It all started modestly enough. Hoping to stem the rising tide of socialism in the late 19th century, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck decided to institute a welfare state, the theory being that finding a middle ground between laissez-faire capitalism and full-blown socialism would blunt the popularity of the latter without unduly interfering with the former. Bismarck convinced the Reichstag to create four programs: accident insurance, old-age pensions, disability insurance, and compulsory health insurance.
The health insurance bill, passed in 1883, provided for cash payments to those temporarily unable to work because of illness and in-kind benefits for their medical treatment. Employers paid one-third of the cost of the program; employees paid the rest. According to Wikipedia, “The program was considered the least important [of the four] from Bismarck’s point of view.” But as we shall see, it had perhaps the most pernicious effects of all.
Darwinism in Theory and Practice
Around the same time as socialism was on the ascent, so was another controversial idea: the pseudoscience of eugenics. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, introduced in 1859, posited that creatures with survival advantages would pass those advantages on to the next generation, thereby creating stronger and better versions of their kinds. While Darwin was loath to follow his theory to its logical conclusion — that selective breeding of “superior” humans and prevention of that of “inferior” ones would aid natural selection in producing a “master race” — others were not. Indeed, by seemingly obviating the need for a creator and ultimate lawgiver, Darwin’s theory freed those desiring to artificially accelerate the process of human evolution from the moral constraints that might otherwise have stood in their way.
Throughout the world, but especially in the West, where it was presented as “scientific” and “progressive,” eugenics quickly took hold. Governments began passing laws designed to prevent allegedly inferior humans from reproducing. Persons deemed mentally unfit were prohibited from marrying, as were mixed-race couples. Worse still, individuals were sterilized against their will. America, to its great shame, was in many ways the vanguard of the movement: 31 states passed compulsory sterilization laws in the early 1900s; over 62,000 individuals were sterilized before these practices ended in the 1970s.
In Germany, of course, the idea of building a master race captured the imagination of a young painter who, at the age of 43, would ascend to the same post formerly held by Bismarck. And what the Iron Chancellor had created to prevent the socialists from coming to power would be used by National Socialist dictator Adolf Hitler to exterminate a vast swath of humanity.
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Photo: Children with "hereditary defects" such as Down syndrome were among the first victims of the Nazi euthanasia program, which killed those deemed "unworthy of life."