The Impact Of Social Darwinism On The Construction Of Nazi Ideology


In 1859, Charles Darwin published his notions on natural selection and the theory of evolution in his influential book ‘On the Origin of Species’. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was a scientific theory which focused on explaining his observations about biological diversity and why different species of plants and animals look different. According to this theory, only the best-adapted living organisms will survive in their competitive environment and transfer their genes to the next generation, whilst the unsuited organisms will not. Shortly after Darwin’s publication, the question of how these theories might apply to human populations arose. This gave rise to ‘Social Darwinism’, a loose set of ideologies where Darwin’s ideas on his theory of evolution and natural selection were applied to society, in order to justify certain political, social, or economic views. This brings me to the purpose of my essay, which is to analyze whether Social Darwinism played a role in influencing the ideologies of the Nazis before and during their reign of power in Germany.

This is a contentious debate amongst historians, as their ideas often contradict or differ on the impact of Social Darwinism to have shaped Nazi thought. This paper will present arguments for and against this influence, before concluding that Social Darwinism did indeed play a role in the construction of Nazi ideology to an extent. The subject areas the research will concentrate on are Hitler’s speeches, Nazi education, and Nazi policies.

Literature Review

Some historians claim that Nazis rejected every single aspect of Social Darwinism. For example, Richards (2013) finds that there is very little to no connection between Hitler and the Nazis to Social Darwinism. He argues that Hitler used the term “struggle for existence”, only because he derived that language from his philosopher avowed anti-Darwinian, Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Furthermore, he states that Hitler explicitly denied the descent of species, utterly rejecting the idea that Aryan man descended from ape-like predecessors. He concludes acclaiming that “only the ideologically blinded would still try to sustain the thesis in the face of the contrary, manifest evidence. Similarly, Emily Wollmuth (2017) also argues for the influence of Social Darwinism within Nazi ideology, however only to an extent as she believed that some of their ideas were based on eugenics as well.

According to Wollmuth, while Darwin does point to the elimination of inferior species in nature over vast periods of time, and Social Darwinism supports this natural process, the Nazis utilized this idea of the elimination of inferior races but carried it out through eugenic policies. Therefore, Wollmuth maintains that Nazis were not leaving the ‘survival of the fittest’ up to nature to decide as Social Darwinism asserts, but rather conflicting with it through eugenicist principles.

Finally, historian Mike Hawkings (2009) focuses on economic policies of Germany during the Nazi regime, and he finds that many of their policies are influenced by Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism ideologies of a free market and laissez-faire. Hawkings claims the Nazis applied this philosophy into micro-economics, arguing that the poor and disadvantaged were not being helped by social programs as this went contrary to nature itself (2009, p. 282). However, similarly to Wollmuth, Hawkings also agrees that many of the Nazis economic policies could have also been eugenic driven rather than Social Darwinist as he analyses the artificial eugenics program and the law of sterilization.

On the other hand, the historian Richard Weikart (2004) disagrees completely, and even maintains that: “No matter how crooked the road was from Darwin to Hitler, clearly Social Darwinism smoothed the path for Nazi ideology, especially for the Nazi stress on expansion, war, racial struggle, and racial extermination”. Weikart bases this on his conclusion of Nazi’s strong reliance on their past and how this influenced their ideologies of ‘struggle for existence’. He suggests that Nazis looked back to their ancestors whom they believed had undergone a drastic selective pressure brought on by the Ice Ages, which weeded out the weak and sickly, leaving only the best and brightest to promulgate the Nordic race.

Background on Social Darwinism and Eugenics

Even though Darwin never commented on the social implications of his theories, academics have been accused of misappropriating Darwin’s scientific ideas and applying them to human society. An example of this can be the loose collection of ideologies grouped under the label of ‘Social Darwinism’. Social Darwinism is, therefore, a very contested concept, and it has no widely accepted definition. In this paper, however, ‘Social Darwinism’ will be defined by the following four characteristics distinguished by Richards: The fittest will flourish in society while the weak will not. Distinction between ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ should be left up to nature to decide. There is struggle amongst human groups. Belief in human evolution (based on Darwin’s theory). Additionally, it has a different meaning compared to other ideologies such as Darwinism, or Eugenics.

One of the academics whose work played a role in the rise of this concept was the economist Thomas Malthus. He came up with the term “struggle for existence” in his essay “On the Principle of Population” (1978) after explaining his “Malthusian theory”, where he argued that as an increasing population would naturally outgrow its food supply, people would have to struggle to survive and this would consequently result in the starvation of the weakest. Malthus’s work also served to renew interest in the work of sociologist Herbert Spencer, who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’, in his book ‘Principles of Biology’ (1864), a fundamental thinking within Social Darwinism.

It is the idea that the strongest and the best suited should survive and flourish in society, and the weak should be allowed to die out. Moreover, a belief in human evolution is also attributed to Social Darwinism, as this one emerged from Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Around the 1900s, theories of evolution and the desire to “improve” the human race resulted in the rise of “eugenics”. This principle attempted to alter the evolutionary process by encouraging the artificial breeding of individuals with “desirable” traits and discouraging breeding among individuals with “undesirable” ones, in order to patronize the fittest elements of society.

In Germany, the biologist Ernst Haeckel also deemed with the idea of eugenics as an effective way of keeping the “German race” pure. Haeckel popularized this principle by combining it with romantic ideas about the German Volk (the people who share German heritage, language, and culture). In his book ‘The Riddle of the Universe’ (1889), he divided humankind into races and ranked each of them, with “Aryans” (a mythical race from whom many northern Europeans believed they had descended) at the top of the ranking, while Jews and Africans were placed at the bottom. By the late 1930s, groups such as the Nazi party remained invested in eugenics and still hoped to achieve a more perfect human race through this hereditary method. Hitler's speeches: It is argued that by analyzing Hitler’s speeches, there is a direct relationship between his ideology and the influence of Social Darwinism for the construction of this one.

According to Weikart, Hitler constantly placed emphasis on the evolution of the Nordic race, as he believed the German race had adapted the best to survive due to the multiple environmental stressors it had experienced. Weikart (2013) refers to Hitler’s speech in 1920, “Why We are Anti-Semites” at the Hofbräuhaus where Hitler spoke to the National Socialist German Workers Party: “The Nordic race had developed its key traits, especially its propensity for hard work and its moral fiber, but also its physical prowess, due to the harsh northern climate. ” In addition, in 1927, Hitler claimed in a speech he delivered in Munich at the Circus Krone: “You are the product of this struggle. If your ancestors had not fought, today you would be an animal. They did not gain their rights through peaceful debates with wild animals… but rather the earth has been acquired on the basis of the right of the stronger. ' As gathered from the evidence, Social Darwinism is present in both speeches, as the ideas of survival of the fittest and struggle for existence can be attributed to Hitler’s ideology of the Nordic race. Furthermore, a few lines later he continues: “the struggle of the males for the female grants the right or opportunity to propagate only to the healthiest. And struggle is always a means for improving a species’ health and power of resistance and, therefore, a cause of its higher evolution. ” This quote appears to demonstrate how Hitler believed in evolution as well, a key aspect of Social Darwinism, as he emphasized his belief on the Nordic race not being created in some pristine, unchanging state.

However, Richards also focuses on Hitler’s speeches to determine his views on Social Darwinism, and he argues that Hitler did not believe in evolution. Richards (2013) analyses his monologue in January 1942 during one of his Table Talks at Werwolf where Hitler expressed reservations about human evolution: “Where do we get the right to believe that humanity was not already from its earliest origins what it is today? Never within a genus has evolution made such a wide leap, which humans must have made, if they had been transformed from an ape-like condition to what they are now. ” This evidence implies how Hitler is rather contradictory on his beliefs, as he suggests the impossibility for humans to have made such a progression by evolving from apes. Not only this, but Boyes goes further and claims that Hitler believes in creationism and not evolution as within the same speech he stated that “it was by the Will of God that men were made of a certain bodily shape, were given their natures and their faculties”. Therefore, if Hitler believed men were created since the beginning of times with a certain bodily shape and by the will of God, he cannot believe that humans had evolved. From this, it can be assumed that Hitler's beliefs were creationist rather than evolutionary. Nonetheless, there seems to be a contradiction not only between historians but by Hitler himself, as he seems to have first recognized evolution as a part of the Nordic race in 1927, but then disproves it in 1942 when arguing for creationism instead. In conclusion, through the analyzation of Hitler's speeches, it can be acclaimed that the leader had been influenced by principles of Social Darwinism, as he recognized concepts such as ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘struggle for existence’. Nonetheless, he also disproved other fundamental ideas of the ideology such as human evolution, implying not a total but rather partial belief in the theory. Furthermore, due to contradiction and uncertainty of the belief of Hitler based on his speeches, this paper will continue by looking at Nazi education in order to determine whether aspects of Social Darwinism were present in this one.

Nazi Education

It is disputed that when the Nazis took power in Germany, their educational system involved the teaching of Social Darwinism, implying its influence within their ideology. For example, according to the handbook published by the Ministry of Education in 1938, the teaching of animal evolution, including of the human races, was mandatory. The handbook stated that evolution occurred through ‘selection and elimination’ and it stipulated, ‘The student must accept as something self-evident this most essential and most important natural law of elimination (of unfit) together with evolution and reproduction’. This demonstrates how not only were evolution and survival of the fittest compulsory teachings, but also how these views could not be challenged. Furthermore, Moch (2011) analyses the biology textbook ‘The Laws of Nature’ (1942) by Hermann, Wiehle and Harm which gave extended attention to human evolution. Two out of ten chapters were on evolution generally and another one was devoted exclusively to human evolution. The first chapter states: “All living creatures that succeed in the struggle for survival are not satisfied merely with existence, but seek to preserve their species as well. Here too is a drive that corresponds to natural law. Without this drive, species would long since have vanished. ” The quote not only emphasizes the importance of the Social Darwinist principle of surviving through struggle but it also speaks of the cruciality of preservation of the species as a natural law, demonstrating how teachers and children in Nazi Germany were made to believe this ideology as something innate. Nevertheless, this perspective has also been challenged with views of Social Darwinism not being present within Nazi education.

Richards (2013) looks at the ideologies of famous German biologists during the Third Reich and finds that many rejected Social Darwinism or found it not being implemented in schools of the time. For example, in 1940, Konrad Lorenz was a professor at Königsberg University and he complained that there were many “Schools of National Socialist Greater Germany who in fact still reject evolutionary thought and descent theory as such”. Lorenz’s complaint ought to suggest that the theory of evolution had no official mandate in the educational system. Furthermore, evolution, according to the biologist Hildebrandt, had to be rejected as he claimed that “the origin of species from the amoeba to man, cannot be explained by this mechanistic theory”, emphasizing professional rejection of the theory of evolution. Nevertheless, these critics should be interpreted in light of limitations as these biologists only seem to reject the concept of evolution but they do not account for any criticism towards other ideologies of Social Darwinism.

To conclude, evidence which is contradicting from both sides has been analyzed when it comes to Social Darwinism influencing Nazi education. However, it would seem the curriculum published by the ministry of education and the textbooks used in the schools of the Third Reich account for more persuasive evidence as they are official documents utilized across the country. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that Social Darwinism did play an influence on Nazi education. Albeit, the critics of professionals in the biological community towards evolution should not be dismissed as there seems to have been a partial but not total belief in this ideology from all Germans.

Nazi Policies

In the ‘Origin of Species’, Darwin mentions that the process of evolution is slow and that it should be led by nature in order to obtain the ‘fittest’ individuals. Additionally, he suggests this process should not be intervened by humans due to our inability to comprehend the complexity of traits (Wollmuth, 2017). This belief is also attributed to Social Darwinism, which is argued to have influenced the Nazi’s in their construction of policies during the Third Reich. According to Hawkings (2009), Nazi policies were influenced by Social Darwinism within the economy. For example, he argues that the Nazi’s opted for an economic policy of ‘laissez-faire’, where the free-market would naturally divide the ‘fit’ from the ‘unfit’. Hawkings claims, ‘The economy was regarded as an arena of competition in which only the most efficient and competent firms would succeed’. Furthermore, he quotes Hitler in a speech made on 20th of May 1937 in Berchtesgaden towards the citizens of Germany: “Business is quite brutal. You know, one notices a businessman who has made it, but one doesn't notice the tens of thousands of others who have gone bust. But it is in the nation's best interests for its economy to be run only by able people and not by civil servants. ” This demonstrates the influence of Social Darwinism over the economic policies of Nazi’s to undergo natural selection as they are not interfering with the process. In addition, within that same speech, Hitler’s judgment on those businessmen who failed reflects the Nazi’s careless intentions even for those unemployed and also emphasizing the Social Darwinist beliefs of ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘struggle for existence’.

However, Pridham (2000) also focuses on Nazi policies to determine the influence of Social Darwinism, but he finds that within racial policies, Nazi’s tend to utilize artificial selection rather than natural. He maintains that Nazi’s interfere with the natural process through the creation of laws to ‘speed up’ and make evolutionary change more effective. For example, The Nazi’s sterilization law of 1933 made sterilization compulsory for certain categories of people deemed to be suffering from hereditary illnesses, and by 1945, about 360,000 men and women had been sterilized under this programme (2000). Prudham goes further by examining the euthanasia programme applied to mentally handicapped persons from 1939 to 1945. He claims that by then, over 70,000 people had been 'disinfected', a figure that was to be greatly augmented by unofficial euthanasia practices conducted in the concentration camps after 1941, often including people who were not sick but considered undesirable on racial grounds. Finally, the highest expression of artificial selection was the persecution of Untermenschen (‘sub-people’) which culminated in the mass murder of millions of Jews, half a million Sinti and Roma ('gypsies'), and millions of Russians and Poles. Individuals of these groups were taken prisoners in Nazi labour camps were worked to death on short rations and in bad conditions (Herbert, 1997, p. 1). It is from this that Panyani finds forced labour and slavery in Nazi Germany became a vital part of the German economy. He claims that Nazi Germans abducted approximately 12 million people from almost twenty European countries (2005) and according to Panyani, at its peak, these forced labourers comprised 20% of the German workforce (2005). It can then be concluded that Nazi policies towards the economy were not fully influenced by Social Darwinism as their direct involvement of controlled groups into the economy through forced labour, and the creation of artificial programs to get rid of its ‘undesirables’ is contrary to nature itself, and therefore contrary to Social Darwinism as well.


In conclusion, it can be argued that Social Darwinism was prominent within the construction of Nazi thought to an extent, as the ideology was partially accepted in some areas but also rejected within others. As seen from Hitler’s speeches, it can be acclaimed that the leader was influenced by principles of Social Darwinism, as he recognized concepts such as ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘struggle for existence’. Nonetheless, he also disproved other fundamental ideas such as human evolution, through contradiction within his speeches, implying not a total but rather partial belief in the theory. In the area of education, the influence of Social Darwinism is more explicit, as schools within the Third Reich all taught the concepts of this ideology within their curriculum, and despite some contradiction towards evolution by Germany’s professional biologists, Social Darwinism was still perceivable as influencing Nazi ideology in this area. Finally, within Nazi policies the presence of Social Darwinism is more indefinite as even though there is some initial evidence for its influence within the economic policies due to the unregulated economy, ultimately, the influence of eugenics through artificial programmes, the persecution of ‘sub-groups’ within their racial policies and the utilization of these groups to boost their economy accounts for stronger evidence against Social Darwinism influencing Nazi policies. However, it is important to note that since Social Darwinism is a very contested ideology and has no true definition, it is difficult to assess whether the Nazi’s misappropriated or not many of its concepts.

31 October 2020
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