The evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) destructively influenced many of the Western world’s leaders in the early 20th century. In particular, intellectuals in Germany were among the earliest to embrace Darwinism enthusiastically, and to apply its concept of the survival of the fittest to human society. That is, they applied the subtitle of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). The most infamous result of this was the Holocaust,1 but social Darwinism was also a major influence in the events leading up to World War One.
In the decades leading up to World War One, intellectuals embraced Darwinism and its ethical implications as a welcome alternative to Christian belief and ethics. Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), the most famous German Darwinist of the time, and notorious forger of embryo diagrams,2 believed that evolution would “bring forth a complete revolution in the entire world view of humanity.”3 He argued that Darwinism required the abandonment of Christian morals.
Until the advent of Darwinism, the sanctity of human life was taken for granted in European law and thought. But many German intellectuals began to argue that some had a greater right to life than others, namely, those who are deemed more valuable to society. This inequality was mainly based on race, but the Darwinists argued that there were inferior individuals within a race as well. For instance, zoologist and politician Karl Vogt (1817–1895) argued that a mentally handicapped child was closer in value to an ape than to his own parents.4 It should thus not be surprising that the world’s first eugenics5 society was founded in Germany, promoting the concept founded by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton (1822–1911).6
German social Darwinists were enamoured with the vision of the “master race”, which in their mind was the Nordic or Germanic race. Eugenicist Alfred Ploetz (1860–1940) coined the term “racial hygiene” (Rassenhygiene), and later welcomed the Nazis as the ones who would put this into practice. While the belief in German superiority led the Nazis to exterminate “undesirable” individuals, during WW1 German Darwinists used the same idea to justify war on states which they deemed inferior. They believed that the destiny of the master race was to dominate or eliminate “inferior” races, and the most obvious way to accomplish this was through war. In their view, all races and states were in competition for survival, and those who would not wage war would perish.7 In other words “war is inevitable and peace is merely an armistice in the continuous battle between races and groups for survival.”8
The concept of Lebensraum or “living space” was one of the justifications for the Germans in both World Wars to take over their neighbouring countries. While Germany was not actually overcrowded, they believed that since one side or the other was always advancing, “without war, inferior or decaying races would easily choke the growth of healthy budding elements, and a universal decadence would follow.”9 Max Weber emphasized this racial competition:
Interestingly, German Darwinists were divided about whether war was beneficial for the master race. Some were pacifists, including Haeckel, because they believed that war would kill off mainly the best members of the master race, but anthropologist Otto Ammon (1842–1916) believed that war was the only way to test which nation was stronger and to grant victory to the fittest opponent.11 Of course, there was the problem of undesirable individuals in the German population as well; Ploetz suggested sending them to the front lines so they would be killed before those who were deemed to be more fit.12
Because of this view of war as an evolutionary instrument, the German leaders regarded war as a desirable option, even though they could not be sure of a victory. There was also a fatalistic element; they believed that it was their destiny and that they were fulfilling their “preordained role in the development of the world.”13
Some argue that because Darwin did not directly apply the principles of social Darwinism, the term, and its connection to evolutionary thought, is invalid. But Darwin himself said that killing in the animal kingdom was a way for evolution to progress:
Darwin simply was reluctant to apply this principle to humans, but the German social Darwinists did not share his disinclination. While there were other factors that caused World War 1, the German leadership’s universal belief in social Darwinism and its anti-Christian ethical system justified their militarism and made it into a moral good.