Was Hitler inspired by Darwin?

Theists like to claim that Hitler was an atheist, and that he was inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution. In one convenient swoop, they can thus lay the deaths of tens of millions of people on the doorstep of atheism and science. As PZ Myers was discussing in his latest blog entry on Pharyngula, an evolution column by Faye Flam in the Philadelphia Inquirer was arguing against the ideas of historian Richard Weikart, of Expelled fame, that Nazism had been inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Weikart then responded with a number of excuses such as Darwin having been a racist and other strawmen. The bottom line regarding this issue remains:

  • Hitler was inspired by the ideas of Houston Stewart Chamberlain. There is no evidence at all that he read Darwin. Also as is well-known, Darwin’s theory of evolution was put on the index by the Nazis. The Nazis would never have accepted a monogenist view of the human species, as Darwin did.
  • Social Darwinism is a misnomer, as Darwin never espoused views commonly held by Social Darwinists. Also, the concept of Social Darwinism actually predates Darwin’s theory of evolution, with prominent proponents being Thomas Malthus from the 18th century and Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton towards the end of the 19th century.

But I don’t want to repeat that back-and-forth between Weikart on one hand and Flam and other scholars on the other hand, and instead concentrate on one interesting tidbit Weikart gave as “evidence” that Hitler was inspired by Darwin: Hitler used the word Entwicklung(slehre), which means ‘evolution’ in German… This of course piqued my interest as a linguist, so let’s have a look…

Translational fallacies

Part of the problem is that Hitler spoke German, but the discussion is in English. There is usually no complete overlap between words in two languages, and this case is no exception:

  • The noun Entwicklung usually can be translated as ‘development’. However, in certain contexts, Entwicklung can also mean ‘evolution’.
  • That said, in a scientific context, as in the theory of evolution in biology, nowadays, Evolution is clearly preferred, as in Evolutionstheorie. However, this doesn’t rule out the fact that at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Entwicklungstheorie might have been used more often.
  • Now for verbs, the situation is completely different. While English has a verb ‘evolve’, in German evolvieren is awkward. Thus, a reflexive verb sich entwickeln is used, literally ‘develop itself’. As a transitive verb, entwickeln means ‘develop sth.’. Thus, again we have an overlap here.

This overlap makes the situation a little bit murkier than both sides would have it. Sometimes Entwicklung/entwickeln means ‘evolution/to evolve’ and sometimes it does ‘development/to develop’. This fact alone invalidates Weikart’s argument completely. Instead of just pointing out the word used by Hitler, he had better look at how the word is used, and by that standard, the discussion so far shows that he is completely wrong, the ideas expressed by Hitler do not under any circumstance fall under the framework of Darwin’s ideas.
Now to demonstrate the historical change, I have looked at Google’s N-gram viewer providing the user with the possibility to track the change of usage through time in printed books. Thus, I’ve looked at the occurrence of Evolutionstheorie v. Entwicklungstheorie
We can clearly see that until 1950, Entwicklungstheorie is used more frequently than Evolutionstheorie, after which the Latinate term gains ground. Now, since Entwicklungstheorie can be used in other disciplines, such as economics etc., I have also compared this with the search string Darwins Entwicklungstheorie and Darwins Evolutionstheorie, to make sure the data was exclusive to Darwin’s theory of evolution:
Again, the same results: until about 1950, Entwicklungstheorie was more common, and after that Evolutionstheorie takes over.

A comment on Pharyngula

In course of the discussion on Pharyngula, of course the discussion about Nazism and atheism came up again as well. I won’t dwell on that here, or else this post would get even longer, but I want to close with a very insightful comment by Stewart, reproduced here with permission:

Let’s start by admitting the ambiguities in the Nazi attitude to the churches. These are exploited by our opponents, some of whom see Nazi criticism of or conflict with churches as proof of Nazi atheism. Most ambiguities in Nazi policy or attitudes are easily explicable as the result of simple opportunism, in exactly the same way as their pact with the Soviets was. There are plenty of things that were not ambiguous, regardless of what some Nazis may have thought privately. Atheism or godlessness of any kind was always condemned. The Aryan destiny with its unmistakeable supernaturally divine aspect runs through everything (the lack of predestination in Darwin may have been the single greatest hurdle to his acceptance by the Nazis). We all know the names of a few courageous churchmen who opposed the Nazis. Why is that the case? Because they were the exceptions, not the rule. It’s inconceivable the other way round; try making a list of all the clergy who cooperated, often very enthusiastically. Why did the Nazis permit the independent existence of Catholic youth movements for years after all others had been made to give way to the Hitler Youth? The banning of Darwin’s books ought to be enough, but just in case it isn’t, let’s remember Goering using the Creator’s intentions when he introduced the Nuremberg Laws, or Julius Streicher being explicit about the New Testament roots of his antisemitism. The 1940 antisemitic feature film “Jud Suess” was set nearly a century before Darwin’s birth; the most virulent antisemitic incitement in the film came in the form of direct (explicitly attributed) quotes from Martin Luther. Later in the war, an anti-Soviet documentary was planned but never completed; I’ve viewed part of what has survived of it. The title? “Die Gottlosen” (The Godless). It included scenes of how the Soviets defiled churches by turning them into factories.

The churches are sometimes indicted for having cooperated with the Nazis in the matter of making available the records that were used in determining race back for several generations, but a wider implication seems to be neglected. It’s not just church complicity here in fingering those who might have had Jewish ancestors. The bigger picture is that, because church records were used as a primary source of racial affiliation, in order to belong to the German people one had to have been at least nominally Christian for a number of generations. Anyone who, let’s say for reasons of freethought or atheism, had broken away from the church, had a problem with the Nazis regarding origins.

The sufficiently ignorant are impressed by Weikart’s finding links between Darwin and Hitler. There are no two things in the world that are not connected by some path or other. Weikart’s association with the ID crowd does mean he has a prior agenda involving an anti-evolution bias. He has found it easiest to smear evolution by tainting Darwin’s name with the implication that he was a progenitor of something as awful as the Nazis. Weikart begins his work by having a pre-ordained starting point (Darwin) and a pre-ordained goal (the Holocaust) and proceeds to find whatever he can that might constitute some kind of path between them. This is not honest enquiry. Honest enquiry would mean – without a pre-ordained goal – either looking forward from Darwin (in which case one hits mainly today’s evolutionary scientists), or tracing the roots of the Holocaust (in which case, via Hitler and Alfred Rosenberg, one hits people like the pre-Darwin Gobineau and the religiously inclined and anti-Darwin H.S. Chamberlain – take a look at his books “Worte Christi,” 1901 and “Mensch und Gott,” 1921).

I have been interested in seeing how the school textbooks addressed questions of evolution, as this is surely of much greater relevance than an off-the-cuff remark Hitler may or may not have made, and last year had the opportunity to question someone associated with the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Braunschweig. Printed textbooks seem not to have been the way most things were done, though I haven’t given up on finding at least some paperwork.

It is true that in works detailing the origins of races, the Nazis went back thousands of years to the end of the last Ice Age, in such a way that makes it unlikely they could have managed with Young Earth Creation, but it did not stop them insisting on non-material grounds for Aryan superiority. Italian racial theorist Julius Evola’s 1941 “Sintesi di dottrina della razza” was published in German in 1943 (he was to flee to Germany in that year), which can be taken as a confirmation that there was official German approval of its contents. The book is overflowing with references to the godly and the divine and, while there is some criticism of Chamberlain in it, Darwin is roundly dismissed. Oft referenced is L.F. Clauss, who was into the souls of the races and whose career seems to have been hindered by Rosenberg because of internal rivalries, pointing back to the opportunism that is so crucial in trying to understand what happened and why.

One need not get bogged down in arguments about what was meant by “Entwicklung.” Rejection of Darwin on so many other levels is clear and unambiguous and it is petty to try to draw clues from Hitler’s Table Talk while completely ignoring official and enforced pronouncements that could not have been made without Hitler’s approval.

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3 Responses to Was Hitler inspired by Darwin?

  1. Bundesbedenkenträger says:

    “Social Darwinism is a misnomer, as Darwin never espoused views commonly held by Social Darwinists.”
    Welcome to the club. Christians also have the problem that false theories have been connected with their faith, though the faith and those theories don’t go together.

    • euroatheist says:

      That’s not really a valid comparison here, the biggest problem being that Christianity is so diverse, and it’s been used to justify almost anything.

      Darwin was just one man. Theists arguing against the theory of evolution, especially across the Pond, often have a poor understanding of how science works, believing somehow discrediting Darwin as a person would invalidate his theory.

  2. Stewart says:

    Didn’t get around earlier to thanking you for your complimentary introduction to my comment, which I had intended to do. I’ve just seen a really excellent blog entry dealing with precisely this topic; have also added the one thing (the Goering quote mentioned above) I felt had been missed in a comment (still in moderation, but have no reason to believe it will remain there). It’s important enough to push into far wider circulation by whatever means you have, so here it is: http://coelsblog.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/nazi-racial-ideology-was-religious-creationist-and-opposed-to-darwinism/

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