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A New Documentary Reveals the Hidden Ideological and Scientific Roots of World War I


This month marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. Between 1914 and 1918, the conflict took 16 million lives in brutal combat yet its causes remain strangely cloudy to most of us. One historian titled his recent book about the origins of the war The Sleepwalkers, as if nations and leaders stumbled into the global catastrophe almost by accident, unmotivated by any particular philosophy or ideology.

World War II is very different: Everyone understands what that was about, how starkly different worldviews, fueling hatred and greed for domination, tore Europe apart. In articulating a twisted vision of racial struggle, Hitler's Nazis could not be faulted for a lack of candor.

Now a new documentary film from Discovery Institute reveals the previously neglected ideological and scientific roots of the war that set the stage for the coming of Nazi Germany. The Biology of the Second Reich: Social Darwinism and the Origins of World War I debuts online today.

In just 14 minutes, viewers are introduced to the powerful currents of Darwinian racial theory that helped to drive German intellectual and military leaders in the years leading up to 1914.

Written and directed by Center for Science & Culture associate director John West, the video features the work of California State University historian Richard Weikart, author of the book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (Palgrave Macmillan). Dr. Weikart's previous scholarship has revealed the role of evolutionary speculation that underlay Nazi racial theory.

Far less familiar, to the public and even to some historians, is the role that what was then mainstream biology played in driving Germany to war. Some of that country's leading figures regarded a war of annihilation as a necessary step in assuring the survival and thriving of the fittest race: their own.

The film acknowledges that the causes of the war were complex, and it doesn't claim that Darwinian biology was the only influence at work. It does show that Darwinism had an important impact in motivating German militarism.

Prominent American biologist Vernon Kellogg recounted his own disturbing conversations before the war with members of the German military elite. Previously a pacifist, Kellogg after learning what the world was up against, became a strong and influential advocate for countering the German threat.

The film amply documents the thinking of German scientists and politicians. It also recalls the genocide (1904-1907) perpetrated by Germany in its African colony, now Namibia, against the Herero people -- a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. Here too, Darwinian racial considerations were prominent.

As Dr. Weikart points out, Charles Darwin was a Social Darwinist, but of course had he lived to see these events, he would have been horrified by the unintended consequences of his ideas.

Not that there weren't hints even in his own lifetime. As early as 1870, German zoologist Gustav Jaeger observed that "the war of annihilation... is a natural law, without which the organic world... could not continue to exist at all." Darwin was aware of the irony that his theory and its amplifications in The Descent of Man were more eagerly embraced in Germany than in his own native country.

The Biology of the Second Reich uncovers a fascinating, neglected, and highly relevant story from the past -- not so very long ago, in fact. The film reminds us of the consequences that science, including "consensus" science, can have on culture, playing out in the theater of history, in war and peace, life and death. Watch it now.