None Essay, Research Paper
The Lebensborn Project
The topic of eugenics cannot be discussed without encountering the Holocaust, but this is as it should be. When contemporary geneticists, genetics counselors and clinical geneticists wonder why it is that genetics receives special attention from those concerned with ethics, the answer is simple and can be found in history.
The events which led to the sterilization, torture and murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and children of mixed racial heritage in the years just before and during the era of the Third Reich in Germany were rooted firmly in the science of genetics (Muller-Hill, 1988). Rooted not in fringe, lunatic science but in the mainstream of reputable genetics in what was indisputably the most advanced scientific and technological society of its day. The pursuit of genetic purity in the name of public health led directly to Dachau, Treblinka, Ravensbruck and Auschwitz.
As early as 1931 influential geneticists such as Fritz Lenz were referring to National Socialism as “applied biology” in their textbooks (Caplan, 1992). As difficult as it is for many contemporary scientists to accept (Caplan, 1992; Kater, 1992), mainstream science provided a good deal of enthusiastic scientific support for the virulent racism that fueled the killing machine of the Third Reich.
When the Nazis came to power they were obsessed with securing the racial purity of the German people. The medical and biomedical communities in Germany not only endorsed this concern with “negative eugenics,” they had fostered it. Racial hygiene swept through German biology, public health, medicine and anthropology in the 1920s and 1930s, long before the Nazis came to power (Weiss, 1987, Muller-Hill, 1988; Proctor, 1988; Kater, 1992). Many in the medical profession urged the Nazi leadership to undertake social policies that might lead to enhancing or increasing the genetic fitness of the German people (Kater, 1992).
Eugenics consumed the German medical, biological and social scientific communities in the decade before World War II. Many physicians and scientists were frantic about threats they saw to the genetic health of the nation posed by the presence of inferior populations such as Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs, with a lesser extent a distant threat which was, African peoples (Adams, 1990). The steps they took to protect against the public health disaster of a ‘polluted’ racial stock were so
awful, so immoral, and so heinous that they have rightly, shaped all subsequent discussion of the ethics of both human genetics and eugenics.
Steps to eliminate unfit or undesirable genes by prohibitions on sexual relations, restrictions on marriage, sterilization or killing, are all forms of negative population eugenics (Kevles, 1995). Nazi judges and scientists ordered children killed or sterilized who had parents of different racial backgrounds or were thought to have genetic predispositions toward mental illness, alcoholism, retardation or other disabilities. This was done to remove the threat such children posed to the genetic stock of the nation and to avoid having to pay the costs associated with institutionalization and hospitalization (Caplan, 1992). Laws were enacted prohibiting marriages between those whom Nazi race hygiene theory held were likely to produce degenerate offspring.
Conversely, on a smaller scale, the Nazis tried to encourage those who satisfied Nazi racial ideals to have more children. The most extreme form of encouraging eugenic mating was the Lebensborn program which gave money, medals, housing and other rewards to persuade “ideal” mothers and fathers to have large numbers of children in order to create a super-race of Aryan children (Proctor, 1988). The provision of rewards, incentives and benefits to encourage the increased representation of certain genes in the gene pool of future generations constitutes positive population eugenics (Kevles, 1995).
Nazi race hygiene theories were false. There is no evidence to support the biological views of the inherent inferiority of races or the biological superiority of specific ethnic groups, which underlay the eugenics efforts of the Third Reich. There is not even any firm basis for differentiating groups into races on the basis of genetics (Harding, 1993). The negative eugenics programs race hygiene spawned were not only patently unethical, since they were completely involuntary and coercive they were also based upon assumptions about genes and race that are not true. The Nazi drive to design future generations based on what can now be understood as invalid science skewed by racism led to concentration camps, forced sterilization, infanticide and genocide.
Ethical debates about eugenics must acknowledge the horrors perpetrated in the name of eugenics in this century. But, despite the evil that has been done in the name of eugenics the debate cannot end there. The moral permissibility of eugenic goals must be addressed, in its own terms. For while arguments based upon history are instructive and important, those who see no analogies between our times and earlier times are unlikely to find warnings about the past sufficiently forceful to shape future behavior or public policy (Caplan, 1992; 1994). And while the fear of the imposition of eugenic programs by a totalitarian regime must be taken seriously it is not the only path eugenics might follow.
Improvement of the genetic makeup of a population can be sought through negative or positive eugenics. What is less widely noted is that either strategy can
be pursued at the level of individuals and their direct, lineal offspring or for large groups or populations. Efforts aimed at improving or enhancing the properties of large-scale populations such as by providing incentives for large numbers of individuals with particular traits or abilities to marry and have many children or encouraging public health testing for neural tube defects constitute versions of population eugenics. The goals of such activities are to shift the makeup of the gene pool of future generations in particular directions.
Positive and negative eugenics can also be carried out by individual couples who are not interested in nor motivated by the overall effect of their actions may have on the societal gene pool. Population eugenics need not be coercive but, historically, it almost always has been. A great deal of social pressure was applied in the German Lebensborn programs of the 1940s. More recent efforts to shift the genetic norms of populations exemplified by the attempt to encourage those with the ‘right’ racial makeup to reproduce as is evident in the ethnically selective pronatalist policies espoused by governments in many parts of the world are less obviously coercive but still involve a great deal of cultural and societal pressure. The stated policies of some religious bodies such as certain Orthodox Jewish sects or some elements of the Greek Orthodox church that they will not bless marriages where no genetic testing for diseases has been done constitute examples of possible coercion for population eugenic goals by non-governmental powers.
The day when we need to decide whether it is wrong to choose the genetic makeup of our children is not very far off. Some argue that we lack the wisdom to choose well (Lewontin, 1992). But, that hardly stops parents today from seeking to better the lot of their children through environmentally mediated efforts at enhancement. In a society that places so much emphasis on maximizing opportunities and achieving the most efficient use of resources it is hard to believe that pressures will not quickly arise on prospective parents to use genetic information and techniques for manipulating genes to better the lot of their children or of future generations of children.
For some, the historical abuses committed in this century in the name of eugenics are sufficient grounds for prohibiting or banning any efforts at any form of eugenics; positive or negative; individual or group. However, negative population eugenics is not individual positive eugenics. If most people agree that parents have a right if not a duty to try and maximize the well-being and happiness of their offspring, then it is not likely that the record of historical abuses carried out in the name of negative population eugenics will hinder efforts to incorporate genetic information into procreative decisions about our children and their immediate descendants. As it stands today, most parents, particularly those in the middle and upper classes, would probably be more troubled by failing to use genetic information to try and improve the lot of their offspring then they would by doing so.
Eugenics sprang from the philosophy known as social Darwinism, which envisioned human society in terms of natural selection and suggested that science could engineer progress by attacking supposedly hereditary problems including moral decadence, crime, venereal disease, tuberculosis and alcoholism. German and American eugenics advocates both believed science could solve social problems, tended to measure the worth of the individual in economic terms and felt mental illness a threat to society grave enough to warrant compulsive sterilization. And while Nazi Germany’s claims of Aryan superiority are well known, researchers said U.S. advocates of sterilization worried that the survival of old-stock America was being threatened by the influx of “lower races” from southern and eastern Europe.
If you have ever had anything wrong with any of your relatives, which would include just about all of us, then you must talk to the genetic counselor. Genetic counseling guarantees only perfect children should be born, if we are going to have a master race, the rest must never see the light of day.
Hitler did not invent the ideas of eugenics and a master race. Margaret Sanger, eugenics pioneer, and her followers made no secret about their desire to eliminate persons with disabilities and to combat those racial and religious groups she deemed “unfit.”
The first Lebensborn home opened was in 1936 in Steinhoering, a tiny village not far from Munich. Furnishings for the home were supplied from the best of the loot from the homes of Jews who had been sent to Dachau. Ultimately, there were ten Lebensborn homes established in Germany, nine in Norway, two in Austria, one in Belgium, Holland, France, Luxembourg, and Denmark. Himmler himself took a special interest in the choosing not only the mothers, but also attending to the decor and even paying special attention to children born on his birthday, which was October 7th.
By 1939, the program had not produced the results Himmler had hoped.
He issued a direct order to all SS and police to father as many children as possible to compensate for war casualties. The order created a large controversy among the people. Many Germans felt the acceptance of unwed mothers encouraged immorality. Eventually, Himmler backpedaled, but never condemned illegitimacy outright. Himmler himself had two illegitimate children.
The Lebensborn soon expanded to welcome non-German mothers. In a policy formalized by Hitler in 1942, German soldiers were encouraged to fraternize with native women, with the understanding that any children they produced would be provided for. Racially fit women, most often the girlfriends or one-night stands of SS officers, were invaded to Lebensborn homes to have their child in privacy and safety.
Germans resorted to stealing racially acceptable children from occupied territories. Up to 100,000 children may have been stolen from just Poland alone. Some of these children were war orphans, but it is well documented that many were stolen right from their parents’ arms. The criterion as stated before was blond hair and blue eyes (green eyes were also acceptable). This was one of the most horrible sides of the Lebensborn policy. Kidnapping of children “racially goods” in the eastern occupied countries. These children were forced to reject and forget their birth parents; they were told that their parents deliberately abandoned them. The children who refused Nazi education were often beaten and then transferred to concentration camps.
As the allies began to advance, the children who were in the various Lebensborn homes were withdrawn to interior homes. On May 1, 1945, the day after Hitler’s death American troops marched into Steinhoering. They found 300 children from the ages of six months to six years. Most of the mothers and the staff had fled. The British and Russians also found children at Lebensborn homes near Bremen and Leipzig. The majority of these children were either put up for adoption or sent back to their birth families. Some of the children that were kidnapped in other countries who were living with families throughout Germany, were repatriated to their native countries, but most of them were “too German,” to fit in.
Most of the children who were born in the Lebensborn program are still alive and many continue to suffer from their deep psychological scars. The Lebensborn children are now 55 to 65 years old. For many of them, their parents’ identities remained a mystery and their journeys and rediscovery have revealed horrible truths about their origins. Searching for love, they have found heartache – they were victims on the other side of a twisted scheme to produce a Nazi super race.
The lesson might be that the creation of a “super race” as planned by Himmler and Hitler was a terribly demented idea, indicative of the extent of their obsession with Aryan superiority and Nazi supremacy. The terrible results of Nazi Germany continue to reverberate even today, the evidence can be found in the shattered lives of the Lebensborn children.
Despite modern assumptions that, American interest in eugenics waned during the 1920s, researchers said sterilization laws had authorized the neutering of more than 40,000 people classified as insane ore feebleminded in thirty states by 1944. Another 22,000 underwent sterilization between the mid – 1940s and 1963, despite weakening public support and revelations of Nazi atrocities. Forced sterilization was once legal in eighteen U.S. states, and most states with eugenics allowed people to be sterilized without their consent by leaving the decision to a third party.