Hitler and his henchmen victimized an entire continent and
exterminated millions in his quest for a so-called Master
But the concept of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master
Nordic race didn't originate with Hitler. The idea was created
in the United States, and cultivated in California, decades
before Hitler came to power. California eugenicists played an
important, although little-known, role in the American
eugenics movement's campaign for ethnic cleansing.
Eugenics was the pseudoscience aimed at "improving" the
human race. In its extreme, racist form, this meant wiping
away all human beings deemed "unfit," preserving only those
who conformed to a Nordic stereotype. Elements of the
philosophy were enshrined as national policy by forced
sterilization and segregation laws, as well as marriage
restrictions, enacted in 27 states. In 1909, California became
the third state to adopt such laws. Ultimately, eugenics
practitioners coercively sterilized some 60,000 Americans,
barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated
thousands in "colonies," and persecuted untold numbers in ways
we are just learning. Before World War II, nearly half of
coercive sterilizations were done in California, and even
after the war, the state accounted for a third of all such
California was considered an epicenter of the American
eugenics movement. During the 20th century's first decades,
California's eugenicists included potent but little-known race
scientists, such as Army venereal disease specialist Dr. Paul
Popenoe, citrus magnate Paul Gosney, Sacramento banker Charles
Goethe, as well as members of the California state Board of
Charities and Corrections and the University of California
Board of Regents.
Eugenics would have been so much bizarre parlor talk had it
not been for extensive financing by corporate philanthropies,
specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller
Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune. They were all in
league with some of America's most respected scientists from
such prestigious universities as Stanford, Yale, Harvard and
Princeton. These academicians espoused race theory and race
science, and then faked and twisted data to serve eugenics'
Stanford President David Starr Jordan originated the notion
of "race and blood" in his 1902 racial epistle "Blood of a
Nation," in which the university scholar declared that human
qualities and conditions such as talent and poverty were
passed through the blood.
In 1904, the Carnegie Institution established a laboratory
complex at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island that stockpiled
millions of index cards on ordinary Americans, as researchers
carefully plotted the removal of families, bloodlines and
whole peoples. From Cold Spring Harbor, eugenics advocates
agitated in the legislatures of America, as well as the
nation's social service agencies and associations.
The Harriman railroad fortune paid local charities, such as
the New York Bureau of Industries and Immigration, to seek out
Jewish, Italian and other immigrants in New York and other
crowded cities and subject them to deportation, confinement or
The Rockefeller Foundation helped found the German eugenics
program and even funded the program that Josef Mengele worked
in before he went to Auschwitz.
Much of the spiritual guidance and political agitation for
the American eugenics movement came from California's
quasi-autonomous eugenic societies, such as Pasadena's Human
Betterment Foundation and the California branch of the
American Eugenics Society, which coordinated much of their
activity with the Eugenics Research Society in Long Island.
These organizations -- which functioned as part of a
closely-knit network -- published racist eugenic newsletters
and pseudoscientific journals, such as Eugenical News and
and propagandized for the Nazis.
Eugenics was born as a scientific curiosity in the
Victorian age. In 1863,
Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, theorized
that if talented people married only other talented people,
the result would be measurably better offspring. At the turn
of the last century, Galton's ideas were imported to the
United States just as Gregor Mendel's principles of heredity
were rediscovered. American eugenics advocates believed with
religious fervor that the same Mendelian concepts determining
the color and size of peas, corn and cattle also governed the
social and intellectual character of man.
In a United States demographically reeling from immigration
upheaval and torn by post-Reconstruction chaos, race conflict
was everywhere in the early 20th century. Elitists, utopians
and so-called progressives fused their smoldering race fears
and class bias with their desire to make a better world. They
reinvented Galton's eugenics into a repressive and racist
ideology. The intent: Populate the Earth with vastly more of
their own socioeconomic and biological kind -- and less or
none of everyone else.
The superior species the eugenics movement sought was
populated not merely by tall, strong, talented people.
Eugenicists craved blond, blue-eyed Nordic types. This group
alone, they believed, was fit to inherit the Earth. In the
process, the movement intended to subtract emancipated
Negroes, immigrant Asian laborers, Indians, Hispanics, East
Europeans, Jews, dark- haired hill folk, poor people, the
infirm and anyone classified outside the gentrified genetic
lines drawn up by American raceologists.
How? By identifying so-called defective family trees and
subjecting them to lifelong segregation and sterilization
programs to kill their bloodlines. The grand plan was to
literally wipe away the reproductive capability of those
deemed weak and inferior -- the so-called unfit. The
eugenicists hoped to neutralize the viability of 10 percent of
the population at a sweep, until none were left except
Eighteen solutions were explored in a Carnegie-supported
1911 "Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic
Section of the American Breeder's Association to Study and to
Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the
Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population." Point No. 8 was
The most commonly suggested method of eugenicide in the
United States was a "lethal chamber" or public, locally
operated gas chambers. In 1918, Popenoe, the Army venereal
disease specialist during World War I, co-wrote the widely
used textbook, "Applied Eugenics," which argued, "From an
historical point of view, the first method which presents
itself is execution . . . Its value in keeping up the standard
of the race should not be underestimated." "Applied Eugenics"
also devoted a chapter to "Lethal Selection," which operated
"through the destruction of the individual by some adverse
feature of the environment, such as excessive cold, or
bacteria, or by bodily deficiency."
Eugenic breeders believed American society was not ready to
implement an organized lethal solution. But many mental
institutions and doctors practiced improvised medical
lethality and passive euthanasia on their own. One institution
in Lincoln, Ill., fed its incoming patients milk from
tubercular cows believing a eugenically strong individual
would be immune. Thirty to 40 percent annual death rates
resulted at Lincoln. Some doctors practiced passive eugenicide
one newborn infant at a time. Others doctors at mental
institutions engaged in lethal neglect.
Nonetheless, with eugenicide marginalized, the main
solution for eugenicists was the rapid expansion of forced
segregation and sterilization, as well as more marriage
restrictions. California led the nation, performing nearly all
sterilization procedures with little or no due process. In its
first 25 years of eugenics legislation, California sterilized
9,782 individuals, mostly women. Many were classified as "bad
girls," diagnosed as "passionate," "oversexed" or "sexually
wayward." At the Sonoma State Home, some women were sterilized
because of what was deemed an abnormally large clitoris or
In 1933 alone, at least 1,278 coercive sterilizations were
performed, 700 on women. The state's two leading sterilization
mills in 1933 were Sonoma State Home with 388 operations and
Patton State Hospital with 363 operations. Other sterilization
centers included Agnews, Mendocino, Napa, Norwalk, Stockton
and Pacific Colony state hospitals.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed aspects of eugenics.
In its infamous 1927 decision, Supreme Court Justice Oliver
Wendell Holmes wrote, "It is better for all the world, if
instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime,
or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can
prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their
kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough." This
decision opened the floodgates for thousands to be coercively
sterilized or otherwise persecuted as subhuman. Years later,
the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials quoted Holmes' words in
their own defense.
Only after eugenics became entrenched in the United States
was the campaign transplanted into Germany, in no small
measure through the efforts of California eugenicists, who
published booklets idealizing sterilization and circulated
them to German officials and scientists.
Hitler studied American eugenics laws. He tried to
legitimize his anti- Semitism by medicalizing it, and wrapping
it in the more palatable pseudoscientific facade of eugenics.
Hitler was able to recruit more followers among reasonable
Germans by claiming that science was on his side. Hitler's
race hatred sprung from his own mind, but the intellectual
outlines of the eugenics Hitler adopted in 1924 were made in
During the '20s, Carnegie Institution eugenic scientists
cultivated deep personal and professional relationships with
Germany's fascist eugenicists. In "Mein Kampf," published in
1924, Hitler quoted American eugenic ideology and openly
displayed a thorough knowledge of American eugenics. "There is
today one state," wrote Hitler, "in which at least weak
beginnings toward a better conception (of immigration) are
noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic,
but the United States."
Hitler proudly told his comrades just how closely he
followed the progress of the American eugenics movement. "I
have studied with great interest," he told a fellow Nazi, "the
laws of several American states concerning prevention of
reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all
probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial
Hitler even wrote a fan letter to American eugenics leader
Madison Grant, calling his race-based eugenics book, "The
Passing of the Great Race," his "bible."
Now, the American term "Nordic" was freely exchanged with
"Germanic" or "Aryan." Race science, racial purity and racial
dominance became the driving force behind Hitler's Nazism.
Nazi eugenics would ultimately dictate who would be persecuted
in a Reich-dominated Europe, how people would live, and how
they would die. Nazi doctors would become the unseen generals
in Hitler's war against the Jews and other Europeans deemed
inferior. Doctors would create the science, devise the eugenic
formulas, and hand-select the victims for sterilization,
euthanasia and mass extermination.
During the Reich's early years, eugenicists across America
welcomed Hitler's plans as the logical fulfillment of their
own decades of research and effort. California eugenicists
republished Nazi propaganda for American consumption. They
also arranged for Nazi scientific exhibits, such as an August
1934 display at the L.A. County Museum, for the annual meeting
of the American Public Health Association.
In 1934, as Germany's sterilizations were accelerating
beyond 5,000 per month, the California eugenics leader C. M.
Goethe, upon returning from Germany, ebulliently bragged to a
colleague, "You will be interested to know that your work has
played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of
intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making
program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been
tremendously stimulated by American thought . . . I want you,
my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of
your life, that you have really jolted into action a great
government of 60 million people."
That same year, 10 years after Virginia passed its
sterilization act, Joseph DeJarnette, superintendent of
Virginia's Western State Hospital, observed in the Richmond
Times-Dispatch, "The Germans are beating us at our own game."
More than just providing the scientific roadmap, America
funded Germany's eugenic institutions.
By 1926, Rockefeller had donated some $410,000 -- almost $4
million in today's money -- to hundreds of German researchers.
In May 1926, Rockefeller awarded $250,000 toward creation of
the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry. Among the leading
psychiatrists at the German Psychiatric Institute was Ernst
Rüdin, who became director and eventually an architect of
Hitler's systematic medical repression.
Another in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute's complex of
eugenics institutions was the Institute for Brain Research.
Since 1915, it had operated out of a single room. Everything
changed when Rockefeller money arrived in 1929. A grant of
$317,000 allowed the institute to construct a major building
and take center stage in German race biology. The institute
received additional grants from the Rockefeller Foundation
during the next several years. Leading the institute, once
again, was Hitler's medical henchman Ernst Rüdin. Rüdin's
organization became a prime director and recipient of the
murderous experimentation and research conducted on Jews,
Gypsies and others.
Beginning in 1940, thousands of Germans taken from old age
homes, mental institutions and other custodial facilities were
systematically gassed. Between 50,000 and 100,000 were
Leon Whitney, executive secretary of the American Eugenics
Society, declared of Nazism, "While we were pussy-footing
around ... the Germans were calling a spade a spade."
A special recipient of Rockefeller funding was the Kaiser
Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and
Eugenics in Berlin. For decades,
American eugenicists had craved twins to advance their
research into heredity.
The Institute was now prepared to undertake such research
on an unprecedented level. On May 13, 1932, the Rockefeller
Foundation in New York dispatched a radiogram to its Paris
office: JUNE MEETING EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE NINE THOUSAND
DOLLARS OVER THREE YEAR PERIOD TO KWG INSTITUTE
ANTHROPOLOGY FOR RESEARCH ON
TWINS AND EFFECTS ON LATER GENERATIONS OF SUBSTANCES TOXIC
FOR GERM PLASM.
At the time of Rockefeller's endowment, Otmar Freiherr von
Verschuer, a hero in American eugenics circles, functioned as
a head of the Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and
Eugenics. Rockefeller funding of that institute continued both
directly and through other research conduits during
Verschuer's early tenure. In 1935, Verschuer left the
institute to form a rival eugenics facility in Frankfurt that
was much heralded in the American eugenics press. Research on
twins in the Third Reich exploded, backed by government
decrees. Verschuer wrote in Der Erbarzt, a eugenics doctor's
journal he edited, that Germany's war would yield a "total
solution to the Jewish problem."
Verschuer had a longtime assistant. His name was Josef
On May 30, 1943, Mengele arrived at Auschwitz. Verschuer
notified the German Research Society, "My assistant, Dr. Josef
Mengele (M.D., Ph.D.) joined me in this branch of research. He
is presently employed as Hauptsturmführer (captain) and camp
physician in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Anthropological
testing of the most diverse racial groups in this
concentration camp is being carried out with permission of the
SS Reichsführer (Himmler)."
Mengele began searching the boxcar arrivals for twins. When
he found them,
he performed beastly experiments, scrupulously wrote up the
reports and sent the paperwork back to Verschuer's institute
for evaluation. Often, cadavers, eyes and other body parts
were also dispatched to Berlin's eugenic institutes.
Rockefeller executives never knew of Mengele. With few
exceptions, the foundation had ceased all eugenics studies in
Nazi-occupied Europe before the war erupted in 1939. But by
that time the die had been cast. The talented men Rockefeller
and Carnegie financed, the great institutions they helped
found, and the science they helped create took on a scientific
momentum of their own.
After the war, eugenics was declared a crime against
humanity -- an act of genocide. Germans were tried and they
cited the California statutes in their defense -- to no avail.
They were found guilty.
However, Mengele's boss Verschuer escaped prosecution.
Verschuer re- established his connections with California
eugenicists who had gone underground and renamed their crusade
"human genetics." Typical was an exchange July 25, 1946, when
Popenoe wrote Verschuer, "It was indeed a pleasure to hear
from you again. I have been very anxious about my colleagues
in Germany . . . I suppose sterilization has been discontinued
in Germany?" Popenoe offered tidbits about various American
eugenics luminaries and then sent various eugenics
publications. In a separate package, Popenoe sent some cocoa,
coffee and other goodies.
Verschuer wrote back, "Your very friendly letter of 7/25
gave me a great deal of pleasure and you have my heartfelt
thanks for it. The letter builds another bridge between your
and my scientific work; I hope that this bridge will never
again collapse but rather make possible valuable mutual
enrichment and stimulation."
Soon, Verschuer again became a respected scientist in
Germany and around the world. In 1949, he became a
corresponding member of the newly formed American Society of
Human Genetics, organized by American eugenicists and
In the fall of 1950, the University of Münster offered
Verschuer a position at its new Institute of Human Genetics,
where he later became a dean. In the early and mid-1950s,
Verschuer became an honorary member of numerous prestigious
societies, including the Italian Society of Genetics, the
Anthropological Society of Vienna, and the Japanese Society
for Human Genetics.
Human genetics' genocidal roots in eugenics were ignored by
a victorious generation that refused to link itself to the
crimes of Nazism and by succeeding generations that never knew
the truth of the years leading up to war. Now governors of
five states, including California, have issued public
apologies to their citizens, past and present, for
sterilization and other abuses spawned by the eugenics
Human genetics became an enlightened endeavor in the late
20th century. Hard-working, devoted scientists finally cracked
the human code through the Human Genome Project. Now, every
individual can be biologically identified and classified by
trait and ancestry. Yet even now, some leading voices in the
genetic world are calling for a cleansing of the unwanted
among us, and even a master human species.
There is understandable wariness about more ordinary forms
of abuse, for example, in denying insurance or employment
based on genetic tests. On Oct. 14,
the United States' first genetic anti-discrimination
legislation passed the Senate by unanimous vote. Yet because
genetics research is global, no single nation's law can stop
Edwin Black is author of the award-winning "IBM and the
Holocaust" and the recently released "War Against the Weak"
(published by Four Walls Eight Windows), from which this
article is adapted.