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On Church Opposition to Eugenics and Anti-Semitism

2/8/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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Interview With Leonardo Macrobio

ROME, FEB. 8, 2005 (Zenit) - Although a complex ideology underlies the Nazi anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust, many historians point to the eugenic theories that were widespread in the 1930s and 1940s.

In the book "The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945" (Rizzoli Publishers, Milan, 1992), Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann explain that Adolf Hitler fused the theories of social Darwinism, racial purity and anti-Semitism, giving life to a political movement that later became a brutal dictatorship.

To probe the links between eugenics and anti-Semitism, we interviewed Leonardo Macrobio, professor of the master's course in environmental sciences at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, who has just completed a study on eugenic theories and the opposition of the Church, and in particular of Pius XII, to them.

Q: What are the conceptual and organizational origins of the racial theories and anti-Semitism which spread in Europe in the '30s and '40s?

Macrobio: To understand the conceptual roots of racism as a racial theory one must go back to the second half of the 19th century in England.

In that nation, in fact, for some 30 years, from 1853 to 1883, some essays were published that established the theoretical basis for the birth of racial laws. I am referring to works whose titles and authors do not require special comments: Joseph Arthur Gobineau in 1853-55 writes "Essai sur l'ingalit des races humaines"; Charles Darwin in 1859 publishes "The Origin of Species," from which stemmed the theory of the survival of the fittest.

In 1862, Herbert Spencer applied the Darwinian theory to society in the essay "First Principles," giving birth to the movement of social Darwinism. In 1869, Francis Galton took up the works of Darwin, Spencer and Gobineau in "Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences." Only in 1871, in line with the just-mentioned studies, Darwin decided to apply his evolutionist theory to man in the volume "The Descent of Man."

Finally, in 1883, Galton published "Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development," in which, for the first time, the term "eugenics" appeared. All these works introduce the concept according to which life is for the fittest, while the weakest succumb.

The definition of "fit" or "weak" is vague and by its nature requires specification. The problem, to which the racial laws would give their tragic solution, is the following: Who can say who is fit -- and therefore deserves to live -- and who is weak -- and therefore, by nature, is destined to succumb)?

The climate at the end of the 19th century in which these theories developed found an appropriate answer in medical science: The canons of worth were indicated by the physiognomic sciences and, more generally, by the anthropometric. In other words, there was an attempt to justify scientifically an ideological assumption, namely, that there are inferior and superior races.

According to these theories, Jews were considered an inferior race. And even though the eugenic theories considered a large category of people inferior, a virulent form of anti-Semitism developed throughout the world.

Q: What was the reaction of the intellectual elites and of governments to these theories?

Macrobio: The cultural elites willingly embraced the racist theories, among them, anti-Semitism. This, truth be told, because of a type of legacy of the end of the 19th century on the part of the theories of Thomas Malthus.

It is obvious that, if as Malthus maintained, the planet is overpopulated and there will no longer be resources precisely because of the "population explosion," eugenics provided an ideal way out, indicating "objective" parameters to eliminate groups of people considered superfluous.

The governments, for their part, activated many resources to pursue racial purity. Severe and selective were the immigration laws of America at the beginning of the 20th century. But also in Europe, together with totalitarianism, laws soon emerged of a eugenic character and, therefore, racial.

Countries such as Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Spain equipped themselves immediately, as early as the first decades of the 19th century, with legislation that, in the name of safeguarding the race, obliged the sterilization of some categories of citizens, such as the mentally retarded, the antisocial and the handicapped.

Q: What were, on the other hand, the reactions of the Catholic Church?

Macrobio: The Church, as early as the advent of the theories of Malthus, Darwin, Gobineau, Spencer and Galton, found itself in strong disagreement in regard to these positions. The essential point was the clash of two different conceptions of man. ...

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