Three contrasting views of Ernst Haeckel (as held by Professors Weikart, Richards, and Gasman)
|December 23, 2010||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
The ideas of a long dead German Darwinist might seem to be of no interest to anyone outside academic circles, but interpretations of Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) are significant in today’s culture wars. The important question is: “Did Darwinism contribute in some way to National Socialist ideology?” Since Haeckel was pre-WWI Germany’s most well-known Darwinist, this leads to two derivative questions: “To what extent did Haeckel’s ideas contribute to the emergence of National Socialism?” and “Were his ideas compatible with Darwinism, or a grotesque perversion of it?”
Haeckel was a committed secularist. He despised religion and thought only scientific knowledge had any value. He not only saw Darwinism as the correct explanation of the origin and development of life on earth, he evangelized for it. Many of his statements asserting the factual truth of Darwinism and attacking religion as false and opposed to science are identical in content and in spirit to those uttered by present-day champions of those same ideas.
Unfortunately, Haeckel’s pursuit of disinterested and objective scientific truth was combined with a belief in German racial superiority. He saw blacks as inherently inferior, and imagined that the superior northern Europeans had through evolutionary struggle attained to the top of the evolutionary pyramid.
Haeckel also advocated militarism and imperialism. He upgraded the evolutionary concept of survival of the fittest to the level of nations and of races. Thus, if one nation defeated a weaker one and seized its territory, this was only an illustration of the basic law that was the foundation of our earthly existence. If a stronger and superior race – in this case the white Europeans – subjugated weaker and inferior races, this was only natural, an example of evolution in action.
Racism, imperialism, Aryan supremacy, militarism, political authoritarianism (democracy after all does not agree with the rule of the stronger that is the basis of existence in the evolutionary scenario) – Haeckel had some very important ideas in common with Hitler. The many parallels between the thought of the two men led Prof. Daniel Gasman to argue that Haeckel personally contributed greatly to the development of National Socialism .
His case is documented with ample evidence from Haeckel’s own writings, and has met with a significant amount of support. Yet, it has met with objections from different angles. Prof. Richard Weikart in his book From Darwin to Hitler agrees that some of Hitler’s words or writings sound as if they could have been taken directly from Haeckel, and sees a connection, but differs significantly from Gasman on two points. First, he points out that many people in Germany at that time held similar views, and asserts that Gasman oversimplifies the Hitler-Haeckel connection .
Secondly, Weikart disagrees with Gasman on the extent to which Haeckel’s beliefs were consistent with scientific Darwinism as Darwin himself taught it. Gasman stresses the many profound differences between Haeckel and Darwin and separates the two, claiming that Haeckel represented not Darwinism, but a German distortion of it. Weikart recognizes the existence of obvious differences between Darwin and his German admirers (of whom Haeckel was the most prominent), yet states that the Darwinian view of life as a purposeless and amoral struggle in which the death of the unfit was essential to progress did contribute significantly, in spite of differences and along with other factors, to the development of National Socialism in Germany.
Prof. Robert Richards, a biographer and defender of Haeckel, objects to Gasman’s thesis because he (Richards) sees Haeckel as a legitimate Darwinist, and hence equates attempts to link Haeckel to Hitler as attacks on Darwin himself. His response is to defend Haeckel by asserting he was not a progenitor of National Socialism . To do this, he focuses on two areas: (1) Haeckel’s lack of anti-Semitism (so he was different from Hitler), and (2) Nazi criticisms of Haeckel (so he could not have contributed to National Socialism).
I think Richards’ defense of Haeckel is very weak. For one thing, in his debate with Gasman Richards does not (from what I have seen) deny Haeckel’s militarism, imperialism, and racism – not surprisingly, given Haeckel’s loud sermonizing on these subjects. Concerning anti-Semitism, Gasman’s response is to me far more compelling than Richards’. Gasman presents statements in Haeckel’s own words showing him to have had in fact a negative view of Jews as a whole. Richard’s assertions that Haeckel (a) had nothing to do with traditional religious anti-Semitism and (b) had Jewish friends, are both easily answered. Modern secular racial anti-Semitism (such as that of Kant, Fichte, and many others including Haeckel) did not depend on religion. In fact, it was often involved with hostility to religion, seeing Judaism as false and Christianity as a Jewish invention. Secondly, some secular anti-Semites did believe that the Jews as a “race” had to go, but that some exceptional individuals could transcend their Jewish origins.
As to the rejection of Haeckel by some Nazis, Gasman points out that the Nazis were by no means in perfect harmony and disagreed on various aspects of their theory. Hitler himself could tolerate no contradiction and condemned those who only partly agreed with him. Gasman makes the telling observation that Stalin’s rejection of Trotsky can not be used to show that Trotsky had nothing to do with the development of Russian Communism.
So, was Haeckel a legitimate Darwinist who had no connection to Hitler (Roberts); a pseudo-philosopher who was not a legitimate Darwinist but did have a connection to Hitler (Gasman); or someone different from Darwin to be sure, but still definitely linked to Darwin, who may not have influenced Hitler as an individual but was representative of a strong trend in German thought that facilitated the emergence of National Socialism (Weikart)?
First of all, I don’t think Darwin should be removed from the debate as Roberts and Gasman try to do. If evolution is in fact the truth about how we got here, then isn’t it logical to base a world view and an ethic of pitiless and amoral struggle on it? Weikart amply documents that the underlying concept of Darwinism itself, apart from significant German cultural additions, contributed significantly, along with many other factors, to the establishment of a world view in which National Socialism could flourish.
Defenders of Darwin have claimed that the idea of breeding animals to improve them was nothing new – but viewing people as animals to be improved by higher breeding was new. Can people be blamed for trying to improve the human species just as they would cows or horses, if Darwinism is true? This would require reproduction without love, on the basis of utility alone – but what does place does love have in a strictly evolutionary scenario? Can Darwin be completely exempted if people took his theory and used it in ways he did not himself intend?
Darwin presented a new view of life in which people were essentially animals trapped in an impersonal struggle in which the death of the weak and the unfit was essential to progress. This did encourage ideas that greatly facilitated the emergence and the acceptance of National Socialism.
It should be stressed that certain essential ingredients of National Socialism were in circulation long before Darwin. Kant’s “philosophical” anti-Semitism that described the Jews as soulless people incapable of higher ideas; Schopenhauer’s view of people as animals struggling blindly in an impersonal universe and of the supremacy of will over intellect; Hegel’s ideas of the state, of war, and of great leaders; Fichte’s emphasis on the nation as the source of meaning in life; glorification of war; imperialism; hostility to democracy – these and other ideas were deeply embedded in German culture long before the publication of The Origin of Species.
It would be foolish to blame Naziism on Darwinism alone – but it would be equally foolish to imagine that the concept of people as animals fighting for survival in an impersonal universe is not a dangerous and destructive one. It can easily be used, and was used in Germany, to make racism, imperialism, militarism, and authoritarianism seem not merely acceptable, but scientific and progressive as well.
 Daniel Gasman, The Scientific Origins of National Socialism (New Brunswick USA / London 2004). Due to space limitations, I am presenting the ideas of Gasman, as well as those of Weikart and of Roberts, in rudimentary form.
 Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (New York 2004).
 Robert J.Richards, “Ernst Haeckel’s Alleged Anti-Semitism and Contributions to Nazi Biology”; http://home.uchicago.edu/~rjr6/articles/Haeckel–antiSemitism.pdf; accessed June 2008.