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Social Darwinism in Nazi Germany: A Cautionary Tale of Science Misused

In the popular imagination, the Nazi regime that ruled Germany from 1933-1945 is synonymous with irrational hatred and fanaticism. But what‘s even more chilling is how the Nazis tried to put a scientific veneer on their racist, murderous ideology. Central to that effort was the theory of social Darwinism – the idea that the concepts of evolution and natural selection also shaped human societies through ruthless competition between races.

While the Nazis did not invent social Darwinism, they adapted it to justify their totalitarian agenda to a uniquely destructive degree. Understanding how this ideology influenced Nazi thought and policy is crucial not just for historians, but as a cautionary example of how science can be perverted to anti-human ends. Drawing on a range of scholarly sources, this article will examine the origins of social Darwinism, its role in shaping Nazi propaganda and policy, and its disturbing legacy.

The Roots of Social Darwinism

The term "social Darwinism" refers to various ideologies emerging in the late 19th century that sought to apply the biological concepts of evolution to sociology, economics and politics. The name comes from British naturalist Charles Darwin, whose 1859 work On the Origin of Species revolutionized scientific thought by showing how species evolve through the mechanism of natural selection. However, social Darwinism was largely the creation of British intellectual Herbert Spencer and other contemporaries who took Darwin‘s descriptive biological theories and turned them into prescriptive social doctrines.

In his writings, Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" and argued that evolutionary progress occurred not just to organisms but to human societies as they advanced from "primitive" to "civilized." He and other social Darwinists believed that competition between individuals, social groups and races led to the betterment of the human species as the weak were weeded out and the strong thrived. Such thinking was also shaped by the work of British economist Thomas Malthus, who argued that population growth would outstrip available resources unless kept in check, leading to a struggle for existence.

These ideas were controversial even in their own time, but they resonated in a Western world order increasingly shaped by European imperialism, racially-exclusive nationalism and laissez-faire capitalism. As the historian Richard Weikart notes, by the early 20th century social Darwinism had become "one of the most popular ideologies among the educated classes" in Europe and the United States [1]. Many imperialists justified the subjugation of non-white peoples as a natural outcome of racial competition. Capitalists defended the often ruthless practices of big business as part of the struggle for economic survival. And the burgeoning pseudoscience of eugenics, founded by Darwin‘s cousin Francis Galton, proposed that governments should encourage the "biologically superior" to breed and sterilize or eliminate the "unfit."

Nazism as Applied Biology

It was in this intellectual climate that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement emerged in 1920s Germany. Seeking to explain Germany‘s humiliating defeat in World War I and the subsequent economic and political turmoil, Hitler and other Nazi leaders found a convenient scapegoat in Jews and other minorities, whom they linked to the hated ideologies of Marxism and liberal democracy. But while Hitler‘s antisemitism was rooted in centuries of religious and cultural prejudice, the Nazis also cloaked their racism in the language of science and social Darwinism.

In his 1925 manifesto Mein Kampf, Hitler laid out a view of history as an endless racial struggle between the "culture-creating" Aryan race and the "parasitic" Jewish race [2]. He wrote:

"The stronger must dominate and not merge with the weaker, thus sacrificing his own greatness. Only the born weakling can view this as cruel, but he, after all, is only a weak and limited man; for if this law did not prevail, any conceivable higher development of organic living beings would be unthinkable." [3]

Elsewhere in the book, Hitler declared that "Nature knows no political boundaries. She places life forms on this globe and then sets them free in a play for power." [4] This imagery of races brutally competing for supremacy as wild animals would become a recurring theme in Nazi propaganda. The infamous 1940 Nazi propaganda film Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) juxtaposed footage of rats scurrying in a sewer with scenes of Jews in a Polish ghetto, implying that Jews were subhuman pests to be exterminated.

But social Darwinist ideas were more than just a propaganda tool for the Nazis; they were central to their worldview and policymaking. In a 1933 speech to Nazi physicians, Hitler declared: "Our racial policy is based on the natural differences between races in the human species." [5] Many Nazi physicians and academics enthusiastically provided cover for Hitler‘s racial agenda. Some explicitly argued that Nazism was "applied biology," bringing the findings of evolutionary science into the social realm [6].

Perhaps the clearest expression of Nazi social Darwinism in practice was the concept of Lebensraum ("living space"). Drawing on the theories of 19th century German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, Hitler asserted that nations were like organisms that needed to expand and acquire new territory to survive. Ratzel himself directly compared the state to "a stalk that emerges from the soil of the nation" and grows until it is thwarted by "the resistance of other states." [7] For Hitler, this meant that Germany must conquer land and resources from "inferior" peoples to its east, especially the "subhuman" Slavs.

The quest for Lebensraum became a central justification for the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 that triggered World War II and the later invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. These wars were conceived from the outset as racial struggles. In a 1939 speech to his top military commanders, Hitler declared the coming conflict would be "a war of annihilation" to "Germanize" conquered Slavic lands [8]. Nazi propaganda posters depicted Germany as a valiant knight defending Western civilization from the "Asiatic hordes" of Bolshevism. And the Nazis‘ deliberate policy of mass starvation in Ukraine and Belarus, which claimed millions of lives, was justified on social Darwinist grounds as acquiring living space for German settlers.

From Eugenics to Genocide

This ruthless expansionism was mirrored by the Nazis‘ domestic racial policies, which were also heavily influenced by social Darwinism. Even before taking power, the Nazis had argued that Germany needed to protect the "racial hygiene" of the Aryan Volk (nation) from degeneration through racial mixing and the reproduction of the "hereditarily ill." Nazi propaganda incessantly harped on the imagery of an idealized blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan juxtaposed with stigmatizing caricatures of Jews, Roma, and disabled people as threats to the health of the nation.

Once in power, the Nazis began to translate this ideology into policy through an escalating series of persecution. The 1933 Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases legalized the forced sterilization of people with conditions like schizophrenia, epilepsy, and "feeble-mindedness," which were seen as inheritable. An estimated 300,000-400,000 people were sterilized under this law [9]. This was accompanied by propaganda like the 1936 film Erbkrank ("Hereditarily Ill"), which dehumanized the mentally and physically disabled as drains on society.

Persecution of Jews and other minorities also escalated under the guise of "racial hygiene." The 1935 Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of citizenship rights and banned marriage and sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews. A chart from a Nazi propaganda publication titled "The Biology of Growth" purported to show how mating between "Nordic" Germans and Jews led to degeneration of Aryan racial stock [10]. Jews were increasingly depicted in propaganda as literal parasites poisoning the German body politic.

This culminated in the Holocaust, a campaign of industrialized mass murder driven by the assumption of biological Jewish inferiority and threat. An infamous 1943 SS publication titled "The Subhuman" argued Jews were "the eternal bloodsucker" – lower than animals and agents of racial defilement [11]. SS commander Heinrich Himmler explicitly invoked social Darwinism to justify the genocide, declaring in 1943: "This is a battle of life and death between the Aryan race and the Jewish subhuman." [12]

An Enduring Legacy

The defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 dealt a severe blow to social Darwinist ideology, which became associated with fascism, racism and genocide in the post-war era. The link between Darwinism and Nazism has been overstated by some as an cudgel against evolutionary science in general. But mainstream biologists and anthropologists today reject social Darwinist ideas as a perversion of Darwin‘s actual theory, which spoke of individual variation and adaptation, not competition between races.

"Although the specific notion of ‘social Darwinism‘ arose from a misrepresentation of Darwin‘s ideas and in any case had only limited currency, Darwin gave credence to biologized conceptions of human difference," writes historian Richard J. Evans. "Nazism took these to an extreme which none of the originators of these ideas anticipated."[13]

However, the Nazis‘ enthusiastic use of social Darwinist rhetoric and "racial science" to support their aims had a profound impact. It revealed the potential for scientific concepts to become ideological weapons in the wrong hands. The horrors of the Holocaust starkly demonstrated the dangers of classifying human beings according to inherent biological worth. It also led to greater awareness of the need for ethical safeguards in scientific research, like the Nuremberg Code developed during the Nazi doctors‘ trials to protect human subjects.

That said, the basic premises of social Darwinism – that human well-being is dictated by a natural struggle between inherently unequal groups – still persist in various guises. In recent years there has been a troubling resurgence of pseudo-scientific racism, with far-right groups misusing genetic ancestry testing to argue for white supremacy [14]. Anti-immigrant political movements have invoked social Darwinist themes of national self-preservation and racial "replacement." And a tech-bro "rationalism" hearkening back to the eugenic era remains an undercurrent in Silicon Valley [15].

The stubborn appeal of such ideas even after their horrific consequences in Nazi Germany shows the need for continued historical awareness and moral vigilance. We must recognize that science is not some purely objective truth that exists independent of society, but is shaped by the biases and aims of its practitioners. Empirical study of the natural world is essential for human progress, but we cannot allow it to be misused to prop up defective social theories like biological racism and rigid hierarchy. The disturbing case of social Darwinism in Nazi Germany reminds us that the ultimate aim of expanding knowledge must be to reduce human suffering and ensure our shared welfare and equal dignity – not provide cover for those who would do the opposite.


  1. Weikart, Richard. (1993) "The Origins of Social Darwinism in Germany, 1859-1895." Journal of the History of Ideas 54 (3): 469-88.

  2. Hitler, Adolf. (2001) Mein Kampf. Translated by Ralph Mannheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 232.

  3. Hitler p. 260.

  4. Hitler p. 134.

  5. Neumann, Thomas. (2013) "Medizin im Dienste der Rassenideologie: Die ‘Führerschule der Deutschen Ärzteschaft‘ in Alt Rehse." Deutsche Medizinische Wochenschrift 138: 2224-2228.

  6. Weindling, Paul Julian. (2005) Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials: From Medical Warcrimes to Informed Consent. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 43.

  7. Ratzel, Friedrich. (1896) "Die Gesetze des räumlichen Wachstums der Staaten." Peter Mitteilungen 42: 97-107.

  8. Domarus, Max, ed. (2007) The Essential Hitler: Speeches and Commentary. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, p. 1548.

  9. Friedlander, Henry.(1995) The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, p. 87.

  10. Weindling p. 58

  11. Reichsführer-SS, ed. (1943) Der Untermensch (The subhuman). Berlin: Nordland Verlag.

  12. Himmler, Heinrich. (1943) Speech of October 4, 1943. In Arad, Yitzhak, Yisrael Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot, eds. (1999). Documents on the Holocaust. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, p. 344.

  13. Evans, Richard J. (2002) "Nazism, "Social Darwinism," and Scientific Racism." Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, 31: 67-76.

  14. Panofsky, Aaron, and Joan Donovan. (2019) "Genetic Ancestry Testing among White Nationalists: From Identity Repair to Citizen Science." Social Studies of Science 49, no. 5: 653–81.

  15. Cohen, Adam. (2016) "Silicon Valley‘s Creepy Obsession with Longevity." TIME Magazine, Feb 25, 2016.