PITTSBURGH - Adolf Hitler used the theory of eugenics in his quest to create a master race, legitimizing the murder of thousands deemed unfit for the German race and culminating in the genocide of 6 million Jews.
But the idea behind eugenics improving a population’s health through genetics was hardly unique to Germany, as shown by a traveling exhibit developed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and on display at the Andy Warhol Museum.
“Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” uses 200 photographs, videotaped survivor stories and several dozen artifacts to trace eugenics’ development as a perversion of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to its Nazi justification for genocide.
The exhibit also looks at eugenics in other countries, including Norway, Spain, Brazil, Japan and the United States, where nearly 300 “eugenic sterilizations” were done at Mendocino State Hospital north of San Francisco between 1909 and 1935.
Perhaps most chilling is how seemingly easy its noble-sounding goal was twisted. After all, who could argue against improving health? It was Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics from Greek, meaning “good birth,” in 1883.
Eugenic “ideas took on a different cast depending on the particular political and social culture in which they were expressed and that changes over time and over place,” says Susan Bachrach, curator of special exhibitions for the Holocaust museum. “In Nazi Germany, it was a very explosive combination of ultranational, racist ideas with eugenics.”
“Anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish policies and politics had their own role that they played in Nazi Germany, but what this exhibit tried to show is that Nazi policies had a much more overarching basis that really is linked to eugenic ideas,” she says. “This exhibit has such a broad appeal because so many people, even if they are not Jewish, have someone who would be covered in some way.”
Warhol director Tom Sokolowski said the museum hosted the exhibit for its historical importance and “to make the point that it’s not simply something that died in 1945 when the war was won.
“We need to be aware that the view of perfection, whether in humanity or in art, can under the aegis of someone with a twisted or very focused agenda lead to the kind of negative and horrific actions that took place during the late ‘30s and ‘40s,” Mr. Sokolowski says.
At first, the use of eugenics in Germany avoided anti-Semitism until the Great Depression, when the Nazis began to hold up the “Nordic race” as the ideal.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, state-backed eugenics led to increased sterilization and marriage laws. Between 1934 and 1945, following passage of a law to prevent genetically diseased offspring, an estimated 400,000 people were surgically sterilized.
While eugenics encouraged purging the unfit, it also encouraged fit Germans to marry, and bearing children became a national responsibility. The Nazis also created an office to combat homosexuality and abortion, which were blamed in part for declining birthrates.
A display of the “10 Commandments for Choosing a Mate” advises people to “Remember that you are a German” and admonishes “everything you are is not of your own but through your nation.”
It goes on to suggest picking a Nordic mate, advises against picking the “one good person” in a “bad family” “No medical art can change ruined medical material” and tells couples to wish for as many children as they can.
One display shows swastika-emblazoned honor crosses of German motherhood: bronze to mothers of four or five children; silver for six or seven children; gold for eight or more children. Another shows a photo of a smiling mother wearing one such cross and pushing a stroller.
Another display shows a picture of a man forced to wear a sign declaring himself a “Rassenschande” or race-defiler, apparently for engaging in a forbidden marriage.
Beginning in 1939, the Nazis began euthanizing infants and children with physical and mental defects. More than 5,000 were killed between 1939 and 1945 through overdose, starvation and gassing. Between 1940 and 1941, some 70,000 institutionalized adults, largely non-Jewish Germans, were killed.
The exhibit winds up with the Nazi’s plan to eradicate Jews in death camps and ends with a section on postwar activities of Nazi Germany doctors, most of whom faced little or no punishment. Some even continued their careers after the war.
Ms. Bachrach says it’s important that people understand the history of eugenics, given advancements in science and ethical questions they raise. For example, she says people can draw a distinction between killing, sterilization and abortion in cases such as birth defects or genetic disease.
“Where do you stop? And that’s a question for today,” she says.
The exhibit ends Sunday at the Warhol and will move to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta from April 30 to Aug. 10 and then on to the Science Museum of Minnesota next year.
The show can also be viewed in an online version at the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Web site (www.ushmm.org).