War Against the Weak

Edwin Black


reviewed by Mira de Vries

Black tells a totally different history of The Holocaust than the one that is in current academic fashion. An investigative journalist, he and his team of international researchers have diligently dug up thousands of documents and adroitly connected the dots.

What were the factors that led up to The Holocaust? Anti-semitism and racism of course, but there was nothing new about those. The other much overlooked factor is a false science.

Its methods were "guesswork, gossip, falsified information and polysyllabic academic arrogance" justified by a copious collection of records and "mathematical acrobatics". It was advocated by esteemed professors and elite universities. It was funded by the wealth of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and railroad magnate Harriman among others. It was endorsed by big names like Alexander Graham Bell, famous for inventing the telephone. It was sanctified by politicians, legislators, educators, social workers, and judges including Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendall Holmes. Its philosophy claimed to draw on the work of the well-known monk Mendel and his experiments on the heredity of pea pods. The writings of Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer also influenced it. By the way, it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase "Survival of the fittest". It was Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, who gave this pseudo-science its name: Eugenics.

It was also Galton, still today revered as a medical innovator, who suggested "wed[ding] ... biology to government action" starting with "a highly regulated marriage licensing process." Galton, too, was the one who advocated twin studies of mengele infamy. Galton's passion was collecting statistics, a field that today dominates medicine. Black calls him "a clever and compulsive counter". Galton achieved his fame and fortune not by hard labor, but by being born into an upper class family in class-conscience England. However, his views rapidly crossed the ocean where they were well received.

Various social conditions both imagined and real were redefined by eugenicists. US Census Bureau Director Francis Walker, lamenting the waves of brown-haired people whom he considered "genetically defective" flooding through Ellis Island, called immigration "race suicide." Physicians perceived disease as genetically determined, including conditions previously recognized as caused by a blow to the head such as some forms of epilepsy and insanity, as well as contagious illnesses such as tuberculosis. "[C]rime was increasingly viewed as a group phenomenon, and ... an inherited family trait. Criminologists and social scientists widely believed in the recently identified 'criminal type,' typified by 'beady eyes' and certain phrenological shapes. ... It was the petty criminals, not the gilded ones, whom polite society perceived as the great genetic menace." The key to wiping out these menaces was considered removing the so affected people from the human gene pool through segregation and sterilization (rendering the person incapable of producing offspring).

Other names dotting the chapters of this book include Margaret Sanger, founder of the Birth Control movement. Claiming to base herself on medical authorities, she was an avid proponent of eugenics and coined terminology like "vermin" and "extermination". Ophthalmologist Lucien Howe, who had introduced bathing newborns' eyes with silver nitrate drops to fight neonatal infection, campaigned for sterilizing blind people, even though more than 90% of them had no blind relatives at all. New York urologist William Robinson advocated gassing the children of the unfit with chloroform or potassium cyanide. In England "eugenic extremist George Bernard Shaw lectured at London's Eugenics Education Society about mass murder in lethal chambers" which he endorsed. Then Home Secretary Winston Churchill "reassured ... eugenicists that ... 120,000 feebleminded persons should, if possible, be segregated under proper conditions so that their curse died with them and was not transmitted to future generations."

Back in the US schemes for hunting down the perceived genetically inferior were proposed. These included sending questionnaires to schools to collect information on their pupils. "Measuring man's intelligence had always been a eugenic pursuit" Black points out. "The movement [amassed] volumes of data on families and individuals by combining equal portions of gossip, race prejudice, sloppy methods and leaps of logic, all caulked together by elements of actual genetic knowledge to create the glitter of a genuine science."

Critics? Yes, there were some. One was ironically British scientist David Herron, writing in a Galton Laboratory publication, who called American eugenics "rubbish". Another penned an editorial in the San Francisco Daily News asserting -
The millions of ... Harriman ... Rockefeller and Carnegie, are to be devoted to sterilization of several hundred thousands of American "defectives" annually, as a matter of eugenics. ... We see that our moneyed plutocrats can own the governments of whole states, override constitutions, maintain private armies to shoot down men, women and children, and railroad innocent men to life imprisonment ... we ought not to be surprised if they ... sterilize all those who are obnoxious to them.
Some at the US Census Bureau resisted eugenics in a protracted bureaucratic battle. Bell eventually started having misgivings and bowed out of the movement. Published under the pseudonym of Ezekiel Cheever, a 47-paged booklet lampooned "Naughty Germ Plasms" calling eugenics "one of the greatest blunders made by scientific men in America the past fifty years" and "statistical legerdemain". But high-ranking eugenicists dismissed their critics as "paranoiacs and imbeciles" and "heckler-critics".

Eugenic law was spearheaded by the US state of Virginia. Here Walter A. Plecker, a physician born at the beginning of the US Civil War, became county health officer. As such he was in a position to enact bureaucratic registration, prevent racially mixed marriages, expel students suspected of having black ancestry from their schools, and segregate railroad coaches. Many other states followed, with California performing the most forced sterilizations.

Having imported eugenics from England, the US now exported it back to Europe. "Harvard professor Robert De Courcy Ward advocated eugenic screening of immigrant candidates before they even reached U.S. shores." Leading eugenicist Harry Laughlin proposed introducing "legislation to create a corps of eugenic 'immigration attachés' stationed at American consulates across Europe and eventually the entire world." America's consuls with their "biological preferences and prejudices would become insurmountable barriers to many fleeing oppression" during Europe's pre-Holocaust era.

"After purifying America from within and preventing defective strains from reaching U.S. shores," writes Black, "they planned to eliminate undesirables from the rest of the Planet." The first international meeting advocating eugenics was held in the cradle of eugenics: London. Delegates arrived from the US, England, Belgium Denmark France, Germany, Italy, and Norway. World War I set eugenic efforts back, particularly as German eugenicists refused to participate alongside delegates from their country's enemies Belgium and France. The second international eugenic congress was held after WWI in New York. The US organizers endeavored to pull the Germans back into their ranks.

In Switzerland eugenics was led by psychiatrist Auguste Forel. In Denmark it was Dr. Tage Kemp who was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Norway joined, led by its raceologist Jon Alfred Mjøen, and enacting compulsory sterilization laws that lasted from 1922 to 1977. Sweden performed no less than 63,000 sterilizations, mostly on women. Finland, Hungary, France, Romania, Italy and other European nations followed suit. But "One nation ... would go further than anyone could imagine." Germany.

The last section of the book titled "Newgenics" is at the same time Black's finest and his most fumbled. Notwithstanding that compulsory sterilization around the world including the US continued until the seventies and beyond while limitations on immigration were never revoked, eugenicists dissociated themselves from The Holocaust by changing the name of their pseudo-science to genetics. Black most astutely recognizes the traps this supposedly new science sets for us and the human rights violations inherent in its practice. Yet he tempers his warnings by postulating that genetics is basically a legitimate and effective discipline. "So much is possible: genetic therapies ... and ... modification of the genes responsible for adverse behaviors, such as aggression and gambling addiction." In fact, none of this is possible nor will it ever be. In spite of decades of well-funded research, no "genetic therapies" exist other than genetic screening, which amounts to prenatal eugenics. As for "adverse behaviors", they simply have nothing to do with genes.

One of Black's earlier publications related to a subject of MeTZelf concern is IBM and the Holocaust. Both books are thoroughly researched and highly recommendable particularly for the reader seeking to connect history with present medical practice.

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