Before the Second World War, eugenics or as the Oxford Dictionary puts it: ‘the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics’ was surprisingly popular with many people still very famous today. The belief of many luminaries of pre-war Britain and America was that the human race needed urgent protection from “degenerates”, the “unfit ” and the “feebleminded”. People including architects of Britain’s welfare state and writers famous for their socialist and Fabian principles were very happy promoting eugenicist ideals even while Hitler was, horrendously, putting many of these theories to the test with policies designed to biologically improve the Aryan “Ubermenschen” master race.
The Nazis targeted people identified as “life unworthy of life” (German: Lebensunwertes Leben), such as those with congenital cognitive and physical disabilities which included the ‘feebleminded’, epileptic, schizophrenic, manic-depressive, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, deaf, blind and the homosexual, and then tried to eliminate them from the chain of heredity.
The idea of Eugenics to produce better human beings has existed at least since Plato in ancient Greece. The term ‘eugenics’ to describe the concept of improving the quality of the human race through selective breeding was originally developed by Francis Galton, the half-cousin of Charles Darwin. In 1883, a year after Darwin’s death he gave his discredited science a name: Eugenics.
Once most people could see where it ultimately led – to the gas chambers of the Nazi concentration camps – eugenics went into steep decline after 1945. For most of these, often well-meaning, people any admiration with theories horribly close to nazism were conveniently forgotten.
Here is the Flashbak Top Ten list of famous eugenicists who perhaps should have known better:
Number One – Marie Stopes – the family-planning pioneer.
Marie Stopes, who died in 1958 at the age of 77 and founded Britain’s first birth control clinic in North London in 1921 and indeed was honoured with a postage stamp in 2008, was actually a hardcore eugenicist. She once wrote that “hordes of defectives” should be reduced in number so to be less of a burden on “the fit”. Stopes even went on to disinherit her son because he married a short-sighted woman therefore risking a less-than-perfect grandchild. In Birth Control News – a magazine she set up in 1922 – she described southern Italians as a “low-grade race” and once said of the French that they should “eliminate the taint of their large numbers of perverted or homosexual people”.
In a book called “Radiant Motherhood” Stopes went on to denounce any society that “allows the diseased, the racially negligent, the thriftless, the careless, the feeble-minded, the very lowest and worst members of the community to produce innumerable tens of thousands of stunted, warped and inferior infants.” In August 1939, less than one month before the start of WW2, Stopes sent Adolf Hitler a copy of her book “of Songs for Young Lovers” which included a letter: “Dear Herr Hitler, love is the greatest thing in the world: So will you accept from me these [poems] that you may allow the young people of your nation to have them? The young must learn love from the particular ’till they are wise enough for the universal. I hope too that you yourself may find something to enjoy in the book.”
Three years into the war Marie Stopes wrote a ‘humorous’ poem that included the line: “Catholics, Prussians, the Jews and the Russians, all are a curse, or something worse.”
Number Two: H.G. Wells – writer
Herbert George Wells, best known as the author of The Time Machine, the Invisible Man, the Island of Doctor Moreau and the War of the Worlds – books and films still well known today. He is famous for his socialist and pacifist principles but perhaps less well known for his rather racist views and his enthusiastic support of Eugenics.
He once wrote: “The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilization of failures, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.” Also: “The mating of two quite healthy persons may result in disease,” he wrote. “I am told it does so in the case of interbreeding of healthy white men and healthy black women about the Tanganyka region; the half-breed children are ugly, sickly, and rarely live.”
“I believe that if a canvass of the entire civilized world were put to the vote in this matter, the proposition that it is desirable that the better sort of people should intermarry and have plentiful children, and that the inferior sort of people should abstain from multiplication, would be carried by an overwhelming majority.”
“..the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity – beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds, and a growing body of knowledge – and to check the procreation of base and servile types, of fear-driven and cowardly souls, of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies, or habits of men. To do the latter is to do the former; the two things are inseparable.”
H.G. Wells, once vented his annoyance and irritation directly to the, in his opionion, the feckless working class: ‘We cannot go on giving you health, freedom, enlargement, limitless wealth, if all our gifts to you are to be swamped by an indiscriminate torrent of progeny,’ he complained, ‘…and we cannot make the social life and the world-peace we are determined to make, with the ill-bred, ill-trained swarms of inferior citizens that you inflict upon us.’
Number Three – Helen Keller – deaf and blind author, activist and lecturer
In defense of eugenics, Helen Keller wrote “Our puny sentimentalism has caused us to forget that a human life is sacred only when it may be of some use to itself and to the world.” She also called for “physicians’ juries for defective babies.” who would then vote on which children would be kept alive and which would not – “It is the possibility of happiness, intelligence and power that give life its sanctity, and they are absent in the case of a poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking creature,” Keller said, adding that allowing a “defective” child to die was simply a “weeding of the human garden that shows a sincere love of true life.”
Number Four – George Bernard Shaw – playwright and author
George Bernard Shaw is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated writers of the western world. The Irishman was co-founder of the London School of Economics and also famous for his ardent socialism and wrote many brochures and speeches for the Fabian society. Today, however, his views on selective breeding seem pretty close to the ones of Hitler and often talked of killing people in a “lethal chamber”:
“The moment we face it frankly we are driven to the conclusion that the community has a right to put a price on the right to live in it … If people are fit to live, let them live under decent human conditions. If they are not fit to live, kill them in a decent human way. Is it any wonder that some of us are driven to prescribe the lethal chamber as the solution for the hard cases which are at present made the excuse for dragging all the other cases down to their level, and the only solution that will create a sense of full social responsibility in modern populations?”
In 1910 George Bernard Shaw’s lecture to the Eugenics Education Society was reported in the Daily Express: “A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them.”
In 1934, a year after the Nazis had grabbed power in Germany, Shaw wrote: “The moment we face it frankly we are driven to the conclusion that the community has a right to put a price on the right to live in it … If people are fit to live, let them live under decent human conditions. If they are not fit to live, kill them in a decent human way. Is it any wonder that some of us are driven to prescribe the lethal chamber as the solution for the hard cases which are at present made the excuse for dragging all the other cases down to their level, and the only solution that will create a sense of full social responsibility in modern populations?”
Number Five – Winston Churchill – politician and wartime prime-minister
The man who stood up to Adolf Hitler and who was once described by the historian A.J.P. Taylor as the “saviour of our country” was, rather ironically, extremely pro-eugenics.
In a memo to Asquith, the prime minister, in 1910, Winston Churchill warned, ‘The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate … I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed.”
Number Six – William Beveridge – Economist and social reformer
William Beveridge, the architect of the post-1945 welfare state, was a hardline supporter of the eugenics movement and in 1909 once said that:
Those men who through general defects are unable to fill such a whole place in industry are to be recognized as unemployable. They must become the acknowledged dependents of the State… but with complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights – including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood.
Beveridge was a eugenicist supporter for much of his life and Dennis Sewell in the Spectator in 2009 wrote about William Beveridge over thirty years later in 1943:
On the evening that the House of Commons met to debate the Beveridge Report, Beveridge himself went off to address an audience of eugenicists at the Mansion House. He knew he was in for a rough ride. His scheme of family allowances had originally been devised within the Eugenics Society with a graduated rate, which paid out more to middle-class parents and very little to the poor. The whole point was to combat the eugenicists’ great bugbear — the differential birth rate between the classes. However, the government that day had announced a uniform rate. Beveridge was sympathetic to the complaints of his audience and hinted that a multi-rate system might well be introduced at a later date.
Number Seven – Theodore Roosevelt – 26th president of the United States
In 1913 Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, wrote a letter to the leading eugenicist Charles B. Davenport:
287 Fourth Avenue
New York Lawrence
January 3rd 1913.
My dear Mr. Davenport:
I am greatly interested in the two memoirs you have sent me. They are very instructive, and, from the standpoint of our country, very ominous. You say that these people are not themselves responsible, that it is “society” that is responsible. I agree with you if you mean, as I suppose you do, that society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind. It is really extraordinary that our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally, while it encourages or connives at the cold selfishness or the twisted sentimentality as a result of which the men and women ought to marry, and if married have large families, remain celebates or have no children or only one or two. Some day we will realize that the prime duty – the inescapable duty – of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type. at all.
(Signed, ‘Theodore Roosevelt’)
Number Eight – Jacques Cousteau – sub-mariner and explorer
In 1991 Jacques Cousteau was interviewed by the UNESCO Courier and at one point said: “Our society is turning toward more and more needless consumption. It is a vicious circle that I compare to cancer . . . . Should we eliminate suffering, diseases? The idea is beautiful, but perhaps not a benefit for the long term. We should not allow our dread of diseases to endanger the future of our species. . . . In order to stabilize world population, we need to eliminate 350,000 people a day. It is a horrible thing to say, but it’s just as bad not to say it.”
Number Nine – John Maynard Keynes – Economist
The extremely influential economist, civil servant, director of the Bank of England and a member of the Bloomsbury Group, John Maynard Keynes was a prominent supporter of Eugenics and even served as Director of the British Eugenics Society from 1937 to 1944. The state, according to Keynes, would one day work out the optimum population level and once said: “the time may arrive a little later when the community as a whole must pay attention to the innate quality as well as to the mere numbers of its future members”. In 1946, and not long before he died, Keynes wrote that eugenics is “the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists”. By then, he must have known exactly what Hitler had been up to in the preceding 15 years, but then he did write this:
[Jews] have in them deep-rooted instincts that are antagonistic and therefore repulsive to the European, and their presence among us is a living example of the insurmountable difficulties that exist in merging race characteristics, in making cats love dogs …
It is not agreeable to see civilization so under the ugly thumbs of its impure Jews who have all the money and the power and brains.
Number Ten – Bertrand Russell – Philosopher
The mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell once put forward the idea that the state should issue colour-coded “procreation tickets” to prevent the gene pool of the elite being diluted by inferior human beings. Those who decided to have children with holders of a different-coloured ticket would be punished with a heavy fine. In 1924 he wrote:
It must be admitted, however, that there are certain dangers. Before long the population may actually diminish. This is already happening in the most intelligent sections of the most intelligent nations; government opposition to birth-control propaganda gives a biological advantage to stupidity, since it is chiefly stupid people who governments succeed in keeping in ignorance. Before long, birth-control may become nearly universal among the white races; it will then not deteriorate their quality, but only diminish their numbers, at a time when uncivilized races are still prolific and are preserved from a high death-rate by white science.
This situation will lead to a tendency — already shown by the French — to employ more prolific races as mercenaries. Governments will oppose the teaching of birth-control among Africans, for fear of losing recruits. The result will be an immense numerical inferiority of the white races, leading probably to their extermination in a mutiny of mercenaries.
Bertrand Russell, “ICARUS or the Future of Science” (1924)
In extreme cases there can be little doubt of the superiority of one race to another[…] It seems on the whole fair to regard Negroes as on the average inferior to white men, although for work in the tropics they are indispensable, so that their extermination (apart from the question of humanity) would be highly undesirable.
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