Nazi ideology developed at a time when theories of eugenics were influential in places around the globe. Also known as “racial hygiene,” these ideas were rooted in the belief that people’s characters and behaviors were controlled by inherited traits. Many people at the time believed that human society could be improved through selective breeding. Eugenics theories were accepted by many people in the early 20th century. Others doubted that they were actually scientific.1 These ideas have since been discredited and are roundly rejected by scientists and medical professionals across the world today.
The Nazi Party absorbed these ideas and built on them. Nazi eugenics policies became increasingly radical. When the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, the new regime tried to reshape German society by controlling which groups of people could have children. Nazi leaders believed that they could make the so-called "national community" (“Volksgemeinschaft”) stronger and genetically superior to other nations by regulating human reproduction.2
Nazi propaganda and Nazi eugenics policies encouraged so-called “Aryan” Germans with good “genetic health” to have large families.3 “Aryan” women were awarded German Motherhood Medals for having large numbers of children deemed to be “racially valuable.” The Nazi SS created the Lebensborn (“Fount of Life”) program to help combat Germany’s declining birth rate. The program provided pregnant “Aryan” women with comfortable maternity homes where they could give birth.4
Other eugenics-related Nazi propaganda focused on increasing the strength and health of the Nazis' so-called "national community.” A brochure titled “But Who Are You?” provided Germans with guidance on how to research and protect “the genetic material inherited from our ancestors.” One poster portrays sexually transmitted diseases as threats to the German birth rate. Germans are urged to report their sexual partners to authorities.
Nazi eugenics policies also tried to prevent some traits from being passed to future generations. These policies targeted people diagnosed with intellectual disabilities (often referred to as "feeblemindedness" at the time), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, deafness, blindness, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, and various physical disabilities. People deemed to have inherited alcoholism were also targeted. Sterilizations—forced medical procedures making it impossible to reproduce—were among the first measures used by the Nazi regime to prevent the passage of traits from generation to generation. A letter to SS doctor Gregor Ebner shows that even people previously categorized as “Aryans” with good “genetic health” could still be subjected to forced sterilization. The sterilization order for August Alzen shows that even people serving in the German military could become targets of Nazi eugenics policies. The sign language testimony of Helga Gross shows how children and youths were also targeted for sterilization.
The Nazi regime attempted to rationalize these policies to the German people with propaganda like this leaflet advertising the Nazi magazine Neues Volk (“New People”). Nazi propaganda discouraged Germans from feeling empathy toward people with disabilities. A propaganda film called “What You Inherit” tells viewers that they are all one giant family—but people with disabilities were not to be included. Nazi propaganda often described people with disabilities as “degenerate.” Nazi leaders used art created by psychiatric patients like Franz Karl Bühler as examples of what they considered to be “degenerate art.” A firsthand account by Lothrop Stoddard—an American supporter of Nazi eugenics policies—echoes Nazi propaganda points on eugenics. While visiting Nazi Germany, Stoddard documented how the regime’s so-called Hereditary Health Courts operated.
During World War II, Nazi eugenics policies became even more radical and deadly.5 The regime began systematically murdering people diagnosed with disabilities or other traits that authorities considered to be negative and inherited. As Nazi authorities reshaped the German economy for war, Nazi propaganda increasingly represented people with disabilities not just as threats to the overall health of the “national community,” but also as economic burdens. The mass murder of people diagnosed with disabilities and “hereditary illnesses” became known as the T4 program.6 These murders were falsely framed as “mercy killings,” or “euthanasia.” The sworn statement by Karl Willig describes how the killing centers of the T4 program operated. The featured oral history with Robert Wagemann shows how Nazi Germany’s so-called “euthanasia” policies targeted children as well as adults.7
Theories of eugenics greatly influenced the development of Nazi ideology. Nazi eugenics policies shaped many people’s experiences under Nazi rule. The regime encouraged “Aryans” in good “genetic health” to have many children, while attempting to prevent others from having any children. By trying to control who could reproduce and who could not, Nazi authorities tried to make the "national community” stronger and genetically superior to other nations.8 The Nazi effort to reshape German society excluded hundreds of thousands of people who faced forced sterilization or murder under Nazi eugenics policies.