April 12, 2005


I've been reading (I'm 160 pages or so into) Himmler's Crusade by Chris Hale, which tells the tale of Ernst Schaefer's 1930s expeditions to Tibet in search of -- call them what you will, the unknown superiors, the masters of the universe, the master race, the Ur-Aryans. Hale makes an argument others have made -- that the crackpottery of various ideas held by the Nazi elite (inspired by the likes of Helena Blavatsky, to cite one example) somehow intellectually or culturally prepared the German intellectual elite (such as it was after the Nazi purges, although it was not nearly as threadbare as one might expect) and the German people in general for the horrors that were to come. That one can draw a fairly straight or even a dashed line from the race memory ravings of a lunatic like Karl Maria Wiligut to, say, members of the Einsatzgruppen or the guards of Reserve Police Battalion 101.

I'm probably reading too much into Hale's book (although he does write sentences like this one fairly frequently:

These [crackpot] scientists fostered, knowingly, the vision of the future where scientific methods of selection would ensure that higher races prospered and lesser ones were weeded out. ...Hitler sometimes described himself as a 'physician' whose task was to remove the sickness of modern Germany. In return for scientifically endorsing his metaphor, doctors and anthropologists were offered dazzling opportunities by men who in 1933 seized so much power that they could contemplate what might have been an impossible dream: a purely Nordic future cleansed of impurity. It was a dream of power so radical that it could envision transforming the biological nature of the German people themselves.

Hale writes this way fairly often, and I'm never quite certain what he's up to (aside from oddities like dreams of power envisioning things -- fantasies imagining?).

More disturbing to me is Hale's inability or entire lack of interest in the question of what constituted good anthropological research and what was merely racist tripe dressed up as science. There were several of both kinds of work done in the period in question (the 1930s), but Hale seems to paint with a broad brush -- apparently all anthropologists are suspect. So too are all American scientists...

Both German and American scientists shared a passion for eugenics and race science. Both nations believed they struggled with a race problem.

Of course, G.K. Chesterton devoted a whole book to the enthusiasm of reformers, newspaper men, intellectuals and even a sizeable portion of the British Parliament for eugenics, which wasn't regarded as a retrograde fantasy about the glories of Teutonic Knights and the direct line of descent from Atlantis to Tibet to Adolf Hitler, but rather the cutting edge of modernity and enlightenment that demanded an extensive legislative program to make its peculiarly voguish crackpottery the law of the land. Hale doesn't find that worth mentioning. Of course, there was a great deal of crackpottery in Britain and America both before and after the Second World War, both of the mytho and moderno types, just as there is today. Somehow, we manage to keep ours in check, and even on the rare occasion overcome its worst tendencies. I'm not sure that the presence of moderno and mytho crackpottery within the same ruling elite explains what Hale thinks it explains...

Note: sorry about the lack of links in this post -- I'll add them in later. Comcast crapped out on me, and while I seem to have no trouble getting into my site, I'm unable to get onto anything else on the Internet.

Posted by Ideofact at April 12, 2005 11:10 PM

I seem to remember a quote from a US Supreme Court case that was at the height of the eugenics movement in America.

The quote was along the lines of "three generations of imbeciles are enough", giving reference to a particular case of sterilization for someone who was the apparent third generation imbecile.

If I recall correctly, the justice in question was Oliver Wendell Holmes.

At any rate, eugenics seems to have been in style worldwide during those decades. I would actually doubt that a single culpable group can be fingered for the popularity of eugenics during the early 20th Century. I also wonder whether it simply became unpopular, or was repudiated by the likes of Chesterton.

(Occasionally, I have seen people try to draw a straight line from "the preservation of favored races in the struggle for survival" in the subtitle of Darwin's Origin of Species to the "favored race" ideology of the Nazis. That seems less tenuous than Hale's claims; it also appears to be made out of the same raw material.)

Posted by: talon karrde at April 13, 2005 02:50 PM