An essay by Robert J. Richards with Commentary by David Sloan Wilson

Robert J. Richards does not suffer fools lightly. In the title essay of his book Was Hitler a Darwinian?  he quotes Shakespeare’s Hamlet to describe the search for a Darwinian influence in Nazi war policy: “Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost the shape of a camel?”

Richards is Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Chicago. His interests broadly address the history and philosophy of psychology and biology, including his magisterial 1989 book  Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. His new collection of essays examines a number of disputed questions in the history of evolutionary theory, including the widely held view that Darwinian thinking was somehow responsible for the atrocities of the Hitler regime during World War II.

Richards’ examination of this claim is thorough, including its philosophical underpinnings, the views of Hitler himself, the views of the people who influenced Hitler, and the views of others in Hitler’s regime. In my opinion, it is historical scholarship at its best and I am therefore delighted to make it available in its entirety, with the permission of the author and publisher, as part of This View of Life’s series of articles on Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism.

Richards begins by examining the basic logic of the accusation that Darwin as a person or his theory as a body of ideas influenced Nazi war policy. Let’s say that Hitler kept a copy of Descent of Man at his bedside and quoted it chapter and verse. Would that have made Darwin morally culpable or his theory any less true? Does anyone hold Mendel culpable for eugenic policies, chemists culpable for the use of their compounds in Nazi gas chambers, or Jesus culpable for the many horrors committed in his name (including by Hitler)? The entire logic underlying the accusation is baseless.

In addition, the claim that Hitler was influenced by Darwin, either directly or indirectly, can be authoritatively rejected. In one of the only direct references to evolution by Hitler that can be found, he wrote “nothing indicates that development within a species has occurred of a considerable leap of the sort that man would have to have made to transform him from an apelike condition to his present state.” As Richards remarks, “Could any statement [rejecting Darwinism] be more explicit?”

What’s certain is that Hitler was influenced by German notables such as the composer Richard Wagner and books such as the four-volume “Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races” by Joseph Arthur Gobineau and “The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century” by Houston Stewart Chamberlain. The ideas of racial purity promulgated by these authors long predated Darwin. Gobineau’s books were published before The Origin of Species and Chamberlin rejected the entire concept of the transmutation of species.

Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s German disciple, is sometimes said to have influenced Nazi war policy, as if he rather than Darwin is culpable. Richards begins by rejecting the idea that Haeckel’s views on evolution differed substantively from Darwin’s. Hence, if the claim about Haeckel were true, then that would trace a clear line of influence back to Darwin. But the claim about Haeckel isn’t true.  Both Darwin and Haeckel did rank human races in a hierarchy of intelligence and moral capacity, which was pervasive among Europeans during the 19th century, but Darwin’s racialism didn’t include Jews and Haeckel ranked Jews at the same evolutionary level as Germans and Europeans. Haeckel even spoke directly about anti-Semitism in an interview during the early 1890’s, where he said “I hold these refined and noble Jews to be important elements of German culture”.  Richards concludes that “biologists and philosophers most closely identified with the goals of the Nazi party and officials in that party utterly rejected Darwinian theory, especially as advanced by Darwin’s disciple Ernst Haeckel.”

Richards’ essay on Hitler calls into question the entire enterprise of stigmatizing Darwin’s theory of evolution with the term “Social Darwinism”.  It’s not as if evolutionary theory has never been used to justify unethical practices. Any idea can be used for good or bad purposes. What’s wrong is the claim that evolutionary theory is somehow especially prone to misuse or was misused in specific cases such as Nazi war policy. We owe a debt of gratitude to careful scholars such as Robert J. Richards for setting the record straight.

Was Hitler a Darwinian?

The Darwinian underpinnings of Nazi racial ideology are patently obvious. Hitler’s chapter on “Nation and Race” in Mein Kampf discusses the racial struggle for existence in clear Darwinian terms. — Richard Weikart, Historian, Cal. State, Stanislaus[1]

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel? — Shakespeare, Hamlet, III, 2.

Several scholars and many religiously conservative thinkers have recently charged that Hitler’s ideas about race and racial struggle derived from the theories of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), either directly or through intermediate sources.  So, for example, the historian Richard Weikart, in his book From Darwin to Hitler, maintains:  “No matter how crooked the road was from Darwin to Hitler, clearly Darwinism and eugenics smoothed the path for Nazi ideology, especially for the Nazi stress on expansion, war, racial struggle, and racial extermination.”[2]  In a subsequent book, Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, Weikart argues that Darwin’s “evolutionary ethics drove him [Hitler] to engage in behavior that the rest of us consider abominable.”[3]  The epigram to this chapter makes Weikart’s claim patent.  Other critics have also attempted to forge a strong link between Darwin’s theory and Hitler’s biological notions.  In the 2008 documentary film “Expelled,” a defense of Intelligent Design, the Princeton trained-philosopher David Berlinski, in conversation with Weikart, confidently asserts: “If you open Mein Kampf and read it, especially if you can read it in German, the correspondence between Darwinian ideas and Nazi ideas just leaps from the page.”[4]  John Gray, former professor at the London School of Economics, does allow that Hitler’s Darwinism was “vulgar.”[5]  Hannah Arendt also appears to have endorsed the connection when she declared:  “Underlying the Nazis’ belief in race laws as the expression of the law of nature in man, is Darwin’s idea of man as the product of a natural development which does not necessarily stop with the present species of human being.”[6]  Even the astute historian Peter Bowler comes quite close to suggesting a causal connection between Darwin’s accomplishment and Hitler’s: “By making death a creative force in nature . . . Darwin may indeed have unwittingly helped to unleash the whirlwind of hatred that is so often associated with his name.”[7]  Put “Darwin and Hitler” in a search engine and hundreds of thousands of hits will be returned, most from religiously and politically conservative websites, articles, and books.

With the exception of the aforementioned, most scholars of Hitler’s reign don’t argue for a strong link between Darwin’s biology and Hitler’s racism, but they will often deploy the vague concept of “social Darwinism” when characterizing Hitler’s racial ideology.[8]  The very name of the concept—whatever its content—does suggest a link with evolutionary theory and particularly Darwin’s version of that theory.  The supposed connection between Darwin’s conceptions and Hitler’s is often traced via the biological ideas of the English scientist’s German disciple and friend, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919).

In his book The Scientific Origins of National Socialism (1971), Daniel Gasman claimed:  “Haeckel . . . was largely responsible for forging the bonds between academic science and racism in Germany in the later decades of the nineteenth century.”[9]  In a later book, Gasman urged that Haeckel had virtually begun the work of the Nazis:  “For Haeckel, the Jews were the original source of the decadence and morbidity of the modern world and he sought their immediate exclusion from contemporary life and society.”[10]  Gasman’s judgment received the imprimatur of Stephen Jay Gould, who concluded in his Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977):

But as Gasman argues, Haeckel’s greatest influence was, ultimately, in another tragic direction—National Socialism. His evolutionary racism; his call to the German people for racial purity and unflinching devotion to a “just” state; his belief that harsh, inexorable laws of evolution ruled human civilization and nature alike, conferring upon favored races the right to dominate others; the irrational mysticism that had always stood in strange communion with his grave words about objective science—all contributed to the rise of Nazism.[11]

Scholars like Gould, Bowler, and Larry Arnhart—as well as a host of others—attempt to distinguish Haeckel’s views from Darwin’s, so as to exonerate the latter while sacrificing the former to the presumption of a strong causal connection with Hitler’s anti-Semitism.[12]  I don’t believe this effort to disengage Darwin from Haeckel can be easily accomplished, since on central matters—descent of species, struggle for existence, natural selection, inheritance of acquired characters, recapitulation theory, progressivism, hierarchy of races—no essential differences between master and disciple exist.[13]  So if Hitler endorsed Haeckel’s evolutionary ideas, he thereby also endorsed Darwin’s.

The Supposed Causal Connection between Darwin and Hitler

Those critics who have urged a conceptually causal connection between Darwin’s or Haeckel’s biology and Hitler’s racial beliefs—Weikart, Berlinski, and a myriad of religiously and politically constricted thinkers—apparently intend to undermine the validity of Darwinian evolutionary theory and, by regressive implication, morally indict Darwin and Darwinians like Ernst Haeckel.  More reputable scholars—Gould, Arnhart, Bowler, and numerous others—are willing to offer up Haeckel to save Darwin by claiming significant differences between their views, a claim, as I’ve suggested, that cannot be sustained.  The arguments arrayed against Darwin and Haeckel have power, no doubt.  Whether they should have power is the question I would like to investigate.

Two salient issues arise out of the allegations of a connection between Darwinian theory and Hitler’s racial conceptions:  first, the factual truth of the claimed causal connections; and second, the epistemic and moral logic that draws implications from the supposed connections.  The factual question can be considered at four levels.  These distinctions may seem tedious to the impatient; but they are necessary, since the factual claim is often settled by even talented scholars through the deployment of a few vague observations.  First, there is the epistemological problem of the very meaning of the assertion of causal connections among ideas.  This issue falls under the rubric of influence, that is, one individual’s ideas influencing or having causal impact on those of another.  A host of acute epistemological problems attend the conception of influence (ideas, after all, are not like billiard balls), but I will bracket them in this discussion and simply assume that influence is real and causally potent.  The second level of the factual question is:  Did Hitler embrace Darwinian theory?  Third, did any supposed endorsement actually lead to his racial policies, especially concerning the treatment of Jews?  Finally, we should consider the beliefs and attitudes of those scientists working directly under the authority of the Nazi party:  Did they adopt Darwinian theory and on that basis urge the inferiority of Jews and recommend eugenic measures?  I will consider each of these latter three levels of the factual question in turn.

There is a kind of pseudo-historical game that can be played with causal influence, a distraction that will vitiate a serious attempt to deal with the second and third levels of the factual question.  Instead of tracing out a reputed serious engagement of Hitler with Darwin’s ideas and making an effort to determine how those ideas might have actually motivated him, one could play something like “Six Degrees of Charles Darwin.”  That is, one could catch Hitler using, say, a certain phrase he picked up from someone whom he read, who in turn read someone else who used the phrase, who found it in a journal article that mentioned someone quoting Darwin, etc.  Virtually any remarks made by Hitler could thus be traced back to Darwin—or to Aristotle, or to Christ.  The real issue would be whether the phrase had Darwinian ideas behind it and whether such usage by Hitler motivated his actions.

Attendant on the factual question is that of the meaning of “Social Darwinism” when applied to Hitler and other Nazis.  The term is maddeningly opaque, but we can discriminate several different notes that conventionally fall under the conception and then decide which of those notes apply to the Nazis, and to Hitler in particular.

The strategy of those attempting to show a causal link between Darwin’s theory and Hitlerian ideas about race runs, I believe, like this:  the causal relation of influence proceeding from Darwin to future Nazi malevolence justifies regressive epistemic and moral judgments running from the future back to the past, thus indicting Darwin and individuals like Haeckel with moral responsibility for the crimes of Hitler and his minions and thereby undermining evolutionary theory.  Now the validity of this kind of moral logic might be dealt with straightaway:  even if Hitler had the Origin of Species as his bedtime reading and clearly derived inspiration from it, this would have no bearing on the truth of Darwin’s theory or directly on the moral character of Darwin and other Darwinians.  Mendelian genetics became ubiquitous as a scientific foundation for Nazi eugenic policy (and American eugenic proposals as well), though none of the critics question the basic validity of that genetic theory or impugn Mendel’s moral integrity.  Presumably Hitler and other party officials recognized chemistry as a science and utilized its principles to exterminate efficiently millions of people.  But this hardly precludes the truth of chemical theory or morally taints all chemists.  It can only be rampant ideological confusion to maintain that the alleged connection between Hitler’s ideas and those of Darwin and Haeckel, ipso facto, nullifies the truth of evolutionary theory or renders these evolutionists, both long dead before the rise of the Nazis, morally responsible for the Holocaust.

If Hitler and leading Nazi biologists had adopted Darwianian theory, exactly what feature of the theory would supposedly have induced them to engage in morally despicable acts? Weikart, for one, asserts that it was Darwinian materialism that “undercut Judeo-Christian ethics and the right to life.”[14]  This charge has three salient problems.  First, strictly speaking, Darwin was not a materialist; when the Origin was published he was a theist.[15]  The leading Darwinian in Germany in the late nineteenth century, Ernst Haeckel, rejected the charge of materialism; he was a convinced Goethean monist (i.e., all organisms had a material side and a mental side).  But it’s true, Darwin and Haeckel were perceived as materialists by many later critics—and by historians like Weikart.  Second, as I’ll indicate in a moment, Darwin’s own moral theory certainly did not abandon Judeo-Christian precepts.  Nor did Haeckel’s.  Haeckel was quite clear.  He accepted the usual moral canon:  “Doubtless, human culture today owes the greater part of its perfection to the spread and ennobling effect of Christian ethics.”[16]  Haeckel, like Darwin, simply thought that Christian precepts had a source other than Divine command; those norms derived from the altruism bred in the bone by natural selection.[17]  But the chief reason why presumptive Darwinian materialism cannot be the source of the malign actions of Hitler and leading Nazi biologists is simple:  they were not materialists.  As I will show below, Hitler’s gauzy mystical attitude about Deutschtum and the German race was hardly materialistic; moreover, leading Nazi biologists rejected Darwin and Haeckel precisely because the theories of these two scientists were, it was thought, materialistic while volkisch biology was not.  In the first instance, however, it is crushingly naïve to believe that an extremely abstract metaphysical position, such as materialism—or vitalism—can distinctively produce morally deleterious or virtuous behavior.  In this instance, though, whether abstract ethereal belief or not, Darwinian theory cannot be the root of any malign influence perpetrated on the Nazis for the reason Weikart asserts.  Below I will describe the character of the more rarified metaphysics of Nazi scientists to show why it had no connection with Darwinism.  Another consideration further attenuates the gossamer logic of the arguments mounted by Weikart, Berlinski, Gasman, Gould, and members of the Intelligent Design crowd:  their exclusive focus on the supposed Darwin-Hitler or Haeckel-Hitler connection reduces the complex motivations of the Nazi leaders to linear simplicity.

1 The critics I have mentioned, and many others besides, ignore the economic, political, and social forces operative in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s; and they give no due weight to the deeply rooted anti-Semitism that ran back to Luther and Medieval Christianity and forward to the religious and political sentiments rife at the end of the nineteenth century.[18]  The names of those who prepared the ground before Hitler entered the scene go unmentioned:  the court preacher and founder of the Christian Socialist Party, Adolf Stöcker (1835-1909), who thought the Jews threated the life-spirit of Germany;[19] Wilhelm Marr (1819-1904), founder of the League of Anti-Semitism, who maintained that the Jews were in a cultural “struggle for existence” with the spirit of Germanism, taking over the press, the arts, and industrial production;[20] or the widely-read historian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896), who salted his historical fields with animadversions about alien Jewish influences on German life and provided the Nazi’s with the bywords: “the Jews are our misfortune.”[21]  Then there was the composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), whose music Hitler adored, even as a young man attending countless performances of The Flying Dutchman, Parsifal, Lohengrin, and the Ring cycle, and as rising political leader visiting the maestro’s home in Bayreuth at the invitation of  the Wagner family.  In 1850 Wagner composed a small pamphlet, which he reissued and expanded in 1869, entitled Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in music).[22]  He wished “to explain the involuntary revulsion we have for the personality and nature of the Jews and to justify this instinctive repugnance, which we clearly recognize and which is stronger and more overwhelming than our conscious effort to rid ourselves of it.”[23]  These are only a few of the intellectuals—or near-intellectuals—who expressed unreflective to more consciously aggressive anti-Semitic attitudes at the turn of the century; their malevolent depictions and vicious rants cascaded through German intellectual society in the early years of the twentieth century.  Of course, these attitudes were not confined to Germany, but invaded distant shores as well. The new American ambassador to Germany in 1933, William E. Dodd (1869-1940), former chair of the history department of which I am currently a member, could, for example, discount the outrageous attacks on Jews in Berlin by SA troops with the casual remark to a Nazi official that “we have had difficulty now and then in the United States with Jews who had gotten too much of a hold on certain departments of intellectual and business life.” [24]  Dodd finally did come to appreciate that the Nazi treatment of Jews went beyond the bounds of “civilized” anti-Semitism, and he became an early voice of warning about the intentions of Hitler’s government.  The disposition of Dodd and the others I have just mentioned were innocent of any concern with Darwin’s theory.  Finally, one needs consider the politicians, especially in Vienna, who used anti-Semitism in opportunistic ways.  I will examine the views of these latter more particularly below, since Hitler himself ascribed his racial attitudes to this source. The critics of Darwin and Haeckel have in their indictments neglected the various complex social and cultural forces that fueled the anti-Semitic obsessions of Hitler and his henchmen.  The critics have sought, rather, to discover a unique key to Nazi evil.[25]

The presumption that a factual connection between Darwin’s Origin of Species and Hitler’s Mein Kampf morally indicts Darwin and somehow undermines evolutionary theory rests, quite obviously, on defective moral and epistemic logic—rather, on no logic at all.  Nonetheless, I will put aside this logical consideration for the moment to investigate the supposed factual linkage.

Darwinian Theory and Racial Hierarchy

The first factual issue to tackle is:  Did Hitler embrace Darwinian theory?  The question, however, needs to be made more exact:  What features of Darwin’s theory did he embrace, if any?  Concerning the theory, especially as applied to human beings, we can discriminate three central components: 1) that human groups can be arranged in a racial hierarchy from less advanced to more advanced; 2) that species have undergone descent with modification over vast stretches of time and that human beings, in particular, descended from ape-like ancestors; and 3) that natural selection is the principal device to explain species transitions.  Now the questions become:  Did Hitler adopt any of these positions, and were they derived ultimately from Darwin?  And did these ideas cause him to adopt or favor racist and specifically anti-Semitic views characteristic of Nazi biology?  Of course, a positive answer to this latter question is essential to complete the causal connection between Darwinian theory and Hitler’s lethal racial attitudes.

The first component of Darwinian theory to consider is that of racial hierarchy.  Gould argued that Darwin’s theory was not progressivist, and therefore it did not situate species and races, particularly the human races, in any hierarchical scheme.  He maintained, for example, that “an explicit denial of innate progression is the most characteristic feature separating Darwin’s theory of natural selection from other nineteenth-century evolutionary theories.”[26]  Lamarck, by contrast, had postulated an internal, quasi-hydraulic mechanism, that produced progressively more complex species over time. And Haeckel, quite graphically, arranged the human groups in a hierarchical scheme.  Though other scholars have followed Gould’s lead,[27] it’s quite clear that Darwin thought of natural selection as a kind of external force that would generally produce, over vast stretches of time, more progressively developed organisms.  In the penultimate paragraph of the Origin of Species, he explicitly stated his view:  “And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection.”[28]  Even before he formulated his theory, however, Darwin was disposed to regard certain races as morally and intellectually inferior, as for example, the Fuegian Indians he encountered on the Beagle voyage.  His later theoretical formulations and his own cultural assumptions surely reinforced each other.  In the Descent of Man, Darwin described the races as forming an obvious hierarchy of intelligence and moral capacity, from savage to civilized, with the “intellectual and social faculties” of the lower races comparable to those that must have characterized ancient European man.[29]  Accordingly, he ventured that “the grade of their civilisation seems to be a most important element in the success of competing nations,”[30] which explained for him the extermination of the Tasmanians and the severe decline in population of the Australians, Hawaiians, and Maoris. Those groups succumbed in the struggle with more advanced peoples.[31]  So, despite some scholars’ views to the contrary, it’s clear that Darwin’s progressivist theory entailed a hierarchy of the human races.  His opposition to slavery, which was deeply felt, did not mitigate his racial evaluations.[32]

Darwin’s racialism never included Jews.  His few scattered references to Jews contain nothing derogatory.  Of some interest, though, he did observe that Jews and Aryans were quite similar in features, due, he supposed, to “the Aryan branches having largely crossed during their wide diffusion by various indigenous tribes.”[33]  This is in some contrast with Hitler, for whom the Jews and Aryans were pure (i.e., unmixed) races—a matter discussed below.  Haeckel, however, does include Jews in his hierarchical scheme.


In the first edition of his Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (Natural history of creation,1868), Haeckel represented in a tree-diagram nine species of human beings, along with their various races, all stemming from the Affenmensch, or ape-man. The vertical axis of the diagram was meant to suggest progressive development in intelligence and moral character (see fig. 9.2); it showed Australians, Hottentots, and Papuans at the lowest branches, with Caucasians occupying the highest.  Not surprisingly, perhaps, the German and Mediterranean races of the Caucasian species (upper right in the diagram) are leading the other groups—except, that is, for the Berbers and the Jews, two other branches of the same species.  Haeckel located the Jews at the same evolutionary level as the Germans and other Europeans—hardly the kind of judgment expected of a supposed racial anti-Semite. [34]

Haeckel spoke directly to the question of anti-Semitism.  He, along with some forty other European intellectuals and artists, was interviewed in the early 1890s about the phenomenon of anti-Semitism by Hermann Bahr (1863-1934), a journalist and avant-garde playwright.  Haeckel mentioned that some of his students were anti-Semitic but he explicitly disavowed that prejudice himself.  He did acknowledge that some nations, including Germany, were judicious in barring the immigration of Slavic Jews since they would not adopt the customs of their new countries but remained stubbornly unassimilated.  He yet celebrated the gebildeten Juden of Germany.  He is quoted by Bahr as proclaiming:

I hold these refined and noble Jews to be important elements in German culture. One should not forget that they have always stood bravely for enlightenment and freedom against the forces of reaction, inexhaustible opponents, as often as needed, against the obscurantists  [Dunkelmänner]. And now in the dangers of these perilous times, when Papism again rears up mightily everywhere, we cannot do without their tried and true courage.[35]

As is suggested by this quotation, Haeckel’s long-term opponent was the Catholic Church, for which he had a mixture of disdain and, at least for its black-robed troops, the Jesuits, some grudging admiration.[36]

So neither Darwin nor the leading German Darwinian, Ernst Haeckel, can be accused of anti-Semitism, certainly not the kind of racism that fueled Hitler’s animus and stoked the fires of the Holocaust.  The belief in a racial hierarchy, assumed by both Darwin and Haeckel, also needs to be put in a larger historical context.  The common presumption of higher and lower races antedates Darwin’s work by many generations and cannot be uniquely attributed to Darwinian theory.

The pre-evolutionary naturalists Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), and Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869)—all of whose works directed subsequent thought about the distinction of human races—ranked those races in a hierarchy, with Europeans, naturally, in the top position.[37]  For example, Linnaeus placed the genus Homo within the order Primates (which included monkeys, bats, and sloths) and distinguished two species:  Homo sapiens and Homo troglodytes (anthropoid apes).  He divided Homo sapiens (wise man) into four varieties:   American (copper-colored, choleric, regulated by custom), Asiatic (sooty, melancholic, and governed by opinions), African (black, phlegmatic, and governed by caprice), and European (fair, sanguine, and governed by laws).  Linnaeus conceived such differences as expressive of divine intent.[38]  Carl Gustav Carus affirmed a comparable hierarchy, though he declared that the races of mankind could not be classified with animals as had Linnaeus.  Because of their mental character, humans formed a kingdom of their own with four distinct races, each endowed with different abilities:  “the people of the day” (Europeans, Caucasians, Hindus), “the people of the night” (Aethiopians—South Africans, Papuans, Australians), “the people of the eastern twilight” (Asians—Mongols and Malays), and “the people of the western twilight” (North and South American Indians).[39]  The original lands of these peoples—their climate and geography—wrought effects on their anatomy, especially on skull sizes and brain formation, rendering them with different capacities for cultural attainment.  The people of the day had achieved the highest development in the appreciation of beauty, truth, and goodness. [40]  Though each of the groups could be located in an ascending hierarchy, human mentality remained distinctly separated from the capacities of brutes, which meant, in Carus’s terms, they certainly did not derive from any ape forbearer, as suggested by Lamarck.[41]  These racial categories of leading naturalists, established long before the appearance of Darwin’s work, were mutually reinforcing of common prejudices.  But the point to be made is simply that assumptions of racial hierarchy, ubiquitous in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, did not originate in Darwinian evolutionary theory; they were commonplaces in scientific literature since at least the eighteenth century.  Darwin and Haeckel, like most other naturalists of the period, simply accepted the hierarchy and gave it an account in terms of their theoretical system.

The Racial Ideology of Gobineau and Chamberlain

At the beginning of the twentieth century, two of the most influential proponents of the theory of racial hierarchy were Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, (1816-1882) and Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927).   Gobineau’s four-volume Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines  (Essay on the inequality of the human races, 1853-1855) was translated into several languages.  It went through five German editions from 1895 to 1940 and served as the intellectual rationale for the anti-Semitic Gobineau societies that spread through Germany at the turn of the century.[42]  Chamberlain’s Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (The foundations of the nineteenth century) flooded Germany with an amazing thirty editions from 1899 to 1944. Chamberlain was inspired by Gobineau’s analysis of race and became a member of the elite Gobineau society, along with other members of the cult of Richard Wagner.[43] The books of Gobineau and Chamberlain helped to articulate and give form to the racial views of Hitler and his chief party philosopher manqué, Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946).  For that reason, I will linger over the works of these two harbingers of the Nazi movement.


Arthur, Count de Gobineau was born of a royalist family in 1816.  His father joined the anti-revolutionary forces during the Directorate and was later imprisoned by Napoleon’s regime.[44]  Through his early adulthood he mourned the passing of the aristocratic order and expressed in several novels, poems, and plays of the 1840s his distaste for the materialistic and crass attitudes of the rising bourgeoisie.  His odd friendship with Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)—with whom he had a considerable correspondence over religion, morals, and democracy—brought him into the troubled government of the Second Republic in 1849; and after the coup of Louis Napoleon in 1851, he advanced to several diplomatic posts during the regime of the Second Empire (1851-1871). His diplomatic work allowed him sufficient leisure time to cultivate a knowledge of Persian, Greek, and South Asian languages and civilizations, which reinforced his sentiments about a golden age of aristocratic order.  He elevated his class prejudices to something quite grand:  he argued that modern nations had lost the vitality characterizing ancient civilizations and that the European nations, as well as the United States, faced inevitable decline, the French Revolution being an unmistakable sign of the end.  When he learned of Darwin’s evolutionary theory he quite disdainfully dismissed it, thinking its anemic progressivism a distortion of his own rigorously grounded empirical study; certainly the time was near, he believed, when Haeckel’s phantasms of ape-men would evanesce.[45]  He was assured of the decline of human societies—so palpable before his eyes during the years of political turmoil throughout Europe—and proposed a very simple formula to explain it:  race mixing.

Gobineau indicated that he was moved to write his Essay because of the views of James Cowles Prichard (1786-1848), who argued for the essential unity of mankind and the common capacities of the various human races.[46]  Gobineau wished to demonstrate, on the contrary, that while we might have to give notional assent to the Biblical story of common origin, the fundamental traits of the white, yellow, and black races were manifestly different and that their various branches displayed intrinsically diverse endowments.  To support this contention, he spun out, over four substantial volumes, a conjectural anthropology whose conclusions, he ceaselessly claimed, had the iron grip of natural law.  The beginning of his story, he allowed, did have a bit of mythical aura about it.  The Adamite generation, knowledge about which trailed off into fable, begot the white race—about this the Bible seemed certain, while the origins of the yellow and black races went unmentioned in the sacred texts.[47]  So we might assume that each of these races had independent roots, since each displayed markedly different traits.[48]  The whites were the most beautiful, intelligent, orderly, and physically powerful; they were lovers of liberty and aggressively pursued it.  They played the dominant role in any civilization that had attained a significant culture. The yellow race was rather lazy and uninventive, though given to a narrow kind of utility.  The black race was intense, willful, and with a dull intellect; no civilization ever arose out of the pure black race.  Each of the three races had branches with somewhat different characters.  So, for instance, the white race comprised the Assyrian, Celtic, Iberian, Semitic, and Aryan stocks.  These stocks had intermingled to produce some of the great civilizations of the past—Gobineau discriminated some ten such ancient civilizations.[49]  The Greek civilization, for example, arose from the Aryan stock with a tincture of the Semitic.  High attainment in culture, science, and the arts had only existed, however, where there was a large admixture of the Aryan.  Even the Chinese, in his estimation, derived from an Aryan colony from India.  Had these branches of the white race remained pure, their various ancient civilizations would still be flourishing.  But racial mixing caused an inevitable degradation of their character.

Gobineau postulated two contrary forces operative on the races of mankind:  revulsion for race mixing, especially powerful among the black groups, and a contrary impulse to intermarriage, which oddly was characteristic of those peoples capable of great development.[50]  As a result of the impulse to mate with conquered peoples, the pure strains of the higher stocks had become alloyed with the other strains, the white race being constantly diluted with the blood of inferior peoples, while the latter enjoyed a boost from white blood.  Contemporary societies, according to Gobineau, might have more or less strong remnants of the hereditary traits of their forbearers, but they were increasingly washed over as the streams of humanity ebbed and flowed.  The modern European nations thus lost their purity, especially as the white component had been sullied in the byways of congress with the yellow and black races.  So even the modern Germans, who still retained the greatest measure of Aryan blood and yet carried the fire of modern culture and science—even the Germans had begun to decline and would continue to do so as the tributaries of hybrid stocks increasingly muddied the swifter currents of pure blood.

Despite Gobineau’s theories of race and his influence in Germany, he was no egregious anti-Semite, at least not of the sort that so readily adopted his views. He regarded the Jews as a branch of the Semites, the latter being a white group that originally extended from the Caucasus Mountains down through the lands of the Assyrians to the Phoenician coast.  The Hebrews, as he preferred to call the Jews, retained their racial purity up to the time of the reign of King David, a period when so many other, less worthy peoples, were brought into the kingdom:  “The mixing thus pressed through all the pores of Israel’s limbs.”  As a consequence, “the Jews were marred through mating with blacks, as well as with the Hamites and Semites in whose midst they were living.”[51]  In short, the Jews fared no better and no worse than other groups of originally pure stocks; like them, they enjoyed for a while the advantages of a homogeneous population, and then slipped silently down the racial slope into their current mongrel state.[52]

The theme of cultural degradation due to race mixing echoed through the decades after the publication of Gobineau’s treatise.  Richard Wagner, who became a friend and correspondent of Gobineau, anticipated the dangers of racial decline, though, like the poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), believed that art might reverse the decline, at least for the German people.  Americans also heard the unhappy knell.  Madison Grant (1865-1937), a New York lawyer, with biological and anthropological acumen on a level below that even of his French predecessor, pressed the same concerns in a comparably conjectural study, The Passing of the Great Race (1916), the German edition of which was found in Hitler’s library.[53]  Grant thought the superior Nordic race—the true descendent of the Aryan speaking peoples—to be endangered by cross-breeding.  He thought the proximate danger to Aryan purity came from the two lower stocks of the Caucasian group—the Alpine race (Eastern Europeans and Slavs) and the Mediterranean race (stemming from the southern areas of Asia minor and along the coasts of the inland sea), thus the swarthy Poles, Czechs, and Russians and the even more swarthy Spaniards, Italians, and Greeks. Unmistakable signs indicated the decline of the American civilization:  simplified spelling and incorrect grammar told the story, for Grant, of decay from Nordic standards.[54]  Even more alarming were the Polish Jews swarming in New York City—the cloaca gentium, in terms borrowed from Chamberlain: the Jews wore the Nordic’s clothes and stole his women, thus genetically obliterating his commanding stature, blue eyes, blond hair, and Teutonic moral bearing.[55]  (There would appear to be no accounting for Nordic women’s taste in men.)  The German nation fared little better; through miscegenation it had suffered a large decline in the number of pure Teutons.[56]  Grant played in syncopated harmony the American version of Gobineau’s tune.  But the most influential orchestrator of this theme at the turn of the century, done in Wagnerian style, was Houston Stewart Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, born in 1855, descended from the lesser British aristocracy and from money on both sides of his family.[57]  His father, mostly absent from his life, fought in the Crimean War, serving as an admiral of the British fleet.  After his mother suddenly died, he and his two brothers were shipped off to Versailles to live with a grandmother and aunt.  In 1866, to reintroduce him to his native heritage, his father enrolled the ten-year-old, French-speaking lad in an English school; but ill health kept him there only for a few years.  The boy returned to France where his schooling was taken over by a German tutor, who instilled a love of the language and culture of Germany.  After three years his tutor took up a post back in his native land; and Chamberlain, now thirteen, saw to his own education, reading promiscuously in the literature of Germany, France, and England, and cultivating an interest in the solitary science of botany.  His father died in 1878, leaving him with a decent income and freedom to marry a woman whom he had met when a teenager of sixteen and she twenty-six.  The nuptials occurred three years later. He now worried about a formal education.  His self-tutelage was sufficient to win him a place in the natural science faculty at the University of Geneva, from which he graduated with distinction in 1881.  While at Geneva he came under the autocratic sway of Karl Vogt (1817-1895), whom he thought too influenced by the experience of the revolutions of 1848.  Vogt was an evolutionist, though according to Chamberlain’s reckoning, he was mistrustful of Darwinism and Haeckelianism.[58]  The young student sought to pursue a doctoral thesis in plant physiology at Geneva, but interrupted his study after two years due to a free-floating nervous indisposition.  His attempt at a stock brokerage business met quiet failure; yet with the aid of additional funds from his aunt, he continued private study, especially in German philosophy and literature. Kant and Goethe became his loadstars.  Then he discovered Richard Wagner, and his glittering firmament became fixed.

Shortly after he was married in 1878, Chamberlain and his wife Anna attended the premier of Der Ring des Nibelungen in Munich, an event that ignited what would become an ever growing passion for the numinous music and deranged doctrines of the great composer. In 1882, the couple visited the consecrated ground of Bayreuth, where they heard Parsifal three times. He wrote his aunt that the “overwhelming beauty” simply stunned him (mich einfach verstummen machte).[59]  Not only the aesthetic power of the music transfix him, his fervent Christianity became alloyed with the mystical theology fueling the Wagnerian legends of questing knights and battling gods.  He enrolled as a member of the Wagner Society (Wagner-Verein), formed after the composer’s death in 1882, and helped found a new French journal devoted to the art of the composer. His many articles for the journal drew him closer to Cosima Wagner, second wife of the maestro, daughter of Franz Liszt, and titular head of the inner circle of the cult, which fed on the racial theories of Gobineau, now growing into Teutonic glorification and pernicious anti-Semitism.  The measure of Chamberlain’s devotion, not simply to the music but to the mystical association of Wagner with the German spirit, can be taken by the extent of his labors:  four books and dozens of articles on the man and his music during the short period between 1892 and 1900.[60]   The more significant measure, perhaps, was the kindling of his admiration for, if not burning love of, Wagner’s youngest daughter, Eva, whom he married in 1908 following an expensive divorce from his first wife.


After moving from Dresden to Vienna in 1889—and still relying on the financial kindness of his aunt—Chamberlain renewed his intention to finish a doctorate in plant physiology.  He started attending lectures at the university, especially those of the botanist Julius Wiesner (1838–1916), with whom he became quite friendly, despite Wiesner’s Jewish ancestry.  With the encouragement of Wiesner, he resurrected extensive measurement experiments on the movement of fluids in plants that he had originally conducted in Geneva.  Since his nervous condition precluded further experimental work, he now put his original findings into a broad historical and philosophical context, arguing that no adequate mechanistic account could be given of the rise of sap in plants and its resistance to falling back.[61]  We must assume, he contended, that vital forces are at work. Whether these forces operated extrinsically to the molecular structure or internally to it, the evidence confirmed their presence:  mechanical forces alone could not lift the sap in trees the 150 or 200 feet of their height.[62]  Despite an insatiable mania for publishing (his Schreibdämon, as he called it), the writing of the dissertation was desultory, finally appearing in 1897, though not submitted for a degree. Immediately on its publication, he began the composition of his master work, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which would eventually flood Germany with a rich farrago of Goethean sentiment, Kantian epistemology, Wagnerian mysticism, and Aryan anti-Semitism. The medley echoed through the German reading public for almost half a century.

While Gobineau maintained that the races were originally pure but tended to degenerate over time because of miscegenation, Chamberlain contended that purity of race was an achievement over long periods of time; once achieved, however, it could be endangered by race mixing.[63]  His notion of race was quite loose, insofar as the Greeks, Romans, Iranians, Chinese, English, French, Jews, Aryans (or Germans) all formed, in his estimation, distinct races.  His test of race was the direct, intuitive experience of the other, rather than any craniometric measures.  He was quite vague about the origins of human beings, simply observing that as far as history testified human beings have always existed.[64]   He dismissed as a “pseudo-scientific fantasy” Haeckel’s argument that the human races descended from ape-like forbearers.[65]

For Chamberlain, the two principal races that achieved purity and retained it were the Aryan and the Jewish.  The Aryans, which in their more recent incarnation he referred to as Germans, were the bearers of culture, science, and the arts.  Their mental accomplishments flowed from blood, he argued (or really simply stipulated).  In a wonderful piece of quasi-idealistic morphology, he described the real German as having an ideal type:  “great, heavenly radiant eyes, golden hair, the body of a giant, harmonious musculature, a long skull [and]. . . high countenance.”[66]  All of this notwithstanding, individual Germans might be dark-haired, brown-eyed, and small of stature.  (One had to see the blond giant standing behind the form, for example, of the puny chicken-farmer with dark receding hair—Heinrich Himmler.)  Against the blond giant stood the threatening Jew.  Chamberlain devoted one-hundred-thirty-five continuous pages to dissecting the Jewish type, its physiology and character. So distinct were the racial traits that one could be certain that Christ was not a Jew, a view that Hitler took over from Chamberlain.[67]  Throughout the Foundations, this Anglo-German would vacillate between referring to the Jews as a pure race, meaning relatively permanent, but also of a “mongrel character” (Bastardcharakter).[68] That character displayed the typical attitudes his fellows had come to associate with Jews:  materialistic, legalistic, limited in imagination, intolerant, fanatical, and with a tendency toward utopian economic schemes, as found, for instance, in Marxism.[69]  The Jews’ very “existence is a sin (Sünde); their existence is a transgression against the holy laws of life.”[70]  Thus any mating between Jew and Aryan could only corrupt the nobility of the latter:  the Jewish character “is much too foreign, firm, and strong to be refreshed and ennobled by German blood.”[71]  This could only mean a struggle between the Aryans and the Jews, “a struggle of life and death [ein Kampf auf Leben und Tod].”[72]

Chamberlain used the trope of racial struggle frequently in the Foundations.  Indeed, the phrase usually identified with Darwinian theory, “struggle for existence” (Kampf ums Dasein), appears eight times in the Foundations.  The single word “struggle” (Kampf) turns up one-hundred-twelve times.  But these terms were not markers of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  Chamberlain rejected Darwin’s conception completely, comparing it to the old, discredited “phlogiston theory.”[73]  But not only did he dismiss Darwin’s main explanatory device, he simply rejected transmutation of species altogether.  After all, it was an idea already refuted in advance by Kant.[74]  However, its influence continued perniciously to affect all it touched.  He wrote Cosima Wagner at the time of the composition of the Foundations:  “this hair-raising absurdity poisons not only natural science but the whole of human thought: Darwinism rules everywhere, corrupting history and religion; it leads to social idiocy; it degrades judgment about men and things.”[75]

In a letter of advice to a young student, Chamberlain contended that while some of Darwin’s observations might be empirically helpful, his theory “is simply poetry [einfach eine Dichtung]; it is unproven and unprovable.”  Anyone with the least tincture of metaphysics would understand the impossibility of solving the world puzzles by evolution.[76]  The main difficulty—as he detailed in manuscripts composed at the time of the Foundations—has to do with the integrity of form.  Taking his cue from Georges Cuvier, Goethe, and Kant, Chamberlain argued that our direct, intuitive experience revealed only two archetypal forms in the plant world and eight in the animal world (e.g., radiate animals, articulate animals, vertebrate animals, etc.) governed by laws of formation (Bildungsgesetze).  These fundamental forms simply could not pass into one another; otherwise we would have the ape being a cousin of the tree it was climbing.  Moreover, animal forms exhibited an integral correlation of their constituent parts, constrained within certain limits of variability, such that any radical change of a part would collapse the harmony of the whole; and radical changes in an animal’s form would fatally disrupt its relation to other animals.  Thus transmutation of forms, as Lamarck, Darwin, or Weismann conceived it, would be impossible.[77]  Chamberlain’s racism and conception of struggle of races owed no theoretical debt to Darwin, Haeckel, Weismann or any other of the Darwinians, rather, chiefly to Gobineau, Kant, Goethe, and Wagner—insofar as responsibility might be thought transitive.[78]

Chamberlain and Hitler

Hitler’s racial infections derived from many sources—particularly the seething political pool he threw himself into while in Vienna as a young, aspiring art student and feckless vagabond.  But in Mein Kampf, no placid reservoir of ideas, he yet seems to have deployed slightly less agitated concepts to structure his considerations of race; his promiscuous mind culled these ideas from many quarters, but one in particular stands out—those theories and conceptions of Houston Stewart Chamberlain—and not by accident.

Hitler likely first encountered Chamberlain’s Foundations sometime between 1919 and 1921, when he read the work at the National Socialist Institute Library in Munich.[79]  He met the man himself shortly thereafter in Bayreuth.  Chamberlain moved to Bayreuth after his marriage to Eva Wagner in 1909, and there he served to help reorganize the finances of the Festspiele and edit the Bayreuther Blätter, which carried articles on the art of the master interlaced with observations on the perfidy of Jews.  As the leader of the growing German Workers Party, Hitler travel to Bayreuth in late September 1923 to attend a political rally.  While in the city, he was invited by the Wagner family to visit and worship at Wahnfried, the maestro’s home and shrine.  Chamberlain spoke extensively with the man over two days and was so impressed that he wrote the lederhosed politician an amazingly fulsome letter, which Hitler never forgot.  The long letter of October 7 read in part:

You are certainly not as you have been described to me, namely as a fanatic [Fanatiker]; rather I would call you the very opposite of a fanatic.  A fanatic overheats the head, while you warm the heart.  The fanatic wishes to smother you in words; you want to convince, only convince. . . My faith in Germanness [Deutschtum] has never wavered for a moment.  But my hopes—I will confess—had ebbed.  With one blow, you have transformed the core of my soul.  That Germany in the hour of her greatest need has given birth to a Hitler, that shows her vital essence.[80]


On the occasion of Hitler’s thirty-fifth birthday, celebrated the next year in prison, Chamberlain published an open letter, in which he extolled this man, so different from other politicians, a man who “loves his German people with a burning passion.”  “In this feeling,” he professed, “we have the central point of his whole politics, his economics, his opposition to the Jews, his battle against the corruption of values, etc.”[81]  After his release from jail, Hitler visited Chamberlain on several occasions and mourned him at his funeral.[82]  In the depths of World War II, Hitler recalled with extreme gratitude visiting Bayreuth for the first time and meeting Chamberlain.  In his so-called “Table Talk”—conversations ordered by Martin Bormann to be stenographically recorded—Hitler mentioned that “Chamberlain’s letter came while I was in jail.  I was on familiar terms with them [Chamberlain and the Wagner family]; I love these people and Wahnfried.”[83]  It was while in jail, comforted as he was by Chamberlain’s recognition, that he composed the first volume of Mein Kampf.

Mein Kampf

In early November, 1923, Hitler, leading the German Workers Party and its quasi-military wing, the S.A. (Sturm Abteilung), attempted to overthrow the Munich municipal government, hoping thereby to galvanize the masses and march on Berlin.  This so-called “Beer Hall Putsch” failed miserably; and the following spring, Hitler and his deputy Rudolf Hess, along with other conspirators, were sentenced to five years in jail.  Because of sympathy for Hitler’s effort to “save the nation,” he and Hess were confined to a very minimum security compound, Landsberg Prison.  During his stay, Hitler was allowed unlimited visitors, any number of books, and his faithful dog.  He famously called this time in jail his “higher education at state expense.”[84]  While in jail he was visited often by Alfred Rosenberg, who had become party chairman in the leader’s absence.  Rosenberg at this time was completing his Myth of the 20th Century, a book he regarded as a sequel to Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century and that Hermann Goering (1893-1946) regarded as a “philosophical belch.”[85]  Presumably Rosenberg and Hitler spoke of mutual concerns, since both were authoring books with similar political and racial themes.  Hitler began the composition of Mein Kampf in July 1924, and it quickly became inflated into two large volumes by the next year.  He initially wanted to call it A Four and a Half Year Battle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice, but finally shortened the title simply to My BattleMein Kampf.  The book brewed together a mélange of: autobiographical sketches; a theory of race; a declaration of the need to expand the land of the Germans, principally to the east; foreign policy exhortations to restore the honor and power of the nation; and, flavoring the stew throughout, the bitter vitriol of scorn for those who had destroyed the means to win the last war and connived to push the nation into collapse after the war—the Jews, capitalists, and Bolsheviks.  The first volume of Mein Kampf appeared in summer of 1925, sometime after Hitler’s parole the previous December; he had served only about seven months of his sentence.  The second volume was finished in 1925, and published the next year.[86]

Quite a few conservative critics, whom I’ve cited at the beginning of this chapter, have contended that Hitler’s Mein Kampf expresses a racial theory that virtually comes straight from the pages of Darwin’s Origin of Species—or at least from those pages as reauthored by Ernst Haeckel.  Yet neither Darwin’s nor Haeckel’s name appears in Hitler’s book—quite surprising if the debt to these individuals is supposed to be profound.  Indeed, the only name carrying any scientific weight that Hitler cites in Mein Kamp is that of Houston Stuart Chamberlain, his supporter and an avowed anti-Darwinian.[87]   Maybe, though, the debt is silent.  But nowhere does Hitler even use the terms “Evolutionslehre,” “Abstammungslehre,”  “Deszendenz-Theorie,” or any word that obviously refers to evolutionary theory.  If Hitler’s racial views stemmed from Darwinian theory, without perhaps naming it, one would at least expect some term in general use for evolutionary theory to be found in the book—but not so.  Admittedly, if you read Weikart’s two books—From Darwin to Hitler and Hitler’s Ethic—you will see several translated passages from Hitler that have the word “evolution”; and Weikart relentless refers to him as an evolutionist.  But Weikart has played a sly trick.  He generally translates the common German term “Entwicklung” as “evolution,” though the usual meaning and ordinary translation would be “development.” The term had been used for evolution in earlier German literature, just as “development” had been similarly employed in English literature.  In both languages, it had been commonly used in biological literature to refer to embryological development.  By the end of the nineteenth century the term as referring to specie evolution had declined in use both in Germany and England, though in German “Entwicklungslehre” would still be used to mean the theory of evolution; but that latter compound never appears in Hitler’s book.  In Mein Kampf, Hitler used “Entwicklung” in ways that make it obvious he did not mean biological evolution, for example, when he talked about “industrial development” (industrielle Entwicklung).[88]  There are only two instances—though not in Mein Kampf—in which Hitler clearly mentions the theory of evolution.  I will consider those usages below.

Perhaps, however, Hitler’s racial theory was yet indebted to Darwin’s ideas, but without any verbal signposts.  In section 1 of this chapter, I indicated three essential features of Darwin’s theory that anyone adopting the theory would necessarily embrace:  1) that the races are hierarchically ordered; 2) that species have descended from earlier species with modification; and 3) that such transmutation was, for the most part, under the aegis of natural selection.   When Weikart, Berlinski, and many others read Hitler’s book, they claim that Darwinian ideas leap out at them.  But just what are those ideas? Though both Hitler and Darwin believed in a hierarchy of races, that’s hardly a reliable indicator that the German leader embraced concepts of evolutionary biology:  as I’ve indicated in section 2, naturalists from Linnaeus in the mid-eighteenth century to individuals like Gobineau in the mid-nineteenth—all writing prior to Darwin’s Origin—adopted hierarchical schemes as part of their scientific purview—and, of course, popular prejudice made racial scaling ubiquitous.  More proximately, assumptions of racial hierarchy structured Chamberlain’s conceptions—conceptions that owed no debt to Darwinism; and these conceptions clearly made their impact on Hitler.  Thus there were a myriad of sources of a non-Darwinian or anti-Darwinian character that might have stimulated Hitler to formalize his ideas of racial hierarchy.  But if we go to the heart of the matter—the descent of species over time—we find nothing in Mein Kamp that remotely resembles any such notion.  Quite the contrary.  But before exploring that contrary evidence in Mein Kampf, let us consider evidence from outside the book.

In Hitler’s “Table Talk,” the German leader was recorded as positively rejecting any notion of the descent of human beings from lower animals.  In the late evening of 25-26 January 1942, he remarked that he had read a book about human origins and that he used to think a lot about the question.  He was particularly impressed that the ancient Greeks and Egyptians cultivated ideas of beauty comparable to our own, which could not have been the case were these peoples quite different from us.  He asked:

Whence have we the right to believe that man was not from the very beginning [Uranfängen] what he is today?  A glance at nature informs us that in the realm of plants and animals alterations and further formation occur, but nothing indicates that development [Entwicklung] within a species [Gattung] has occurred of a considerable leap of the sort that man would have to have made to transform him from an ape-like condition to his present state.[89]

Could any statement be more explicit?  Hitler simply rejected the cardinal feature of Darwin’s theory as applied to human beings.  How could Darwin’s conception have been responsible for Hitler’s racial theory regarding human beings when that conception was in fact completely rejected by the latter?

It is not certain to what book on human origins Hitler might have been referring in the conversation during that late January evening.  But after his rejection of descent theory, he immediately discussed the “world-ice theory” (Welteislehre) of Hanns Hörbiger (1860-1931).  Hörbiger was an engineer and amateur astronomer who, in his book Glazial-Kosmogonie (1913), concocted a theory—which came to him in a vision—whereby an icy, dead star fell into a larger one, resulting in the creation of several planetary systems, of which ours was one.  The earth, so the theory went, had a number of icy moons that periodically crashed into it causing a series of catastrophes.  About ten thousand years ago, another moon spiraled into the earth causing the last global ice-age.[90]  As these ideas were elaborated by other catastrophists, they included beliefs that an original Aryan civilization existed before ours and that after the impact of that last icy moon, the saved remnants retreated to the high plateaus of Tibet.  When things warmed up, these individuals came down from the mountains and eventually reestablished culture.  SS chief Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) even sent a research team to Tibet to recover the remains of that Aryan civilization.[91]  Karl Rode (1901-1944), professor of geology and paleontology at Breslau, urged that world-ice theory was not merely a cosmological hypothesis but an urgermanic “world view” (Welt-Anschauung) complementary to that of National Socialism.[92] Hitler, for his part, contended that world-ice theory was the only assumption that made sense of the sophistication of Greek and Egyptian civilizations, and he even planned a museum that would celebrate Hörbiger, along with Ptolemy and Kepler.[93]  While the world-ice theory, with its multitude of catastrophes, made sense to the German Leader, it certainly would not have made any sense to Darwin or Haeckel, who proposed gradualistic changes in the earth’s geology and organic life such that human beings progressively evolved from ape-like predecessors and slowly achieved greater intelligence and more elaborate culture.  Clearly, Hitler simply rejected an essential component of Darwinian theory.

But wait a while.  Weikart insists that the above passage from Hitler’s “Table Talk” is uncharacteristic.  He cites instead a passage from Hitler’s speech in 1933 at Nuremberg, where Hitler asserted:  “The gulf between the lowest creature which can still be styled man and our highest races is greater than that between the lowest type of man and the highest ape.”  Weikart proposes that Hitler had thus essentially erased the “biblical distinction between man and other creatures.”[94]   Weikart suggests that this lonely remark from Nuremberg, with its supposed eradication of the distinction between man and beast, indicates the German Leader’s acceptance of evolution.  Well, not quite.  That Hitler thought the races formed a hierarchy is hardly news; it carries no suggestion of a belief in transmutation, as I have already indicated.   Moreover, any slave-holding Christian in the American South could have made an observation similar to Hitler’s.  They clearly held black slaves to be exceedingly low in the divine hierarchy, but yet still human beings.  Hitler’s remark seems a paraphrase of the anti-Darwinian Gobineau, who had repeated the common prejudice: “The black variety [i.e., race of human beings] is the lowest and stands on the bottom rung of the ladder.  The character of an animal, which is impressed on the form of their pelvis, distinguishes them from the moment of birth to their maturity.  Mentally they never move beyond the narrowest circle.”[95]  Though Gobineau likened the black race to lower animals, he regarded them nonetheless as human beings; Gobineau, as I’ve indicated, completely rejected Haeckel’s ape-man hypothesis.  Hitler’s differential evaluation of the races hardly eliminates the distinction between human beings and lower animals.

The only other time, at least that I’m aware, where Hitler clearly refers to evolution comes in his “Table Talk” in October 1941, when he excoriated the Church for what he took as its opposition to science.  He noted that the schools allowed the absurdity of having religious instruction in which Biblical creation was taught during one class and then, in the next, a natural science lesson would substitute the theory of evolution (Entwicklungstheorie vertreteten wird) for the Mosaic story.  Hitler added that as a child he was confronted with similar contradictions between science and religion.  He contended that while it was not incorrect to regard God as creator of the lightning bolt, one should not take that literally; rather it would be more profoundly pious (tiefinnerlich fromm sein) to find God in everything (im Gesamten).[96]  That Hitler was aware of evolutionary theory, of course, is true—after all, he explicitly rejected human evolution some weeks later in January of 1942.  The racial worries saturating Mein Kampf have nothing to do with transmutation of species, rather its opposite.  Hitler’s overriding racial concern in Mein Kampf was purity.  He maintained that a general drive toward racial homogeneity, toward “racial purity” (“allgemein gültigen Triebes zur Rassenreinheit”) characterized all living organisms.[97]  This drive was exemplified by the uniformity and stability of species:

The consequence of this racial purity [Rassenreinheit], which is characteristic of all animals in nature, is not only a sharp separation of the particular races externally, but also in their uniformity of the essence of the very type itself. The fox is always a fox, the goose a goose, the tiger a tiger, and so on…”[98]

But of course for a Darwinian, there is no “essence of the very type”; the fox was not always a fox, the goose not always a goose, and in future they would not remain fixed in their types.  Fixity of type is the very antithesis of a theory that contends species are not static but vary and are transformed into other species over time. Darwin’s principle of diversity, which he regarded as important as natural selection, maintains that there is a general tendency of varieties and species to diversify, that is, to become heterogeneous as opposed to maintaining homogeneity.[99]   Weikart’s claim that Hitler “believed that humans were subject to immutable evolutionary laws” simply cannot be true.[100]

Racial purity became endangered by race-mixing, especially sullying the higher Aryan type with the lower Jewish.  Reflecting the warnings of Gobineau and Chamberlain, Hitler specified the extreme danger of miscegenation for the race of higher culture:

Historical experience offers numerous examples.  It shows in awful clarity that with every mingling of blood of Aryans with lower peoples, the resulting consequence is the end of the culture bearers.[101]

Hitler was assured that “all great cultures of the past were destroyed because the original, creative race died off through blood poisoning”[102]—the diagnosis of Gobineau and Chamberlain.  This aspect of Hitler’s argument needs to be emphasized.  The Aryans, Hitler maintained, were the original bearers of culture—another verse of the gospel according to Gobineau and Chamberlain—and they propagated art and science to the rest of the world.  The pure blood of the Aryans could not be improved upon, only degraded by race mixing.  In a line reflecting Chamberlain’s assertion that the Jew’s very existence was a “sin,” Hitler declared that such racial mixing would be “a sin against the Will of the eternal Creator.”[103] Not, it must be noted, a sin against the theory of Charles Darwin.  “Regeneration” of the primitive German people and an elimination of blood poisoning can occur “so long as a fundamental stock of racially pure elements still exists and bastardization ceases.”[104] Hitler thus sought a return to an ideal past, not an evolutionary advance to a transformed future.

Struggle for Existence

Most authors who try to connect Darwin with Hitler focus on Hitler’s idea of “struggle,” as if this implied Darwin’s principle of “struggle for existence,” that is, natural selection.  The very title of Hitler’s book, My Battle (or Struggle, War) hardly resonates of Darwinian usage—especially when one considers the title he originally planned:  A Four and a Half Year Battle [Kampf] Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.  A simple word count indicates that Hitler had a mania for the notion of struggle that no simple acquaintance with the idea in a scientific work could possibly explain.  The term appears in one form or another some 266 times in the first 300 pages of the 800 page book: from the simple Kampf (struggle) to “Bekämpfung” (a struggle), ”ankämpfen” (to fight), “Kampffeld” (field of struggle), “Kampfeslust” (joy of struggle), etc.

Darwin’s principle of natural selection was, of course, used to explain the transmutation of species.  But if someone like Hitler denies the transmutation and descent of species, then no matter what language he employs, the concept behind the language cannot be that of natural selection.  But let me set aside for the moment this crucial objection to Hitler’s supposed employment of Darwin’s device and examine the role of “struggle” in Mein Kampf and in his so-called Zweites Buch (Second book).

The phrase used in the German translation of the Origin of Species for “struggle for existence” is “Kampf um’s Dasein.”[105]  Hitler uses that phrase, or one close to it, twice in Mein Kampf.  Those two instances occur in an almost 800-page book in which some form of the word appears on almost every page; by sheer accident such a phrase might spill from the pen of an obsessed individual who seems to know hardly any other word.  Those two instances yet do have a Darwinian ring.  Both come in a context in which Hitler is worried about the apparent reduction in births in Germany due to lack of land.  He deployed the terms in an effort to justify annexing “unused” land to the east (e.g., Poland, Ukraine). His convoluted argument runs like this:  if Germans stay within their own borders, then restraint on propagation will be necessary, and compassion will require that even the weak will be preserved; moreover, barbarians lacking culture but strong in determination will take the unused land; hence Germans, the bearers of culture, ought to appropriate the area needed for living (Lebensraum).  Hitler’s argument makes little sense from a Darwinian perspective.  If living conditions became restricted within closed borders, it would be the more fit who would survive; while if conditions became relaxed by moving into an unoccupied and fruitful land, then the fit and the less fit (by some measure) ought to have fairly equal chances. Hence, from a Darwinian point of view the conclusion ought to be just the opposite to that which Hitler drew.  Be that as it may, Hitler did argue that maintaining current borders allowed the weaker to survive “in place of the natural struggle for existence, which lets live only the strongest and healthiest.”[106] He further observed that the Jews may have convinced the cultured Germans that mankind could play a trick on nature by developing land within Germany’s borders, so that this will “make the hard struggle for existence [unerbittlichen Kampf ums Dasein] superfluous.”[107]   His fundamental view is that “mankind becomes great through eternal struggle—in eternal peace men come to nothing.”[108]  Most of these usages, with one interesting exception, as I’ll specify in a minute, come almost verbatim from Chamberlain, not Darwin.

Struggle, battle [Kampf] formed the leitmotif of Hitler’s considerations of human development, especially his own: from his strife-ridden efforts at forming a political movement to the anticipated battle to restore the German nation to world-historical standing.  Like Wotan, he struggled against malicious dwarfs and thundering giants to obtain the ring of power, and for a brief historical moment, he succeeded.  He even projected this struggle onto nature herself.  In his never published so-called Second Book [Zweites Buch], he set out a brief prologue to his formulation of the National Socialist Party’s foreign policy, a policy that outlined a political contest to restore German territory lost during the war, to expand the boundaries of the nation eastward, and even to recruit Italy and England as allies.  In the prologue’s brief creation myth, Hitler depicted the very forces of nature as struggling with each other to bring forth the earth:  “The battle [Kampf] of natural forces with each other, the construction of a habitable surface of this planet, the separation of water and land, the formation of the mountains, the plains, and the seas.”[109] One can almost hear the Wagnerian thunderbolts crashing.  But immediately another distinctively German motif comes into play:  human development became possible only after man began reflecting on his own history:

World history [Weltgeschichte] in the period before the appearance of human beings was a representation of geological events. . . . Later, with the appearance of organic life, the interests of human beings became focused on the development and destruction of the many thousands of forms.  And rather late man finally became visible to himself, and thus under the concept of world history [Weltgeschichte], he came to understand principally the history of his own becoming [seines eigenen Werdens], that is the representation of his own development [seiner eigenen Entwicklung zu verstehen].  This development is marked by an eternal struggle of men against animals and against other men.  From the invisible chaos of individuals, endless structures, tribes, groups, peoples, and states finally arise, while the representation of their rise and fall is the depiction of an eternal struggle for life [eines ewigen Lebenskampfes].  If politics is history as it unfolds . . . then politics is in truth the continuation of the life struggle [Lebenskampfes] of a people.[110]


In this introductory passage to his Second Book, Hitler composed a libretto of second-hand Hegelian historicism accompanied by Wagnerian cries of incessant battle, of the unfolding of world history led by a Teutonic knight.  Undoubtedly, as Alan Bullock has suggested, Hitler identified with one of Hegel’s “world-historical individuals”—an Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon—by whom the “will of the World-Spirit [Weltgeist]” was enacted.[111]  In Hegel’s view, man became gradually visible to himself only after he reflected on his historical character and slowly came to appreciate the evolution of world history [Weltgeschichte] according, as he put it, to “the principle of development [das Prinzip der Entwicklung].”[112]  For Hegel as well as for Hitler, historical development entailed the unfolding of an ultimately rational process, in which, according to Hegel, the “spirit is in a hard, ceaseless struggle [unendlicher Kampf] with itself.”[113]  Through a world historical figure like a Napoleon—or a Hitler—an inexorable destiny “develops,” or evolves.  Hegel, I presume it will be conceded, was no Darwinian.

Though Hegel emphasized the struggle that characterized world-historical events, Hitler’s vision trembled with the fury of gods in constant battle, a vision that bears only superficial resemblance to Darwin’s conception of species struggle.  Before facile claims about a supposed identity are made, one needs examine the deeper sources of Hitler’s argument and its goal.  His general conception that humanity develops culturally through struggle and that racial mixing causes degeneration—these ideas replicate those of Chamberlain, who likewise signaled to his reader that “the idea of struggle governs my presentation [in the Grundlagen].”[114] Chamberlain accepted Gobineau’s contention that miscegenation caused cultural decline, but insisted that such decline was not inevitable; one could struggle against degeneration and keep the Aryan folk, the bearers of culture, pure. But the fight had to be constantly renewed.  “The struggle in which the weaker human material is eradicated [zu Grunde geht],” Chamberlain argued, “steels the stronger; moreover the struggle for life [Kampf ums Leben] strengthens the stronger by eliminating the weaker elements.”[115]  Hitler clearly echoed Chamberlain’s observation that a peaceful land sows only cultural mediocrity; such a land, according to Chamberlain, “knows nothing of the social questions, of the hard struggle for existence [vom bittern Kampf ums Dasein].”[116] Compare this phrase with Hitler’s “the hard struggle for existence [unerbittlichen Kampf ums Dasein].”[117]  Hitler is thus not recycling Darwin, rather aping Chamberlain.[118]  Neither Chamberlain nor Hitler conceived the goal of struggle to be the biological transformation of the German race into something different.  Rather they thought means had to be taken to preserve the pure blood of the race and to realize, through struggle, the potential of the Teutons, who “alone have the ability for higher culture.”[119]  The explicit purpose of the volkish state, according to Hitler was “the preservation of the racial element that supplies culture.”[120]  Thus, not transformation but preservation of the ancient race of the Germans.

It might be thought that I am simply quibbling about technicalities.  Hitler after all used a phrase of Darwinian provenance, which points to the ultimate source of his ideas.  But we are talking about ideas, not mere words; and the ideas that Hitler deploys are not Darwin’s.  If words alone are to be the criterion, one might just as easily ascribe his enthusiasm for struggle to Christianity, the greatness of which he explicitly identified with its constant struggle against other religions and its efforts to extirpate them.[121]

The Political Source of Hitler’s Anti-Semitism

An obviously crucial question, concerning the supposed influence of Darwin on Hitler, is whether Darwinian concepts actually caused Hitler to adopt his racial ideas, especially his virulent anti-Semitism.  I’ve already suggested the impact of Gobineau and Chamberlain (with a tincture of Hegel), but Hitler came to these more theoretical works with his anti-Jewish sentiments already in flower.  Whence the beginnings, then, of his anti-Semitism?

In Mein Kampf, Hitler is perfectly explicit about the sources of his anti-Jewish attitudes.  He identifies two political figures who turned him from an individual hardly aware of Jews into a passionate anti-Semite:  Karl Lueger (1844-1910), newspaper baron and the mayor of Vienna (1897-1910); and Georg Schönerer (1842-1921), member of the Austrian parliament and leader of the Pan German Party, which sought to unite the German speaking lands in a political confederation.  Both were large presences in Vienna when Hitler, as an 18-year old art student, arrived there from Linz in 1908.  He claimed that prior to coming to the city he had little experience of Jews, thinking them merely Germans.[122]  Vienna was awash in anti-Semitic pamphlets and broadsides, which he said were so exaggerated that he could hardly believe them.  But Lueger and Schönerer made clear what was at stake in the Jewish question.


The Catholic Lueger was quite anti-Semitic, mostly, it seems, for political advantage.  When challenged on one occasion that his dinner companions were Jewish, he famous proclaimed:  “I decide who’s a Yid.”[123]  Opportunistic perhaps, but his newspaper, the Volksblatt, was so vehemently anti-Semitic that the Archbishop of Vienna denounced it.  Leuger’s party shared both name and outlook with those of the Protestant Court Preacher and deeply anti-Semitic Adolf Stöcker. Hitler explicitly said that it was Lueger and his Christian Social Party that caused his “opinions regarding anti-Semitism to undergo a slow change in the course of time.”  “It was,” he said, “my most serious change of opinion.”[124]


Schönerer was even more anti-Semitic than Lueger, apparently from deep conviction rather than political opportunism.  In Mein Kampf, Hitler compared Schönerer to Lueger:  “At the time, Schönerer seemed to me the better and more fundamental thinker in regard to the principal problems.”  As leader of the Pan German league, Schönerer sought a union of all German-speaking territories, a goal that Hitler embraced as a young man.  But, as he recalled, he finally determined that Lueger was the sounder theorist of the two.[125]  Hitler scholars Richard Evans and Ian Kershaw concur with Hitler’s own estimate that these two politicians were the most significant in forming his attitudes about Jews and the need for a racially homogeneous German land.[126]  So by Hitler’s own admission, these political figures, not Darwin, were pivotal in forming his anti-Semitic attitudes.  Thus neither was Hitler’s conception of race Darwinian nor was Darwinism the source of his anti-Semitism.  The motivation and origin of his views were political, not scientific, and certainly not Darwinian.[127]

Ethics and Social Darwinism

Though Hitler’s conception of race was non-Darwinian, yet perhaps, somehow, his ethical views derived from Darwin, as Weikart’s Hitler’s Ethic urges.  What was Darwin’s ethical theory?  That’s not hard to determine, since he set it out explicitly in the Descent of Man.  Darwin argued that human ethical behavior was rooted in social instincts of parental care, cooperation, and acting for the community welfare.  These, as he formulated them, were altruistic instincts.  Once proto-humans had developed sufficient intelligence and memory to appreciate unrequited social instincts and once they began to speak and thereby could codify rules of behavior, then a distinctively human conscience would have emerged in the group.  Those early proto-human clans that had more altruists, members who cooperated in providing for the general welfare and in food gathering and defense—those clans would have the advantage over those with no or few altruists and would come to supplant them.  Darwin further envisioned that while the concern of early humans would be their immediate communities, through the development of culture and science, humans would come to view all men as their brothers, recognizing that the distinctions of skin color, head shape, and other racial traits were only superficial markers of a common humanity.[128]  Darwin’s conception of the widening circle of moral concern has nothing in common with Hitler’s virulent hostility to races other than the Aryan.  Moreover, since Darwin’s theory is based on the emergence of human groups from lower animals, it could certainly have nothing in common with Hitler’s assumption of the permanency of races.

Any number of scholars who have written on the political and intellectual state of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s have described Hitler as advocating “social Darwinism.”[129]  The term is quite vague.  Indeed, it is often remarked that while Herbert Spencer might be a social Darwinist, Darwin himself was not.  I believe one can discriminate some six traits that scholars usually have in mind when referring to “social Darwinism”:

  1. the human races form a hierarchy from lower to higher, the criteria for ranking being  intelligence, morality, and cultural values;
  2. laws of nature apply equally to animals and men;
  3. there is a struggle among human groups;
  4. knowing the laws of nature, humans can control the struggle to the advantage of the superior races;
  5. the superior race is morally permitted to police its own group, eliminating the physically or intellectually inferior, and promoting those of sound hereditary features;
  6. the superior race may restrict the behavior of the lower races, even exterminating them.

The last two notes, of course, give the category of social Darwinism its decidedly negative bite.  I have not included the idea of transmutation of species, certainly a necessary feature of anyone who is also to be called a Darwinian simply.  These six traits usually characterize most eugenicists working in the first part of the twentieth century.  And they do seem to capture Hitler’s racism.  Were they embraced by Darwin?

Before answering that last question, we might reflect that, after a fashion, these traits could also be applied, for instance, to Aristotle, who did not have moral qualms about slavery and who assumed the natural superiority of some groups of people.  Likewise many American slave-holders in the South would likely sign on to these propositions.  Darwin did adopt propositions one to four, but rejected five and six.  When he was confronted with the idea that it would be of long-term benefit for a society to prevent the weak in mind and body from marrying and propagating their kind, he demurred:  “We must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.”[130]  The attempt to check our sympathies for the poor and wretched of the earth would, Darwin averred, cause “deterioration in the noblest part of our natures.”[131]  Of course, Hitler certainly followed all of the precepts, including five and six.  So while convention might sanction calling Hitler a social Darwinian (even if he did not believe in species transmutation), that same convention could not be applied to Darwin himself.  Thus the name “social Darwinian” is quite misleading and itself should imply no connection with the ethical theory of Charles Darwin.

Hitler rejected the transmutation of species, rather holding to the older notion of fixity of type; he deployed notions of struggle between races, but derived the idea from non-Darwinian sources; and if he were to be called a social Darwinian, that same designation with its intended meaning could not also describe Darwin’s views.  Hitler’s anti-Semitism, as he himself avowed, stemmed from political not scientific sources.  There is consequently no reasonable evidence that would link Hitler’s racial dogmas to Darwin’s theory.  Despite this conclusion, one might still contend that while Hitler did not personally derive ideas from Darwin, he fostered a scientific regime that made Darwinism and Haeckelianism the chief arbiters in questions of race.

Was the Biological Community Darwinian under Hitler?

The answer to the question of whether the biological community during the Nazi period was Darwinian is complicated by this salient fact:  many extremely good scientists remained in Germany during the Nazi period and practiced science at a very high level.  One only has to mention the names of Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) and Werner von Braun (1912-1977) to recognize that, despite their politics, they were extraordinary scientists.  In biology likewise, some exceedingly good biologists of different theoretical orientations could be found in the universities and research institutes of Nazi Germany.  For instance, the Nobel Prize winner (1969) Max Delbrück (1906-1981) worked in bio-physics in Berlin during the early part of Hitler’s regime before getting a fellowship in the U.S. in 1937 and never returning to Nazi Germany; his great colleague Nikolai Vladimirovic Timoféeff-Ressovsky (1900-1981) continued as director of the genetics division of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research through the end of the war.[132]  Many topflight biologists, some of whom were Darwinians, remained in Germany while Hitler was in power.  Of course, many others connected with the regime were non-Darwinians and, by any standards, quite awful.  During the late 1930s and 1940s, the discipline of biology itself underwent a significant transition.  Initially, through the teens and twenties, Mendelian genetics and Darwinian natural selection theory were often regarded as opposed, the former considered to be real science and the latter romantic butterfly collecting.[133]  But during the next two decades biologists discovered their complementary features; as a result, Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolutionary theory became joined in the synthetic framework that now serves as the foundation of modern biological science.  Several German biologists of the period contributed to this development, though others retained the older attitude.  Without doubt, then, Darwinian evolutionary biologists worked in Germany during the Hitler period.  And some Darwinians, like the Tübingen botanist Ernst Lehmann (1880-1957), founder (1931) of the Association of German Biologists and its journal Der Biologe, argued for a distinctively German biology aligned with the goals of the Nazi party.[134]  The pertinent question, though, is whether the National Socialist Party gave special accord to Darwinian science.  In 1940, the year he took up a professorship at Königsberg, Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), good Darwinian that he was, complained that there were many “in the schools of National-Socialistic greater Germany who in fact still reject evolutionary thought and descent theory [Entwicklungsgedanken und Abstammungslehre] as such.”[135]  Lorenz’s complaint strongly implies that Darwinism had no official mandate in the educational system.  Even more compelling evidence can be drawn from an examination of a leading scientific journal of the period that was also an official organ of the Nazi Party, Zeitschrift für die Gesamte Naturwissenschaft (Journal for all of natural science), which published from 1935 to 1944. From its third year, the journal carried the subtitle: “Organ of the Natural Science’s Professional Division of the Reich’s Student Leadership.”

The Zeitschrift published articles principally in the physical sciences and biology, along with essays on philosophical treatments of those sciences.  It sought to purge scientific activity of Jewish influences and establish Aryan science free from alien taint.[136]  On one marked occasion in the journal’s pages, Werner Heisenberg had to defend modern physics—particularly relativity theory and quantum theory—from charges that it was incompatible with National Socialism.[137]  The journal published in all the areas of biology, but with particular concern to show their relationship to the ideology of National Socialism.

The tone and attitude of the journal were established in the first article of the first volume (1935) by a philosopher from Kiel, Kurt Hildebrandt (1881-1966), who was also an editor.[138]  In “Positivismus und Natur,” Hildebrandt responded to an article published by the quantum physicist Pascual Jordan (1902-1980), who claimed that positivism was the method of all science.   Jordan argued that both the subjective world of consciousness and the objective world of nature could be derived from neutral experience without any appeal to metaphysics.[139]   Hildebrandt objected that this really reduced consciousness to mechanism and failed to recognize that natural phenomena depended on a creative spirit, of the sort suggested by both Goethe and Nietzsche.  “What is called positivism today, worse than any older philosophy that went under that name, denies actual spiritual experience.”[140]  This is shown, he thought, especially in the opposition of French rationalism and English empiricism to the notion of “creative spirit” (schöpferische Geist):

German nature-philosophy found in Leibniz, Herder, and Goethe showed the correct way to overcome this opposition by proposing a union of spirit and matter, which as a world view is most graphically expressed by the term “pantheism.”  In respect of creative nature as development, Leibniz already had a theory of species descent [Abstammungstheorie].[141]

Hildebrandt thus thought that English biology of the nineteenth century was inadequately grounded, but now “exact biology has dealt Darwin’s mechanization a deathblow [Todesstoß].”  He claimed that the new theory of inheritance, “which had long been suppressed by Darwinism, has had unexpected success.”  Darwinism, according to Hildebrandt, had to be rejected:

the creative unfolding of species, the origin of species from the amoeba to man, cannot be explained by this mechanistic theory.  Rather exact research on heritability has clearly destroyed the mechanistic framework of Darwinian theory.[142]

What exactly Hildebrandt meant by “creative spirit,” “creative force,” and the like—or the new research in genetics—is not at all clear in his essay.  In a footnote to the passage I’ve just quoted he added:  “This is not a reference to vitalism.  Goethe and Schelling were not vitalists, but monists, since they recognized the same creative power in the universe as in living individuals; they were the opponents of empiricism and materialism, which agree with conventional belief in God.”[143]  By the new theory of inheritance he likely meant that associated with Hugo de Vries’s (1848-1935) mutation theory, which supposed that macromutations, not Darwinian gradualism, led to the appearance of new species.[144] But Hildebrandt also suggested, despite disavowals, that there was a definite sort of élan vital behind such transitions.  Volume four of the Zeitschrift carried a long article by Hans Driesch (1867-1941), who also supposed that species change could not be explained by any Darwinian or Haeckelian mechanistic process but required the postulation of a vital entelechy of the sort conceived by Aristotle.[145]   All of this, of course, is quite antithetic to Darwinism.

When the Zeitschrift became an official organ of the National Socialist Party, it did not change its orientation, nor did Hildebrandt.  In volume three (1937/38), he proclaimed:

Our modern theory of inheritance has not supported this hypothesis [of descent], but endangers the foundational assumptions of Darwin and Haeckel.  Mendelian research rests on the assumption of an unchanging species and mutation-theory has, indeed, several disadvantages, but does not attempt to explain or demonstrate the origin of a higher species.[146]

He darkly hinted that “real transmutation theory cuts across, if ever so carefully, the border to metaphysics.”[147]

One of the new editors of the Zeitschrift after the political Gleichschaltung (takeover) by the Nazi party, the botanist Ernst Bergdolt (1902-1948), contended that the Darwinian selection principle was typical of the kind of passive environmentalist theory declaimed by Jewish liberals.[148]  In a dispute between a Darwinian and an anti-Darwinian anthropologist, Bergdolt lent his editorial support to the latter.[149]  The Darwinian, Christian von Krogh (1909-1992) of Munich, argued that Haeckel’s scheme of human descent from ape-like forbearers had evidence on its side,[150] while the anti-Darwinian, Max Westenhöfer (1871-1957) of Berlin, drew from comparative anatomy the opposite conclusion.  Westenhöfer, as a student of Rudolf Virchow, declared that “from numerous comparative-morphological investigations during the last 20 years, I came, almost against my will, to a critical rejection of the Darwin-Haeckel doctrine and was forced to construct a new theory of the heritage of mankind.”[151]  Westenhöfer adopted a version of de Vries’s mutation theory to explain human development through a lineage independent of the ape-man hypothesis.

Writing in the Zeitschrift after it became an Party organ in 1937, Günther Hecht (1902-1945), an official of the Party’s Department of Race Policy (Rassenpolitischen Amt der NSDAP) and member of the Zoological Institute in Berlin, completely rejected the idea (grundsätzlich abgelehnt) that the materialistic theories of Darwin and especially Haeckel had anything to do with the “völkisch-biological position of National Socialism.”[152]  The head of the Department of Race Policy, the physician Walter Groß (1904-1945), thought the Party ought to remain clear of any commitment to the doctrines of human evolution, “which is frequently still pervaded with Haeckelian ways of thinking in its basic ideological ideas . . . and is thus publicly considered a part of materialistic, monist ideas.”[153]

The rejection of Haeckelian ideas had been sealed already in 1935 when the Saxon ministries of libraries and bookstores banned all material inappropriate for “National-Socialist formation and education in the Third Reich.”  Among the works to be expunged were those by “traitors,” such as Albert Einstein; those by “liberal democrats,” such as Heinrich Mann; literature by “all Jewish authors no matter what their sphere”; and materials by individuals advocating “the superficial scientific enlightenment of a primitive Darwinism and monism,” such as “Ernst Haeckel.”[154] It is quite clear that Darwinian evolutionary theory held no special place within the community of biologists supportive of National Socialism.  Rather, biologists and philosophers most closely identified with the goals of the Nazi party and officials in that party utterly rejected Darwinian theory, especially as advanced by Darwin’s disciple, Ernst Haeckel.

Weikart and others have found the poison within the tempting apple of Darwinian theory to be its materialism, the feature that, according to Weikart, led to the pernicious morality of Hitler and his Nazi biologists.  But leading Nazi biological theorists, as has just been shown, not only rejected Darwinism but they did so precisely because of its supposed materialism.  Could there be anything left of the claim that Hitler derived his racial attitudes from Darwinian theory?


            Countless conservative religious and political tracts have attempted to undermine Darwinian evolutionary theory by arguing that it was endorsed by Hitler and led to the biological ideas responsible for the crimes of the Nazis.  These dogmatically driven accounts have been abetted by more reputable scholars who have written books with titles like From Darwin to Hitler.  Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s great German disciple, is presumed to have virtually packed his sidecar with Darwinian theory and monistic philosophy and delivered their toxic message directly to Berchtesgaden—or at least, individuals like Daniel Gasman, Stephen Jay Gould, and Larry Arnhardt have so argued.  In this chapter I have maintained these assumptions simply cannot be sustained after a careful examination of the evidence.

To be considered a Darwinian at least three propositions would have to be endorsed: that the human races exhibit a hierarchy of more advanced and less advanced peoples; that over long periods of time, species have descended from other species, including the human species, which derived from ape-like ancestors; and that natural selection—as Darwin understood it—is the principle means by which transmutation occurs.  Hitler and the Nazi biologists I have considered certainly claimed a hierarchy of races, but that idea far antedated the publication of Darwin’s theory and was hardly unique to it.  There is no evidence linking Hitler’s presumption of such a hierarchy and Darwin’s conception.  Moreover, Hitler explicitly denied the descent of species, utterly rejecting the idea that Aryan man descended from ape-like predecessors.  And most of the Nazi scientists I have cited likewise rejected that aspect of Darwin’s theory.  Hitler did speak of the “struggle for existence,” but likely derived that language from his friend and supporter Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an avowed anti-Darwinian.  By Hitler’s own testimony, his anti-Semitism had political, not scientific or biological roots; there is no evidence that Hitler had any special feeling for these scientific questions or read anything Darwin wrote.  Among Nazi biologists, at least those publishing in an official organ of the Party, Mendelian genetics and de Vriesian mutation theory were favored, both vying at the beginning of the twentieth century to replace Darwinian theory. The perceived mechanistic character of Darwinism stood in opposition to the vitalistic conceptions of Nazi biologists and that of Hitler—or at least vitalism resonated more strongly with his thoughts about race.  Moreover, though his own religious views remain uncertain, Hitler often enough assumed a vague theism of a sort usually pitted against Darwinian theory.

If “Social Darwinian” refers to individuals who apply evolutionary theory to human beings in social settings, there is little difficulty in denominating Herbert Spencer or Ernst Haeckel a social Darwinian.  With that understanding, Darwin himself also would have to be so called.   But how could one possibly ascribe that term at the same time to Hitler, who rejected evolutionary theory?  Only in the very loosest sense, when the phrase has no relationship to the transmutational theory of Charles Darwin or Darwin’s particular ethical views, might it be used for Hitler.

But as I suggested at the beginning of this chapter, there is an obvious sense in which my claims must be moot.  Even if Hitler could recite the Origin of Species by heart and referred to Darwin as his scientific hero, that would not have the slightest bearing on the validity of Darwinian theory or the moral standing of its author.  The only reasonable answer to the question that gives this chapter its title is a very loud and unequivocal No!

Essay reprinted by kind permission of the author and The University of Chicago Press.

Articles in this series:

Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism. David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson

The Case for Rescuing Tainted Words. David Sloan Wilson

Social Darwinism: Myth and Reality. Paul Crook

Social Darwinism: A Case of Designed Ventriloquism. Adriana Novoa

When the Strong Outbreed the Weak: An Interview with William Muir. David Sloan Wilson

Was Hitler a Darwinian? No! No! No! Robert J. Richards and David Sloan Wilson

Was Dewey a Darwinian? Yes! Yes! Yes! An interview with Trevor Pearce. David Sloan Wilson

Why Did Sociology Declare Independence from Biology (And Can They Be Reunited)? An Interview with Russell Schutt. David Sloan Wilson

Toward a New Social Darwinism. David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson


[1] Richard Weikart, “Was It Immoral for “Expelled” to Connect Darwinism and Nazi Racism?” (

[2] Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 6.

[3] Richard Weikart, Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 2-3.

[4] “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” (Rocky Mountain Pictures, 2008), a documentary film written by Kevin Miller and Ben Stein and directed by Nathan Frankowski. The line by Berlinski comes sixty-four minutes into the film.

[5] John Gray, “The Atheist Delusion,” The Guardian (15 March 2008): 4.

[6] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Orlando, Florida:  Harcourt, [1948] 1994), p. 463.

[7] Peter Bowler, “What Darwin Disturbed: The Biology that Might Have Been,” Isis 99 (2008): 560-67; quotation on pp. 564-65.

[8] Here are just a few of the more recent scholars who have described Hitler as a “social Darwinist”: Joachim Fest, Hitler, trans. Richard and Clara Winston. (New York:  New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), pp. 54-56; Mike Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 277-78; David Welch, Hitler (London:  Taylor & Francis, 1998 ) pp. 13-15; Frank McDonough, Hitler and the Rise of the Nazi Party (London:  Pearson/Longman, 2003), p. 5; Richard Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York:  Penguin, 2003), pp. 34-37; and Stephen Lee, Hitler and Nazi Germany (London:  Rutledge, 2010), p. 94.

[9] Daniel Gasman, The Scientific Origins of National Socialism: Social Darwinism in Ernst Haeckel and the German Monist League (New York: Science History Publications, 1971), p. 40.

[10] Daniel Gasman, Haeckel’s Monism and the Birth of Fascist Ideology (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), p. 26.

[11] Stephen Jay Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 77-78.

[12] See Peter Bowler, The Non-Darwinian Revolution (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), pp. 83-84; and Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Conservatism (Charlottesville, Va.:  Imprint Academic, 2005), p. 116.

[13] I have shown the essential identity of Darwin’s and Haeckel’s evolutionary theories at some length in Robert J. Richards, The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 135-62.  Gliboff also argues that though some scholars had contrasted Darwin and Haeckel’s views on morphological type, their theories were basically the same.  See Sander Gliboff, H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 161-66.

[14] Richard Weikart, “Darwinism and Death:  Devaluing Human Life in Germany 1859-1920,” Journal of the History of Ideas 63 (20020, pp. 323-344 (quotation from p. 343).

[15] Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–1882, ed. Nora Barlow (New York: Norton 1969), pp. 92-3. Only in the mid-1860s does Darwin’s theism slip away; he constructed his theory as a theist.  See the first essay in this volume.

[16] Ernst Haeckel, Der Monismus als Band zwischen Religion und Wissenschaft (Bonn: Emil Strauss, 1892), p. 29.

[17] I have discussed Haeckel’s ethical position in The Tragic Sense of Life:  Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 352-54,

[18] Richard Evans discusses this mix of religious and political anti-Semitism at the end of the nineteenth century in his The Coming of the Third Reich, pp. 22-34.

[19] See, for example, Adolf Stöcker, Das modern Judenthum in Deutschland besonders in Berlin (Berlin:  Verlag von Wiegandt und Grieben, 1880), p. 4: “the entire misery of Germany, I should have mentioned, comes from the Jews.”

[20] See Wilhelm Marr’s Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum, vom nicht confessionellen Standpunkt aus betrachtet, 8th  ed. (Bern: Rudolph Costenoble, 1879).  He held that “the degradation of the German state to the advantage of Jewish interests is a goal pursued everywhere. The daily press is chiefly in Jewish hands and they have made a speculative and industrial matter out of journalism, a business forming public opinion—theater criticism, art criticism are three-quarters in Jewish hands. . . There is no ‘struggle for existence,’ except that Judaism gathers its advantage” (pp. 24 and 27).

[21] Heinrich von Treitschke, Ein Wort über unser Judenthum (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1880), p. 4:  “. . . ertönt es heute wie aus einem Munde: “die Juden sind unser Unglück!”

[22] Richard Wagner, Das Judenthum in der Musik (Leipzig: Weber, 1869).

[23] Ibid., pp. 10-11.

[24] Quoted by Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts (New York:  Crown Books, 2011), p. 130.

[25] Despite the caveats I’ve offered about the easy slide from causal influence to epistemic and moral indictment, I don’t want to deny that under certain well-defined circumstances one might justify, for instance, a morally negative assessment based on a relationship of conceptual influence.  I have analyzed those circumstances in Robert J. Richards, “The Moral Grammar of Narratives in History of Biology—the Case of Haeckel and Nazi Biology,” Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Biology, ed. Michael Ruse and David Hull (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 429-52.

[26] Stephen Jay Gould, “Eternal Metaphors of Palaeontology,” Patterns of Evolution as Illustrated in the Fossil Record, ed. A. Hallan (New York:  Elsevier, 1977), pp. 1-26 (quotation from p. 13).  Gould subsequently tried to distinguish between what Darwin’s theory demanded and what his cultural dispositions might have led him to assert—as if Darwin’s theory were not embedded in the words of his books.  See Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life:  The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York:  Morton, 1989), pp. 257-58.  I have discussed Darwin’s progressivism vis-à-vis the assertions of Gould, Peter Bowler, and Michael Ruse.  See Robert J. Richards, “The Epistemology of Historical Interpretation,” in Biology and Epistemology, eds. Richard Creath and Jane Maienschein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 64-90.

[27] See, for example, Peter Bowler, Theories of Human Evolution (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 13.

[28] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London:  Murray, 1859), p. 489.

[29] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vols. (London: Murray, 1871), 1: 34.

[30] Ibid., p. 239.

[31] In the second edition of the Descent, Darwin described the extinction of the Tasmanians and the decline of the other “primitive” races of the South Pacific.  See, Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, with an introduction by James Moore and Adrian Desmond (London: Penguin Group, [1879] 2004), pp. 211-22.

[32] Adrian Desmond and James Moore maintain that Darwin’s anti-slavery attitude led him to postulate species descent from a common ancestor, and thus establish the brotherhood of man.  I am not convinced by the thesis; but even if true, this does not contradict his notion of racial hierarchy.  Christian slave-holders in the American South likewise assumed common ancestry for human beings.  See Desmond and Moore’s Darwin’s Sacred Cause (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), and Robert J. Richards, “The Descent of Man: Review of Darwin’s Sacred Cause,American Scientist 97 (September-October, 2009): 415-17.

[33] Darwin, Descent of Man (1871), 1: 240.

[34] Ernst Haeckel, Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (Berlin:  Georg Reimer, 1868), p. 519.  In subsequent editions, Haeckel added more species and changed the location of the races in the hierarchy.  In the second edition, for instance, Jews are located just a bit below the level of the Germans, but still remain far ahead of most of the other races.

[35] Haeckel as quoted by Hermann Bahr, “Ernst Haeckel,” in Der Antisemitismus: Ein internationals Interview (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1894), pp. 62-69 (quotation from p. 69).

[36] I have explored the question of Haeckel’s supposed anti-Semitism in greater detail in “Ernst Haeckel’s Alleged Anti-Semitism and Contributions to Nazi Biology,” Biological Theory 2 (Winter, 2007): 97-103.

[37] See, for example, Carolus Linnaeus, Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. 3 vols. (Halle:  Curt, 1760-1770), 1:20-24; Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, De generis humani varietate nativa liber, 3rd ed. (Göttingen:  Vandenhoek et Ruprecht, 1795); and Georges Cuvier, Le Régne animal, 2nd ed., 5 vols. (Paris: Deterville Libraire, 1829-30), 1: 80.  I have discussed these and other hierarchical schemes in Robert J. Richards, “Race,” Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science, ed. John Heilbron (Oxford:  University of Oxford Press, 2001): pp. 697-98.  See also Uwe Hoßfeld, Biologie und Politik: Die Herkunft des Menschen (Erfurt: Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Thüringen, 2011), p. 16.

[38] Carolus Linnaeus, Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, orines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis, 3 vols. (Halle: Curt, 1760-1770), 1: 20-24.

[39] Carus essentially reproduced the categories of Blumenbach’s De generis humani varietate nativa

[40] Carl Gustav Carus, System der Physiologie für Naturforscher und Aerzte, 2 vols. (Dresden:  Gerhard Fleischer, 1838), 1: 124.

[41] Ibid., 1: 112: : “Finally and chiefly it must not be thought that man has arisen from an animal (an ape, for instance, with which one sometimes classifies human beings) that has progressively developed and so has become man.”  Carus further refined his discussion in a work occasioned by the hundredth birthday of that great genius of the people of the day, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:  Denkschrift zum hundertjährigen Geburtsfeste Goethe’s. Ueber ungleiche Befähigung der verschiedenen Menschheitstämme für höhere geistige Entwickelung (Leipzig:  Brockhaus, 1849).  Carus used the American Samuel Morton’s measurement of skull sizes as one index of different intellectual capacities (p. 19).

[42] I have used the second German edition in this analysis:  Joseph Arthur Grafen Gobineau, Versuch über die Ungleichheit der Menschenracen, trans. Ludwig Schemann, 2nd ed., 4 vols. (Stuttgart: Fr. Frommanns Verlag,  1902-1904).

[43] Paul Weindling provides a trenchant account of the Gobineau Society, with its elitist and non-scientific membership.  See his richly nuanced Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism, 1870-1945 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 106-109.

[44] For Gobineau’s family background and political orientation, I have relied on Michael Biddiss’s Father of Racist Ideology:  the Social and Political Thought of Count Gobineau (New York:  Weybright and Talley, 1970).

[45] Gobineau, Versuch über die Ungleicheit der Menschenracen,1: xxxi-xxxiii

[46] ibid., 1: xxviii-xxix.

[47] Ibid., 1: 157.

[48] Ibid., 1: 278-81.

[49] Ibid., 1: 287-90.

[50] Ibid., 1:38.

[51] Ibid., 2: 92-3.

[52] By contrast, his German translator and biographer Ludwig Schemann, in Von deutscher Zukunft (1920), turned Gobineau’s thesis of the dangers of racial decline against the Jews.  Schemann detected in the Jews “a lethal danger for our material life as well as for our spiritual and ethical life.”  The Jews, he contended, “should be regarded as an alien people in our civic life.”  Quotations taken from Hoßfeld,  Biologie und Politik, p. 38.

[53] Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race or the Racial Basis of European History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916).  Hitler’s library contained the translation Der Untergang der großen Rasse, trans. Rudolf Polland (Munich: Lebmanns Verlag, 1925).  See Timothy Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), p. 97. Since Hitler’s copy does not contain any markings and he doesn’t mention Grant by name, it’s uncertain whether he actually read the book. Further, the first volume of Mein Kampf was finished in early 1925, and the translation of Grant came out in summer of 1925.

[54] Grant, Passing of the Great Race., p. 6.

[55] Ibid., p. 81.  The quite expressive phrase “cloaca gentium”—sewer of the races—appears to have come from Chamberlain, who used it to refer to Rome.  See Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, 2 vols. (Munich: Bruckmann, 1899), 1: 286.

[56] Ibid., p. 166.

[57] For the details of Chamberlain’s life, I have relied on the fine biography by Geoffrey Field, Evangelist of Race:  The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1981).

[58] Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Lebenswege meines Denkens (Munich:  Bruckmann, 1919), p. 93.

[59] Chamberlain to Harriett Chamberlain (31 July 1882), in Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Brief, 1882-1924, und Briefwechsel mit Kaiser Wilhelm II, ed. Paul Pretzsch, 2 vols. (Munich:  Bruckmann, 1928), 1: 1.

[60] Chamberlain’s books on Wagner are:  Das Drama Richard Wagner’s. Eine Anregung (Vienna: Breitkopf & Härtel,1892); Richard Wagner. Echte Briefe an Ferdinand Praeger (Bayreuth: Grau’sche Buchhandlung,1894); Richard Wagner (Munich: F. Bruckmann,1896); Parsifal-Märchen (Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1900). Each of these went through multiple editions and translations.

[61] Chamberlain, Lebenswege meines Denkens pp. 119-20.

[62] Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Recherches sur la Sève Ascendante (Neuchatel: Attinger Freres, 1897), pp. 6-8.

[63] Chamberlain, Die Grundlagen, 1: 266-67.

[64] Ibid., p. 277.

[65] Ibid., p. 122n.

[66] Ibid., p. 496.

[67] Chamberlain goes through some conceptual contortions to reach this conclusion.  See ibid., pp. 217-20.  Hitler adopted the same theory, namely that “Christ was certainly not a Jew, but a Galilean of Aryan descent.”  See Adolf Hitler, Monologe im Führer-Hauptquartier, 1941-1944, ed. Werner Jochmann (Albrecht Knaus, 1980), p. 96 (21 October 1941).  This latter volume recovers Hitler’s so-called “table-talk,” stenographic recordings ordered by Martin Bormann of the Leader’s conversations.

[68] Chamberlain, Die Grundlagen, 1: 372.

[69] Ibid., p. 415.

[70] Ibid., p. 374.

[71] Ibid., p. 325.

[72] Ibid., p. 531.

[73] Ibid., 2: 805.

[74] Ibid., 1: 25.

[75] Chamberlain to Cosima Wagner (9 March 1896), in Cosima Wagner und Houston Stewart Chamberlain im Briefwechsel 1888-1908, ed. Paul Pretzsch (Leipzig: Philipp Reclam, 1934), p. 478.

[76] Chamberlain to Karl Horst (31 October 1895), in Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Briefe, 1: 26-27.  The phrase “world puzzles” was obviously an oblique reference to Haeckel’s book Welträtsel.

[77] These are the conclusions Chamberlain drew in two manuscripts from the years 1896 and 1900.  They were published by his friend Jakob von Uexküll shortly after his death.  See Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Natur und Leben, ed. J. von Uexküll (Munich: Bruckmann, 1928), pp. 102-168.

[78] In matters of morphology, Chamberlain said his masters were Goethe and Kant.  See Chamberlain, Lebenswege meines Denkens, p. 122.

[79] Timothy Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library, p. 50

[80] Chamberlain to Adolf Hitler (7 October 1923), in Briefe, 1882-1924, 2: pp. 124-25.

[81] The letter was originally published in Deutsche Presse, nos. 65-66 (April 20-21, 1924), p. 1; reprinted in Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Auswahl aus seinen Werken, ed. Hardy Schmidt (Breslau: Ferdinand Hirt, 1935), p. 66.

[82] Hitler visited Chamberlain several more times in Bayreuth, in spring and summer, 1925 and again in November and May 1926, when the old man was in very poor health.  Chamberlain died on January 9, 1927.  Hitler attended the funeral services representing the Workers Party.

[83] Adolf Hitler, Monologe im Führer-Hauptquartier, p. 224.  It’s unclear which of the two letters Hitler is referring to, the personal letter or the open letter published while he was in Landsberg prison.

[84] Quoted by Ryback in Hitler’s Private Library, p. 67. The some twelve hundred volumes of Hitler’s libraries, recovered by American Forces after the war, now reside in the Library of Congress; eighty others are in Brown’s Library, souvenirs of a returning solidier.

[85] Alfred Rosenberg, Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (Munich: Hoheneichen Verlag, 1930).  The remark by Goering is quoted in Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), p. 138.

[86] I have used the 1943 edition of Mein Kampf, which prints both volumes of the book as one:  Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (Munich:  Verlag Franz Eher Nachf., 1943).

[87] Ibid., p. 296.

[88] Ibid., p. 156.

[89] Hitler, Monologe im Führer-Hauptquartier,p. 232 (25-26 January 1942). Hitler’s German is an inelegant tangle, even granted the “Table Talk” records spontaneous conversations.  Here’s the original:  “Woher nehmen wir das Recht, zu glauben, der Mensch sei nicht von Uranfängen das gewesen, was er heut’ ist?  Der Blick in die Natur lehrt uns, daß im Bereich der Pflanzen und Tiere Veränderungen und Weiterbildungen vorkommen, aber nigrends zeigt sich innerhalb einer Gattung eine Entwicklung von der Weite des Sprunges, den der Mensch gemacht haben müßte, sollte er sich aus einem affenartigen Zustand zu dem, was er ist, fortgebildet haben!”

[90] Hanns Hörbiger and Phiilipp Fauth, Glazial-Kosmogonie (Leipzig:  R. Voigtländers Verlag, 1913).

[91] See Christopher Hale, Himmler’s Crusade:  The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race (New York:  Wiley, 2003), pp. 117-19.

[92] Karl Rode, “Welt=Anschauung!” Zeitschrift für die gesamte Wissenschaft 2 (1936-1937): 222-231.  See also Christina Wessely, “Welteis.  Die ‘Astronomie des Unsichtbaren’ um 1900,“  in Pseudowissenschaft. Konzepte von Nicht/Wissenschaftlichkeit in der Wissenschaftsgeschichte, eds. D. Rupnow, V. Lipphardt, J. Thiel, C. Wessely (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2008), pp. 155-85.  Wessely shows that though Höbiger had little success in convincing the leading astronomers and geologists of his theory after the First World War, yet several popular societies (die Welteis-Vereine) in Germany and Austria spread the word through evening lectures and an enormous number of books.  Newspapers and illustrated magazines also informed a curious public.  She observes that Heinrich Himmler in particular lent the theory support.

[93] Hitler, Monologe im Führer-Hauptquartier, (25-26 January 1942), p. 232.

[94] Weikart, Hitler’s Ethic, p. 47.

[95] Gobineau, Versuch über die Ungleichheit der Menschenracen, 1: 278.

[96] Hitler, Monologe im Führer-Hauptquartier, (24 October 1941), p. 103.

[97] Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 312.

[98] Ibid.

[99] See chapter 3 in this volume.

[100] Weikart, Hitler’s Ethic, p. 3.

[101] Ibid., p. 3l3.

[102] Ibid., p. 316.

[103] Ibid., p. 314.

[104] Ibid., p. 443.

[105] Heinrich Georg Bronn was the first translator of Darwin’s OriginÜber die Entstehung der Arten im Thier- und Pflanzen-Reich durch natürliche Züchtung, oder Erhaltung der vervollkommneten Rassen im Kampfe um’s Daseyn, trans. H. Bronn (Stuttgart: E. Schweizerbart’sche Verlagshandlung und Druckerei, 1860).  The translation was slightly revised by Julius Victor Carus, who translated the fourth English and subsequent editions of the OriginÜber die Entstehung der Arten durch natürlichen Zuchtwahl oder die Erhaltung der begünstigten Rassen im Kampfe um’s Dasein, trans. J. Victor Carus (Stuttgart: E. Schweizerbart’sche Verlagshandlung und Druckerei, 1867).  The Carus editions would have been standard in the early twentieth century.

[106] Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 145: “. . . tritt an Stelle des natürlichen Kampfes um das Dasein, der nur den Allerstärksten und Gesündesten am Leben läßt . . .”

[107] Ibid., p. 149.

[108] Ibid.

[109] Adolf Hitler, Hitlers Zweites Buch (Stuttgart:  Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1961), p. 46.  Hitler dictated this statement of foreign policy in summer of 1928; the publisher recommended against publishing since it would compete with the second volume of Mein Kampf, which at the time was not selling well.  The manuscript was later recovered in 1958 from a U.S. Army deposit of confiscated papers.

[110] Ibid., p. 47.

[111] Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, abridged ed. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), p. 215.

[112] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, vol. 12 of Werke, eds. Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Michel, 4th ed. (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1995), p. 75:  “The principle of development [Das Prinzip der Entwicklung] contains this as well, that an inner purpose [Bestimmung], a fundamental, intrinsic condition, establishes its own existence.  This formal purpose is essentially the spirit that has world-history as its theater, its possession, and the field of its realization.”  It’s hard to know whether Hitler read the Vorlesungen (Lectures) directly or derived the gist of Hegel’s conception of history from some other source.  That Hegel was Hitler’s ultimate source, though, is unmistakable.

[113] Ibid., p. 76.

[114] Chamberlain, Grundlagen, 2:536.

[115] Ibid., 1:277-78.

[116] Ibid., 1:44.

[117] Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 149.  Also quoted above.

[118] Chamberlain, Grundlagen, 2:805.

[119] Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 431:

[120] Ibid., p. 434.

[121] Ibid., pp. 385 and 506.

[122] Ibid., p. 55.

[123] Richard Evens, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), p. 43

[124] Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 59.

[125] Ibid., p. 107.

[126] Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, pp. 164-65; Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 2 vols. (New York:  Norton, 2000), 1: 31-36.  It may be that Hitler did have some knowledge of Jews while in Linz, but his attitude seemed to concretize, bathed as it was in the acidic opinions of Lueger and Schönerer.

[127] Boyer is quite clear that Lueger’s anti-Semitism had nothing to do with race but with political advantage.  See John W. Boyer,  Karl Lueger (1844-1910), Christlichsoziale Politik als Beruf (Vienna:  Böhlau Verlag, 2010), p. 208.

[128] These ideas are worked out in the Descent of Man, 1: chaps. 3 and 5.  I have discussed Darwin’s ethical theory and its sources in Robert J. Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 185-242.

[129] I have mentioned those recent scholars who casually employ the term “social Darwinism” in note 7, above.


[130] Darwin, Descent of Man, 1: 169.

[131] Ibid., pp. 168-69.

[132] For an account of Timoféeff’s career, see Vadim Ratner, “Nikolay Vladimirovich Timoféeff-Ressovsky (1900-1981): Twin of the Century of Genetics,” Genetics 158 (2001): 933-39; and Yakov Rokityanskij, “N V Timofeeff-Ressovsky in Germany (July, 1925–September, 1945),” Journal of Biosciences 30 (2005): 573-80. See also Kristie MacRakis, Surviving the Swastika:  Scientific Research in Nazi Germany (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 120-22.

[133] The geneticist and formidable historian of biology of the first part of the twentieth century, Erik Nordenskiöld, declared in 1928 that Darwin’s theory “has long ago been rejected in its most vital points by subsequent research.”  It would be replaced, he thought, by real science, modern laboratory genetics.  See Erik Nordenskiöld, The History of Biology, trans. L. B. Eyre (New York:  Tudor Publishing Co., [1928] 1936), p. 477.

[134] See Ernst Lehmann, Biologie im Leben der Gegenwart (Munich:  J. F Lehmann Verlag, 1933), pp. 212-38.  Lehmann attempted to show that modern evolutionary biology, with the important addition of Mendelism, aligned perfectly with goals of Hitler and his party.  His main concern, in so far as biology was to serve the state, was to warn of the dangers of racial decline through hybridization with lower races (pp. 216-23). Though Lehmann tried several times to join the Nazi party, he was always rejected, ultimately because he fell afoul of more powerful party leaders.  See Ute Deichmann’s discussion of Lehmann’s plight in her Biologists under Hitler, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 74-89.

[135] Konrad Lorenz, “Nochmals:  Systematik und Entwicklungsgedanken im Unterricht,” Der Biologe 9 (1940):  24-36; quotation from p. 24.

[136] When the journal became an official party organ in 1937, a new editorial indicated that the journal took as its task “the cultivation of scientific content in so far as it reflects an essential German nature.” See [editorial], Zeitschrift für die gesamte Naturwissenschaft 3 (1937-1938): 1.   Deichmann discusses the character of the journal in her Biologists under Hitler, p. 43.

[137] Werner Heisenberg, “Die Bewertung der modernen theoretischen Physik, Zeitschrift für die gesamte Naturwissenschaft 9 (1943): 201-12.  Heisenberg rejected the idea of the incompatibility of modern physics and National Socialism on pp. 210-11. He noted that his essay had been written in 1940, which was about the time of a fight to fill the chair held by the retiring physicist at Munich Arnold Sommerfeld.  Heisenberg and other students of Sommerfeld tried to prevent the group supporting Deutsche Physik—which was quite anti-Semitic and hostile to relativity and quantum mechanics—from advancing their candidate to the chair.  Heisenberg, the heir apparent—having won the Nobel Prize in 1932—yet lost the fight.  Nonetheless his stature grew as the possibility of a nuclear weapon was considered.  In 1943, when his paper was published, he had been appointed to the chair of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin and made a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences.

[138] Kurt Hildebrandt, “Positivismus und Natur,” Zeitschrift für die gesamte Naturwissenschaft 1 (1935/1936): 1-22. Martin Heidegger was one of the associate editors (Mitarbeiter) of the journal.

[139] See Pascual Jordan, “Über den positivistischen Begriff der Wirklichkeit,” Die Naturwissenschaften 22 (20 July 1934): 33-39.  Jordan contended that experience alone was the foundation for science and that it united the subjective world and the objective world.  Not only did Hildebrandt reject the analysis, but so did many members of the Vienna Circle, particularly Otto Neurath.  See the discussion of this dispute within the movement of logical positivism by Suzanne Gieser, in her The Innermost Kernel: Depth Psychology and Quantum Physics, Wolfgang Pauli’s Dialogue with C. G. Jung (New York:  Springer, 2005), especially pp. 50-102.

[140] Hildebrandt, “Positivismus und Natur,” p. 20.

[141] Ibid., p. 21.

[142] Ibid., p. 22.

[143] Ibid.

[144] That he had de Vries’s theory in mind seems fairly clear from a subsequent article of his in the journal:  Kurt Hildebrandt, “Die Bedeutung der Abstammungslehre für die Weltanschauung,” Zeitschrift für die gesamte Naturwissenschaft 3 (1937/1938): 15-34.

[145] Hans Driesch, “Der Weg der Theoretischen Biologie,” Zeitschrift für gesamte Naturwissenschaft 4 (1938/1939): 209-32.

[146] Kurt Hildebrandt, “Die Bedeutung der Amstammungslehre, p. 22.

[147] Ibid.

[148] Ernst Bergdolt, “Zur Frage der Rassenentstehung beim Menschen,” Zeitschrift für die gesamte Naturwissenschaft 3 (1937/1938): 109-113.

[149] Ernst Bergdolt, “Abschließende Bermerkungen zu dem Thema ‘Das Problem der Menschenwerdung,” Zeitschrift für die gesamte Naturwissenschaft 6 (1940): 185-88.

[150] Christian von Krogh, “Das ‘Problem’ Menschenwerdung,” Zeitschrift für die gesamte Naturwissenschaft 6 (1940): 105-12.  Uwe Hoßfeld provides a brief account of von Krogh’s position in his Geshichte der biologischen Anthropologie in Deutschland (Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2005), pp. 272-74.

[151] Max Westenhöfer, “Kritische Bemerkung zu neueren Arbeiten über die Menschenwerdung und Artbildung,” Zeitschrift für die gesamte Naturwissenschaft 6 (1940): 41-62; quotation from p. 41.

[152] Günther Hecht, “Biologie und Nationalsozialismus,” Zeitschrift für die gesamte Naturwissenschaft 3 (1937–1938): 280–90; quotation from p. 285.

[153] Walter Groß, as quoted by Deichmann, in Biologists under Hitler, p. 270.

[154] “Richtilinien für die Bestandsprüfung in den Volksbüchereien Sachsens,” Die Bücherei 2 (1935): 279–80.

Published On: February 22, 2016

Robert J. Richards

Robert J. Richards

Robert J. Richards is the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Science, and Professor in the Departments of History, Philosophy, and Psychology at the University of Chicago.  He has written several books on evolutionary theory in the 19the and early 20th centuries; he has also written on the history of German Romanticism, especially its impact on science and philosophy in the age of Goethe.


  • Jon Marks says:

    A very erudite essay. I’m confused about one thing: In “Headquarters Nights” (1917) Vernon Kellogg wrote that the German officers knew their Haeckel and used it to justify their militarism during World War I. It seems kind of weird to me to imagine that Haeckel’s influence (i.e., this militaristic version of Darwinism) would simply have disappeared from German thought during the Weimar years. Although perhaps it did.
    Also, FWIW, Madison Grant apparently bragged to people that Hitler had sent him a fan letter saying, “Your book is my Bible”.

    • James Downard says:

      Haeckel was certainly a fervent German nationalist, which played OK in the German Empire but less so in the racialist pseudoscience being promoted by the Nazis a decade on. Madison Grant would be an example of an “evolutionist” who didn’t actually draw on it much in his xenophobic ideology, similar to Lothrop Stoddard in the 1920s. I delve into Stoddard, Grant, and the weird eugenics legacy (and the few modern advocates, in the Intelligent Design movement ironically enough) regarding antievolutionist usage of the eugenics/Darwinism issue in (pdf version also available for open access download at

      • cyp says:

        You mean the guy that faked the embryo pictures to prove darwinism, when in fact they prove filogenetic recapitulation to be something entirely fictional?

    • Tom McIver says:

      Kellogg, though an ardent evolutionist, argued against the sufficiency of natural selection to explain it. He called the German militarists he criticized in Headquarters Nights “neo-Darwinists”–by which he meant believers in the “Allmacht” (omnipotence) of natural selection. (“Neo-Darwinism” later came to mean something different.) In his own view of evolution, Kellogg stressed cooperation rather than direct competition or “struggle for existence” between species or races. The German officers whose views he found so belligerent and dangerous used “struggle for existence” to justify German militarism and the war, but this not the evolution that Kellogg, or, for that matter, Darwin advocated.
      By the way, the main spokesman for “neo-Darwinism” among the officers Kellogg was staying with at German headquarters in Belgium was a leading zoology professor who Kellogg refers to as “von Flussen,” not giving his real name. Mark Largent and I independently discovered that “von Flussen” was actually Otto Zur Strassen. I corresponded with Stephen Jay Gould about this, as he did not know “von Flussen’s” identity when he wrote “William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign,” which featured a discussion of Kellogg’s Headquarters Nights and its use by creationists. Gould was pleased to learn “von Flussen’s” real identity.

  • James Downard says:

    Richards has contributed enormously on theis very important topic (antievolutionists routinely wave Hitler & eugenics about in their compaign to discredit “Darwinism”) and this posting is a welcome addition to my #TIP anticreationism resource dataset ( & which already includes a dozen other of Richards’ works over the last score years, especially his research into Ernst Haeckel. Keep up the splendid scholarship!

  • Catherine Dong says:

    I feel we should not have to argue this, because of the close way the idea of the Third Reich follows German historian Oswald Spengler’s hugely influential Decline of the West. Spengler didn’t believe in Darwin’s evolutionary theory. He considered civilizations had life cycles, but in the same way as an individual ages. That a civilization should be looked at in isolation, not relating to environment or other civilizations, and definitely not reproducing in an evolutionary manner. He regarded the superorganism that is Western Civilization as near the end of its thousand-year lifespan. Hence, Hitler’s promise of a new thousand-year Reich.

  • Oleh Komashko says:

    A citation in support of the author:
    In 1865 Governor Eyre put down a Negro uprising in Jamaica with great violence.

    Liberals, humanitarians, and nonconformists felt that justice and law were in danger. Tories, Anglicans, and hero-worshipers felt that British power and prestige were in danger. Mill headed a committee of all the talents for one party; Carlyle, a committee of all the talents for the other.

    Among the scientists, Tyndall followed his hero Carlyle, while Darwin, Lyell, and Huxley gave their support to Mill. Darwin contributed ten pounds to the Jamaica Committee [headed by Mill]…

    As soon as Huxley put his name down for the Jamaica Committee, controversy sought him out. The Pall Mall Gazette observed that, having defended the spirituality of gorillas, he could hardly do less for the political virtue of Negroes.

    Apes, Angels, and Victorians: The Story of Darwin, Huxley and Evolution. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972. (Originally, 1955) p. 240

  • Leandro says:

    Amazing blog! Do you have any helpful hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own website soon but I’m
    a little lost on everything. Would you propose starting with a free
    platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m
    completely confused .. Any tips? Thank you!

    My web page

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments, which add to the great scholarship of Bob Richards. I’m proud to offer this kind of content on TVOL.

  • Bernd Ehlert says:

    One can see Social Darwinism only as a “plague of toxic behaviors”, if one has previously recognized the special of the human being in evolution. According to Edward O. Wilson the evolution of human societies into civilization during the last 45,000 years is a cultural and not a genetic process (Chapter “The sprint to Civilization” in his book “The Social Conquest of Earth”). With an additional knowledge of Konrad Lorenz, this means that our neuronal coding information system of our language that only our conscious thinking and general culture allows in this way accomplishes evolutionary performances. This new system is able just like the genetic system to acquire, store, modify and apply information for evolution.
    So we have a divided nature. On the one hand we have still as animalistic heritage genetically anchored instinctual behaviors of genetic evolution yet, on the other hand we are developing the learned behaviors for at least 45,000 years as the intellectual and cultural evolution on the neural level.
    In this way Social Darwinism is defined as an application of the old, since at least 45,000 years outmoded genetic evolution to modern man according to our instincts, which date from the time of the genetic and animal evolution. Therefore politicians like Hitler and Trump are so dangerous for the further cultural evolution because they appeal to the instincts in man. Although they trigger enthusiasm which is associated with these old instincts, it is a disaster and a step backwards for the current cultural evolution.
    In former archaic times the Nazi behavior was a good behavior for the own tribe to survive. It was so important that one can find this behavior and this rassism even in the bible in religious terms: “16 But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded.” (5. Mose 20).

  • cyp says:

    Hitler was definitely a darwinian and most of his Main Kampf is inspired by California darwinist society. The full title of Origin of species is “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. One of the most important idea of darwinism is that some species are inferior and need to be eliminated for evolution to occur. Darwinists try in every way to hide the racism and evil of their theory but the truth cannot be silenced. Although Darwin had combined many belief systems his main motive for the aryan race and his attack on the jews and other races is entirely the fult of Darwinism. Also Mendel was not a darwinist but a christian. His work that unlike darwinism is empirically proven opposes darwinism.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.