Social Darwinism applies biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology, economics, and politics. It argues that the strong see their wealth and power increase while the weak see their wealth and power decrease.
How did this line of thought develop, and how did the Nazis use it to spread their genocidal policies?
Darwin, Spender and Malthus
Charles Darwin’s 1859 book, On the Origin of Species revolutionised accepted thought about biology. According to his theory of evolution, only the plants and animals best adapted to their environment survive to reproduce and transfer their genes to the next generation.
This was a scientific theory focused on explaining observations about biological diversity and why different species of plants and animals look different. Darwin borrowed popular concepts from Herbert Spencer and Thomas Malthus to help convey his ideas to the public.
Despite being a highly universal theory, it is widely accepted now that the Darwinian view of the world does not transfer effectively to every element of life.
Historically, some have transplanted Darwin’s ideas uneasily and imperfectly onto social analysis. The product was ‘Social Darwinism’. The idea is that the evolutionary processes in natural history have parallels in social history, that their same rules apply. Therefore humanity should embrace the natural course of history.
Rather than Darwin, Social Darwinism is derived most directly from the writings of Herbert Spencer, who believed that human societies developed like natural organisms.
He conceived the idea of the struggle for survival, and suggested that this drove an inevitable progress in society. It broadly meant evolving from the barbarian stage of society to the industrial stage. It was Spencer who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest.’
He opposed any laws that helped workers, the poor, and those he deemed genetically weak. Of the infirm and incapacitated, Spencer once stated, ‘It is better that they should die.’
Although Spencer was responsible for much of the foundational discourse of Social Darwinism, Darwin did say that human progress was driven by evolutionary processes – that human intelligence was refined by competition. Finally, the actual term ‘Social Darwinism’ was originally coined by Thomas Malthus, who is better remembered for his iron rule of nature and the concept of ‘struggle for existence’.
To those who followed Spencer and Malthus, Darwin’s theory appeared to confirm what they already believed to be true about human society with science.
As Social Darwinism gained popularity, British scholar Sir Francis Galton launched a new ‘science’ he deemed eugenics, aimed at improving the human race by ridding society of its ‘undesirables’. Galton argued that social institutions such as welfare and mental asylums allowed ‘inferior humans’ to survive and reproduce at higher levels than their wealthier ‘superior’ counterparts.
Eugenics became a popular social movement in America, peaking in the 1920s and 1930s. It focused on eliminating undesirable traits from the population by preventing “unfit” individuals from having children. Many states passed laws that resulted in the forced sterilization of thousands, including immigrants, people of color, unmarried mothers and the mentally ill.
Social Darwinism and Eugenics in Nazi Germany
The most infamous instance of Social Darwinism in action is in the genocidal policies of the Nazi German Government in the 1930s and 40s.
It was openly embraced as promoting the notion that the strongest should naturally prevail, and was a key feature of Nazi propaganda films, some which illustrated it with scenes of beetles fighting each other.
Whoever would live, let him fight, and he who does not want to do battle in this world of eternal struggle, does not deserve life.
Hitler often refused to intervene in the promotion of officers and staff, preferring to have them fight amongst themselves to force the “stronger” person to prevail.
Such ideas also led to program’s such as the ‘Aktion T4’. Framed as a euthanasia program, this new bureaucracy was headed by physicians active in the study of eugenics, who saw Nazism as “applied biology”, and who had a mandate to kill anyone deemed to have a ‘life unworthy of living’. It led to the involuntary euthanasia – killing – of hundreds of thousands of mentally ill, elderly and disabled people.
Initiated in 1939 by Hitler, the killing centres to which the handicapped were transported were precursors to the concentration and extermination camps, using similar killing methods. The program was officially discontinued in August 1941 (which coincided with the escalation of the Holocaust), but killings continued covertly until the Nazi defeat in 1945.
Hitler believed the German master race had been weakened by the influence of non-Aryans in Germany, and that the Aryan race needed to maintain it’s pure gene pool in order to survive. This view fed into a worldview shaped also by a fear of communism and a relentless demand for Lebensraum. Germany needed to destroy the Soviet Union to gain land, eliminate Jewish-inspired communism, and would do so following the natural order.
Subsequently, Social-Darwinist language suffused Nazi rhetoric. As German forces were rampaging through Russia in 1941, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch emphasised:
The troops must understand that this struggle is being fought race against race, and that they must proceed with the necessary harshness.
The Nazis targeted certain groups or races that they considered biologically inferior for extermination. In May 1941, the tank general Erich Hoepner explained the war’s meaning to his troops:
The war against Russia is an essential chapter in the German people’s battle for survival. It is the old struggle between the Germanic peoples and the Slavs, the defence of European culture against muscovite-Asiatic invasion, the defence against Jewish communism.
It was this language that was integral to promulgating Nazism, and especially to gaining the assistance of tens of thousands of regular Germans in persecuting the Holocaust. It gave a scientific veneer to a rabid psychotic belief.
Historical opinion is mixed as to how formative social Darwinist principles were to Nazi ideology. It is a common argument of creationists such as Jonathan Safarti, where it is often deployed to undermine the theory of evolution. The argument goes that Nazi Germany represented the logical progression of a godless world. In response, the anti-Defamation League has said:
Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivialises the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.
However, Nazism and Social Darwinism were certainly intertwined in possibly the most famous example of perverted scientific theory in action.