Europe's other would-be master race

Click to follow
To find the beginnings of Sweden's 40-year programme of sterilising people thought unfit to have children, which ended in the mid-1970s and has just come to light, we have to go back to Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. The crucial third chapter was entitled "the struggle for existence" - although, as it happens, man was almost entirely left out of this seminal work. Species that survived and prospered were those that defended themselves fiercely against competitors.

From this starting point, Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, focused on the question of whether ability in humankind was inherited rather than produced by upbringing, and he proved to his own satisfaction that it was. In Hereditary Genius (1869) Galton argued that an enormous enhancement in average natural ability might be produced by a policy which encouraged early marriage among the vigorous while retarding it among the weak. In his concluding paragraph he praised the advantages of a meritocratic society, but noted that it would be best if "the weak could find a welcome and a refuge in celibate monasteries or sisterhoods".

Darwin disagreed. He wrote to tell Galton that "I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think this is an eminently important difference". Nonetheless, Galton pushed on. In a paper published in 1872, he argued that the "one practical and effective way in which individuals of feeble constitution can show mercy to their kind is by celibacy, lest they should bring into existence a race pre-doomed to destruction by the laws of nature".

By now it was being widely argued that advances in medicine and other improvements interfered with natural selection by ensuring the survival of the unfit as well as the strong. Something had to be done to avoid this perverse result of progress. In 1883 Galton coined the word "eugenics", derived from a Greek word meaning "good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities". Thus was born what Galton called a science which dealt with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race. "What Nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly," Galton argued, "man may do providently, quickly and kindly. As it lies within his power, so it becomes his duty to work in that direction ... the improvement of our stock seems to me one of the highest objects that we can reasonably attempt."

These ideas became pervasive in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the great man muses to Watson: "There are some trees which grow to a certain height, and then suddenly develop some unsightly eccentricity. You will see it often in humans. I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree." The first international eugenics conference was held in London in 1912 at the University of London, to "make more widely known the results of the investigations of those factors which are making for racial improvement or decay", as the invitation put it. The British delegation was nominally headed by Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary.

Fortunately, eugenics was not to make much progress in the United Kingdom. The baton was passed first to the United States and then to the Scandinavian countries and, notoriously, to Germany. Dr Watson's response to Holmes was that it was all "surely rather fanciful". The traditional British dislike of theories and "isms" was here a useful antidote. Criminals were seen as redeemable rather than as lower forms of life. The government committee set up to examine the implications of the poor physique of Boer war recruits rejected the argument that the race as a whole was degenerate. The explanation was overcrowding in the slums. Then, during the First World War, the "unemployable" served effectively in munitions factories and at the front, and it was found that supposedly well-bred officers were twice as likely to suffer from breakdown on the battlefield as men from the ranks. Subsequent attempts to promote eugenics legislation failed.

However, in the United States, laws permitting sterilisation were passed in Indiana in 1907, in California and Connecticut in 1909, in Nevada, Iowa and New Jersey in 1911, New York in 1912 and Kansas, Michigan, North Dakota and Oregon in 1913. Woodrow Wilson spoke of the science of human hereditary in his presidential address. And between the wars, the Rockefeller Foundation supported major eugenics institutes in Germany. The Foundation continued to help German eugenicists even after the Nazis seized power. Thus, in 1935, a Nazi institution was able to say that, in terms of eugenics, "Germany was a good disciple of other civilised countries". Eugenics provided her murderous racial policies with a veneer of respectability.

What is truly puzzling is why the "civilised" countries, such as the United States, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Switzerland, carried on with eugenic programmes after 1945. In the US, 60,000 sterilisations were done between 1907 and 1960 for reasons varying from mental illness to alcoholism, criminal violence and sexual misbehaviour. A similar number of people were sterilised in Sweden. According to one document discovered by a Swedish newspaper, the grounds could include gypsy features or a vagabond life.

The American example is the easier to explain. For most of the period, blacks and whites were segregated in the South. The United States was a racist society. While in the East, the Midwest and the West, there were sterilisation laws, in the South there were barriers to black/white marriages and an insistence on separate education. The underlying logic of eugenics and segregation was the same.

Why, though, the Scandinavian countries, with their social democratic governments? Partly as a result of tradition - eugenics started off as a progressive idea. Partly because social democrats assumed man could be perfected in body as well as soul, and that legislation would bring about the desired result. And partly because of a pernicious Nordic mysticism in which heroes have blond hair and blue eyes and deities are those such as are found in Wagner's operas. The Scandinavian countries shared with pre-war Germany the fear of being swamped by lesser breeds. With the possible exception of a brief period in the 1960s, when Enoch Powell warned of the dire consequences of Commonwealth immigration, that has never been a British nightmare.