In step with the prevailing scientific wisdom at the turn of the century, many German biologists, anthropologists, and physicians aimed to screen genetic defects out of the population one way or another. Contemporary thinking on “racial hygiene” influenced Hitler and other Nazi leaders, who combined racial anti-Semitism with broader plans to purify the German or “Aryan” population (13). They regarded Jews as the ultimate and most dangerous source of racial pollution, disease, and criminality. Moreover, they believed that Jews were incapable of change, since their characteristics and behavior supposedly derived from their blood. But other nationalities, and even certain segments of the German population, were also perceived as genetically inferior, impure, or both. Influential members of the German biomedical and social-scientific communities had already laid the groundwork for these ideas, and to some extent even supported their application by the Nazis.
Shortly after assuming power, the Nazis implemented a series of measures that moved Germany toward the creation of a racial community by separating or eliminating “unsound” or “dangerous” elements within the population and promoting those of allegedly Aryan stock (14). Numerous factors – including scientific experimentation, competition among rival authorities, external constraints, conscious advance planning, and military success – contributed to the escalation of persecution into mass murder and genocide during the war (15).
Scholars have long debated the timing and motives of specific Nazi racial policies. One early study (originally published in 1961, but since expanded and revised) describes the contributions of numerous government, party, and corporate organizations to a process that started in 1933 and grew organically into what has become known as the Holocaust (16). Another important work examines the interaction among various Nazi programs of eugenics, mass murder, and genocide (17). Research on the subject is difficult, since some official decisions were never committed to paper; in other cases, documents were destroyed. Additionally, official correspondence rarely reveals the actual reasons for particular actions, and the specification of goals often remains equally vague. The isolation of Nazi targets and perceived enemies – and later, their destruction – was to be carried out neatly, with few reverberations within Germany.
(13) Robert Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).
(14) Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
(15) For one recent assessment of wartime changes, Christopher Browning with contributions from Jürgen Matthäus, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).
(16) Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961), 3rd edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
(17) Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).