Also Available in:
This article is from
Creation 32(2):15–17, April 2010

Browse our latest digital issue Subscribe

Darwinism and World War One


© iStockphoto/kamisok Darwinism and World War One

The evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) destructively influenced many of the Western world’s leaders in the early 20th century. In particular, intellectuals in Germany were among the earliest to embrace Darwinism enthusiastically, and to apply its concept of the survival of the fittest to human society. That is, they applied the subtitle of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). The most infamous result of this was the Holocaust,1 but social Darwinism was also a major influence in the events leading up to World War One.

In the decades leading up to World War One, intellectuals embraced Darwinism and its ethical implications as a welcome alternative to Christian belief and ethics. Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), the most famous German Darwinist of the time, and notorious forger of embryo diagrams,2 believed that evolution would “bring forth a complete revolution in the entire world view of humanity.”3 He argued that Darwinism required the abandonment of Christian morals.

Until the advent of Darwinism, the sanctity of human life was taken for granted in European law and thought. But many German intellectuals began to argue that some had a greater right to life than others, namely, those who are deemed more valuable to society. This inequality was mainly based on race, but the Darwinists argued that there were inferior individuals within a race as well. For instance, zoologist and politician Karl Vogt (1817–1895) argued that a mentally handicapped child was closer in value to an ape than to his own parents.4 It should thus not be surprising that the world’s first eugenics5 society was founded in Germany, promoting the concept founded by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton (1822–1911).6

While the belief in German superiority led the Nazis to exterminate ‘undesirable’ individuals, during WW1 German Darwinists used the same idea to justify war on states which they deemed inferior.

German social Darwinists were enamoured with the vision of the “master race”, which in their mind was the Nordic or Germanic race. Eugenicist Alfred Ploetz (1860–1940) coined the term “racial hygiene” (Rassenhygiene), and later welcomed the Nazis as the ones who would put this into practice. While the belief in German superiority led the Nazis to exterminate “undesirable” individuals, during WW1 German Darwinists used the same idea to justify war on states which they deemed inferior. They believed that the destiny of the master race was to dominate or eliminate “inferior” races, and the most obvious way to accomplish this was through war. In their view, all races and states were in competition for survival, and those who would not wage war would perish.7 In other words “war is inevitable and peace is merely an armistice in the continuous battle between races and groups for survival.”8

The concept of Lebensraum or “living space” was one of the justifications for the Germans in both World Wars to take over their neighbouring countries. While Germany was not actually overcrowded, they believed that since one side or the other was always advancing, “without war, inferior or decaying races would easily choke the growth of healthy budding elements, and a universal decadence would follow.”9 Max Weber emphasized this racial competition:

“Our descendants will not hold us responsible primarily for the kind of economic organization that we pass on to them, but rather for the extent of elbow-room [Ellbogenraum], that we obtain through struggle and leave behind”10
Because of the view of war as an evolutionary instrument, the German leaders regarded war as a desirable option, even though they could not be sure of a victory.

Interestingly, German Darwinists were divided about whether war was beneficial for the master race. Some were pacifists, including Haeckel, because they believed that war would kill off mainly the best members of the master race, but anthropologist Otto Ammon (1842–1916) believed that war was the only way to test which nation was stronger and to grant victory to the fittest opponent.11 Of course, there was the problem of undesirable individuals in the German population as well; Ploetz suggested sending them to the front lines so they would be killed before those who were deemed to be more fit.12

Because of this view of war as an evolutionary instrument, the German leaders regarded war as a desirable option, even though they could not be sure of a victory. There was also a fatalistic element; they believed that it was their destiny and that they were fulfilling their “preordained role in the development of the world.”13

Some argue that because Darwin did not directly apply the principles of social Darwinism, the term, and its connection to evolutionary thought, is invalid. But Darwin himself said that killing in the animal kingdom was a way for evolution to progress:

“It may be difficult, but we ought to admire the savage instinctive hatred of the queen-bee, which urges her to instantly destroy the young queens her daughters as soon as born, or to perish herself in the combat; for undoubtedly this is for the good of the community; and maternal love and maternal hatred, though the latter fortunately is most rare, is all the same to the inexorable principle of natural selection.”14

Darwin simply was reluctant to apply this principle to humans, but the German social Darwinists did not share his disinclination. While there were other factors that caused World War 1, the German leadership’s universal belief in social Darwinism and its anti-Christian ethical system justified their militarism and made it into a moral good.

Posted on homepage: 25 April 2011

References and notes

  1. Weikart, R., From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, USA, 2004; reviewed at creation.com/weikart. Dr Richard Weikart is professor of modern European history at California State University, Stanislaus. Return to text.
  2. Grigg, R., Ernst Haeckel: Evangelist for evolution and apostle of deceit, Creation 18(2):33–36, 1996; creation.com/Haeckel; Fraud rediscovered, Creation 20(2):49–51, 1998; creation.com/fraud. Return to text.
  3. Weikart, R., Darwinism and death: devaluing human life in Germany 1859–1920, Journal of the History of Ideas 63(2):323–344, 2002; p. 325. Return to text.
  4. Weikart, ref. 3, p. 333. Return to text.
  5. Greek: εὐ– (eu–) meaning “well” and γένος (genos) meaning “kind” or “offspring”. Return to text.
  6. Grigg, R., Eugenics … death of the defenceless: The legacy of Darwin’s cousin Galton, Creation 28(1):18–22, 2005; creation.com/eugenics. Return to text.
  7. Hamilton, R. and Herwig, H., “World wars: definitions and causes”, in: Hamilton, R. and Herwig, H., eds., The Origins of World War One, p. 26, Cambridge University Press, 2003. Return to text.
  8. Weikart, R., The origins of social Darwinism in Germany: 1859–1895, Journal of the History of Ideas 54(3): 469–489; p. 485. Return to text.
  9. Evans, R., The Coming of the Third Reich, p. 35, Penguin, 2005. Return to text.
  10. Weikart, ref. 8, p. 482. Return to text.
  11. Weikart, ref. 8, p. 482. Return to text.
  12. Evans, ref. 9, p. 35. Return to text.
  13. Herwig, H., “Germany” in: The Origins of World War One, Ref. 7; p. 186. Return to text.
  14. Quoted from Weikart, ref. 3, pp. 331–332. See also Muehlenberg, B., “Darwin and eugenics: Darwin was indeed a ‘Social Darwinist’”, creation.com/darwin-and-eugenics, 18 March 2009. Return to text.

Helpful Resources