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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 377-379

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Book Review

Katholizismus und Eugenik in der Weimarer Republik und im Dritten Reich:
Zwischen Sittlichkeitsreform und Rassenhygiene

Katholizismus und Eugenik in der Weimarer Republik und im Dritten Reich: Zwischen Sittlichkeitsreform und Rassenhygiene. By Ingrid Richter. [Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für Zeitgeschichte, Reihe B: Forschungen, Band 88.] (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh. 2001. Pp. 572. DM 98.)

This scholarly contribution analyzing the German Catholic response to the broad movement of eugenics and to Rassenhygiene in the Third Reich is a volume in the series sponsored by the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte. Using the Caritas Archives, diocesan archives, and the Prussian Archives, among others, as well as virtually all the published documents and secondary works available, Richter has carefully reconstructed the debate around eugenics, sterilization, and euthanasia that embroiled the Catholic community from 1918 until the Nazi euthanasia policy was launched. Richter has carefully developed the nuanced positions of such scholars as Hermann Muckermann and Joseph Mayer during these years as well as the rigorous discussion of eugenic issues that characterized the debates of other Catholic theologians and political leaders concerned with marriage, sexual health, and the improvement of society. She has shown that the debates focusing on "positive" and "negative" eugenics were more complex and varied than previous scholars interested in the Catholic response have suggested.

Richter has successfully explicated the political, social, economic, cultural, and religious milieu, in which Catholics, who wanted to respond to the burning issues of eugenics, developed and moderated their positions. She has carefully delineated how the moral responses, addressing eugenics, were formulated by Catholics in the Weimar era and then how church leaders confronted the Nazi applications of "racial hygiene." Most Catholics could not, at least theoretically, accept the Nazi violations of the bodily integrity of men and women. Catholics in the Third Reich rested their responses on the natural-law ethic proclaimed somewhat ambivalently, or so they said, in the encyclical Casti Connubii (1930).

This work offers a review of the literature that establishes the parameters of the Catholic theological and political debates during the Weimar years and analyzes how Catholics reacted to the Nazi attempt to establish totalitarian control in the field of eugenics. Catholic bishops, theologians, and laity rooted their responses to the eugenic impulses of the era in their religious and political needs. The Catholic Church is frequently tagged as a monolithic institution, but Richter's book successfully challenges that accusation as she presents a surprising [End Page 377] array of discrete positions that responded to the cutting issues of these decades. Much of the previous research has centered on such prominent Catholic eugenicists as Muckermann and Mayer. These scholars, however, were only part of the larger picture that she reveals through her use of the documentary sources and through her reconstruction of the political debates.

To recreate the milieu in which Catholics staked out their positions on eugenics, Richter has explored how Catholics responded affirmatively through positive eugenics to the politics of re-population after the devastation wreaked during World War I. Generally, representatives of the Church could support policies designed to improve society through marriage counseling and sex education. Controversy erupted, of course, with the introduction of negative eugenics, i.e., abortion, sterilization, artificial birth control, and euthanasia. The debate around negative eugenics (sterilization) was centered in the political arena of pre-Nazi Prussia and theologically erupted in the works of Mayer, supported by such theologians as Fritz Tillmann and Otto Schilling, and in those of his opponent Franz Hürth. Despite the alleged ambivalence of Casti Connubii, most theologians reduced their support of Mayer after 1930. Even Muckermann, associated with such prominent Weimar and Nazi eugenicists as Otmar von Verschuer, Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz, by 1933 assumed a position that was pro-eugenic, but antisterilization. Richter gives Muckermann's position a clarity that it did not enjoy at the time, since he used the same eugenic terminology as that used by those supporting Nazi policies, which, of course, could...


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