The interwar period saw utopian goals of a ‘new man’ while in the shadow of a decadent Europe. New emphasis was given on women to become mothers, and scientists on both sides of the political spectrum were dedicated to the study of Eugenics, the science of improving the human race by selective breeding. European society wanted to increase its populations after the deaths caused by the Great War and a prolonged pattern of a declining birth rates for European countries.

Several measures were taken to improve the health, fertility, and longevity of the human race. States used carrot-and-stick policies to encourage women to have more babies. Abortion and forms of birth control were discouraged or criminalized, housing and living conditions were improved, and physical activities such as biking and swimming were promoted during leisure time.[1] This was common in republican France and Soviet Russia. One soviet doctor wrote, “Abortion places a heavy burden on the state because it reduces women’s contribution to production.”[2]


Eugenics and Sterilization Laws

Eugenics was not only concerned with increasing birth rates, but also preventing certain groups of people from reproducing through involuntary sterilization. Sterilization was the cheapest way of preventing reproduction of stigmatized groups. The United States was a frontrunner in the use of sterilization and by 1921 had already sterilized 2,223 people.[3] With the financial crises of 1929 many European states emulated U.S. practices of sterilization. Laws were passed in Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Estonia for voluntary sterilizations.[4]

In Great Britain there was a fear of an increasing rate of ‘mental deficiency’ births and that a “social problem group” would soon amount to ten percent of the population.[5] In Weimar Republic Germany eugenicists separated people between ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ population groups[6] The poor were targeted for sterilization as it was believed that poverty was caused by some sort of mental illness, and while this logic lead to a backlash of sterilization laws in Britain, Eugenics in Germany became increasingly obsessed with race.


Nazi Germany and Eugenics

With the rise of fascism in Germany came involuntary sterilization laws that targeted the mentally ill, known criminals, juvenile offenders, gypsies, bastard born children with African descent, and other asocial types in what amounted to over 200,000 sterilizations by 1937.[7] By 1939, Hitler and the Nazi regime implemented a policy of mass murder over sterilization under which 70,000 to 93,000 inmates of asylums and health clinics were executed by toxic gas, and despite a brief backlash by church leaders, Hitler’s euthanasia campaign continued on a smaller scale.[8] The sterilization polices of the Nazis precluded the genocide of the Jews in the holocaust. Done with an intent for improving the overall health of the human race.

While Nazi Germany provides the most extreme example of the dangers of eugenics, the practice of sterilization was found in most major countries of the world. The basis for who was deem ‘unbreedable’ by eugenic policies claimed legitimacy in biology, but really reflected the divisions in societies between the oppressors and the oppressed. Similar scientific bias played into the myth of the superior white European race, or Nazi Germany’s Master Race. However, some scientific figures fought against the legitimacy of racial superiority, believing it to be discrediting to the field of eugenics. Biologist Julian Huxley joked about Germany’s obsession with the perfect Aryan Race.

Our German neighbours have ascribed to themselves a teutonic type that is fair, long-headed, tall and virile. Let us make a composite picture of a typical Teuton from the most prominent exponents of this view. Let him be as blond as Hitler, as dolichocephalic as Rosenberg, as tall as Goebbels, as slender as Goering and as manly as Streicher. How much would this resemble the German ideal?[9]

Dark ContinentSources Cited

[1] Mazower, Mark. Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (Kindle Locations 1527-1533). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] (Kindle Locations 1650-1655).

[3] 1882-1905

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] (Kindle Locations 1905-1910).

[9] Mazower, Mark. Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (Kindle Locations 1985-1988). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.