- War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race
Edwin Black's book about eugenics is a well-written, informative work, focusing primarily on the American eugenics movement, as well as its connections to Nazi eugenics. As an investigative journalist, Black excels at poignantly portraying the injustices perpetrated on the weak by elites, most of them scientists funded by Carnegie, Rockefeller, and other powerful business interests. He properly expresses outrage at the way that racial and social prejudices were clothed in scientific garb to label people "inferior," which then gave scientific license to forcibly sterilize people, hinder or even break up marriages, and restrict immigration. Some more radical eugenicists even proposed killing the inferior. Black does a good job showing the ways that certain prominent American eugenicists waged a "war against the weak" by targeting marginalized groups for persecution.
Black is at his best when explaining the activities of selected eugenicists. Among the Americans, he provides extensive coverage of Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin (both leading figures of the Eugenics Record Office, a eugenics research institute in Cold Spring Harbor, New York); the birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger; the famous ophthalmologist Lucien Howe; the racial theorist Madison Grant; and Walter Plecker, the Virginia anti-miscegenation activist. Black also devotes a chapter to the remarkable case of Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen, a Jewish psychiatrist who after World War II was convicted for his complicity in Nazi crimes while serving as a physician-inmate in Buchenwald.
One of the main points of the book is that American eugenics spawned Nazi eugenics. Perceptively, Black noticed in the course of his early investigation that the [End Page 329] ideas and policies some leading American eugenicists advocated in the first three decades of the twentieth century were similar to some subsequent Nazi ideas and policies. He also found direct ties, since some of the American foundations funding the American eugenics movement also plowed money into German eugenics research. Therefore, he jumped to the (wrong) conclusion that "the scientific rationales that drove killer doctors at Auschwitz were first concocted on Long Island at the Carnegie Institution's eugenic enterprise at Cold Spring Harbor" (p. xvii).
The problem with this historical analysis is that it ignores the independent development of eugenics in Germany in the pre-World War I period, as well as the development of "scientific racism" throughout Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century. In trying to prove that German eugenics owed its paternity to the United States, Black never even mentions the following major early figures in German eugenics, all of whom had written articles or books before 1904, when the Eugenics Record Office was founded: Ernst Haeckel, Wilhelm Schallmayer, Ludwig Woltmann, Heinrich Driesmans, Christian von Ehrenfels, Willibald Hentschel, Theodor Fritsch, Max von Gruber, Alfred Hegar, Hans Kurella, and Ludwig Wilser. His discussion of the founding father of German eugenics, Alfred Ploetz, is based mostly on Paul Weindling's work.1 However, Black strongly implies—without any evidence—that Ploetz got his ideas about eugenics from his travels in the United States, completely ignoring Weindling's evidence that Ploetz learned his eugenics in the 1880s in Zurich from the Swiss psychiatrist August Forel. Worse, Black briefly discusses Forel in a different passage on Swiss eugenics, and incorrectly states that Forel advocated eugenics "beginning in 1910." He apparently did not read Weindling very carefully, for Weindling provides considerable detail about Forel's activities before 1910. Another prominent German eugenicist converted by Forel was Ernst Rüdin, whom Black discusses, but without mentioning Forel as a source for Rüdin's eugenics ideology.
Black consistently overstates the influence of American eugenicists and racists on the international movement, especially on the Germans. He states, "The real father of eugenics was of course Charles Benedict Davenport" (p. 385). He alleges that the German authors of the famous text on genetics and eugenics,2 Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz, were disciples of Davenport. Both Lenz and Fischer, however, claimed...