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The Darwinian roots of the Nazi tree (Weikart review)


September 2005; updated August 2014
Book cover From Darwin to Hitler

How could the horrors of the Holocaust occur in the most civilized country in the world? The sheer enormity of the killings required a huge network of people, so how could so many commit such atrocities?

Richard Weikart, professor of modern European history at California State University, Stanislaus, has thoroughly documented the Darwinian roots of many aspects of the Nazi terror in his recent book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany.1

He showed that Darwinism provided many of the foundations for Nazi principles. For example, Darwinism undermined the uniqueness of humanity, which in turn undermined the sanctity of innocent life. This by itself is a slippery slope—once society starts down this path of regarding any class of humans as not worthy of life, it is hard to stop this extending to other classes, because the door is already unlocked.

Darwinism also undermined a divine foundation for ethics and morality, so moral relativism replaced traditional moral codes. Instead, the notion of evolutionary progress became the highest good (overlooking the contradiction that notions of ‘goodness’ are meaningless when morals become relative). So Christian ideas of compassion for the sick and handicapped were dismissed as weak. They were replaced by notions of the strong dominating the weak, even claiming that it was kind to eliminate the weak.

Hitler photo by NARA, Darwin photo by TFE GraphicsDarwin and Hitler

The notion of evolutionary fitness was not only applied to individuals but groups. Weikart points out that pre-Darwinian racist ideas were usually repulsed by the dominant Christian worldview that all people come from Adam and Eve. But the German Darwinian racists dismissed the darker ‘races’ as being closer to the apes than to the ‘superior’ lighter humans. This had horrifying consequences in the Herero genocide in Africa in the early 1900s.2

The line from Darwin to Hitler was not straightforward, because it was so highly branched. Weikart shows that Darwin’s ideas became enormously popular in educated German circles largely through the writings of Ernst Haeckel, of forged embryo drawing infamy.3 Haeckel in turn strongly influenced Alfred Ploetz, the founder of the German Society for Race Hygiene, the world’s first eugenics organization. This organization included Julius Lehmann as a leading member. He was a racist eugenicist and major publisher of medical and scientific textbooks, and had extensive contact with Hitler from 1920.

These ideas were not only widespread in elite academic circles, they had filtered down into the Viennese press during Hitler’s pre-WWI days. After Hitler’s rise, Nazi propaganda spread these ideas still further to the masses. One film, Victims of the Past (Opfer der Vergangenheit, 1937; see below), showed a disfigured handicapped person and declared:

‘All weak living things will inevitably perish in nature. In the last few decades, mankind has sinned frightfully against the law of natural selection. We haven’t just maintained life unworthy of life, we have even allowed it to multiply! The descendants of these sick people look … like this person here!’
[NB: ‘Sinned’ is a better translation of gesündigt than the subtitle ‘transgressed’.]

Sadly, today, the very philosophy that was foundational to Nazism is taught as fact in Western media and educational circles. And atheistic philosophers such as Peter Singer and James Rachels have applied the same reasoning as the Nazis—that Darwinism has undermined the sanctity of human life, so involuntary euthanasia should be allowed, e.g. for disabled newborns. This shows that if we don’t learn from history, we are likely to repeat it.

Update, 29 August 2014: See the video below of a lecture by Dr Weikart from 2008, From Darwin to Hitler, or, Does Darwinism devalue human life, where he explains the revolutionary impact Darwinism had on ethics and morality. Darwinism played a key role in the rise not only of eugenics (a movement wanting to control human reproduction to improve the human species), but also on euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, and racial extermination. This was especially important in Germany, since Hitler built his view of ethics on Darwinian principles.

Published: 24 June 2009


  1. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, USA, 2004. Return to text.
  2. Ambler, M., Herero genocide: Foretaste of the Holocaust, Creation 27(3):52–55, 2005. Return to text.
  3. Grigg, R., Fraud rediscovered, Creation 20(2):49–51, 1998; Ernst Haeckel: Evangelist for evolution and apostle of deceit, Creation 18(2):33–36, 1996; Q&A: Embryonic RecapitulationReturn to text.