Racial Science and Nazi Biopolitics

Richard F. Wetzell

Research since the 1980s has documented the overwhelming complicity of the German medical profession and German racial scientists (eugenicists, human geneticists, physical anthropologists) in Nazi biopolitics, that is, in the systematic and often murderous persecution of persons whom the Nazis categorized as biologically inferior (including Jews, Roma and Sinti, persons with supposed genetic defects or disabilities, homosexuals, and nonconformists labeled as “asocial”). The key role of the human sciences in Nazi biopolitics led the historian Detlev Peukert to formulate the thesis that the “genesis of the ‘final solution’” can be attributed to the “spirit of science.”

Taking its cue from this provocative claim, my research project points out and grapples with a central paradox in the relationship between racial science and Nazi biopolitics: Even though German racial scientists were deeply complicit in Nazi biopolitics, there was considerable tension between racial science and the trajectory of Nazi biopolitics. Whereas the complicity of German racial scientists in Nazi biopolitics is now well-documented, my project examines the question of how exactly the scientific theories propounded by racial scientists related to Nazi biopolitics and to what extent racial science and the Nazi regime exerted mutual influence on one another. Instead of using “race” as an analytical category for understanding the Third Reich, I argue that “race” remained a diffuse concept whose competing and contested meanings in the Third Reich are in need of historical analysis.

The major contribution of my project is to examine the interaction of two competitive processes that played out in the early years of the Nazi regime: namely, the competition between different racial theories within the fractious field of racial science, on the one hand, and the rivalry between different political actors seeking to gain control of Nazi eugenic and racial policy within a polycratic regime, on the other. I analyze the interaction of these two processes by drawing on the insight that, instead of speaking of politics “abusing” or “distorting” of science, science and politics are best understood as “resources for one another” (Mitchell Ash). In the case of the Nazi regime, it is important to realize that this mutual search for resources, giving rise to conflict and cooperation, took place not between “science” and “the Nazi regime” as collective entities, but between individual scientists or scientific institutions (who were competing with other scientists) and specific party or state agencies (who were competing with other agencies over control of racial policy).

My study analyzes key controversies in racial science and racial policy in order to demonstrate that during the Nazi regime’s early years both racial science and Nazi biopolitics were characterized not by coherence but by diversity, malleability, improvisation, competition, and conflict. Just as different racial scientists were jockeying to impose their conceptions of race or heredity on the Nazi regime, a handful of newly created party, state and SS agencies were in fierce competition to take control of Nazi eugenic and racial policy. While by 1935 these scrambles among both racial scientists and the racial agencies had generated some winners and losers, the polycratic nature of the Nazi regime and the heterogeneity of racial science meant that the relationship of racial science to racial policy remained in tension and in flux. The war years, too, were characterized by a central tension: even as racial scientists became complicit in the escalating crimes of the regime, the gulf between the radicalizing Nazi racial policy and research in racial science was widening.

The central chapters of my study analyze three controversies in racial science and racial policy over three key topics: whether “racial mixing” was beneficial or noxious; whether there was a “German race” or whether the German people was composed of different races; and over how broadly the forced sterilization program should be targeted. By analyzing these three controversies, my study lays out an intellectual map of the competing research paradigms within the field of racial science and a political map of the competing party, state and SS agencies that sought to control racial policy. I then relate these two maps to one another by asking who sought alliances with whom, for what purpose, at what time. Such an approach elucidates how both scientists and Nazi officials deployed competing conceptions of race for strategic purposes at different points in the development of the Nazi regime; and how, in some situations, Nazi officials dispensed with the legitimacy conferred by science because they realized that science could not deliver a scientific basis for the policies they wished to pursue. My study concludes by demonstrating that in assessing the influence of racial science on policy one has to differentiate between different scientific fields and different areas of Nazi policy.