The evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) destructively influenced many of the Western world’s leaders in the early 20thcentury. In particular, intellectuals in Germany were among the earliest to embrace Darwinism enthusiastically, and to apply its concept of the survival of the fittest to human society. That is, they applied the subtitle of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). The most infamous result of this was the Holocaust,1 but social Darwinism was also a major influence in the events leading up to World War One.
In the decades leading up to World War One, intellectuals embraced Darwinism and its ethical implications as a welcome alternative to Christian belief and ethics. Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), the most famous German Darwinist of the time, and notorious forger of embryo diagrams,2 believed that evolution would “bring forth a complete revolution in the entire world view of humanity.”3 He argued that Darwinism required the abandonment of Christian morals.
Until the advent of Darwinism, the sanctity of human life was taken for granted in European law and thought. But many German intellectuals began to argue that some had a greater right to life than others, namely, those who are deemed more valuable to society. This inequality was mainly based on race, but the Darwinists argued that there were inferior individuals within a race as well. For instance, zoologist and politician Karl Vogt (1817–1895) argued that a mentally handicapped child was closer in value to an ape than to his own parents.4 It should thus not be surprising that the world’s first eugenics5 society was founded in Germany, promoting the concept founded by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton (1822–1911).6 ….
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