Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ivory Tower Book-Heads

I just got an email from Richard Weikart that his new book has just come out. Four years ago I reviewed his book FROM DARWIN TO HITLER for Christianity and Society Journal. It really rocked my world and helped to clarify my focus in my own work on a book about God's image. As I just told Weikart, part of my goal became to present a Christian antithesis to the fascist ethic that Weikart had described.

So I am eagerly waiting for my copy of his new book, HITLER'S ETHIC: THE NAZI PURSUIT OF EVOLUTIONARY PROGRESS, to arrive at the bookstore. It is a sequel to the first, and I expect it to be just as clarifying of the ethical mindset and motivations of one of the most evil time periods our world has ever endured. In the meantime, here is the review I wrote on the earlier one. Spellings and punctuation may look a little odd; that is because it was published in an English journal and they edit things according to their own standards.

The journal is now available online and that issue can be found at
The review is down at page 60, and you may find another article I wrote for them on page 54. But here it is to save you the trouble.

By Richard Weikart
Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, hardback, 312 pages

Reviewed by Doug P. Baker

Michael Polanyi, the great twentieth century philosopher, spent decades asking the question, “Why did we destroy Europe?” Wisely, he refrained laying the blame on the doorstep of others, but he brought it home to all of us, “Why did we destroy Europe?” He saw clearly that there is a complicity in the roots of that devastating war that goes far beyond the military and financial backing that Hitler and Mussolini received.

Drowning in economic depression though it was, Germany at the outset of the second world war held the esteem of the rest of the world for being the home of the greatest scholars and thinkers on Earth. For two centuries Germany had continually been the home of the physics world. From Ohm, Kirchoff and Hertz, to Planck, Heisenberg and Einstein, the discoveries of Germany’s physicists had paved the way for nearly every technological advance on earth. Likewise, the new field of psychology was led by Germans, from Fechner and Wundt to Ebbinghaus and Wertheimer. We could also list the greatest names in jurisprudence (Savigny), philosophy (Neitzche), literature (Brecht, Goethe, Hesse), music (Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Schumann) or theology (Bultmann, Bonhoeffer) and we would see Germans dominate the lists during the century leading up to the rise of the Nazi party. Germany was no small barbaric State, forgotten by civilisation and culture. Germany led civilisation and defined culture. The Germans were who we all wanted to be.

How then did Germany fall to such a level as the extermination of millions of their own citizens, their friends and neighbours? Is it really a fall from “civilisation” to “barbarity,” or is it rather the overflow of pride of an overly civilised and overly educated nation? Is it that “professing to be wise, they became fools”?

In From Darwin to Hitler, Richard Weikart follows the growth of a philosophy, and the death of another, from the moment that Darwin’s major work hit the academy to the beginning of the implementation of its child, the Nazi death machine. This book is not a broad look at the social and moral implications of Darwinism, but a very narrowly focused tracing of the path that led directly from the publication of a text in theoretical biology to the national embrace of genocide in Hitler’s Germany.

The history that I learned as a child in school portrayed a kind and gentle Germany, naively overcome by the oratorical powers of an antichrist, half duped and half ignorant of the atrocities going on throughout German controlled areas. Certainly, in my history classes, few of the kind folk from the land of Luther would have condoned the actions of the madman. Sadly, I did not learn history. I learned a milksop myth.

Germany elected Adolph Hitler, not in spite of his ambitions, but because of them. Germany had been prepared for genocide by the insinuation of a new philosophy, an evolutionary ethic, into the moral fabric of its society.

Weikart guides us through the almost instant translation of the concept of evolution from the realm of biology to the realm of philosophy. Its initial relevance was obvious: if we were not created, then there is no Creator to judge us. But the discussion quickly progressed beyond that point.

A major part of Darwin’s theory lay in the idea that in order for a species to progress evolutionarily, only the best of that species could reproduce, and nature would prohibit the others. This, he argued, happened naturally, thus making evolution progress without outside interference. But, if the health of a species was maintained and advanced through the attenuating effects of survival of the fittest, then the struggle for survival was necessary for the common good. Therefore it would not be in the best interest of a species for the struggle to be alleviated such that even the weak, sickly, crippled, or in the language of the day, the “unfit,” could reproduce.

And, so evolutionary theory goes, humanity is merely a species of animal, trying to evolve, or at least not to devolve. In the interest of the higher good, the struggle must be maintained. But modern conveniences and softer lifestyles, not to mention the great evil of humanitarianism, get in the way of the natural effects of that struggle. Some people even go out of their way to aid the “unfit,” thus making it easier for them to reproduce, counteracting all of the benefits of evolution.

Thus, Christian charity became positively antisocial and evil to the evolutionary mind. If nature was no longer serving to limit reproduction in the human species, then intervention would be needed. At the least, for the good of society, the “unfit” should be prohibited from reproducing; even better would be to unburden society of them altogether.

Propounding such philosophies is clearly not the work of the lowest classes, not the work of barbarians. Rather, Weikart follows a trail that leads up from Darwin, through the highest echelons of intellectuals and cultural movers. It was no roving bands of skinheads who prepared Germany to undertake the “final solution”; it was the academy. Ivory tower book-heads, scientists (the gods of the age) and social engineers, intellectuals whose soft hands had never been made dirty by work, orchestrated and defined Hitler’s bloody work long before he came to power to put their theories into practice.

Never have I read another book, besides the Bible, in which history and philosophy are so intertwined and so intensely pertinent to the present and to everyday life. The extreme speed with which genocidal and eugenic ideas caught on, permeated the academy, and took over whole societies from the lawmakers to the butcher’s delivery boys, is quite disconcerting.

Among its many values, From Darwin to Hitler should alert us all to the need for solid Christians to be in the centre of every field of study, and in the centre of philosophical
discourse. A little salt in the German academy might have preserved Europe. A little salt in America might deliver us from the abortion holocaust that has already dwarfed Hitler’s evils. A little salt in England . . . C&S


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