Psychiatry’s Little-Known Role in Creating the Holocaust

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The recent commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds us to consider the causes of the Nazi genocide. Hitler found justification for his racism in the pseudo-science of eugenics, which means good genes or good race. Eugenics was developed by psychiatrists and psychologists long before the Third Reich. According to “The Master Race,” an article in Boston Magazine, “Massachusetts was one of its epicenters, beginning at a time when Hitler was an aimless Austrian barely in his teens.” Eugenics had its roots in the beginning of psychology; it grew strong in America; and its ripest fruit was produced in Nazi Germany.

In 2010 the president of the German Association for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Dr. Frank Schneider, admitted and apologized for German psychiatry’s leading role in the Holocaust. He said, “Under National Socialism [Nazism], psychiatrists showed contempt for their fellow man. They lied to and deceived the patients in their care and their families. They forced them to be sterilized, arranged their deaths, and even performed killings.” His apology made headlines in Germany but didn’t get mainstream coverage in the United States or the rest of the world.

The rise of eugenics began several generations before Adolf Hitler, when a materialistic theory changed the most basic principles of psychology, beginning a timeline that reached its logical fulfillment in the Holocaust:

1879 — German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt redefines psychology from its original meaning, “study of the soul,” to the modern concept of man as a stimulus-response animal who can be controlled. When he later writes the textbook Introduction to Psychology, he states, “The Cartesian [spiritual] soul can no longer exist in the face of our present‐day physiological knowledge.” At the University of Leipzig, Wundt founds the first psychological laboratory to study the physiological activity of the brain. Psychologists from around the world flock to Germany to learn this new concept of man as animal rather than a body and soul.

1883 — English psychologist and statistician Sir Francis Galton creates the term “eugenics” to promote “desirable” humans over “undesirables.” Eugenics societies grow into a worldwide movement, with the United States taking the lead.

1899 — German psychiatrist Paul Näcke first proposes the sterilization of “degenerates.”

1905 — Anthropologist Alfred Ploetz, who interned in psychiatry at a Swiss mental hospital, founds the German Society for Racial Hygiene, a branch of medicine that promotes racial purity.

1908 — American psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard “created the intelligence testing industry,” according to the American Psychological Association, and later pioneers the use of IQ tests to decide who should be sterilized in the United States.

1911 — Havelock Ellis, a British psychologist, writes a pamphlet called The Problem of Race Regeneration, calling for sterilization as a requirement to qualify for social welfare programs (page 65). His partner Margaret Sanger later writes, “Sanity and Health are the fine ideals upheld by Havelock Ellis from the very beginning of his career as a scientist and writer.”

1916 — German psychiatrist Ernst Rudin creates “psychiatric genetics,” claiming that personality traits are race-based.

1917-1928 — Margaret Sanger founds and edits the magazine Birth Control Review, publishing many of her own articles on eugenics such as “Birth Control and Racial Betterment.” In 1912 she refers to “the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development.” In 1923 she writes in the New York Times advocating “cultivation of the better elements in our society, and the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extinction, of defective stocks — those human weeds.” In her 1938 autobiography she describes her speech to the women’s arm of the Ku Klux Klan, at which they offered her “dozens of invitations to speak to similar groups.”

1920 — German psychiatrist Alfred Hoche publishes Permission to Destroy Life Devoid of Value, which inspires Adolf Hitler.

1926 — “At least nine members of the Eugenics Society’s advisory council were also on the Harvard faculty, and many more were affiliated with Harvard,” according to A.E. Samaan’s 2012 book From a ‘Race of Masters’ to a ‘Master Race’:  1948 to 1848

1927 — The U.S. Supreme Court permits 18-year-old Carrie Buck to be forcibly sterilized under a Virginia law for forced sterilization of the “unfit.” Government claims that Buck, her mother, and her daughter had genetic mental impairment leads Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (Boston born and bred) to write that Virginia’s Sterilization Act is constitutional. His written decision includes a famous sentence: “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Although Virginia’s statute called for written evidence of insanity or imbecility, school records of Buck and her daughter show that they were average students.

1928 — Northampton, Massachusetts dog breeder Leon Whitney conducts a genetic survey of families in the western Massachusetts towns of Shutesbury and Leverett. He uses IQ tests and medical records to claim that immigrants in these towns are “unwanted human debris,” mixing with “good pioneer stock,” and “the mixture is producing degenerates.” His book based on this study, The Case for Sterilization, calls for immigration restrictions and sterilization to form the ideal “race of the future.” Professors from Smith College and the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) send students to help interview residents. Whitney writes, “Of course, we do not want to make much noise about what we are doing because then we would not get the cooperation of the people.” 

1933 — Psychiatrist Ernst Rudin uses compulsory sterilization laws in the United States as a model for Germany’s Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring. This law allows for the forced sterilization of individuals with physical and mental disabilities. The magazine Margaret Sanger founded publishes his article, “Eugenical Sterilization, an Urgent Need,” and Hitler gives him a medal as a “pathfinder in the field of hereditary hygiene.”

1934 — Massachusetts eugenicist Leon Whitney publishes The Case for Sterilization, which earns him a fan letter from Adolf Hitler.

1939 — Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal doctor, who had studied psychiatry, heads the T4 Euthanasia Program to exterminate mentally ill and disabled people. The program’s psychiatrists determine which patients should live or die. T4 was the first genetic “cleansing” of the Holocaust, a sort of dry run for genocide.

A summary of psychiatry’s role in the Holocaust was published in The International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine in 1993:  “Psychiatrists from the euthanasia program also participated in the first formalized murders in the concentration camps. Inmates were ‘diagnosed’ on euthanasia forms and sent to the psychiatric euthanasia centers. These facilities later provided the training, personnel, and technology for the larger extermination camps. Medical observers from the United States and Germany at the Nuremberg trials concluded that the holocaust might not have taken place without psychiatry.”

A major purpose of Holocaust Remembrance Day is to make sure that history does not repeat itself, yet in many ways the timeline continues:

1950s-1960s — Psychologist Hendrik Verwoerd, who studied eugenics in Germany, implements South African apartheid, first as Minister of Native Affairs, then as prime minister. Under apartheid, the races are heavily segregated and interracial sexual relationships and marriages are criminal acts.

1979 — California repeals its compulsory sterilization law, except for inmates in state prisons. Eventually all 32 states with eugenics laws repeal them. During the era of eugenics laws, an estimated 60,000 Americans were sterilized against their will. Even after the laws are repealed, there are more recent reports of forced sterilizations of prisoners.

1990s — Psychiatrist Jovan Raskovic’s book about Croatians, The Mad Countrypsychoanalyzes Croatians as mentally inferior to Serbs. He works with another psychiatrist, Bosnian-Serb president Radovan Karadzic, to promote Nazi-style theories of ethnic cleansing, inspiring the Balkan genocide. Raskovic later apologizes. “I feel responsible because I made the preparations for this war, even if not the military preparations. If I hadn’t created this emotional strain in the Serbian people, nothing would have happened. My party and I lit the fuse of Serbian nationalism.” 

2011 – With the death of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a doctor who had studiedpsychology and pharmacology at Cairo University, takes over as Al-Qaeda’s leader. Al-Zawahiri had been Bin Laden’s “personal physician and closest confidant.” Al-Qaeda calls for ethnic and religious genocide.

2017 – A review finds that Planned Parenthood locates 88% of its new abortion mega-centers within walking distance of minority communities. Although African-American women are only 6% of the U.S. population, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 35% of the babies aborted are black. Planned Parenthood continues to give its annual Margaret Sanger Award as its highest honor

The beginning of materialistic psychology and psychiatry was Wundt’s claim that man had no soul. As soon as psychology and psychiatry defined themselves to be the study of man’s soulless brain activities, it seemed logical to think of humans as animals, disposing of the unwanted in any “efficient” way.

Recently the German psychiatric association finally tried to make up for its role in the Holocaust by sponsoring a travelling exhibit of psychiatric abuses, also presented on its website. The association now admits that some psychiatrists and psychologists during the 1930s and 1940s treated humans like farm animals, killing them to “perfect” the race.

Remembering the origins of the Holocaust is the only way to prevent it from happening again and again. History does repeat itself — but only if we remain uninformed.


Colbe Mazzarella is a Boston attorney and educator.