express Kant’s ethics of activism. 25 Even the view of warfare as inherently beneficial to be actively pursued for itself by the state was not entirely unique to Fascism. Turgot, in his 1750 On the Successive Advances of the Human Mind stated that ‘it is only through turmoil and destruction that nations expand and civilisations and governments are in the long run perfected.’ 26 Long before Fascism, and its concept of violence as a central part of political life arose, the Enlightenment political theorists had created a new, activist style of politics that established a strong connection between freedom, virtue and terror. In the view of some scholars, this activist tradition in modern politics generally, beyond the Fascist fringe, makes the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime entirely explicable. ‘Once this is appreciated, it is not very difficult to understand such aspects of twentieth-century activism as the organized destruction of the Jews by Nazism. Destruction and fanaticism, after all, had become morally respectable parts of the western tradition as soon as the new activist style had won general acceptance.’ 27 Fascism is therefore a paradox that it is both a product of the Enlightenment and a reaction to it. 28 Thus, however immoral the Nazi regime was, and how much it appears to conflict with the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment, nevertheless it was also a product of particular Enlightenment political attitudes and claimed the same basis in science, no matter how spurious this appeared in practice.
Opposition to Scientific Racism through Cultural Relativism of Franz Boas
The scientific racism and eugenics policies promoted by the Nazis in Germany, and by other organisations and scientists across Europe and America was challenged by a number of other, leading scientists and scholars. One of the foremost opponents of scientific racism was Franz Boas, who became Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A German Jew, he condemned such the racist interpretation of history and eugenics as ‘irremediably dangerous’, vehemently opposed anti-semitism and the Nazi regime in Germany, aiding refugees from their tyranny in New York. His work, The Mind of Primitive Man, aided the civil rights campaign in America by stating that Black Americans would be just as capable of performing their duties as citizens as Whites if they were given the opportunities to do so. It’s been stated that Boas did more than anyone else in the 20th century to combat racism. 29
Boas based his rejection of ideas of racial superiority on cultural diversity and relativism. He declared that ‘culture is … the result of innumberalbe interacting factors and there is no evidence that the differences between human races, particularly not between the members of the white race have any directive influence upon the course of development of culture.’ 30 Boas considered that each culture should be viewed as an entity in its own right, as the product of its own history. All cultures were produced and formed by history, and each culture, or indeed custom, could only be understood only through attempting to construct their cultural history. 31
Similarity between Anthropological Views of Boas and 18th Century Views of History, Nationality and Culture by Vico
Boas’ view that each culture is unique and can only be understood on its own terms, through its own history is very similar to those of the 18th century philosophers Giambattista Vico and Gottfried Herder. Reacting against Cartesian rationalism and the rejection of Humanism in favour of mathematics and science, Vico instead argued in his La Scienza Nuova of 1725 that mathematics was not a system of laws that governed reality, but merely a set of rules that allowed one to analyse and predict the behaviour of objects in space. 32 However, the applicability of mathematics to the study of nature was limited, as while mathematics was the product of the human mind, nature was not, and so the conclusions offered by natural science were necessarily less sure. The only sure knowledge could be of what humanity had made itself. Thus Vico advocated history as offering a surer knowledge than that of the natural sciences. 33 While contemporary philosophers believed that there was a timeless criteria for assessing art and culture, Vico claimed that each stage of human civilisation produced its own art, based on its own particular aesthetic ideas. The artistic expressions of these cultures were neither better nor worse than those which preceeded or followed them, but had to be judged on their own criteria. 34 Unlike Boas, Vico was not a cultural relativist. He did not advocate a historical relativism, but was trying to create a science that was true, because it rested on the principles by which culture and language, and hence knowledge itself, were historically produced. 35 In his own time, Vico was an obscure writer in his own time, and discussion of his ideas has, with the exception of Jules Michelet and Benedetto Croce, largely began in the 1960s. Contemporary philosophers and historians are interested in Vico because he provided a precedent for the view that the knowledge of humanity was different from that of nature, historical relativism and that it is possible to know with certainty what it is to be human regardless of the findings of modern science because of people’s common humanity. 36
Herder’s View of the Plurality of societies in Human Cultural History also Similar to Boas and Vico
This belief that human cultures were unique and should be judged on their own terms was shared by Herder, who became general superintendent in of the Lutheran clergy in the German state of Saxe-Weimar in 1776. In his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit – ‘Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Humanity’, published between 1784 and 1791, he articulated a similar view of the uniqueness of individual human cultures. Contemporary French philosophes such as Diderot, Helvetius, Holbach and Voltaire believed that there was only a single, universal civilisation, of which one culture, then another, constituted its greatest expression in a particular epoch, and judged all cultures, previous and contemporary, by a single set of criteria which were held to have universal validity. Herder, on the other hand, considered that all civilisations had their own schwerpunkt – their own centres of gravity – and it was only through an appreciation of each culture’s individual centre of gravity that their character and value could be understood. Societies produced their arts, customs, religion, ethical codes, and indeed their entire national life through an integrated communal life developed through immemorial tradition. 37 There was not one, single human civilisation, but a plurality of civilisations, and the need to belong to a particular community through common language, history, feeling, habit and tradition was a human need as basic as eating or drinking. 38 For Herder there was nothing more barbarous than the destruction of another’s cultural heritage, and condemned the Romans for destroying the cultures of the peoples they conquered, and, despite his position as a Lutheran clergyman, the Church for forcibly baptising the Balts and British missionaries for spreading Christianity in India and elsewhere in Asia, where it was an alien element, whose imposition, and the social systems and forms of education also introduced by the British would destroy and distort their natural cultural development. 39 An early pioneer of folklore, he was interested in mythology as the expression of the way in which a particular people viewed nature. A people could only be not through politics or conquest, but through their language and shared symbols, the inward consciousness and outward culture that united a people. He was therefore strongly interested in folklore, including myths, fairy tales and folk songs. 40 He considered the mechanical model of human society, influenced by the natural sciences, produced by the French philosophes dangerous simplistic. In Herder’s view, these considered society as the product of mechanical, causal factors or the arbitrary desires of individual monarchs, legislators and military generals. However, the forces that affected and informed cultures and their history differed from society to society and age to age and so were impossible to reduce to simple formulas. 41People could only be creative and prosper in their native countries. While the unconscious, spontaneous influence of one culture on another was acceptable, conscious imitation of other cultures and countries led only to artificiality, and lower standards in life and art. 42 Herder was not a nationalist, and saw all the cultures of humanity as flourishing peacefully together. 43 Nevertheless, he inspired cultural nationalism in the subject nations of the Austro-Hungarian, Turkish and Russian empires, and political nationalism in Austria and Germany although he deeply detested it. 44 Some historians have found the origins of the Nazi idea of the German people’s unique mystical identity in Herder’s conception of the unique history and characteristics of each nation and ethnic group. 45 Herder’s vision of humanity and society was far more pluralistic. As a Lutheran pastor, he believed that God acted in history, as humanity was also part of nature, which was God’s creation. Humanity thus, to Herder, in their ‘wildest extravagances and passions must obey laws, not less beautiful and excellent than those, by which all the celestial bodies move.’ God implanted into humanity the quest for its own fulfilment, and humanity’s purpose was the achievement of their full humanity. Although the main theme of his book was the origins of European society in ancient Greece and the beginning of the modern age in the Renaissance, he viewed the progress of human culture as the product of different peoples and their values. 46 He was certainly not an advocated of the domination and destruction of one nation or culture by another.
Conclusion: Scientific Racism Attacked and Partly Refuted through Non-Mechanistic, Pluralist Views of Humanity Articulated by Boas, Vico and Herder
Now Rousseau, Kant and Turgot clearly weren’t Fascists. Rousseau and Kant were ardent opponents of despotism, with Rousseau in particular a key figure in the development of modern liberal political theory. Nevertheless, the revolutionary, activist style of politics created by the French Revolution and its attempt to apply Rousseau’s theory of the general will to an entire nation of millions, rather than the individual Swiss cantons on whose direct democracy Rousseau based his theories, were developed in an authoritarian direction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the emergence of European Fascism. These movements drew upon Darwinism, as well as Lamarckianism and Vitalism, to support their intolerant views of race and nation. These evolutionary views, however, were interpreted according to the pre-existing view of the world, developed from the authoritarian interpretations political activism after the French Revolution, stressing struggle and the existence of an authentic nation or political class threatened by a terrible, oppressive and subversive outgroup.
The scientific racism and eugenics theories partly developed from the application of evolutionary theory to humanity was challenged and eventually refuted partly through a pluralistic view of humanity, which was developed in opposition to the Enlightenment view that there were universal rules that could be applied to humanity as whole, through which the qualities of nations and peoples could be objectively judged and valued. Now there are indeed severe problems with the cultural relativism propounded by Boas, and to a much lesser extent by Vico and Herder. There are objective moral values, which, it can be argued, transcend race and culture, so that tyranny and brutality is the same no matter which culture or ethnic group perpetrates it. Unfortunately, cultural relativism can also lead to the justification of attitudes, customs and regimes amongst particular ethnic groups which would be strongly condemned as oppressive and immoral in western society. Herder’s concept of Volk as the source of culture and civilisation was also developed by nationalistic cultural theorists to produce the vehemently racist idea of German ethnicist stressed by the Nazis, despite Herder’s own strongly anti-racist views. Nevertheless, the deeply immoral eugenics policies and the scientific racism that supported much of it was refuted not just on scientific grounds, but through counter-Enlightenment views that stress human cultural complexity and pluralism, rather than a simply mechanical reduction of the human sciences modelled on those of the natural world.
1. R. Eastwell, Fascism: A History (London, Pimlico 2003), pp. 8-9.
2. R. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: A History, 1918-1985 (Oxford, Basil Blackwell 1987), pp. 16-7.
3. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, p. 17.
4. See O. Mosley, Mosley – Right or Wrong? (London, Lion Books 1963), pp. 117-124.
5. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, p. 17.
6. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, pp. 17-8.
7. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, pp. 17-19.
8. R. Noll, The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement (London, Fontana Press 1996), pp.47-8.
9. Noll, The Jung Cult, p. 50.
10. N. Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and their Influence on Nazi Ideology (London, I.B. Tauris 1992), p. 194.
11. H. Trevor-Roper, ed., Hitler’s Table-Talk: Hitler’s Conversations recorded by Martin Bormann (Oxford, OUP 1988), p. 38.
12. ’Race’, in J. Taylor and W. Shaw, A Dictionary of the Third Reich (London, Grafton Books 1987), p. 283.
13. Cited in P. Vansittart, Voices 1870-1914 (New York, Franklin Watts 1985), p. 81.
14. Vansittart, Voices, p. XV.
15. J.C. Fest, The Face of the Third Reich (London, Penguin Books 1970), n. 4, p. 500.
16. J. Noakes and G. Pridham, ‘Introduction’, in J. Noakes and G. Pridham, eds., Nazism 1919-1945 – 1: The Rise to Power 1919-1934 (Exeter, Exeter Studies in History 1983), p. 3.
17. I. Berlin, ed. H. Hardy, Against the Current: Essay in the History of Ideas (Oxford, OUP 1981), pp. 163-4.
18. Eatwell, Fascism, p. 5.
19. N. Sullivan, Fascism, (London, J.M. Dent and Sons 1983), p. 13.
20. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 43.
21. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 49.
22. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 48.
23. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 64.
24. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 65.
25. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 66.
26. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 71.
27. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 68.
28. Eatwell, Fascism, p. 5.
29. C. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred: Anthropology and the Study of Religions (London, Cassell 1996), pp. 70-2.
30. F. Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (New York, the Free Press 1963), p. 71, cited in Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 71.
31. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 70.
32. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 94.
33. Berlin, Against the Current, pp. 94-5.
34. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 103.
35. R. Smith, The Fontana History of the Human Sciences (London, Fontana Press 1997), p. 342.
36. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 345.
37. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 11.
38. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 12.
39. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 11.
40. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 348.
41. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 12.
42. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 13.
43. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 11.
44. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 12.
45. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 350.
46. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 351.