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SOMETHING ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF DENMARK: EUGENICS AND THE ASCENT OF THE WELFARE STATE BENT SIGURD HANSEN HOw important it is to trace the development of eugenics in each Scandinavian country can be debated. Still, a reasonably good case can be made for examining Denmark, which in many ways offers useful contrasts to the other countries that so far have been studied in detail: the United States, Great Britain, and also, in recent years, Germanyl-all countries that were great powers at the beginning of the century, and where eugenics had a considerable following. The fact that a country considered itself a great power, or a power sliding from first to second rank, was in itselfa factor that affected the development of eugenics. Certainly, the defeat ofGermany in World War I strongly affected the German attitude toward eugenic measures; another example is the striving for "national efficiency" in Great Britain in the years before this war.2 In contrast, Denmark was not, and did not aspire to be, a great power. Its last pretensions in this direction were lost, together with the fleet-and Norway-in the Napoleonic Wars, a conflict that literally bankrupted the country. And the area of Denmark was further depleted when Holstein and Schleswig were, in effect, ceded to Prussia after the Second Schleswig War (1864-66). At the beginning of the twentieth century, Denmark was a country with a small homogeneous population, without the antagonism between different ethnic groups that influenced the eugenics movement in other countries. Denmark was the only Scandinavian country with colonies. But her West Indian colonies were transferred to the United States during World War I, and her remaining colony, Greenland, was so remote, so sparsely populated, and of such little economic importance, that its effect on Danish attitudes toward other races and peoples was negligible.3 After the first World War, during which Denmark remained neutral, the Social Democrats slowly gained ascendancy without violent political confrontations . Labor relations were also peaceful during the lean years immediately after the war, at least when compared to those in other European 9 10 EUGENICS AND THE WELFARE STATE countries. A kind of truce developed between the Social Democrats and the traditional parties of the center and right and, as a consequence, a large number of reform laws could be carried out during the 1920s and 1930s, not unanimously , but without violent confrontations. Chief among these laws was the great social reform law complex that marks the beginning of the Danish welfare state. The preconditions that have been postulated for the development of the eugenics movement-ethnic antagonism, social unrest, conservative opposition to social relief-seem to have been absent, or only weakly represented in Denmark. Yet Denmark was the first European state to introduce national legislation concerning eugenic sterilization in 1929. BIOLOGICAL DETERMINISM IN DENMARK: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY Most of the powerful biological myths prevalent in the Western world in the nineteenth century can be found represented in Denmark. There was a general belief in the strong influence of heredity, coupled with an almost complete ignorance of actual genetic mechanisms. A picture of the confusion in this area can be gained from the prize-winning essay Arvelighed og Moral (Heredity and Morals), which appeared in 1881. The author, Karl Gjellerup, was not a scientist but a poet and novelist, who was later awarded a Nobel Prize in literature. Today, he is almost completely forgotten, even in Denmark. The essay was entirely derivative, with Prosper Lucas, Augustine Morel, Herbert Spencer, and Charles Darwin as main sources, and strongly influenced by a contemporary book by Theodule Ribot.4 Much of the essay was anecdotal material, concerning alleged examples of what Ernst Mayr has called "soft inheritance;'s cases where heredity was supposed to have been directly influenced by the environment , the so-called Lamarckian heredity. Though not a professional scientist, on this point Gjellerup reflected the general consensus of contemporary medical and biological expertise. A particular version of hereditary determinism, the belief in degeneration, was widely shared in Denmark. It was given scientific legitimacy by the French psychiatrist Augustine Morel, but the concept itself is much older. The psychiatrist Frederik Lange, who himself belonged to a well-known liberal, patrician family, introduced the ideas of Morel in his doctoral thesis of 1881.6 His last book, published two decades later, reminisces about his experience as the leader of Middelfart Psychiatric Hospital, and is a strange and haunting description of the last representatives of the...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781609170028
Related ISBN
9780870137587
MARC Record
OCLC
933516327
Pages
312
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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