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Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, Lecture in Lübeck on Questions Relating to Eugenics (1929)

In this 1929 lecture, Protestant theologian and public health advocate Friedrich von Bodelschwingh (1877-1946) offered a spirited response to the supporters of euthanasia. While acknowledging his shared concern over the perceived increase in the incidence of physical and mental disabilities among the German population, he rejected the idea of “life unworthy of life” [lebensunwertes Leben] and advocated rehabilitation through work. Later, in the early 1940s, Bodelschwingh made some efforts to protect the residents of his health care institute for the poor, the “v. Bodelschwinghsche Anstalten Bethel” [v. Bodelschwingh Foundation Bethel], from Nazi sterilization and euthanasia policies, but he never engaged in outright resistance to the regime.

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Life unworthy of living? – that is the topic that your association has asked me to discuss this evening. At the end of this topic is a question mark, and this question mark, it seems to me, is like a gloomy specter lingering behind the so-called culture of our age. Ever since Spengler introduced the notion of the decline of the West into our physically and emotionally shattered world, one question has constantly coursed through the various nations and through our people: Is this man correct, is our nation, is Europe, in a state of inexorable decline, are we already a degenerate or degenerating generation, and is this path unstoppable? As a kind of barometer of the incidence of manifestations of degeneration among our people, we are constantly reminded that the number of weak, sick, mentally broken, and inferior is constantly growing. As far as I can tell, today’s statistics can hardly prove whether this is actually correct in absolute numerical terms, for it is part of the trajectory of our times that misery has become more apparent through the consequences of the war, and also through the modern welfare system, and that it is increasingly emerging from its hiding places and coming out into the open. Nonetheless, it still appears that, relatively speaking, the number of those who are weak in body and mind, the inferior, is growing. Why? I shall merely mention one reason, which I will touch upon only with trepidation.

Ever since the practice of intentionally limiting the size of one’s family trickled down from the so-called educated circles to the middle class, to the skilled workers and to the countryside, there has been – if we look at the qualities, shall we say, of childbirths – a shift, possibly a dangerous one. At the top – if you allow me to abide by this “top” and “bottom” – at the top, there is an ever thinner stratum of the talented and the industrious, and at the bottom a perhaps ever thicker stratum. Looking at the enrollment numbers for the remedial schools [Hilfsschulen] in our neighboring province of the Rhineland, one finds that the families that populate the remedial schools still have an average of 5-6 children. And at the top?

I do not need to follow this line of argumentation any further. You can easily see what kind of catastrophic development looms if this continues. We cannot treat this matter seriously enough, and we must impress its seriousness upon the conscience of everyone, every father and every mother, in this district as well. It is surely the case that the war caused a deep rupture, also with respect to this issue. The war called the industrious and the physically fit to the frontlines and let them die, while those unfit in body and mind remained at home. But my dear brothers and sisters, we truly no longer have the right, within our race, to blame only the war as the great mass murderer. After all, the United States of America loses more people as a result of automobile accidents every year than we did in the entire war of 1870/71, and today in all cultured nations the number of children killed before they are born is higher than the number of human lives devoured by the whole “World War”!

There lie the dark shadows, the dark shadows that also loom over this evening’s topic of discussion. We have every reason to look them in the eye with the utmost seriousness. I fully understand why a serious American researcher held this mirror up to his people and maintained that we are descending to the level of subhumans, that is, to inferiors who are constantly gaining greater strength in number and importance, or why another German researcher declared that we Germans would also eventually be overwhelmed by a lumpenproletariat. It is already being estimated that 2.5% of all people in Germany right now are feeble-minded, and that about one-tenth could be grouped with the so-called psychopaths. If this trend continues, we will move closer to a scenario that Goethe already talked about: eventually the world will turn into a gigantic hospital where everyone is the caretaker of another. Can this development be stopped? Science (racial hygiene, genetics) steps forward as a helper in our fatherland and in the world. Over the last thirty years, work in these fields has made great advances, which we must consider with seriousness and care.

Everywhere people are trying – this started in the plant and animal world – to trace the genetic germs and genetic lines in their peculiar development, in their changes. I have deep reverence for this research. After all, an entire cadre of American scientists, for example, has been working for years to track the life course of a small, tiny fly in all its wondrous genetic mixtures and genetic succession.

The hope is that one can move from this work to human genetics. The new helper, eugenics, awakens. It seeks to reveal these genetic connections in humankind, studies the favorable genetic lines to nourish and promote them, and thereby conveys greater knowledge to us, also about the mysterious interconnections between our becoming and our life. I praise this work with great enthusiasm. Time and again the hope is awakened in us that one day this may bestow upon us a new revival of humanity, an awakening from descent and decay, and that, in the end, we would see the fulfillment of what Nietzsche spoke of: the up-breeding of the human race!

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