The Science Of Evil

The Holocaust Museum's exhibit on Nazi medical practices raises frightening issues.

April 22, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the aged film clip, a string of adults in hospital gowns makes its herky-jerky way along a lawn in the shadows of a grand stone mansion. Everything about them seems exaggerated and unnatural, from their contorted grins to the capering way they move. They are meant to be seen as grotesqueries.

The German narrator resumes his ominous message, the words translated in subtitles for present-day, English-speaking museum visitors: "Idiots and the feeble-minded ... live in palaces," the voice intones, diverting "[d]iligent care for which only healthy and strong people are entitled."

The narrator declares that "we humans have sinned terribly against [the] laws of natural selection," by coddling the genetically impaired and, even worse, by allowing them to reproduce, duplicating their defects in a new legion of offspring. "We have not only sustained unworthy life," he decries, "we have allowed it to multiply."

The title of the 1937 film is Victims of the Past, a reference to the idea in the disgraced genetic field of eugenics that illness, disability and delinquency were passed without deviation, gene by gene, from one generation to the next. The film was a piece of Nazi propaganda, required showing in German theaters in support of the nation's program for the compulsory sterilization of the "genetically unfit" to choke off undesirable human traits - and undesirable human beings.

Ultimately, the Third Reich arrived at a more comprehensive solution than sterilization, one that it would also choose for other "biological" enemies, including Jews, Gypsies and other "inferior" races: extermination.

The film is shown in continuous loop in an extensive exhibit opening today at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Titled Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, the exhibit explores the Nazis' incorporation of dubious "scientific" theories - particularly eugenics - to legitimize their grand design to purify the Aryan race. In photographs, testimony, propaganda, artifact, video and documents, the exhibition stands as a frightening warning of where the corrupted use of science can lead.

While Deadly Medicine does not lift its eyes much beyond the end of World War II in 1945, the exhibit's continued relevance is unmistakable as present-day bioethicists wrestle with the policy implications of startling genetic research and the possibilities it presents. The essential question is the same now as it was then: How will the science be used?

In the case of eugenics, essentially the selective breeding of humans, the terrifying answers are revealed in the new exhibit: sterilization, frightful experimentation on human beings, murder and genocide. If ever there was a marriage made in hell, it was the union of eugenicists and the Third Reich, "an explosive combination of science and politics" in the words of Susan Bachrach, curator of the exhibit. The German eugenicists lent Nazi ideology a whiff of scientific authority. The Nazis afforded the eugenicists an opportunity dreamed of - to put into practice their ideas for cleansing the Aryan race.

No wonder the leading proponents of eugenics in Germany celebrated the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. Within a year, the Third Reich had passed a sterilization law, one of the central proposals of a number of leading German eugenicists. "It was only through the political work of Hitler that the meaning of racial hygiene has become publicly manifest in Germany," Ernst Rudin, a psychiatrist and leading eugenicist rhapsodized in 1934, "and it is only due to him that our 30-year dream to put racial hygiene into practice has become a reality."

As the exhibit makes abundantly clear, however, eugenics attracted adherents well beyond German borders. The term "eugenics" was coined by a 19th-century British aristocrat, Sir Francis Galton, from a Greek root meaning "well-born." Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, proposed that human traits, good and bad, were passed in predictable ways from one generation to the next.

By the early 20th century, eugenics was used to explain all manner of social ills: poverty, mental illness, low intelligence, alcoholism, criminality. If those exhibiting undesirable characteristics could be prevented from reproducing, the theory went, suffering would be lessened, the overall quality of humankind elevated, and social costs reduced by eliminating the need for asylums, prisons and orphanages.

Sterilization was key in the minds of many eugenicists, but their first success in enacting such practices were well before Hitler's dictatorship and far away from Germany.

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