Deutschland / Eugenics / Fascism / genocide / German War Criminals / Germany / MASS MURDER

In the Name of Public Health — Nazi Racial Hygiene


“In each of these cases, hygiene was proferred as one of the principal grounds for concentration. The establishment of the Jewish ghetto at Lodz, for example, was justified as a measure necessary to protect against the dangers of epidemic disease.”

Germany Eugenics - Doctors

In the Name of Public Health — Nazi Racial Hygiene

Susan Bachrach, Ph.D.

In democratic societies, the needs of public health
sometimes require citizens to make sacrifices for
the greater good, but in Nazi Germany, national or
public health — Volksgesundheit — took complete
precedence over individual health care. Physicians
and medically trained academics, many of whom
were proponents of “racial hygiene,” or eugenics,
legitimized and helped to implement Nazi poli-
cies aiming to “cleanse” German society of people
viewed as biologic threats to the nation’s health.
Racial-hygiene measures began with the mass ster-
ilization of the “genetically diseased” and ended
with the near-annihilation of European Jewry.

The concept of racial hygiene had deep roots in
Germany. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
growing numbers of medical and public health pro-
fessionals decried Germany’s declining birth rate
and the perceived biologic “degeneration” of the
nation and proposed reforms to improve the quan-
tity and quality of the population. Rapid industrial-
ization and urbanization had created overcrowded
cities, with attendant conditions of extensive pov-
erty and crime; the spread of tuberculosis, syphilis,
gonorrhea, and other contagious diseases; and
expanding numbers of persons identified by psy-
chiatrists as mentally ill or retarded, who required
special care. These changes coincided with a blos-
soming of medical research and the establishment
of dozens of new institutes and laboratories. Break-
throughs in bacteriology and the emerging field of
genetics — the publication of August Weismann’s
theory of immutable germ-plasm in the 1890s and
the “rediscovery” of Gregor Mendel’s laws of he-
redity in 1900 — seemed to promise biologic or
medical solutions to Germany’s problems. Physi-
cians and medical researchers began to view them-
selves as the guides to a healthy, moral, industrious


In 1946 and 1947, the American military tribu-
nal at Nuremberg tried 20 German physicians and
3 lay accomplices for medical experiments using
prisoners of Nazi concentration camps. But most

of the German scientists and physicians who had
helped to legitimize and implement Nazi racial-
hygiene policies were not prosecuted or called to a
moral accounting of any kind, and many went on
with their careers. Verschuer, for example, estab-
lished one of West Germany’s largest genetic re-
search centers. The neuropathologist Julius Haller-
vorden, who had used the children’s euthanasia
program as an opportunity to amass new speci-
mens for study, resumed his brain research. Glob-
ally, the Holocaust helped to discredit eugenics, and
the term itself became taboo in the scientific com-
munity. Even so, the sterilization of mentally re-
tarded and ill persons continued in some parts of
Scandinavia and Canada after the war, and steril-
ization remained part of social policy in Virginia,
North Carolina, and Georgia into the 1970s.

Over the past six decades, the science of human
heredity has advanced greatly, from knowledge of
the operation of DNA to the mapping of the human
genome. Such progress holds great promise for
medical advances but also inspires new, utopian vi-
sions of perfecting humankind. The history of Nazi
racial-hygiene policies and eugenics reminds us of
the importance of maintaining democratic checks
and balances in the application of biomedical re-
search and of always guarding against the use of
genetics for the purpose of discriminating against
persons or groups.