The revolutionary fervor which gripped Europe in the early 20th century contributed an intensely political approach to science. Germany, Spain and Russia all faced massive upheavals in the social order, and an intense scrutiny went on over their entire populations to root out saboteurs, traitors and those that were politically ambiguous. To survive a revolution, one must continually express belief in the revolutionary ideal; those that could not were not considered part of the revolution and no mercy or sympathies should be or were directed their way. Scientists weren’t given any special consideration. They also had to prove their political worth, and their work was constantly used to both legitimize revolutionary ideals and goals and to support any policies or laws that would proceed from said ideals and goals. Science for science’s sake was rejected; everything must be in service to the people. Unfortunately, this political zealotry meant that a lot of fatuous scientific theories were pursued, observations and conclusions were changed based on who was to read the reports, and certain avenues of research were either pursued long after they should have been discarded or not pursued because they were politically unacceptable.
Unlike Spain and Russia, Germany had a long established and productive military science setup. By the 1930s, they had already developed a large number of highly advanced weapons programs, including V-rockets under Wernher von Braun (later employed by the Americans as project and operations director for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency); zeppelin, battleship and U-boat development; super-heavy Panzer tanks; airplane development (the Messerschmitt series featuring the first operational turbojet fighter/bomber and first and only rocket powered jet fighter); and other assorted weaponry. Some of these were developed by old family firms like the Krupps. This 400-year old clan began selling cannonry to Russia, Turkey and Prussia in the 1840s. They sold artillery, naval weaponry and U-boats to Germany during WWI; were forced to shut down after being considered war criminals by the Allies; and then collaborated with both the Weimar Republic and the Nazis in secretly rebuilding steel factories, designing tanks and other weaponry, and “practicing” via manufacturing those same weapons as consultants to other European powers. [Despite these successes, it was strange that German science could make any progress at all: the politicization of academia in Germany (and in both Spain and Russia) during the 1920s and 1930s meant that many skilled but politically unwanted individuals - Jews, foreign immigrants, Communists, other unsavory sociopolitical labels - were getting driven out of science faculties and academies and their contributions lost. In fact, Germany's nuclear weapons program was permanently stalled due to this sapping of manpower. The loss of manpower and a decision that a nuclear weapons program were not deserving of the remaining resources allowed much of their scientists to be drafted into the Wehrmacht when the invasion of Poland began in 1939.] Military technology advances were admirable in that they promoted real science, despite the increase to death and suffering they caused and the distraction they could provide in terms of allocation of resources away from other areas of scientific development. Any technology built around faulty conclusions and fuzzy logic naturally wouldn’t work; thus, they wouldn’t be worth the effort. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true of the biological, psychological and social sciences. These schools were used solely to support the dogmatic beliefs of whatever ruling party was seeking justifications.
Since Joseph Stalin had forcibly collectivized farms under politically sound but agriculturally inept overseers, butchered the kulaks (the former rich peasant owners of said farms, who happened to retain all the useful agriculture management knowledge) and then (merely) motivated the peasant workers with slave labor or death, it is no surprise that most farming regions in Russia turned out to be overwhelmingly underproductive after the Revolution. In search of a quick solution to massive famine, totalitarian state planners turned to Trofim Lysenko, the son of a peasant, who was the very model of a Communist biologist. His solutions to low food output seemed immensely practical: his usage of vernalization, wherein wheat seeds were exposed to high humidity and low temperature, seemed to increase yields as promised, and he introduced solutions to a multitude of issues with other craps and growing conditions in the USSR. Much of his so-called effectivity was due to the biased position he was in. Until 1964, his rejection of Mendelian genetics for “Michurinism” – which argued for the heritability of acquired characteristics with an emphasis on environmental factors – was accepted as Russian state science and supported by Premier Nikita Khruschev, who fancied himself an agricultural expert. In the meantime, most Soviet Mendelian geneticists were executed or sent to prison camps – their crime was merely to support what the Party termed “bourgeois pseudoscience” and Lysenko was to denounce biologists in general as “fly-lover and people-haters,” whose purpose was to purposely disable the Soviet economy. As a result, all the data Lysenko collected from farmers and other scientists tended to show what he wanted to see, as nobody wanted to risk being executed for failure to be loyal to state science. This turned out to be a triple whammy: the data they collected was useless; even if the data was sound, it would take generations to prove his theories incorrect; and all other theories were not pursued.
Soldiers carrying out Aktion T-4 in Trieste, Italy.
A question plaguing scientists since the early 20th century is how our genes relate to who we become. Lysenkoists tended to believe that human intervention could change natural selection, and the eugenics movement – popular around the world for much of the 1920s and 30s – argued that humans should self-select to promote “good” genes over others. Encouraged by the growth of eugenics in the United States during the early 1930s – California being the world leader in compulsory sterilization of mentally ill people and poor black people at the time – Germany began pursuing this pseudo-scientific theory to its natural conclusion. Adolf Hitler, as reflected by his positions in Mein Kampf, believed that Germany could only become strong by removing degenerate elements from within. He advocated systematically enforcing a eugenics program, known as “Lebensunwertes Leben” or “life unworthy of life,” which began in 1933 with the passing of the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. This particular law forced doctors to register any cases of hereditary illness they came across. As Hitler was attempting to reform Germany into a country that reflected the pure Aryan ideal, self-selection would require suppression of any and all characteristics that would make them unworthy. The next step came in 1934, with the Law for Simplification of the Health System. Under its mandates, all Germans would have a centralized compiled history of their genetic and racial hygiene and allowed for denunciations leading to forced appearances at a Genetic Health Court. Couples hoping to marry were required to be analyzed for hereditary diseases and disallowed if one partner fell short. Those that did fall short were generally forced into sterilization; over 400,000 Germans were sterilized via this program by the end of Hitler’s Reich. The not-so-lucky ones – and these ones were still considered German, it must be pointed out – were butchered systematically under Aktion T-4. In 1940, the Reich Interior Ministry attempted to expand the genetic and racial history file for all individuals to include their education, political activity and any other information of use; this was based on a Hamburg program known as the “Health-Related Total Observation of Life.” The war, however, prevented the authorities from fully carrying this out across all of Germany and its occupied territories. Germany’s policy towards the “others” – those that weren’t German and thus had no place in German society – was clear. Prison camps and labor, and death. Russia was perhaps more straight-forward in their approach. They never adopted a formal eugenics movement, as it was perhaps decided that they needed no justification for killing individuals they didn’t want around.
While others focused on racial characteristics, Spanish scientists looked closer at the genetic pool to decipher social characteristics. Their main question was this: can we predict, based on genetic makeup and environmental factors, who will become a criminal, or have left or right-wing ideology, or who will be of a certain character type? The Spanish Civil War had pitted Franco’s Nationalists against Marxist Republicans, and the end of that war forced the authorities to contemplate suppressing any future revolt from Marxists. Would it not be better to be able to identify those that may become a problem and remove them from the population? Military psychiatrist and racial hygienist Antonio Vallejo-Nagera proposed to study POWs to determine the bio-psychological roots of Marxism. The aim was to figure out, in psychiatric, genetic, forensic and anthropologic terms, what it meant to be a Marxist and how that could be used to shape society away from such degenerates. The research was extended into a general statement on the human condition; namely, how imprisonment could affect individuals and if conversions were possible among the imprisoned. One of the most important centers of research was the asylum at Ciempozuelos, a former battleground of the Civil War, where studies were conducted by director Jose Maria Sacristan and later Vallejo-Nagera. Their analysis of the inmates was undertaken to prove a theory by Ernst Kretschmer that described three body types and their associated character dispositions. Kretschmer had proposed that endocrine secretions were the basis for human action, and thus criminality and future criminality could be discovered through analysis of internal chemical activity. The gist of the pseudo bio-psychology studies was that Marxism was a degenerate mental sickness that was intertwined with criminality and could possibly be identified in populations via analysis. Many of these studies were observed by Nazi scientists and politicians, who shared with Franco world Communism as a common enemy. It didn’t matter that these notions were rather farfetched and impossible to put into practice without imprisoning a large percentage of the population – but if it offered the state the opportunity to self-select its own citizens and eliminate all opposition as biologically criminal, then it was something worth doing. From a PR perspective, most people wouldn’t want criminals left on the street. Who better to get rid of them than a fatherly state?
E.H. Harriman, the railroad baron.
Lest we forget, the US had its own issues with dealing with this question of purity and degeneration and perfection. Eugenics was immediately popular in the US after its academic introduction by Francis Galton in the 1880s. Connecticut was the first to pass a marriage eugenics law, preventing the marriage of epileptics or “feeble-minded” to any individuals. Indiana passed the first state compulsory sterilization eugenics law in 1907, targeted at the mentally ill and retarded. They were followed closely by California and Washington and then a flood of other states, and the Supreme Court was later to uphold constitutionality of states enacting such legislation. Many of the efforts to get such laws passed were supported by the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Kellogg Bros. (of cereal fame), the Harrimans (of railroad fame) and other rich benefactors. Some of these efforts went towards a “Eugenics Record Office” that, through their scientific analysis, concluded that the greater portion of “unfit” genes happened to come from poor people. What an insight! Margaret Sanger, the mother of the American birth control movement, was controversially supportive of eugenics: she happened to believe that the individual should be able to choose to sterilize herself in order to prevent “unwanted children from being born into a disadvantaged life,” but not that the state should be allowed to mandate it. Variations on that theme were taken up by women’s clubs – mostly rich, upper class women as members – who, sometimes contradictorily, loudly supported national eugenics legislation. North Carolina was perhaps the most aggressive place to enact eugenics law; all individuals with IQs under 70 could be forced to be legally sterilized, and these decisions could be made by social workers and not higher courts. That particular law was only struck down in 1977. It also said a lot about the early 20th century American mindset that testimony from eugenicists were vitally important in helping enact and motivate racially-defined legislation, including the Immigration Act of 1924. This, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, was the law that set immigration quotas based on the immigration numbers in 1890 before transferring to an even more draconian system that set an immigration cap of 150,000, no matter the circumstance. The philosophical backing of such legislation was to prevent dilution of American “old-stock” with “inferior stock” from the masses of Eastern European and Asian immigrants streaming into the country at that time. It is a depressing thought that Germany drew much inspiration from American efforts to control their racial and genetic stock. As they preferred to point out, it was all just science. Nothing against “those people,” but for the good of the nation.