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Eugenics: The Secret Lurking in Many Nations' Past

September 07, 1997|Adrian Wooldridge | Adrian Wooldridge, the West Coast correspondent for the Economist, is the author of "Measuring the Mind: Education and Psychology in England 1860-1990."

During World War II, a British intelligence officer once famously said, "Anti-Semitism was terribly fashionable here until Hitler came along and overdid it." It is now depressingly clear that the same can be said of another of Adolf Hitler's barbarous passions, eugenics, but with one proviso: Eugenics, the pseudo-science that tries to improve the human species by controlling reproduction, remained fashionable long after Hitler committed suicide in his bunker.

A series of articles in one of Sweden's leading newspapers recently revealed that the Swedes not only introduced eugenic laws at roughly the same time as the Nazis but also left them on the statute books until the mid-1970s. Between 1935 and 1976, no fewer than 60,000 Swedes were sterilized, including the children of racially mixed parents, people with "gypsy features," unwed mothers with large broods of children, habitual criminals and even a boy deemed "sexually precocious."

The Swedish headlines have led to a bout of confessions across Europe. The Danes have admitted they introduced eugenic laws even earlier than the Nazis--in 1929--and left them in force until 1967. About 11,000 Danes were sterilized, more then half against their will. The Finns have confessed to sterilizing 11,000 people, with 4,000 involuntary abortions performed between 1945 and 1970, and the Norwegians to sterilizing 2,000. The Swiss, hardly given to self-flagellation, have revealed that one canton had a law allowing the compulsory sterilization of the mentally handicapped that was on the books until the 1970s.

All these countries introduced eugenic measures for similar reasons: to prevent the "degeneration of the race" (the feeble-minded and insane were thought to have higher birthrates than more respectable citizens); and to spare the state the heavy cost of providing welfare for the backward and frail. Both Sweden and Denmark have announced public inquiries into the sterilizations, which have hitherto been passed over in silence by politicians and official historians alike, and other countries could soon follow.

If properly conducted, these inquiries will reveal that, far from being a temporary aberration, eugenics was deeply rooted in Western society. It was invented not in the Germany of the 1930s but in the Britain of the 1880s, and not by some deranged Nazi but by the respectable gentleman Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and a leading member of the scientific establishment. The idea spread with astonishing speed, feeding off the darkest passions of whatever society gave it a home: snobbery in England, anti-Semitism in Germany, anxiety about the low birthrate in France, fear of "natural criminals" in Italy.

If anything, enthusiasm for eugenics was even stronger on the left than the right. Socialists and eugenicists worshiped at the same three shrines: government intervention, scientific planning and human perfectibility. Nothing is more vital to the future prosperity of the nation than the quality of its population, the argument went; and surely nothing is more foolish than to leave the decisions that determine that quality to short-sighted individuals rather than to state-certified experts.

The party that introduced eugenics to Sweden was the Social Democrats--the same party that went on to rule Sweden throughout the postwar period and create the much-admired "Swedish model" of welfare capitalism. In Britain, every leading socialist worthy of the name was a eugenicist. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who more or less wrote the Labor Party's constitution, argued that the "breeding of the right sort of man" was the "most important of all questions." George Bernard Shaw insisted "the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialization of the selective breeding of man."

The United States proved just as susceptible to the appeal of eugenics as Europe. "We have operated on many against their will and over their vigorous protest," boasted one pioneer of compulsory sterilization in Indiana in 1899. "I do it without administering an anesthetic." By 1918, 22 states had laws providing for the sterilization of the unfit--with California among the most vigorous practitioners of the new discipline. The U.S. Supreme Court blew hot and cold on the legality of compulsory sterilization, but upheld it in a memorable 1927 ruling penned by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes . . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough." At least one state, Virginia, continued to take advantage of this ruling until the 1970s, sterilizing more than 7,500 people, with a particular emphasis on unwed mothers, prostitutes, petty criminals and juvenile delinquents.

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