Eric Ehrenreich has investigated the evolution of German genealogy from the late nineteenth century up to 1945, linking it to the mounting racist prejudices in the scientific community, to the Nazi regime, and to the murder of Europe's Jews. By dint of meticulous research, the author has produced a significant accomplishment. After they seized power in 1933 the Nazis decreed that all Germans must document their genealogy and obtain an "ancestral proof" that they indeed were "Aryan." The latter term was a sort of euphemism for "not Jewish." Genealogy in this context became one more weapon in the war against "Jewry."
Were such a proscription to occur anywhere in the world today, or for that matter in most "civilized" nations during the 1930s, public outcries would have immediately ensued. Ethnographic proofs—of race? Genealogical proofs as testament of "race"? Early in his study, Ehrenreich traces the concept of race. He examines the rise of pseudo-scientific efforts by quirky bio-medical "experts" in Imperial and Weimar Germany to define race and to apply their definitions especially to Jews. He traces the evolution of German genealogical societies and publications and their tendency to isolate Jews from the rest of society. The records they used consisted overwhelmingly of church documentation of religious affiliation. Suddenly in 1933 the Nazis morphed those same religious categorizations and records into racial "proofs"—anything but rigorous science. The [End Page 527] German population as a whole responded immediately but with hardly a murmur of complaint. Yet, as the author points out, each time a citizen bowed to the demands, he or she legitimized the Nazis' bogus science, especially shocking in a nation known for privileging science. It is precisely this irony that Ehrenreich addresses.
Numerous handmaidens bolstered the Nazis' racialist claims. Anthropological, social-behavioral, and bio-medical scientists such as Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer (1896–1969) established racial categories and assigned specific behaviors to each (this story is well known, although the author should have cited Richard Weikart's Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany ). And of course there were the mousy genealogists who traced everyone's family tree (for a fee). All these people form the core of Ehrenreich's work. The chapters "The Origins of Racist Eugenics" and "The Spread of Racist Eugenics in Weimar," plus Ehrenreich's examination of the genealogical bureaucracy that burgeoned during the Third Reich, show the true damage inflicted by racial fanatics. For their own diabolical purposes, Nazi officials such as Achim Gercke, first director of the Reich Genealogical Authority, and his equally odious successor, Kurt Mayer, used the seemingly innocuous work of genealogists to ground the Nazi notion of "Volk and Geschichte." Even before 1933, genealogists had not been mere innocents. As the author points out in convincing detail, they had been determined to exclude Jews long before Nazi rule. Their prejudiced work helped the Nazis to identify assimilated Jews and Germans of mixed ancestry in the ever more irrational atmosphere after the Nazis' arrival in power and down to the last days of Hitler's Reich.
Ehrenreich reveals the striking banality of language in the genealogical investigations and "proofs." Genealogists reported in dry terms whether an applicant was "deutsch-blütig." Behind that soulless and terrifying decision lay the possibility that someone would end up on a transport "to the East." Ehrenreich deserves praise for this study of a seemingly harmless category of research usually associated with family history. Under the Nazis a garden-variety historical activity became a tool in the murder of many of Germany's Jews. Nor did the Nazis' genealogists suffer unduly after the war. Most lived long, comfortable lives after the demise of the Reich. Their first chief, Achim Gercke, died only in 1997. Verschuer reinvented himself as a senior geneticist at the University of Münster, and died in 1969 only because of an automobile accident. Kurt Mayer (1903–1945), on the other hand, the unsavory replacement who had engineered Gercke's fall, committed suicide on June 8...