The Second World War

Review of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany

Richard Weikart, Author Published at

To most Germans, Hitler never appeared to be an evildoer, and thus subsequent attempts to portray him as a fanatical madman betray a misunderstanding of the epoch in which he ruled, Weikart argues. Instead, Hitler was very much a man of his age. The moral justifications for the evil he unleashed were developed long before he rose to power.

Weikart writes that the moral antecedents of Nazi genocide rest in the Darwinism that swept the German academies nearly a century before the Nazi period. The road from Darwin to Hitler, however, is crooked with many twists and turns. Many early Darwinists would have recoiled at Nazi brutality, and there were many political, social, and economic factors unrelated to Darwinian thinking that contributed to Hitler’s rise. Even so, Weikart

“…while remaining ever cognizant of the multiple potentialities of Darwinian, eugenic, and racist discourse in the pre-Nazi period, we should not close our eyes to the many similarities and parallels with later Nazi thinking either.”

These “similarities and parallels” were the ideas about social progress that were derived from Darwin’s theory of evolution that would later be appropriated by the Nazis.

Early Darwinists were intoxicated by the scientific character of evolutionary theory and accepted it at face value. Weikart chronicles in considerable detail how Darwinism grew from a theory about biological evolution to become the dominant interpretive paradigm of history, sociology, and anthropology in German intellectual life.

Darwinists believed that natural selection was the force that governed everything in creation – including human society. Their naturalism could not be reconciled to the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, since precepts like the Golden Rule or care for the weak violated the way that the natural order functioned. According to their philosophy, any defense or care of the weak represented human regress since only the strong were preordained to survive:

“Darwinists insisted that morality was not fixed, but historically changing, and though many emphasized the relativism of morality, one factor remained
constant: the evolutionary process itself. Thus many writers on evolutionary ethics exalted evolutionary progressFrom Darwin to Hitler is a valuable work of intellectual history. It is
written, cogently argued, and thoroughly engaging. Read it to understand how the Nazi darkness penetrated the heart of Europe. But be forewarned: many of the arguments that devalued human life in pre-war Germany are the same that we hear in America today.

Johannes L. Jacobse is a Greek Orthodox priest and edits the website