Eugenics after the Nazis? The Evolution of a Problematic Discipline

Eugenics declined after Nazi Germany collapsed in 1945 but did not disappear. Instead, it changed priorities, focusing on “overpopulation,” and modern advances in gene editing might have brought it back.

Apr 27, 2023By Christos Konstantopoulos, MPhil Politics: Comparative Government, BA History

modern eugenics evolution


What is the first period that comes to mind when one hears the term “eugenics”? For many, the answer is obvious: the Nazi dictatorship in Germany (1933-1945). And for good reason. The Nazis were indeed outspoken proponents of eugenics, carrying out multiple eugenic policies, including the T-4 involuntary euthanization program and compulsory sterilizations. The aim? To uplift and “purify” the “Aryan race” by weeding out “undesirables” from the gene pool and increasing the number of those deemed to be of “sound” genetic material. Nevertheless, the obsession of popular culture with World War II has obscured an uncomfortable truth: the survival of eugenic ideas after the collapse of Nazism. Rather than ending abruptly, modern eugenics was gradually phased out and ingeniously re-invented, allowing it to survive past 1945.


Optimizing Mankind: Eugenics Before the Nazis

sir francis galton modern eugenics
Portrait of Sir Francis Galton by Gustav Graef, 1882, via


In her book Controlling Human Heredity, historian of genetics Diane Paul explains that manipulating human reproduction to optimize a population’s traits is an old idea. Utopian thinkers, such as Plato in the 4th century BCE, and Tommaso Campanella in the 17th century CE, frequently formulated such arguments. Modern eugenics begins with the Victorian polymath Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), who coined the term eugenics in his 1883 work Inquiries into Human Faculty. He defined it as:


“the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognizance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”


modern eugenics sterilization laws united states
Source: Hansen & King, Sterilized by the State: Eugenics, Race, and the Population Scare in Twentieth-Century North America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.77.


Importantly, Nazi Germany was not the first to adopt eugenic policies. Instead, the first eugenic sterilization law in the world was adopted in 1907 by Indiana in the United States of America. Other states of that nation followed suit, with the Supreme Court upholding such laws as constitutional in the landmark 1927 case Buck v. Bell. Between 1929 and 1934, similar measures were adopted by Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

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As for the birthplace of eugenics, Britain, some intellectuals were receptive, but sterilization did not become policy. Nonetheless, the Report of the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded (1904-1908) accepted many eugenic arguments. “Feeble-mindedness” was seen as primarily hereditary and was to be curbed by placing the “feeble-minded” in special institutions where they would be unable to reproduce. These ideas would eventually be enshrined in public policy with the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913.


In short, eugenics had a long history outside of Nazi Germany, and this is key for understanding why it persisted past 1945.


After the Holocaust: The Post-war Challenge to Eugenics

stanford prison experiment prisoner against wall
Prisoner Against Wall, taken during the Stanford Prison Experiment, via


The end of World War II and the revelation of multiple mass crimes – primarily the Holocaust– led to intense soul-searching in the West. People struggled to find suitable ways – theological, philosophical, artistic – of processing the trauma. Much post-war Western intellectual life sought to address one question: how could some of the richest and best-educated societies in history perpetrate such horrible actions? After all, standard narratives of progress predicted that, as development and education levels rise, there is a corresponding improvement in moral conduct.


Various answers were offered. Many focused on human nature and psychology. In the influential book The Authoritarian Personality, Theodor Adorno and other Frankfurt School intellectuals suggested that fascism was closely connected to a certain personality type. Its traits, they argued, included willingness to submit to authority, cultural and sexual conservatism, and obsession with strength. More worrying were some of the best-known psychology experiments of all time: Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment and Milgram’s electric shock experiments on obedience. Their results were interpreted as demonstrating that average people without particularly “fascist” traits can be made to commit horrible acts with the right mix of incentives¹.


Still others criticized ideologies perceived as enabling the rise of fascism and justifying inhumane violence. Militarism, scientific racism, and eugenics came under heavy fire. UNESCO and much of the scientific community declared that “race” was not a valid scientific concept. Eugenics’ discourse of “undesirable” individuals and races and of “improving” human stock became associated with Nazism’s collectivism, racism, and obsession with creating a “New Man.” Faced with such criticism, eugenics took a heavy blow, rapidly losing popularity. And yet, its story continues past 1945.


Post-war Eugenic Sterilization: Continuity & Reform

sterilisation for human betterment
Cover Page of Sterilization for human betterment: a summary of results of 6,000 operations in California, 1909-1929, by E.S. Gosney and Paul Popenoe, via Wellcome Collection, London


In many countries, eugenic policies continued after 1945. Japan passed its Eugenic Protection Law aiming “to prevent the birth of inferior descendants” and protect maternal health in 1948. The Law permitted voluntary and involuntary sterilizations in case of specific diseases and conditions seen as hereditary, such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, and “remarkable abnormal sexual desire.” The law’s eugenic elements were only repealed in 1996, with official statistics reporting 16,520 involuntary sterilizations in 1949-1994, mostly in psychiatric institutions.


In Scandinavia, sterilization laws continued until the 1970s. Leading scientists asserted that Scandinavian eugenics was fundamentally different from Nazi practices and thus did not need reform. Nevertheless, as Matthias Tyden stresses in the Oxford Handbook on the History of Eugenics, these laws’ application changed in the 1950s. The number of sterilizations dropped, and negotiated agreements gradually replaced coercion in many cases – though gray areas between consent and coercion remained.


The post-war emphasis on individual rights and distrust of collective institutions was problematic for eugenics. Calls to “better the race” and “weed out bad stock” did not cut it anymore. In their book Sterilized by the State, Randall Hansen and Desmond King document how eugenists repackaged their ideas. They reframed arguments in terms of rights, such as the unborn child’s right to be born healthy. Furthermore, they claimed eugenics tackled even environmental, not just genetic, problems. As Paul Popenoe of the Human Betterment Foundation explained,


“even if mental deficiency and mental disease were not inherited at all, but simply due to [a bad] environment and training, surely it is not to the advantage of society that normal children be brought up by insane and feeble-minded parents.”


But the most promising strategy for modern eugenics was to join those arguing that the world was becoming overpopulated.


The Question of Overpopulation

word population size
The population explosion in the 20th century from Max Roser, via Our World in Data. Licensed under CC-BY-SA.


The post-war years saw an increase in birth rates and, correspondingly, increasing alarmism over global population growth, especially in the developing world.


“[W]e teeter on the brink of self-destruction by allowing population growth to outstrip economic advance… The problem is most intense in those parts of the world where average incomes are barely above the minimum of subsistence”, wrote Frank W. Notestein, the first director of Princeton University’s Office of Population Research and the director of the United Nations Population Division in 1947-1948, in The Atlantic Monthly in 1959.


Fears about the impact of “overpopulation” on the quality of life were not limited to GDP per capita levels. In his famous 1968 book The Population Bomb, American biologist Paul Ehrlich warned that human population growth has become a serious danger. Ehrlich warned that the specter of overpopulation would result in impending ecological catastrophe, mass starvation, and unchecked spread of disease. Some of his proposals – such as restriction of immigration to developed countries and aggressive incentives for birth control and sterilization – had also been suggested by eugenists, albeit for different reasons.


To be clear, the argument that the world is overpopulated and that something must be done about this is not necessarily a eugenic argument. There are genuine economic, environmental, and public health concerns. Not to mention worries about female autonomy and health, where women are expected to be highly fertile and act as children’s primary caregivers. Indeed, whatever one may think about Ehrlich’s thesis, its stringent tone was the shock that alerted many to environmental issues and influenced subsequent legislation.


Population Policy & the Re-invention of Eugenics

nikolaos louros hellenic eugenics society
Portrait of Professor Nikolaos Louros, president of the Hellenic Eugenics Society by Mytaras Dimitris, via the National Gallery – Alexandros Soutsos Museum, Π.5503, Athens


Nonetheless, identifying overpopulation as a major problem allowed eugenists to counter the emphasis on individual rights by painting the picture of a global emergency. In situations of crisis, they said, reproductive choices should not be left to individuals but should be guided, gently or coercively, by experts. More importantly, eugenics was now seen as working on pressing issues of the day rather than obsessing over outdated notions such as “race hygiene.”


Greece is an interesting example of how fears about overpopulation were essential to eugenic activism in the post-war period. Greek eugenics, surprisingly, reached its peak after the Second World War. It was the population debate that finally led to the creation of a eugenics society in 1953. As Alexandra Barmpouti explains in her 2019 book on Greek post-war eugenics, this was largely the result of a December 1952 lecture in Athens on population and eugenics by Dr. Pascal K. Whelpton, then Director at the Population Division of the United Nations.


Though Greece did not witness a post-war baby boom, perceptions of overpopulation, especially in urban centers, emerged due to an increase in life expectancy, considerable internal migration and urbanization, and a significant drop in mortality following the end of the Greek Civil War in 1949.


Eugenics did not achieve considerable popular backing, but it was well-accepted in medical circles. Nikolaos Louros, who served as the Hellenic Eugenics Society’s president for roughly twenty years, was a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Athens Medical School, Scientific Director of the Alexandra Maternity Hospital, gynecologist of the Greek Royal Family, and at one point Minister for Education.


Which Births to Control?

modern eugenics north carolina sterilization of mental defectives
A 1950 pamphlet of the Human Betterment League of North Carolina defending the sterilization of “mental defectives,” via the North Carolina State Documents Collection, State Library of North Carolina.


Crucially, the actual implementation of measures intended to restrict population numbers resulted in a disproportionate targeting of certain groups by such policies. It is often debatable whether policymakers had eugenic goals in mind as opposed to developmental, environmental, or other goals. Regardless of intentions, however, it was always those with minimal political influence and the least ability to resist state power who suffered the most from coercion. In India, millions – mostly women – have been sterilized since the 1970s, many under coercive circumstances. Peru’s population policies in the 1990s resulted in the sterilization of roughly 300,000 people, mostly poor and indigenous women, with the Quipu project recording several of their stories. Inmates of psychiatric institutions – within easy reach of doctors and the state – were probably the single group worst hit by sterilization policies across the world.


In the United States, starting from the 1960s, federal funds were directed to birth control and contraception. This was connected to sexual liberalization and was also seen as a cost-effective measure in President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” which expanded welfare spending. Despite initial reluctance, federally funded birth control practices would come to include sterilization, mostly of women on welfare. And economically disadvantaged groups disproportionately receiving welfare, particularly Black and indigenous communities, would thus also be disproportionately targeted by sterilization.


stop forced sterilization
A 1977 San Francisco poster campaigning against coerced sterilization, via the Library of Congress


Those lobbying for sterilization used arguments remarkably similar to those of early 20th-century eugenists. Their central argument was that sterilizing the poor could simultaneously reduce welfare expenditure and genetically improve the population. Take, for instance, H. Curtis Wood Jr., president of the Human Betterment Association of America. At a 1963 meeting of the Kentucky Gynecological Society, he framed this problem through a comparison of two families, the “responsible” Smiths and the “irresponsible” Joneses.


“Let us … make a big assumption and say that the Smiths were a three-child family and the Jones a 10-child family, each continuing in this pattern for two generations. Under such circumstances Mr. Smith would have 27 great grandchildren who would have to work hard and pay taxes to support the 1,000 great grandchildren of the unfortunate Mr. Jones. There are many inadequacies in such an oversimplification of the problem … but I feel it does illustrate how rapidly those on welfare may outnumber those who feed them.”


And, in case there was a doubt about his eugenic beliefs, he continues: “There are also many who feel that intelligence is strongly hereditary and that there is an alarming fall in our national intelligence level for these same reasons.”


It is debatable whether politicians legislating sterilization in India, Peru, and the US had eugenic goals or simply wished to restrict population growth and welfare spending. What is not debatable is that the application of population control policies disproportionately affected specific groups and that many birth control lobbyists had eugenic aims.


Eugenics in the 21st century: From Collapse to Rebirth?

spectator 2016 modern eugenics is back
Cover of the 2 April 2016 issue of The Spectator, via The Spectator


While eugenics did not end immediately after 1945, it certainly declined. The term became taboo: in the United Kingdom, the Eugenics Society became the Galton Institute in 1989, and its organ, The Eugenics Review, morphed into the Journal of Biosocial Science in 1969. Eugenic elements of the aforementioned sterilization policies were repealed, mostly in the 1970s. Eugenics seemed a thing of the past.


And yet, many argue eugenics is back. Advances in gene editing have re-ignited old debates on tackling medical and social problems by genetically modifying the population. On the one hand, “designer babies” remain a taboo prospect. In November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have “created” the first babies genetically edited to be resistant to HIV/AIDS. He was immediately isolated by the scientific community, placed under house arrest, and sentenced in December 2019 to three years imprisonment by a Chinese court.


And yet, some forms of gene editing have already become accepted due to their massive potential for improving individual and public health. Indeed, gene editing operations have already been successfully carried out, notably by the UK’s National Health Service.


Our ever-increasing ability to edit our genes brings with it uncomfortable questions and ethical dilemmas. About whether we have a duty to prevent suffering if we can, even if that means resorting to designer babies. About whether emphasizing genetic reform can make us forget about social reform. About what kind of deviations from the “normal” will be accepted and when they can simply be edited away. The questions are seemingly endless. And the answers we give will profoundly affect our societies and our relationship with each other. Turning to the previous century’s debates around eugenics can help us navigate such discussions and perhaps alert us to the potential dangers that lie ahead.


  1. The aforementioned experiments and their results are extremely controversial. By mentioning them in this article, the author and TheCollector do not endorse any single view regarding the experiments, but merely point out the way they were publicly received at the time.
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By Christos KonstantopoulosMPhil Politics: Comparative Government, BA HistoryChristos is a historian and social scientist with a keen interest in the history of health and in the influence of experts on political decision-making. He holds a BA in History from the University of Cambridge and an MPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford, where his MPhil Thesis focused on how advocates of eugenics interacted with policy-makers in Edwardian Britain.