Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of publisherFrom Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich
Gretchen E. Schafft
Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2004

Reviewed by:
Douglas Pelton

DeRuyter Central School
DeRuyter, New York


From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich is a fascinating and provocative analysis of archival materials by Gretchen E. Schafft, many of which were recently discovered, that demonstrate the complicity of German anthropologists in creating, disseminating, and realizing the Nazi worldview as outlined by Adolf Hitler. As an applied anthropologist, Schafft was able to provide critical insight into the social-anthropological worldview that the Nazis, in keeping with the Führer Principle, were striving to realize. German social scientists became perpetrators of genocide when they allowed their scientific study to mesh with the radical and deadly racial ideals and policies of the Third Reich. The support of the scientific community legitimized the Nazi worldview and facilitated the efforts to achieve it. Seduced by the ability to conduct research without restraint, the anthropologists became leaders, collaborators, and perpetrators in developing and implementing racial policy in Hitler’s Germany.

The author starts her investigation by examining the efforts of German anthropologists to hurriedly conduct their research on the Jews of the Tarnóv Ghetto. It addresses the efforts by anthropologists to collect as much information as possible about the Jews before the ghetto is liquidated. The “scientists” were concerned that the “research” needed to be done quickly since the subject materials (the Jews) would soon be gone and they would no longer be able to study them. There was still discussion within the German anthropological community as to what was the result of biology and what was the result of the environment. Thus, the anthropological studies were viewed as key to resolving this conflict as well as critical to providing information on a people/race that was about to disappear. For some, Jews because of their mixed breeding developed many positive traits. For others, the racial mixing resulted in the weakening of a “victim” race and the elevation of the Jews above the weaker, dying race they inter-mixed with. For this latter group, survival rested on the scientists’ ability to develop techniques that would facilitate the visual identification of Jews at all times. The scientists were seduced by their own desire to freely do what they wanted. Thus, they often said what they had to in order to get government permission to conduct their vital research. The Nazis were only all too willing to certify their work in order to politicize it for their needs.

Next, Schafft looks at anthropology in Germany prior to WWII and it takes a hard look at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) and the development of the evolution of anthropological theory.  Founded in 1912, the KWI was a collection of laboratories representing the natural, physical, and social sciences.  Businesses, industries and private persons initially financed it.  The chapter then examines the key ideas elucidated by Charles Darwin in his On the Origins of the Species and the ideas transposition by Sir Francis Galton into Social Darwinism are examined.  At the heart of this theory was the belief that “genetic characteristics determined the social and economic place one found in one’s life, one’s social value” (41).  Since social class was considered to be genetically determined and it was uninfluenced by environmental factors, the eugenics movement was born in the hopes of selecting and encouraging the reproduction of the best individuals.  Thus the eugenics movement “encouraged goal-directed procreation” while positing a “hierarchical valuation of human groups,” and it “suggested guidelines on how to improve the human species by using the principles of Mendelian genetics”  (41).

A reflective look at the development of the concept of race and racism in Germany is provided by Schafft. Initially, the observable differences among Homo sapiens were described as races.  Race was viewed as a social construct and not a biological fact.  What this effort to describe the differences between peoples resulted in was the polarization of those differences in terms of “us” and “them.”  These differences tended to convey negative images causing Hitler and Germans to view their existence as threatened. Therefore, the Nazis used race to justify their policies to further their economic and political goals.  Since the Jews were highly assimilated in Germany, “identifying” and “cutting out the bad” was difficult but absolutely necessary for the survival of Germans, the German cultural, and the German nation.  Hence, the academic world of the anthropologist and the professional world of physicians were called upon to help the state purify itself and legitimize its efforts to do so.  Consequently, anti-Semitism was cultivated and propagandized to portray Jews as dangerous enemies, vermin, or bacteria that needed to be eliminated at all costs for the health, wealth and survival of Germans.

Schafft examines the influence of professional denial upon civic denial and raises critical questions related to the responsibility of German anthropologists in facilitating the creation of Hitler’s racial state.  The Third Reich was a racial state that was supported at every step by German anthropologists.  Anthropologists provided theory, policy, formation, enforcement, and proactive engagement, and some participated in or benefited from torture, maiming and the murder of victims…. [Once in power] Hitler lent his authority to the racist ideology, and the anthropologist gave him their prestige and their allegiance  (222). 

One has to wonder how educated scientists who were considered leaders in their field, could have done what they did without a hint of misgiving.  Casting unwilling victims (not consenting subjects), preserving their skeletons for study, cooking corpses to remove flesh, and documenting this with pictures and ‘catalogue’ entries…how was this legitimate science? The language of their science was filled with euphemisms.  They knew what was going on in the Final Solution, and they participated in it being carried out at multiple levels.  It can be said without a question that German anthropologists were perpetrators who prepared the German population for the Holocaust and did their utmost to help it to succeed.

The above passages were excerpted from a complete review of Schafft's book.

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