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Reflecting on Social Darwinism at the Hundredth Anniversary of World War I


This month is the one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Historians delving into the origins of the war will undoubtedly -- and correctly -- note the importance of the alliance structures, the buildup of armaments, Germany's fear of encirclement, and the ill-fated German military plan that left Germany few viable military options once it faced a two-front war.

Some historians mention the influence of social Darwinism on the European elites and decision-makers, but this is a story not as well known to the general public. It is told in a short documentary newly released by Discovery Institute, The Biology of the Second Reich: Social Darwinism and the Origins of World War I.

Interestingly, in the years during and immediately after World War I, some American and British intellectuals expressed concern that Darwinism was a key motivation behind German militarism. Stanford biologist Vernon Kellogg, who spoke with German officers, including a leading biologist, expressed this concern, despite his own commitment to Darwinian theory. William Roscoe Thayer, in his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1918, stated:

I do not believe that the atrocious war into which the Germans plunged Europe in August, 1914, and which has subsequently involved all lands and all peoples, would ever have been fought, or a least would have attained its actual gigantic proportions, had the Germans not been made mad by the theory of the survival of the fittest.

It is certainly open to debate how much influence Darwinism exerted on the outbreak of World War I. However, even those who might disagree with me about the significance of its influence in helping spawn the conflict should consider another important point: During World War I and immediately thereafter, many leading thinkers, including the most famous Darwinian biologist in Germany, Ernst Haeckel, interpreted the First World War as an episode in the inescapable human struggle for existence. This social Darwinist discourse during and after the war powerfully influenced German society, including Corporal Adolf Hitler.

As I explain in detail in Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (2009), the influence of social Darwinism on the opening of World War II was even more powerful. Hitler was completely in the thrall of biological evolution, and he thought his war would promote evolutionary progress.

Richard Weikart is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture, professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. For more information about his work, see the new website From Darwin to Hitler.