These 20-minute lectures feature renowned scholars from Holocaust studies and beyond. In the lectures, scholars discuss primary sources that illuminate topics using photographs, propaganda, diaries, short films, and artwork drawn from the Museum’s vast collection and other sources. This page will be updated as more lectures are produced.
Dr. Daniel Magilow, Professor of German at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, addresses some of the challenges that seemingly straightforward Holocaust photographs present. He discusses what constitutes Holocaust photography, how Holocaust photographs were and are still used, and the ethical considerations surrounding whether “to show” or “not to show” Holocaust photographs.
Hi My name is Daniel H. Magilow and I am a Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and today I am going to talk to you about making sense of Holocaust Photographs.
I have three goals with this presentation. 1) Defining Holocaust Photography – What is a Holocaust photo? What “counts” as a Holocaust photo? 2) What are some of the ways Holocaust photos have been used and continue to be used? 3) What are some of the ethical concerns that surround HOlocaust photos, which can often be quite disturbing images?
Let’s start with the question of how to define a Holocaust image. You probably know the image on the right, which was taken during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and later used at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. We’ll return to it later. But the ones on the left are also “Holocaust” photographs. They look like pictures of the sky, and in fact that’s what they are. But the numbers below them are GPS coordinates of former concentration camps. The photographer, Anton Kusters, went to the sites of 1,078 camps and took pictures of the skies to visualize the expansiveness of the camp system. A lot of those spaces are no longer camps. In fact, most of them are not. A naïve, uncritical approach to photographs is that what you see is what you get. But as the One Thousand and Seventy-Eight Blue Skies photographs show, captions and context are vital to how we define Holocaust photographs. The photographer and photography critic Alan Sekula once wrote that "The meaning of a photograph, like that of any other entity, is inevitably subject to cultural definition.” What that means is that in different contexts the same photograph can mean very different things.
Let’s move to the question of how Holocaust photographs have been used and continue to be used. These images here are the so-called Sonderkommando photographs. The Sonderkommando was a special unit of prisoners tasked with burning corpses and destroying traces of the genocide. Two of the photos show the burning of corpses. A third one shows women being rushed toward gas chambers. The fourth one is a picture of the sky. In almost any other context, this last photograph would probably be considered a “failed” photograph. It almost looks like abstract art and it is not clear what is being photographed. But the context gives meaning to a photograph that it otherwise wouldn’t have. These images again demonstrate the importance of captions and context. But in terms of how Holocaust photographs are actually used, they are valuable as evidence of the importance of Holocaust photographs as evidence. We use Holocaust photographs for war crimes prosecutions and for demonstrating the specific mechanisms of genocide. They are proof of the Holocaust. These four photographs are unique because victims took them. But in that regard they are extremely rare because most Holocaust photos were in fact taken by perpetrators.
For instance, these are two pages from the Lili Jacob Auschwitz Album, which is named after the woman who found the album in an abandoned SS barrack at the end of the war. It’s one of the only known sets of photographs that show the arrival of Jews at Auschwitz. But even though photos like these were later used as evidence of atrocities, it is important to remember that they weren’t created for that reason. In fact, they were created by perpetrators as mementos of times in their lives that they viewed positively. So most of the time, when we look at Holocaust photographs, our viewpoint is the same as the viewpoint as the perpetrators of genocide had. This is something to keep in mind when you are looking at images of the Holocaust.
Let’s look at another set of images that demonstrate this dynamic. These images come from an album that belonged to an SS officer at Auschwitz named Karl-Friedrich Höcker. The Höcker Album only came to light in 2008 when it was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It consists of 116 photographs of guards, administrators, and women’s auxiliaries participating in various leisure activities, such as singing songs and eating berries. The images seem particularly callous because they depict perpetrators enjoying themselves as thousands of people were being murdered meters away. The point is that one reason we photograph, alongside creating photographs for evidence, is to create communities and perpetuate certain ideals of the family and of group cohesion. This is the sort of thing we see far away from the Holocaust in things like school photos or images of sports teams. Photography also plays an important role in enshrining certain understandings of what a family is or what it is supposed to be. When you go on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon, the pictures that you put in the album are of everyone smiling at the canyon, not of pictures of people bickering in the car along the way. Photography has a way of showing the world the way we want it to be rather than necessarily now it actually is or was. We often see this same thing in many Holocaust photographs such as those showing photography’s role in the creation of groups.
Aside from evidence and creating communities, many Holocaust photographs were first created for a very different reason--that is as tourist photographs. There is widespread evidence from World War II that executions often took on festival or even carnival like atmospheres with drinking and cheering and picture taking. This is a phenomenon that we recognize in the US from the existence of lynching photographs, which show people similarly having a good time as those atrocities were unfolding. These weren’t events that people were ashamed to attend—quite the contrary, in fact. Aside from executions, spaces like Jewish ghettos became important tourist attractions for many soldiers. Technically these soldiers were not supposed to take such photographs, but those regulations were widely disregarded. Here are two images that a soldier named Heinrich Jöst took when he spent his birthday, September 19, 1941 in the Warsaw Ghetto. We must remember that to the people being photographed, Jöst was a threatening figure for the very reason that he wore a German uniform—that’s why the man is tipping his cap. Jöst later claimed that he took the photos to record evidence of crimes, but it’s not a credible claim. A more credible explanation is that he took them for the same reasons that people take tourist photographs. So, for instance, he went to the Jewish cemetery and wanted to take a picture of it. The photography critic Susan Sontag once argued that we take pictures to prove that we visited a place or did something. She talks about using photography to certify experience. For tourists, getting the photograph of yourself at a famous site often becomes the main goal of the trip. As users of Instagram know, we photograph to document our lives for ourselves and others; to show that we did certain things and went certain places. This is the phenomenon of taking pics or it didn’t happen.
Another important way that Holocaust photographs are used is commemoration. These two photographs don’t show atrocities, but captions and context reveal them to be very much Holocaust photographs. Both of these images come from the Tower of Faces, a three-story tall permanent exhibit at the USHMM that contains about 1,500 photos of Jews from the village of Eishyshok. These photos are valuable because they remind us what was lost. So many Holocaust photographs show us how people died and we must remember that images showing how people lived are also an important dimension of Holocaust photography. The everyday nature of the photos from the Tower of Faces remind us that before and even during the Holocaust, photography served many of the same functions that it did before and after.
A final matter to consider are what are the ethical considerations around Holocaust photographs--looking at them; displaying them. There is considerable debate among scholars about whether we should or should not show images. Let’s talk about some of the arguments on both sides of this discussion. Some of the arguments for showing these images include the need to bear witness and provide proof that the Holocaust happened and the specifics of how it happened. Many people rely on photographs to visualize--sometimes it can be hard to visualize it unless you have some kind of visual aid. Another virtue of showing Holocaust photos is that they humanize statistics in ways that numbers simply can’t. And then photography helps us remember what happened--as a sort of artificial limb; as a prosthetic for memory - it helps us remember things by freezing them in time. Those are some of the arguments for displaying Holocaust photographs.
But there are also some very strong arguments against showing these images. Let’s start with the issue of privacy. There are still Holocaust victims alive and they may know people depicted in images. There may be people whose family members are shown in images that depict very degrading situations. There are issues of privacy and human dignity as concerns for whether you should show images or not. Another concern is the issue of retraumatizing people who see violent images. With Holocaust images there are obviously lots of images that depict violence and there are also lots of images of sexual violence and this can of course be very traumatizing to people who have had their own traumatic experiences, triggering very adverse effects. A third reason to not show these images--or an argument against showing them--is that they can’t truly do justice to the crimes. When you see pictures of people right before they were killed or pictures of bodies, what these pictures don’t show is how cold it was. They can’t convey the horrible smell of burning corpses. There are any number of things that photographs can’t show and yet in looking at them they can give us the sense that we are understanding things better than perhaps we actually are.
This brings us to another argument against showing Holocaust images or at least not showing them as often. This is the argument that many Holocaust photographs--particularly well-known photographs--can become almost religious-like icons. The term that is used in the scholarship is “secular icons.” These images are so well known that they are almost universally recognized and they are certainly the top hits if you do internet searches for HOlocaust photographs. But they take on these quasi-religious dimensions and often we start to believe that they tell us the full story. When you look at a picture of a young child being walked away at gunpoint that somehow encapsulates all the complexity and all of the nuance of the Holocaust, which took place across a broad geographic space and over multiple years. These images have a way of seeming to distill complex histories into an easy bite-size, digestible format. Let’s look at the example of The Boy in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising photo to flesh out this point.
That photo originally appeared in a document known as the Stroop Report. On April 19, 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. Even though the Jews in the ghetto were at a huge disadvantage in terms of resources, they fought courageously against the Germans for several weeks and inflicted significant damage. The man who eventually suppressed the uprising was a lieutenant general named Jürgen Stroop. Because so many German soldiers died in suppressing this uprising, Stroop needed to save face with his bosses in Berlin. So he compiled a 125-page report with various facts and figures to show what a fine job he did suppressing the uprising. It was sort of like an analog Powerpoint presentation in the 1940s. The Stroop Report included facts and figures and graphs and charts as well as 53 photographs at the end. It is not entirely clear who took these images, but this is where the Boy in the Warsaw Ghetto photograph originally appeared. In other words, the photograph was never intended whatsoever to be a protest against humanity’s propensity for cruelty. In fact, quite the contrary, when we look at the images that appeared with it and before it and after it, it becomes clear that the boy is included among “bandits” and the “dregs of humanity.” Even though the photograph has taken on cultural meanings since it was first introduced into evidence at the Nuremberg trials and printed in the New York Times in 1945, this was not the original context whatsoever. Again, this brings us back to the point where we started: captions and context completely change the photograph.
Many more topics to go into; although we don’t have time to go into them, I want to name a few in case you are interested. There is the question of photography’s role in race science. There are also color photographs that were taken during the Holocaust. It is interesting how photographs like these circulated; how people shared them both during the war and how they have been used and distributed afterwards. There is how these images have been used in war crimes trials. There is how photographs had been used during the Holocaust for identification--in identification cards and mugshots. Another issue is the use of Holocaust photographs in memorial contexts such as memorial books. The way such photographs are used in exhibitions and how these create controversies. And how individual soldiers took these pictures and made albums and what they did with them. These are just some of the many topics for further exploration in this field. In the meantime, thank you for listening.
Auschwitz Through the Lens of the SS: Photos of Nazi Leadership at the Camp (Collections Highlight)
Sonderkommandos (Holocaust Encyclopedia)
Undated Photos from the Warsaw Ghetto (Experiencing History)
Dr. Alexandra Garbarini, Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Williams College, discusses the diary of Irene Hauser. The diary touches on themes of divorce, abuse, prostitution, Ghetto life, and family life. Dr. Garbarini also provides a framework that can be used to analyze any Holocaust-era diary.
I want to invite you to take a moment, at the outset, to consider something: Which is what do you already know about Holocaust diaries?
I’m guessing you actually have some familiarity with them. That you’ve certainly heard of the diary of Anne Frank; maybe you’ve even read a version of it. And in the next few minutes, I want to invite you to think in potentially new ways about Holocaust diaries, about Anne Frank’s diary included. As much as diaries appear to be accessible sources, they make it possible to relate to the Holocaust, to think about it in personal terms, diaries are far richer and more complex than they appear.
My goal today is to impart some strategies for reading and for analyzing Holocaust diaries.
First, I want to start out with giving you a sense because I think it’s really important to understand the extent of the practice. How common diary-writing was among Jews in Europe during the Holocaust? Anne Frank’s diary is one of hundreds of diaries that were salvaged. Salvaged from the wreckage of the Holocaust. For many European Jews, diary writing was one response to living in the shadow of annihilation. Diarists came from many different backgrounds and they wrote diaries in different wartime contexts. Some wrote in ghettos; in towns and cities under Nazi occupation where there were no ghettos; people wrote diaries in hiding in bunkers and crawl spaces and barns. In my research I even came across a diary that was written in an open field by a couple who were separated from their young son. They wrote a diary to their son in this field. In rare instances, people recorded diaries in concentration camps, and even among them, in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Through their diaries, Jewish people attempted to comprehend both the unimaginable genocide as it threatened to engulf them and the meaning of their own lives in this radically altered world. In addition, diary-writers sought to provide the future with a written testimony of what was in the process of being destroyed about themselves, about their people and the world around them. While unlike Anne Frank's diary, most diaries that were penned by Jews during the Holocaust have remained unknown, unpublished and unread. After the war, some were deposited in archives and libraries; others were stashed away in attics and closets. We have to assume that most were lost or destroyed. Unto themselves they constitute a response, diaries are both windows onto victims’ responses to their persecution and murder and they are themselves their response. The Nazis wanted to destroy the evidence of the genocide they were carrying out. Jews wrote diaries in part to ensure that the memory of their extermination would not become the Nazis’ last victim.
Diaries constitute a distinct type of document, as I’ve already mentioned, because they are personal. But it’s more than that because people who kept diaries did so without knowing the end. They are contemporaneous documents, they unfold in time. In that sense, they are quite different from memoirs or oral histories which were recorded after the war. They actually capture the change over time and they do so from the vantage point of one person and one person’s perception. In this respect, you could say that they were written in “real-time,” and a consequence is that they interfere with us, 21st century readers, our presentist bias, our assumptions, in a sense, that it is we who know best because we have the advantage of hindsight and looking back on history. Diaries inspire reflection on what it means to be on the inside of a disaster. How does one "recognize" disaster as such without that critical distance? What's the difference between ordinary and extraordinary violence? What’s the difference between ordinary and extraordinary suffering? I want to discuss, after giving you this sense that I have ways of thinking about the phenomenon of diary writing, to discuss how to read a diary and types of questions to consider.
I am going to focus here on three questions. Probably the first, that’s obvious, but the first question to pose upon reading a diary is “who was the diarist?” What do we know – what can we know – about the person who wrote the diary that you have to read in front of you. If a diary has been published, then usually the person who prepared the diary’s publication – the editor of the diary -- conducted as much research as possible about the diarist in question. That editor, depending on what was available in and around the diary, might be able to tell the circumstances in which the diary was written and also key biographical information about the diarist. But even if the diary that you are reading is published and has an editor’s introduction: investigate further, Mine the diary. Try to determine for yourself, from your own reading of the diary, all of these kinds of things about who the diarist was. When and where the person was born; what their age was at the time of the Holocaust, their gender, their family situation, sexuality; try to determine the person’s level of education, maybe what their profession was prior to the war; and know what language the diary was written in if you are reading it in translation. Try to determine if the person was religiously observant and in what ways; can you get a sense of their political ideas, of their political affiliations. One further aspect of a person’s biography that we don’t normally consider but it’s actually highly relevant as you are reading a person’s Holocaust-era diary is whether that person had written a diary previously, were they a veteran diarist? Did the person have a long-standing habit of keeping a diary that predated the coming to power of the Nazis, for example, in Germany in 1933 or the start of the war in 1939?
Because if we have a sense of a person’s relationship to diary writing, that’s part of understanding an answer to the second question that you need to consider. Which is why a person wrote a diary? What did it mean to them? So, one aspect of thinking about this question, why did a particular person, the person whose diary you are reading, why did they write a diary, is to consider who they imaged would read their diary. Some diarists wrote for themselves. They hoped their entries would remain private. But most Holocaust diarists actually wrote with other imagined readers in mind. Which other readers? Did they write for people they knew – their children or siblings. Did they write for strangers – for strangers whom they imagined would relate to what they were experiencing – maybe for fellow Jewish people? Or did they write for anyone in “the outside world”? It’s a phrase that comes up in many diaries: this notion of “the outside world.” As I mentioned, as a historian, I am especially attuned to how things change over time. Part of what you might also want to consider is if the motivations for writing a diary changed over time. If their imagined reader changed over time and why. Why the change?
A third and last question or line of inquiry is about whether and in what ways the diary is a window onto the past. What topics did the diarist write about and what do we learn about those topics in and through the perspective afforded by the diarist? I’ve selected one diary to analyze in light of these remarks on how to read a diary. It’s the diary of a woman named Irene Hauser. Her diary consists of one notebook of just over 100 pages, written in the German language, and she wrote it in the Lodz ghetto, in Poland. The entries Irene Hauser recorded in this one notebook cover just three months, she wrote them in July, August, and September 1942. I also want to mention here that it’s important to know that the diary exists, it’s a material object, not just a scan on a computer or a published text only. The original diary is housed, or lives, in the archives that are part of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, in Warsaw, Poland, in an archive that was established by Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors after the war. You can find an English translation, but only of excerpts of this diary, on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website, Experiencing History.
I’ll jump right into reading this. Let’s look at the diary’s First Pages – The first entry or first few pages of a diary are often highly significant, as they are in this case. Because what you find there often is that a diary writer includes specific mention of why they are embarking on writing this diary and on their imagined reader. So it’s important to note this at the outset and then to analyze whether they stayed the same or they changed. We find in Irene Hauser’s first few pages quite a lot about who she was and why she decided to write. So first we are confronted with a series of names, dates and addresses. In all, she recorded 8 pages of names and addresses. She recorded her own name and a mini-genealogy of her family. Why? What might that tell us? (Note: I am saying here what might that tell us, because we are surmising, we are interpreting the evidence.) Maybe the diary was intended just for herself? But then you might wonder, was she worried she would forget these addresses and dates, including the date of her mother’s death? Maybe it suggests that Irene Hauser wanted this information to be preserved, to be known by someone else, someone reading her diary. Who? There’s more here: she tells us that she was “evacuated with husband and child” to the Lodz Ghetto, in Poland, in October 1941. We learn she had a brother in Vienna, a sister in Belgrade, another sister in England. Maybe another sibling as well a woman she mentions, it appears that she might have been her sister, was a dentist in Vienna. And now, when we turn the page, we learn her initial reason for writing this diary: “This book is meant to reach my sister in England, Josephine Carlton, née [or born] Hacker.” If the diary was meant for her sister, we might ask why she thought it necessary to include all these other names and addresses of family members and friends? Did she worry that the person who found it might not send it directly to her sister in England? Perhaps she worried that her sister might not have had the most recent addresses of their relatives. So maybe those addresses were for her sister. Another explanation: She wrote that her sister got married and emigrated in 1941 and that she, Irene, has lost her sister’s address. What other reasons might we come up with to explain these first eight pages of names and addresses? We also learn here quite a lot about Irene when you think about, in these first few pages, the other information, you learn that before being deported she lived in the Austrian capital city, Vienna, we discover that she was married to a man, Leo, and they had one child. Later on in the diary we learn that she was born in 1901, so she was about 41 years old when she wrote this diary. We learn her husband is a couple of years older than she was and their son, Erich, was six. She called her son “Buby,” throughout the diary. As we continue reading, Irene Hauser’s diary furnishes us with a devastating portrait of starvation and family dissolution in the Lodz ghetto. Her diary imparts a different understanding of starvation than the photographs of emaciated victims in ghettos or concentration camps. Hers is the voice of a person suffering from malnutrition herself, not the gaze of an outsider. She describes how she and her young son spent hours standing in line at points of distribution of food rations. She writes about their weakened physical states, about how much energy they had to expend to get down stairs and stand on their feet for hours, they were often sent away empty-handed, despite the fact that they were in possession of the necessary food ration coupons. On one page of her diary, she kept a list of what she called “Hunger Days” – these were days when they had nothing to eat. The list is long, and over time it seems she gave up the effort to record the dates clearly, from exhaustion or was she running out of space on the page? In addition to this evidence of the social inequality in the ghetto and the situation of starvation, we are confronted with an intimate description of the effects of starvation on her family, one woman’s family. Her relationship with her husband, Leo, was strained to the breaking point. In entry after entry, Irene expresses her resentment toward Leo that he was eating more than his share of the family rations, that he was prioritizing his own hunger over their son’s. Irene recorded her bitterness when Leo would eat up all of the bread that was supposed to be divided among the three of them and last for several days. She writes about Leo’s squandering their last money and possessions. We learn in Irene’s diary also about what limited recourse she had to change her situation. She appears to have tried to separate from Leo in July 1942. She tried to move out, but to move out meant she needed to find another living situation, which was something that could only be granted her by ghetto authorities. When she was turned down, she was forced to stay with her husband. Hauser herself summed up the major theme of her diary without the vantage of hindsight, in real time. She wrote in her, sort of, staccato prose style: “The child cries hunger, the father cigarettes, the mother wants to die—family life in the ghetto.” Her diary contains not a shred of hope for her own survival and no redemptive message about the meaning of genocide in her diary. In an early entry, she recorded, these are her words: “It would have been best if they had buried us outside on arrival, because one feels the atrocity of this life every hour. Allegedly the people who were taken away from here between 5 and 15 May were gassed, and so exterminated.” In the final entries of the diary, Hauser writes about an event in the history of the Lodz ghetto that has come to be referred to as the “Children’s Transport.” It’s an event that in the history of the Holocaust, and beyond the history of the Holocaust, in philosophy and ethics, this event has taken on tremendous importance. What happened is that children under the age of ten and also adults over the age of 65 and also hospital patients about twenty thousand people in all -- were separated out from the rest of the ghetto population over the course of about a week in September 1942. They were deported from Lodz. They were deported to an extermination camp, Chelmno. And in Chelmno they were killed in mobile gas vans and their bodies dumped in graves in the woods in the vicinity of the camp, mass graves. Her entries are evidence of how one mother and the people around her understood and how they reacted to this action on a day-by-day basis. Her diary ends during the “Children’s Transport.” Two days before the end of the so-called “Children’s Transport,” she stopped recording entries. Why did she stop? In an entry from September 7th, and again in an entry from the 8th, Hauser wrote that “Buby [her son] will not go with me of his own free will.” She doesn’t tell us what happened next. Most likely, her son was captured. But we don’t know for certain about the final days of his life. She didn’t tell us, and there is no death record. Indeed, so much about Irene Hauser remains unknown and unknowable. No traces exist of her, her husband, Leo, or of her son, Eirch, after the last entry in the diary. We have so many unanswered questions about them.
That’s part of history – asking questions, figuring out what we can learn from a source, what we can’t learn, and how to keep looking for answers. We learn to recognize what we don’t know: the limitations of a source and the limits of our knowledge. It would be possible to pick up any Holocaust diary and pose the types of questions I’ve raised here. Each diary is particular – but each also speaks to larger themes. We read them to anchor different histories, to anchor histories of racism and antisemitism; assimilation and marginality; exclusion and genocide. We also read them to develop modes of listening and speaking. Modes that are respectful and also self-caring: about things like trauma, memory, survival. How to talk about or narrate trauma? How to hear it, how to listen to accounts of trauma? What genres are most appropriate? In most diaries, it is abundantly clear that the diarists were aware of the fact that they were witnessing and experiencing history in the making. When we read Holocaust diaries, we reflect on the past, but we might also ask how do we know when we are experiencing a historical moment. Many Jewish people’s reaction was to write it all down. What are ours? What are our reactions?
Selections of Irene Hauser’s Diary (Experiencing History)
Diaries (Collections Search Database)
Diaries and Journals (Holocaust Encyclopedia)
A History of Eugenics
This video covers the history of eugenics, or “racial hygiene,” in Germany and the United States throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The discussion between Dr. Patricia Heberer Rice and Dr. Lutz Kaelber explores several sources that display how eugenic practices paved the way for sterilization, and in the case of Nazi Germany, murder, of those deemed “unfit” to reproduce. Ultimately, Dr. Heberer Rice and Dr. Kaelber expose the racism, antisemitism, and ableism that underpinned the eugenic practices that took place before, during, and after World War II.
[Patricia Heberer Rice]
Hello, my name is Dr. Patricia Heberer Rice and I am the Director of the Division of the Senior Historian in the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington.
I am Lutz Kaelber, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont.
[Patricia Heberer Rice]
Today Dr. Kaelber and I are going to look at eugenics, also called “racial hygiene” in Nazi Germany and in the United States, two countries deeply invested in implementing eugenic public health policies to improve the “genetic makeup” of their populations. We’re going to look at how the two countries borrowed from each other when it came to implementing some of these eugenic strategies, specifically anti-natal strategies—compulsory sterilization and anti-miscegenation laws which kept “unvaluable members” of society from reproducing.
Before we begin, I want to point out that you are going to hear terms in this lecture that are not appropriate to use in modern discourse. Today words like “moron,” “imbecile,” and “idiot” are decidedly pejorative. In the early decades of the twentieth century, however, these were actually medical terms. In those days they represented a range of psychological classification associated with “hereditary feeblemindedness,” which today we’d call intellectual disability. The terms described the degree of intellectual impairment, with “idiocy” signifying the highest degree of impairment and moronity the least. Although these terms were meant to classify, in the end they became the means to isolate those with intellectual disabilities from the rest of society. We need to be aware that our language changes over time, and that these terms which once had scientific meaning eventually acquired offensive connotations.
So what is eugenics? Eugenics—the idea of “good birth”—was a scientific movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the core of the movement's belief system was the conviction that human heredity was fixed and immutable, that it was nature, not nurture, that made you the human being that you are. The idea in a nutshell is this: that if you can breed a better dog or horse, as humankind has been doing for centuries, we can breed a better man and a better national body. Eugenics was an international movement and in its heyday, right before the First World War, Great Britain, the United States, and Germany were leaders in the movement. Each might have had their own agenda but most eugenicists somewhere had some ideas in common but everywhere eugenicists had some ideas in common.
1. They want to define who in their society is valuable, to pick out the “good stock” and encourage to reproduce
2. They want to define the” bad stock”—those who are seen as a “burden” on society, and discourage them from reproducing
3. They want to keep ‘races’ from intermarrying,
And we’ll see the results of these efforts today, first in compulsory sterilization laws both the United States and Nazi Germany imposed in the first half of the twentieth century.
Indiana enacted the world’s first eugenic sterilization law in 1907. It targeted ”confirmed criminals,” “idiots,” “imbeciles,” and “rapists” housed in state institutions. Policies such as eugenic sterilizations, or the establishment of state institutions to separate “undesirable” individuals from the public, are examples of what sociologists call “oppressive othering.” Deviant characteristics (such as being inferior or dangerous) are ascribed onto others, and oppressive measures employed against them. In a book published in 1922, the American eugenicist Harry Laughlin proposed a model sterilization law. He was the director of the Eugenic Records Office at the time. It was a research institute that gathered information on what were believed to be “hereditary qualities” in the population. Laughlin intended his model law to be a possible blueprint for a federal law–this never materialized. But it did influence the creation of state eugenic sterilization laws.Laughlin’s model sterilization law targeted a heterogenous group of people: those with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities, and physical disabilities. It included even the homeless, the poor, and alcoholics. Actually sterilized were two main groups: people with developmental or intellectual disabilities, and people with psychiatric illnesses. When one compares Laughlin’s model law to the Nazis’ sterilization law about a decade later, one finds an almost 1:1 correspondence between them in terms of the groups they targeted (indicated by the corresponding numbers on the left and on the right). This was no coincidence. The Nazis paid close attention to the U.S. as the world leader in eugenic sterilizations before 1933. Until 1927 those American states that had eugenic sterilization laws did generally not want to implement them full-scale. Concerns existed about legal liability of sterilization providers and whether the laws were constitutional. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Buck v. Bell. It was a review of the constitutionality of the 1924 Virginia sterilization law that drew on Laughlin’s model law. In an 8-1 decision, the Court decided that it was constitutional for U.S. states to sterilize those who were thought to endanger the health of the state and the general welfare of the public. The justices found undesirable characteristics in three generations of the Buck family: the mother, Emma, an alleged prostitute (the allegation was false), and her daughter Carrie. Here shown in a picture together.Carrie was committed to a Virginia institution after she had been raped at age 17 by a member of her foster family. For that, she was labeled promiscuous by the court. Carrie’s daughter Vivian, the product of the rape, represented the third generation of the family. She was presumed feebleminded. In his opinion, writing for the majority, justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “it is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.... Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Carrie was subsequently sterilized. So was her sister Doris, who was never told about the procedure. After Buck v. Bell, states felt affirmed that eugenic sterilization laws passed constitutional muster. About two thirds of American states at one point or another had a eugenic sterilization law. Eugenic thought also influenced the 1924 Immigration Act. The act reduced the overall number of immigrants allowed to come into the U.S. each year. It also limited immigration from precisely those countries that were thought to have higher portions of the “unfit” through a quota system.
[Patricia Heberer Rice]
Inspired by American eugenicists and their sterilization laws, Nazi officials made compulsory sterilization a priority in their eugenic legislation. On 14 July 1933—just six months after the Nazis came to power—the Hitler cabinet promulgated the Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases (also called the Hereditary Health Law) which ordered the compulsory sterilization of persons with certain disorders or disabilities. The law was patterned on the California state sterilization law, a fact that American eugenicists were very proud of. Now you’re seeing a poster which says, “We are not alone” in German and showing, with the many flags, demonstrating that many other countries had some similar kind of policy. Five of the diseases specifically designated in the legislation represented psychiatric or neurological disorders, including schizophrenia, manic-depressive (or what is today, bipolar) disorder, hereditary epilepsy, Huntington’s chorea, and hereditary feeblemindedness. Physical conditions which warranted sterilization under the new law were hereditary deafness, hereditary blindness, serious hereditary physical deformities , and severe alcoholism (which some physicians felt, then as now, had a genetic component). Medical professionals were now duty-bound to report patients with these disorders in the exercise of their practice. Proposals for sterilization were adjudicated by hereditary health courts, a Nazi legal invention. By 1936, more than 250 hereditary health courts had been established throughout Germany, with each tribunal comprised of two physicians and one jurist. If the decision of the court were for sterilization, the 1933 law demanded execution of the sterilization procedure within two weeks’ time at a designated local hospital or clinic mentioned in the verdict. Paragraph 12 of the law sanctioned the use of force on unwilling victims. Those who attempted to circumvent the procedure were delivered under police guard to the hospital in question. The new law took effect in January of 1934. From the first day of January in 1934 until the end of war in May 1945, some 400,000 Germans were forcibly sterilized under the terms of the Nazi Sterilization Law. Who were the victims of National Socialist sterilization policy? The vast majority of sterilized Germans suffered from mental rather than physical disorders. Nowhere was this more true than in the case of “hereditary feeblemindedness,” whose ambiguous definition permitted physicians and psychiatrists to include not only those diagnosed with an intellectual disability, but also the socially aberrant, or those whom National Socialist medical officials deemed aberrant: vagrants, prostitutes, mothers of illegitimate children (especially if these were on welfare), petty criminals, juvenile delinquents who experienced trouble with school authorities or the police, and in large numbers Roma and Sinti, so-called Gypsies.
Anti-miscegenation laws were racist laws enacted by American states to prohibit interracial marriage and interracial sex. Such laws date far back in American history, but in the 20th century anti-miscegenation as a policy was also adopted by eugenicists who believed that “race mixing” would lead to the “racial deterioration” of the white race. In 1900, sociologist and eugenicist Edward Ross used the term “race suicide” to disapprove of mixed-race relationships, as did President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law of 1924, which targeted those with “insanity...., idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy,” became law with another act on the same day. That act was called the racial integrity act. It made it unlawful for any white person...to marry anyone but another white person. The law was enforced; infractions constituted felonies punishable with up to 5 years in prison. If an interracial couple lived together without being married, they could also be charged with what was called fornication. The intended outcome of both acts was the same: to prevent an alleged deterioration of America’s racial stock. The law against miscegenation was not divorced from views held by many whites: In the 1950s, a public opinion poll found that the vast majority of white Americans still disapproved of interracial marriage. Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law remained in effect until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, found such laws unconstitutional. The Loving case refers to an interracial couple that had married in another state and subsequently been sentenced in Virginia to a one-year prison term.
[Patricia Heberer Rice]
While the anti-miscegenation laws Dr. Kaelber describes have appeared in American law since the colonial period, there were no similar laws in Germany before the Nazi period. We’ve just seen that these laws were buttressed by eugenics laws in the nineteen teens and twenties in the United States. Many Nazi officials were also keen to apply these kind of laws to German Jews. In September 1935, in the midst of the seventh annual Nuremberg Party Rally, Nazi leaders promulgated the so-called Nuremberg racial laws. You are seeing a chart from the times which tried to demonstrate how the Nuremberg Laws applied to Jews. These Nuremberg laws are significant, for they laid the foundation for all future anti-Jewish legislation in Nazi Germany. The second of these laws was the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. This law banned marriage between Jews and non-Jewish Germans and criminalized sexual relations between them.Implementing decrees for the law defined who was a Jew and extended the law to ban marriage between German “Aryans” and Roma and Sinti (so-called Gypsies) and blacks, or African-Germans. Plainly one can see that this is an antisemitic law—there’s no question about it. But in a larger sense it can also be seen as a eugenic measure, and it is precisely this mix of the virulent racial antisemitism that the Nazis bring with them when they come to power and eugenic theory that makes Nazi racial policy such a potent and lethal cocktail. And what’s very interesting is that a month after the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws, another very similar kind of eugenic legislation was initiated, one that aimed at the so-called hereditarily ill, the same kind of individuals targeted for sterilization. Just as the “Blood Protection Law” banned marriage between German “Aryans” and Jews, this Marital Hygiene Law forbade marriage between consenting adults if either partner suffered from mental illness, or an hereditary disease such as hereditary epilepsy, or hereditary deafness or blindness, or if one of the partners stood under legal guardianship on medical grounds. Before marriage, German couples had to prove that no such impediment existed by obtaining a Certificate of Marital Fitness. And here you see in the diagram two couples, one who has succeed in showing their marital fitness and the other who walk away from each other dejected because they have been denied the right to marry. Individuals refused such a certificate could appeal to their local hereditary health courts, but those who violated the final decision of health officials by marrying without certification could be sentenced to prison.
When WWII ended, and knowledge emerged about Nazi practices in medicine, American eugenic sterilizations did not cease. California and Virginia continued to sterilize individuals at a fairly constant pace well into the 1950s. The two states alone accounted for almost half of the estimated total of about 60,000 eugenic sterilizations in the U.S. In states such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Iowa, the number of sterilizations actually went up after WWII - it is shown here for North Carolina. This development occurred after modern biology and genetics had thoroughly discredited earlier types of eugenic thought, which had argued that deviance was biologically transmitted. A more individualistic type of “reform eugenics” emerged, which stressed the supposedly voluntary prevention of offspring who would not, it was argued, be properly cared for by their parents, and would become a burden to society. Reform eugenicists thought that undesirable characteristics would be passed on socially, in families. In practice, sterilizations continued in many states. Policies shifted toward prohibiting the procreation of minority populations, particularly African Americans, in the late 1950s and in the 1960s. The racial factor became noticeably pronounced in states such as North Carolina. With better access to state services and institutions, minorities came in closer reach of the state for sterilization. In fact, North Carolina’s eugenic sterilization law extended to those who were not institutionalized. A prominent case is Elaine Riddick. A social worker noticed her when she was pregnant at age 13 as the result of a sexual assault. Ms. Riddick lived with her grandmother. Authorities threatened the grandmother, if she did not consent to her granddaughter’s sterilization, with rescinding the public benefits she received, and placing her grandchildren in foster care, so she signed the consent form, with an “X” because she could not read or write. Ms. Riddick herself did not know about her sterilization when it occurred, after she had given birth. She only found out that she could not bear children when she married. Her attempts to seek legal redress from the state of North Carolina were unsuccessful. Sterilizations under eugenics laws declined in the 1960s as the result of a greater recognition of privacy rights and a growing scientific consensus of all forms of eugenics being pseudo-scientific. Still, medical service providers ignored consent laws in order to provide what were called “Mississippi appendectomies.” This term refers to the removal of the reproductive organs of poor women right after they had abdominal surgeries. Such practices were typically not covered under eugenic sterilization laws, but were allegedly “therapeutic” in nature. This procedure was also extended on a large scale to Native American women in the 1970s.
[Patricia Heberer Rice]
Eugenics ran a similar course in America and in Nazi Germany in terms of sterilization and anti-miscegenation laws, but of course Nazi Germany went on to institute much more radical eugenic strategies to cleanse their ‘race’ of unwanted elements. In Germany the eugenic strategies first initiated in compulsory sterilization led ultimately to the “euthanasia” program. The so-called euthanasia campaign was the regime’s first program of mass murder, targeting for killing mentally and physically disabled patients housed in institutional settings throughout Germany and in German-annexed territories. Using gas and overdoses of medication, the “euthanasia” program claimed the lives of at least 250,000 patients, including some 10,000 children, the overwhelming number of them German “Aryans” with mental and physical disabilities. Even the “Final Solution” can be seen in this light. By culling out the Jews—the unwanted, the ‘diseased’ population in Germany and German-occupied Europe, the genocide of European Jewry may even be seen as the ultimate eugenic measure. Even as the crimes of the Nazified medical community largely worked to discredit eugenics among the scientific establishment, the practice of eugenics continued, particularly in North America where sterilization policy continued against African-American and native American minorities.