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A New Look at "Racial Hygiene": US Holocaust Museum Travels to Germany

By Andrew Curry in Dresden

The Nazis may have taken it to murderous extremes, but eugenics existed long before Hitler's 1933 rise to power. A new exhibition in Dresden -- originally shown at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington -- looks at the pseudo-scientific foundations of racism.

In the 1920s, visitors to the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden were greeted with a state-of-the-art exhibit: a transparent man, arms uplifted to the heavens. In an era of economic and political turmoil, the futuristic “Glass Man” was a powerful symbol of a healthy, pure German future. Physical health was part of it; there were exhibits on the circulation system, germs and nutrition.

But that wasn't all. The museum also advocated a scientific approach to a problem gaining increasing attention in early 20th century Germany: racial hygiene -- a scientific look at race which ultimately informed the Nazis views on Aryan racial purity. When the Nazis took power in 1933, the Glass Man began appearing on propaganda posters and pamphlets promoting the “Eternal People.”

It's an episode in its history that the museum -- founded in 1912 -- has largely kept silent about. Germany itself, in fact, has done little to take a comprehensive look at its fascination with eugenics early last century. Until Thursday, that is.

In an unusual collaboration, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum opened its first-ever exhibition outside the US at the Hygiene Museum. Entitled "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," the show chronicles the history of Nazi race science and eugenics from pseudo-scientific roots to its ultimate, murderous conclusion. And in a conscious echo of the past, the first thing visitors see when they cross the threshold is the Glass Man, now a symbol of something entirely different.

Slippery slope to genocide

The carefully-crafted exhibit -- on display in Dresden until June of next year -- combines artifacts, documentary evidence, installations and videos, to follow the German science establishment down the slippery slope from heredity research to eugenics and ultimately to the genocidal Final Solution. It includes everything from psychiatric patient files, propaganda posters, "race heads" based on measurements German anthropologists made of Asians and Africans to determine different racial characteristics, to a teddy bear from a Nazi-SS home for Aryan children. The exhibit went on display at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. in 2004. In two years, it had 720,000 visitors.

It's no accident that the Dresden museum was chosen to host the exhibition. It was an early and ardent supporter of racial hygiene and subsequently devoted itself to producing propaganda for the Third Reich's eugenics programs. “Even in the '20s, there was an advocacy of eugenics at this museum. It became a mouthpiece for Nazi racial ideas after ’33,” says Susan Bachrach, the exhibition’s curator.

It also did its best to help inform those ideas. The museum sent anthropologists around the world to make plaster casts of faces and skulls for analysis and teaching purposes and created traveling exhibitions that went as far afield as California advocating eugenic policies. Though many of the artifacts and documents in the exhibition were drawn from the Hygiene Museum's archives, it took a visit from American curators researching the topic for the museum to fully face its history. "We've always dealt with this history as a side note," Hygiene Museum Project Director Antje Uhlig says. "We thought bringing 'Deadly Medicine' here would be a good way to deal with it comprehensively."

Anti-Semitism on the rise

In fact, Uhlig says, the exhibition almost never happened -- the museum had to overcome doubts from the Holocaust Museum's director and curators, who questioned the feasibility of staging such a large exhibit so far from Washington. But when the NPD made headlines in 2004 by taking seats in Saxony's parliament, curators on both sides of the Atlantic were given extra motivation. “It was important to do at this moment in time, when anti-Semitism in Europe is on the rise,” Holocaust Memorial Museum Director Sara Bloomfield told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The exhibit is the story of how an idea can yield unexpected, and deadly, fruit. Historians looking back on the period today see the German obsession with race and eugenics not as an invention of Hitler’s but as an idea planted decades earlier. Promoted by respected scientists around the world, in Germany the credibility of racial hygiene or eugenics was used by the Nazis to justify first sterilization, then segregation, then murder and ultimately genocide. “The work of geneticists made the genocidal task of the regime easier,” says Sheila Weiss, a history professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, and a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. “If a whole generation of medical professionals had never been taught this was something science substantiated, the Final Solution would have been a lot harder.”

The idea of race science or eugenics was no German invention. In 1883, British biologist Francis Galton was the first to apply the idea of heredity and breeding to humans. As people flocked to crowded cities, scientists looked for something to explain the rise of crime rates, mental illness and disease. “Unfit human traits such as feeblemindedness, epilepsy, criminality, insanity, alcoholism, pauperism and many others run in families and are inherited in exactly the same way as color in guinea pigs,” an American educational chart explained in 1929.

Blood test for Gypsies

Though German “race science” was at the forefront of the field, eugenics was popular in North America as well. America had forced sterilization laws on the books as early as 1907. By the late 1920s more than half of US states had compulsory sterilization laws. California was the nation’s leader, sterilizing more people by 1933 than the rest of America combined. In a 1927 Supreme Court case, Oliver Wendell Holmes made a plain case for eugenics: “It is better for all the world, if … society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Even into the Nazi era, German policies were admiringly cited by American lawmakers, many of whom saw immigrants as contaminating America’s Anglo-Saxon strength. Germany's leading eugenics and heredity research center, Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation until 1935.

Yet the Nazi’s rise to power in Germany was a radical turning point. Eugenicists became an integral, unquestioned part of the state, and their scientific authority lent important support to Nazi policies. Gypsies were an early focus of research, as scientists tried to develop a blood test to detect Gypsy heritage. And in the Rhine Valley, where soldiers from French colonies had been used to police the occupied territory, Doctor Eugen Fischer carried out studies of mixed race children in 1933 (the field was called "Bastardforschung" or "bastard research"). In 1937, thousands of children were forcibly sterilized.

The collaboration between the Nazis and scientists created dangerously fertile ground. In the first three years of the Third Reich, 200,000 people were forcibly sterilized -- 10 times as many operations as the US had performed in three decades. “German eugenicists and racial theorists played a role by producing knowledge that was used by Nazi policymakers to further their agenda,” Weiss says. “They were valuable for the Nazi state as junior partners for this Faustian bargain.”

At first, it was unclear who was manipulating whom. “It wasn’t the Nazis using the doctors, but the doctors using the Nazis,” German historian Ernst Klee once said. Historians and exhibit curators argue that the relationship between German doctors, once among the world’s most respected researchers and practitioners, and the Nazi party was symbiotic, rather than one-sided. Decades of eugenic research and propaganda coming from places like the Hygiene Museum and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute implanted the idea that human beings could be classified as valuable and valueless deep into the German psyche.

"Human capacity to rationalize anything"

By the beginning of World War II, a number of doctors were eager to further the study of eugenics. Although the story of Josef Mengele’s medical experiments at Auschwitz is well-known and poignantly evoked in the exhibit by interviews with twins who survived, thousands more doctors and geneticists participated in sterilization and euthanasia programs or benefited directly from the Holocaust. “During this period where power was abused, this profession -- so respected today -- allowed itself to be corrupted,” Bachrach says. The exhibit includes pictures of some of the thousands of congenitally ill infants who were secretly killed by their doctors beginning in 1939. During “Operation T-4,” a sort of test run for the death camps, tens of thousands of psychiatric patients were gassed in the cellars of mental institutions around Germany in the early years of the war.

And ultimately, physicians collaborated in genocide. In labs in Berlin, geneticists received “research materials” direct from the camps -- neurologists used hundreds of brains taken from gassed prisoners, and geneticists used eyes taken from murdered twins to further their research careers. “It would be comforting to believe the Nazis were quacks, that they weren’t like us,” Bloomfield says. “But this exhibit shows the human capacity to rationalize anything.”

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