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The History of East-Central European Eugenics, 1900-1945: Sources and Commentaries

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In late August 1932, many of the world’s leading eugenicists descended upon New York City to attend the Third International Congress of Eugenics at the American Museum of Natural History. In his presidential address to the assembled, the congress president, American eugenicist Charles B. Davenport, hailed the diversity of delegates in attendance as evidence of eugenics’ continuing success around the globe, specifically praising the presence of attendees from “England, the Scandinavian Countries, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland” (Davenport 17). The field’s recent successes, he concluded, “have seen the new eugenics rise from a mire of ridicule to the solid foundation of a recognised important social factor. It is probable that in the next two decades it will rise still further in public esteem and become regarded as the most important influence in human advancement” (17).

It is in some ways chilling to read Davenport’s concluding thoughts from the perspective and hindsight of the early twenty-first century. Indeed, eugenics would rise substantially in public stature (if not esteem) in the two decades to come, with tragic and violent consequences for those who fell afoul of the Nazi state’s interpretation of its tenets. But it is not this aspect of Davenport’s remarks that deserves the most consideration. It is the first. The eugenics movements of Western Europe mentioned in his address have been subjected to extensive treatment in the existing historiography for decades. The final country listed, however, has not. Why has Poland’s eugenics movement, considered significant enough in 1932 to be mentioned by one of the field’s leading lights as an example of its international success, been ignored in English-language writing on the subject?

This is the question that lies at the heart of Marius Turda’s remarkable new edited volume entitled, appropriately enough, The History of East-Central European Eugenics, 1900-1945. Turda’s fundamental contention in the work, discussed explicitly on its first page, is that “Until relatively recently the history of East-Central European eugenics was virtually unknown to the wider academic community.” (xi) Despite this historiographical lacuna, he continues, it is undeniable that the eugenics movements of Austria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia played an important international role in the 1920s and 1930s, as evidenced by their participation in international organizations and scholarly publications. To a lesser and often more regional extent, so did eugenic and racial betterment movements among minority ethnic groups seeking to redraw the map in their favour in Transylvania and Vojvodina (these are the two cases presented in the present work—there are surely more that could be considered under this category as well).

Turda is certainly correct to say that the Eastern European aspect of eugenics has been all but ignored by Western European and North American scholars. He himself has been one of the first writers to bring these movements to English-speaking scholarly consideration. Much of the reason for this past neglect surely lies in the linguistic difficulties of archival work for non-native speakers in many of these countries, along with the fact that the political conditions of the Cold War made research access difficult for westerners, and publication in the west difficult for Eastern Bloc scholars until relatively recently. With such a wide breadth of countries, languages and regions to examine, Turda has set himself up for a monumental task. The book’s impressive length—656 pages in hardback—is a testimony to how seriously he and his collaborators have made an effort to meet this challenge.

Structurally, the book is separated into 10 main sections, each of which considers a national or regional eugenics movement from its inception in the late ninetheenth or early twentieth century, to its post-war decline and eventual death—at least as originally constituted—at some point after 1945 (given its ethnic and historical complexity, Yugoslavia is appropriately given separate sections for Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia). Within each section, there is first an overview written by a historian, followed by a series of biographies examining key figures involved in the movement. Some of these, particularly in the early chapters, are fairly complete accounts of the subject’s life, while others, especially those from the furthest eastern regions covered by the book, are necessarily shorter. The biographical section on Transylvanian Saxon eugenicist Franz Wilhelm Wokalek, for instance, reveals his early career as a Nazi activist, a founder of the Main Office for National Health concerned with “bodily health and purity of the blood” among ethnic Germans, and, eventually, as an SS officer involved in racial resettlement projects. It concludes in 1944 with him returning to Transylvania after being wounded. From there, “we have no reliable biographical information.” (586) Cases such as these illustrate the close connection between eugenic activism in the pre-war period—particularly among younger eugenicists—and the practical implementation of these ideas on a mass scale that took place under German influence and occupation during the war. Wokalek’s effective disappearance from the historical record reminds us that these were not purely abstract scientific discussions. Millions would lose their lives as a result of the ideas germinating well before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, and individuals like Wokalek would effectively dedicate their lives to their implementation. Whether he survived the war or not, his life ended with the death of the eugenic project to which he had committed himself.

Beyond the revealing biographical sketches, each section also contains a selection of primary source documents, most of which have been culled and translated directly from the archives. Nearly all of these are presumably appearing here in English for the first time. Given the size constraints of the book, they are by necessity short documents, and many from the pre-war years are fairly standard statements of commitment to eugenic ideas and battling dysgenic forces such as alcoholism, prostitution, and venereal disease. It is in these similarities, however, that they are perhaps most interesting. In 1920, for instance, Yugoslavian (Serbian) medical officer and eugenicist Vladimir Stanojević penned a remarkable document tracing the history of the eugenics movement from Francis Galton onward, mentioning the intellectual deviation of German racial hygiene, and then advocating “active propaganda” to create “a strong consciousness of eugenics among people, and to create both a new morality and reform marriage law based on eugenics.” (487-8). This type of statement would have been found more or less verbatim in Anglo-American eugenic literature of the period, and in many other countries as well. This in some senses suggests that the later appropriation of the Serbian eugenics movement by the collaborationist state—and its eventual destruction, with at least one leader being shot almost immediately by the Communists in 1944—was as much a result of changing political circumstances rather than the intrinsic qualities of the field or views of its practitioners (admittedly, Stanojević was one of the few to have any semblance of a career under the Communist regime, though in the “secluded field of history of medicine”) (483). By the late 1930s, many of these documents have transitioned from the social reformist orientation present in the previous document to more racial hygiene-influenced statements about the need to preserve purity of blood and similar sentiments, again suggesting the influence of Nazi ideology.

The breadth of these translated materials, coupled with the valuable context offered by the biographical portraits and introductory sections, makes this book an invaluable resource for any scholars studying eugenics. However, in some ways it raises more questions than it answers. As already alluded, one recurring pattern in the individual case studies is the changing influence of German racial hygiene over the course of the 1930s. Turda says as much in his introduction, highlighting how many of the eugenicists considered in the coming pages spent time studying in Germany or modelling their own work on that of German racial hygienists. This is understandable, given Germany’s prominence in the field before the Second World War, and its regional importance. In nearly all cases, eugenics gained prominence and prestige in the interwar period, partly as a way of dealing with the human costs of the First World War, but also because the map of Europe had been redrawn so radically that the question of what constituted the nation, and who was considered a valuable part of it, had risen to the fore in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and elsewhere. Yet, what was the specific role of German racial hygienists in constructing this narrative in the first place? How specifically did the German movement cultivate their counterparts in foreign countries, and what was the role of the wider international movement? The British and the American eugenics movement were also influential—as many of the texts presented in this book testify—but what role did they play? And what role did other ideological varieties of eugenics, ranging from moderate social reformism to radical eugenics on the left, play in this period?

These are not criticisms of the present book, and Turda himself echoes similar sentiments when he writes in its opening pages that “to include all varieties of eugenics (as initially planned) would have made an already lengthy book even lengthier” (xxiii). He encourages scholars to use his work as a springboard for future studies, and it is hoped that he will be successful in doing so. The story of the international eugenics movement is only beginning to be told in its full context for the first time. There remains much to be done.

Reviewed by Bradley W. Hart, California State University

The History of East-Central European Eugenics, 1900-1945: Sources and Commentaries
by Marius Turda
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardcover / 656 pages / 2015
ISBN: 9781472531759




Perkins, Harry F., Charles B. Davenport, and Clarence G. Campbell. A Decade of Progress in Eugenics: Scientific Papers of the 3rd International Congress of Eugenics Held at American Museum of Natural History, New York, August 21-23, 1932.

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