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Hitler's Debt to Darwin

Time magazine and Variety have published the latest attack reviews of Expelled, in advance of opening day this Friday. As with previous hostile responses, the focus of outrage is on the film's argument that Hitler drew inspiration from Darwin's intellectual legacy.

In Time, reviewer Jeffrey Kluger fumes: "Theories of natural selection, it's claimed, were a necessary if not sufficient condition for Hitler's killing machine to get started. The truth, of course, is that the only necessary and sufficient condition for human beings to murder one another is the simple fact of being human."

As more attacks come in, making either this bewilderingly inane point -- or the one made by Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie that the role of Christianity in fomenting Nazism should have been discussed in the film -- just keep in mind the response to recent books that have put blame for the Holocaust on the churches.

Those books, by writers like John Carrroll (Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews) and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair), were hailed in media as works of genius, guts, and honesty. I don't recall any reviewers complaining that, really, the only thing you have to know about the Nazis was that they were people, and, hey, people kill people!

Fortunately, serious historians of the past half century have been freer than media hacks to explore the complexity of Nazism's actual genealogy. One thing that these expert scholars have almost universally agreed on is that Darwinism contributed mightily to Hitlerism.

In her classic 1951 work The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote: "Underlying the Nazis' belief in race laws as the expression of the law of nature in man, is Darwin's idea of man as the product of a natural development which does not necessarily stop with the present species of human being."

Or just pick up any standard biography of Hitler.

In Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Alan Bullock writes: "The basis of Hitler's political beliefs was a crude Darwinism." What Hitler found objectionable about Christianity was its rejection of the conclusions that followed from Darwin's theory: "Its teaching, he declared, was a rebellion against the natural law of selection by struggle and the survival of the fittest."

Joachim C. Fest, in Hitler, describes how the Nazi tyrant "extract[ed] the elements of his world view" from various influences including "popular treatments of Darwinism." Hitler, like lots of other Europeans and Americans of his day, saw Darwinism as offering a total picture of social reality. In his biography, Hitler: 1889-1936: Hubris, Ian Kershaw explains that "crude social-Darwinism" gave Hitler "his entire political 'world-view.'"

John Toland's Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography, finally, says this of Hitler's "Second Book" (1928), never published in his lifetime: "An essential of Hitler's conclusions in this book was the conviction drawn from Darwin that might makes right."

You get the idea. I'll be blogging every day this week on the Darwin-Hitler connection. Tomorrow we'll open up Hitler's own work and see what he said about his philosophy's grounding, not Christianity, but in modern biology.