Socialists made eugenics fashionable
An exhibition of the history of those scientific ideas that gave a grimy intellectual veneer to the Nazi genocide opened recently at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. The collection centres on eugenics, the notion that humanity can be improved and perfected by selective breeding and the elimination of individuals and groups considered to be undesirable. Entitled Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, it reveals how it was not thoughtless right-wing thugs as much as writers and scientists, the intellectual elite, who led the movement.
The exhibit is important, accurate but, regrettably, long overdue. It also fails to stress just how much the socialist left initiated and supported the eugenics campaign, not only in Germany but in Britain, the U. S. and the rest of Europe. Playwright George Bernard Shaw, English social democrat leader Sydney Webb and, in Canada, Tommy Douglas were just three influential socialists who called, for example, for the mass sterilization of the handicapped. In his Master's thesis The Problems of the Subnormal Family, the now revered Douglas argued that the mentally and even physically disabled should be sterilized and sent to camps so as not to "infect" the rest of the population.
It is deeply significant that few if any of Douglas's left-wing comrades in this country or internationally were surprised or offended by his proposals. Indeed the early fascism of 1920s Italy, while unsavoury and dictatorial, had little connection with social engineering and eugenics. The latter German version of fascism was influenced not by ultra conservatism in southern Europe but, as is made clear in the writings of the Nazi ideologues, by the Marxist left.