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  • The Nazi Symbiosis: Human Genetics and Politics in the Third Reich
  • Michael H. Kater
Sheila Faith Weiss . The Nazi Symbiosis: Human Genetics and Politics in the Third Reich. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 392 pp. Ill. $45.00 (978-0-226-891767).

Sheila Faith Weiss's study deals with genetics and eugenics in modern Germany, in the periods before and during the Nazi regime. In six chapters she explains genetics, which deals with laws of inheritance, and eugenics, which signifies man's attempt to improve the human race by manipulating genetics—through the elimination of negative traits (genes) and the furtherance of good ones. She also deals with the main protagonists and their interlocking behavior. In Germany those were all physicians who took their cues from Galton and Darwin: Alfred Ploetz, who founded the first eugenic journal, his brother-in-law Ernst Rüdin, who became a psychiatrist, Fritz Lenz and Eugen Fischer, who collaborated in the publication of a hugely popular standard text, Fischer's protégé Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, and von Verschuer's master pupil Josef Mengele, who eventually continued his teacher's twin studies at the Auschwitz concentration camp. These men corresponded with colleagues overseas: the venerable Charles B. Davenport in the United States and scientists in Great Britain and Scandinavia. Faith Weiss explains how the Germans eventually took over and worked within branches of the vast Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft, long before 1933, and how those were partially supported by the U.S. Rockefeller Foundation. All but Mengele held university chairs, preferably in Munich, Frankfurt, and Berlin; in Auschwitz Mengele was working on his postsecondary teaching qualifications. Well into the Third Reich these researchers either received respected foreign colleagues as visitors or joined them at international conferences abroad; their theses permeated the German biology school curricula at every level. Although most of the information the author presents is known in different contexts, she is the first to have connected individual parts of the larger picture of what she calls "biomedicine" and to show the criminal excrescences in Nazi medical experiments and psychiatric and "euthanasia" killing wards. For this she deserves much credit.

At various times throughout the book Faith Weiss refers to the "Faustian bargain" these men chose to enter, in order to further their work and their careers. By this she implies that as properly trained professional scientists they sold themselves to the National Socialists, especially after those came to power in 1933, in order to guarantee receiving maximum institutional support. But I take issue with the Faustian paradigm because her group of men did not fit the original Faustian pattern. The "historic" Faust of Marlowe and Goethe was a normal human scholar, neither worse nor better than others of his kind, who concluded a pact with the devil in return for omniscience and omnipotence, to be sent to hell after the conclusion of his earthly life. In the case of modern German eugenics, the men in question were not morally neutral but corrupted to begin with. For all were racists before Hitler appeared on the scene, in approximately 1923, with Mengele (born 1910) being socialized in a culture of racism. Ploetz professed the inequality of races as a young man in his writings and privately was known to be an anti-Semite; he closely influenced his brother-in-law Rüdin very early. Fischer had adopted his view of racial inequality as a young scientist in German South-West Africa (today's [End Page 515] Namibia) and had written about this prodigiously in a book published in 1913. He again influenced his student von Verschuer, who as a young man after World War I participated in the wanton forest killing of what he and fellow university students believed to be communist workers (the Mechterstedt murders of 1920, an incident Faith Weiss totally ignores). Testimonies of his later anti-Semitism are legion. His student Mengele, who received his medical doctorate under him in Frankfurt, had previously acquired a doctorate in anthropology from the racist Munich professor Theodor Mollison, who also drew his prejudices from African adventures. The writings of Lenz, who was a student of Ploetz, influenced Hitler in the writing of...