The Roots of Hitler's Evil
Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship, by Brigitte Hamann, translated from the German by Thomas Thornton, Oxford University Press, 1999, 482 pp.; $17.95, paper
Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris, by Ian Kershaw, Norton, 1999, 845 pp.; $21.95, paper
Hitler: 1936-1945, Nemesis, by Ian Kershaw, Norton, 2000, 1115 pp.; $35, paper
On a gray June day in the summer of 1999, I visited Herrsching, a beautiful resort on Ammersee, a lake in southern Germany. Herrsching was the home of physician Alfred Ploetz, the founding father of the race hygiene or eugenics movement in Germany, whose goal was to improve human heredity by rationally controlling reproduction. I'd come to examine his correspondence and papers. My host was Ploetz's 87-year-old son, Wilfried Ploetz, still living in the medieval manor house bought by his father, who conducted scientific experiments on heredity there.
After Herr Ploetz graciously picked me up at the train station, I cautiously asked harmless questions about his father. Uncertain about how he viewed his father and the movement he led, especially the Nazi connection, I proceeded gingerly. But Herr Ploetz himself unabashedly introduced the topic of Nazism, relating to me several stories about the Nazi period involving his father or him. While admitting that his father made some mistakes, he clearly tried to distance his father and other leading eugenicists—many of whom he knew personally from their frequent visits with his father—from the Nazis and Nazi racism.
Scholars continue to probe and debate the extent of involvement between German science and the Nazi regime, and the influence of scientific and pseudo-scientific thought on Nazi ideology. Clearly Alfred Ploetz was no Hitler. He experimented on rabbits, not on humans. Left to their own devices, probably neither Ploetz nor most other German eugenicists would have perpetrated the evil deeds we associate with Hitler, especially the Holocaust. Ploetz opposed the Nazis before they came to power, ...