Four major topics lumped together in one article could be a recipe for disaster. But there is a method to my apparent madness, so allow me to proceed. Many have noted the connections between Darwinism and Nazism. Perhaps the most important recent work on the topic is Richard Weikart’s, From Darwin to Hitler (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
And euthanasia of course featured prominently in the Nazi death machine. And later in this article I will look at how German Christians reacted to the rise of the Nazis. But to begin, I wish to focus on the first three topics, utilising one very important article which was penned back in 1987.
I refer to “Euthanasia: Lessons from Nazism,” by Harold O.J. Brown (Human Life Review, 13 March 1987, pp. 88-99). It was a stirring wake-up call for Christians not to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors in Germany in the 1930s and 40s.
In it Brown lamented the fact that Christians of his day are so quiet on the issues of abortion and euthanasia, just as Christians tended to remain silent under the Nazis. And he traces the ideological history leading up to the rise of the Nazis, noting the close connection with Darwinism.
Darwin, the German euthanasia movement, and Hitler
Brown notes that two major intellectual developments in the 19th century helped to pave the way for Hitler and the Nazis. One was the rise of the Higher Criticism movement which championed liberal biblical scholarship, resulting in a full-scale attack on the authority and reliability of Scripture, and a corresponding rejection of the supernatural.
The other was the Darwinian philosophy of the “survival of the fittest”. As Brown notes, in Germany “it was but a short step from extolling the survival of the fittest as nature’s mechanism for the advancement of the race to endorsing the elimination of the least fit as man’s contribution to nature’s program.”
He refers to Ernst Klee’s 1985 volume, Euthanasia in the National Socialist State which carefully documents the profound effect Darwin’s Origin of the Species had on the pro-euthanasia movement, and its place in the Nazi horrors. Darwin may not have intended it, but his thought nicely prepared the way for Hitler’s ideology.
Darwin’s system undermined the biblical doctrine of man being made in God’s image, so that man was seen as “the highest ranking primate yet to have climbed the evolutionary ladder”. And Darwin’s successors “were quick to seize on the concepts that if the survival of the fittest is natural and good, it is wise to promote it by eliminating the unfit”.
The logical results of Darwinism were quick in coming. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche happily utilised Darwinian thought, declaring that Christianity was a self-serving religion of the weak and sickly. He actively promoted euthanasia: “Let there be preachers of quick death!”
Says Brown, “The connection between Darwin, Nietzsche, and the call for the liquidation of the weak is not a mere literary supposition: it can be fully documented from a number of sources.” He mentions the 1893 volume by German writer Alexander Tille, From Darwin to Nietzsche.
In that book euthanasia was strongly argued for, and his thinking tied in nicely with Hitler’s euthanasia programs. And in 1895 the German legal scholar Alfred Jost wrote The Right to Die. In 1904 the German Society for Racial Hygiene was formed.
Of special importance was the publication in 1920 of Hoche and Binding’s The Authorization of the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life. Binding promoted the concept of “lives not worth living”. It all led nicely to Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925-1926).
In it Hitler said, “A stronger race will drive out the weak, because the thirst for life in its final form will always smash all the ludicrous fetters of a so-called humanitarianism, in order to replace humanitarianism with nature, which destroys weakness in order to make room for strength.”
In early 1933 the Nazis were preparing the public for euthanasia with an intensive propaganda campaign. Soon there was an active program of euthanasia being carried out, which resulted in the death of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. It was by then a small step from euthanasia to genocide.
All this is bad enough. But tragically there was not a lot of resistance to the Nazis and their programs of death from the German Christians. There were notable exceptions of course, but it seems that both Catholics and Protestants tended not to want to rock the boat.
Says Brown, “The sad fact is that Christians in Germany allowed themselves to be swept along with the euthanasia movement – which proved to be a forerunner of the ‘eugenic’ genocide of the Jews. Those who were in a position to speak out almost never did.”
Of course it was not just the church which was silent. As Brown points out, “there were very few secular intellectuals other than Jews who took a stand against the Nazis.” We do expect better of church leaders, but “those who should have been guardians of the traditional values of the church and of civilization failed to take a real stand against the dogmatic neo-paganism of the Nazis.”
Why did most Christians – even conservative ones – succumb? A big factor was the “prestige of modern science”: “The early twentieth-century veneration for science, particularly strong in Germany, extended even to the pseudo-science of racial hygiene, and led otherwise serious Christians to acquiesce in almost anything done in its name.”
That to a large degree explains why even the German euthanasia programs tended to be accepted by Christians: “Faced with the double argument that such euthanasia was both ‘scientific’ and ‘legal,’ i.e. within the competence of the secular government, many Christians and Christian organizations simply submitted.”
Brown asks: “How could so many dedicated Christians, committed to giving loving care to physically and mentally handicapped people as their calling from God, acquiesce in the liquidation of the very people who had been trustfully placed in that hitherto loving care?”
He continues, “The fact that so many of these selfless workers went along with the Zeitgeist, the ‘spirit of the age,’ not only without protesting, but apparently without even understanding the implications of their collaboration, should stand as a sinister warning to Americans from the same Christian traditions as we observe a like moral impotence in our own midst.”
Exactly right. These words were prophetically spoken almost three decades ago, and are even more urgent today. The situation is so eerily similar. Indeed, I have had numerous people who call themselves Christian informing me how proud they are to be associated with a political party like the Greens.
Never mind that this is the most pro-death party in Australia. They fully support abortion on demand and legalised euthanasia. Their early ideological leader Peter Singer is even keenly in favour of infanticide. Yet some believers naively think that the Greens are just about trees and the like.
How many of these believers fully understand the pro-death agenda of the Greens? And if they do know all about it, why in the world are they still supporting that party, with some even running as candidates for it? Some even claim that this is the most Christian of parties! I find this moral and theological schizophrenia hard to fathom.
Indeed, from my vantage point it seems that there may not be much of a moral difference between Christians who supported the Nazi regime – or even just quietly stood by doing nothing – and those Christians today who embrace and champion our most pro-death political party, or who do nothing about the rising culture of death in our nation.
Obviously we have not at all learned the lessons of history. May God have mercy on us all.