08 January 2012

Book Review: Sheila Faith Weiss, The Nazi Symbiosis: Human Genetics and Politics in the Third Reich. University of Chicago, 2010.


"It is one of the greatest lies of the French Revolution to maintain that all humans are equal. Nature knows no equality," so a young student wrote in answer to a biology exam in Nazi Germany (244). Such a certainty no doubt informed the crimes of Carl Schneider as well. A professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Heidelberg, Schneider experimented upon mentally handicapped children and murdered many of them at the Eichberg Asylum near Wiesbaden (177). The theoretical realities taught in the classroom had to be practiced as hard “measures to ensure the preservation of the Volk” in the real world (237).

Aware, of course, as we are of this appalling legacy of Nazism, it is no shock that totalitarianism’s advocates constructed a path from their acts of murder to written justifications that found their way into high school curriculum. Indeed, the moral abyss into which biomedicine, biology, neurology and psychiatry had fallen in Nazi Germany by 1939 was deep and widespread among those fields which had become corrupt and decadent. Yet, and this is an important point, there were always a few in Germany who stood firmly against Nazi ideology and protested the way in which science had been harnessed to the Fascist state. As Slavoj Zizek said a few years ago at Birkbeck College (University of London), the film Schindler’s List reminds us all of one crucial question that can always be asked of this tragedy: why did some resist and why didn’t others?

Even as Sheila Faith Weiss’s illuminating, original, archivally-driven, and deeply troubling book The Nazi Symbiosis reconstructs the relationship between Nazism and eugenics, it reminds us over and over again of the salience of that question. There were always a few who stood against the ends to which the Third Reich used science and medicine. Why there were not more, is a question that should haunt all people today. It is furthermore a fact that every scientist, doctor, and academic should remember.

Blood parasitized by a swastika dropped upon a microscope slide is the image that decorates the cover of The Nazi Symbiosis. It is a fitting juxtaposition. And Weiss’s book sets itself the task of explaining that symbiosis. Her enlightening reference in her introduction to Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus makes clear that the “bargains” struck in the construction of that symbiosis derived in part from the belief that humans might cross all boundaries – scientific and ethical – without fear.  Such hubris was widespread in Europe and North America. It sometimes drove philanthropy directed towards biomedical research, and indeed that hubris was party to the radicalization and crimes that took place in the Third Reich.

But as the cover of The Nazi Symbiosis makes clear, there was something different about biomedicine and Nazism. Weiss’s study seeks to explain why precisely eugenics under the swastika took its path. That story, which requires that we move beyond the critique of the crimes themselves to a deeper discussion about the professional and ethical mechanics of the alliances between biomedicine and Nazism, helps us recognize that politics and science served each other in “dynamic and symbiotic” ways (10). Thus Weiss’s book approaches the question of human genetics and eugenics in the Third Reich from a fresh vantage – a point-of-view that disturbs as much as it disrupts.

Weiss’s book begins by examining the wider international context of eugenics and genetics research. Here we encounter familiar figures like Gregor Mendell, Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, and Charles Davenport. It then considers the institutional histories of two different biomedical research facilities: one in Dahlem and the other in Munich. In those places we encounter such figures as Eugen Fischer, Ernst Rüden, and Otmar Frieherr von Verschuer. The Nazi Symbiosis then turns to explore the way in which Nazi geneticists and eugenicists brought their professional but politically engaged science to wider international audiences, mainly through international journals, the popular press, and at international congresses and conferences. In her next riveting chapter, Weiss turns to the more modest environment of the classroom. Here, the local expression of Nazi ideas in biology secondary education, reminds us that ideology often begins within the schools. In her penultimate chapter, Weiss examines the wider context of race science and finds that the Nazi biomedical scientists found friends and foes for their ideas in many different quarters across the globe. H J Muller, one noteworthy Left-wing critic, argued that Nazi and bourgeois science could not possibly work: "The capitalist system," Muller argued, "leads to a false appraisal of the genetic worth of individuals, and of vast groups, which results in entirely mistaken conceptions of eugenic needs." Only with a radical overhaul of the capitalist system was hereditary improvement possible." (p. 269)

In both her case studies and in her chapters that survey the wider context, Weiss notes that the radicalization of German science, institutions, education, and politics took time; but instrumental in that radicalization was the way that human genetics “interfaced with National Socialist politics”. In other words, the symbiosis between both ensured that “Nazism served to radicalize both.”


The Nazi Symbiosis, which certainly adds much to scholarly understanding of eugenics, is also clearly a book written for the undergraduate classroom. (Its value for teaching is so obvious that I have added my own notes as a reading aid on this blog.) Each of this book’s chapters would be useful for illuminating the way in which politics and science work together. Weiss’s chapters surveying the wider context of human genetics and the international reception of Nazi eugenics not only provide background on the history of biology, genetics, evolution, and medicine, but they also present that information in a way that is fresh and places it in a wide international context. The book is also weightier in the way that Weiss understands eugenics and Nazism than many other competing works, and thus her book will open up many spaces for questions and reflections which will certainly drive rich classroom discussions. Moreover, and most importantly, by constantly pushing readers to consider why German scientists and physicians made the choices that they did, Weiss usefully reminds us that “unless we are careful in considering our choices, we too can wind up on a path we may not wish to travel and find ourselves at a moral dead end." (312). That point alone ought to make this book required reading for everyone.

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