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Did Americans Inspire the Nazi Eugenics Movement?

A few weeks ago, Germany dedicated a memorial to Nazism’s first victims: the disabled. The people of Germany have come to terms with their past.


The question now is, When will we?


The 80-foot glass panel unveiled in Berlin’s Tiergarten memorializes the estimated 70,000 sick and disabled people killed by the Third Reich as part of what was officially called Aktion T4 (and more informally, “Gnadentod,” which is German for “mercy death.”)


There was nothing merciful about it. Between 1939 and 1941, more than 5,000 children deemed “defective” were killed.


The program was expanded to include adults whose disabilities rendered them, in arguably the most demonic phrase ever uttered by man, lebensunwertes Leben, “life unworthy of life.” “Worth” was most often described in economic terms: a propaganda poster told ordinary Germans that caring for someone with “hereditary defects” cost 60,000 Reichsmarks, which came from ordinary Germans’ pockets.


There was opposition to the program, most notably from the Bishop of Münster, who denounced the program saying that “It is a terrible, unjust and catastrophic thing when man opposes his will to the will of God” and rhetorically asked if being poor and unproductive meant “that they have lost their right to live?”


Now, before you file this away under the headings “ancient history” and “The Nazis were one of a kind,” there are two things you need to know: the Nazis learned from us, and the worldview that drove them is not ancient history.


As Edwin Black, the author of “War Against the Weak” has documented, the ideas that led to Aktion T4 “began on Long Island and ended at Auschwitz . . . and yet never really stopped.”


By “Long Island” he means the Cold Spring Harbor Lab right here in New York, which was the driving force behind the eugenics movement in the United States. Between the turn of the twentieth century and our entry into World War II, America engaged in its own experiment in “racial hygiene.”


States prohibited marriage between the “fit” and “unfit,” often defining the latter category very broadly. They forcibly sterilized tens of thousands of people with the Supreme Court’s blessing. The number of those affected by what Chuck Colson once dubbed “Yankee Doodle Eugenics” will never be known with any certainty.


What is certain is that, by the time Hitler came to power, the U.S. had been practicing the gospel of eugenics at home and spreading that message abroad, including Germany and, yes, among those who put Aktion T4 into action. As a colleague of mine has put it, “the demonic ideas about ‘race hygiene’ that the Third Reich put into practice were, at least initially, clearly marked ‘Made With Pride in the USA.’”


What’s also certain is that, as Black says, the eugenic impulse has never really gone away. It’s why Nobel Laureate James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double helix, has called “stupidity” a “disease” that should be eradicated through genetic research.


And it’s why more than 90 percent of children diagnosed with Down Syndrome in utero are never born. And it’s why Richard Dawkins calls not killing them “immoral.”


The temptation to “play God” whether for “the good of the race” or our own convenience is hard to resist. At the very minimum, you have to acknowledge its existence, which Germany has, but we, with a few exceptions, have not.


It is indeed a terrible, unjust and catastrophic thing when man opposes his will to the will of God.


BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: September 15, 2014

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