With Hitler’s Ethic, Richard Weikart has written an interesting sequel to his important earlier book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (New York, 2004). Hitler’s Ethic is by no means the first monograph to suggest that Adolf Hitler was inspired by evolutionary principles “to pursue the utopian project of biologically improving the human race.” What is original about Weikart’s research is the claim that this “evolutionary ethic was not just one idea among dozens of others tumbling around in [Hitler’s] brain . . . It was a central, foundational idea, that provided structure and guidance for many—probably most—of his other ideas and policies” (15). Though energetically drawn, this new iteration of the “intentionalist” argument invites skepticism in some respects, especially in its attempt to explain World War II and the Holocaust.
Weikart builds his case over nine crisply written, well-researched chapters. In the introduction and the first two chapters, Weikart argues that Hitler embraced an ethos of evolutionary progress and biological struggle, whose higher moral purpose was the creation of a society based on Aryan racial perfection. The author recognizes the wider cultural framework in which Hitler’s “ethic” emerged, noting the dozens of prominent scholars and politicians, from Ernst Haeckel to Lanz von Liebenfels, who shared (and influenced) his worldview. But where many historians see arbitrariness and a lack of programmatic consistency in Hitler’s invocation of evolutionary biology, the author finds ideological coherence and political predictability.
Having established the foundations of Hitler’s ethic, Weikart devotes the next seven chapters to exploring the ways in which this ethic manifested itself in regard to racial theory and antisemitism; social, sexual, and reproductive politics; and finally expansionist war and genocide. All seven chapters do an excellent job of culling Hitler’s public and private discourse for examples of Hitler’s “evolutionary” thinking on a variety of issues. The difficulty is proving that these elements were clear and [End Page 459] consistent enough over time (as well as vis-à-vis other competing ideological factors) to constitute an “ethic” that determined Nazi policies.
Weikart notes in the second chapter that Hitler vacillated between accepting and rejecting the idea that humans had evolved from apes, not what one would expect from a convinced Darwinian thinker. In the next chapter, he argues that Hitler’s “racial policy—important as it was—was still only a means to an end. Racism was thus always in the service of evolution, which was the paramount value” (59). Yet there is much evidence that Hitler’s “redemptive anti-Semitism” (87) was based, as Saul Friedlander and others have argued, on mythical conceptions of Jewish malevolence that had little to do with Darwinian theories of evolutionary progress. Indeed, it often appears that Hitler invoked Darwin to justify his pseudo-religious antisemitic beliefs, not the other way around.
The argument is most compelling when it turns to social and reproductive policy, areas where Hitler’s “evolutionary ethic” dovetailed with the dominant science of eugenics. Particularly illuminating is Weikart’s discussion of “Hitler’s Socialism,” in which the author links the pro-labor and pro-family policies of the regime “to unify[ing] and strengthen[ing] the German body politic (Volkskörper), so it could triumph against other allegedly inferior races in the material (biological and military) ‘struggle for existence’” (120).
Recourse to Hitler’s evolutionary ethic is less convincing in trying to explain World War II and the Holocaust. With respect to the former, Weikart gives short shrift to the ideological impact of anti-Bolshevism on the one hand, and legitimate socioeconomic, diplomatic, and geopolitical factors on the other. As the author himself observes regarding the “Final Solution,” “Hitler’s evolutionary ethic did not require killing. He could have merely sterilized the disabled and deported the Jews” (194). So why did Hitler plan to murder more than 11,000,000 European Jews at such a rapid pace—a policy that required an immense mobilization of political, ideological, economic, and military resources...