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10 - Scientific Responsibility and Political Context: The Case of Genetics under the Swastika

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 July 2010

Jane Maienschein
Affiliation:
Arizona State University
Michael Ruse
Affiliation:
University of Guelph, Ontario
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Summary

INTRODUCTION

Study of biology flourished under the swastika. Although we tend to dismiss Nazi science as pseudoscience and equate research in biology with racial hygiene, the history of biology during the Third Reich was in fact quite complex. Work supported by Heinrich Himmler's Das Ahnenerbe (“ancestral heritage”), the research and teaching arm of the Schute-Staffel (SS), was indeed racist nonsense (Deichmann 1996, pp. 251–76). But most of the science supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the major government funding agency, would have been considered mainstream science in the 1930s and 1940s. Its content and standards differed little from those of the science being pursued elsewhere in the western world.

Of course, research under the Third Reich was funded in the expectation that it would ultimately advance the aims of the regime. That fact prompts us to ask how we should think about the activities of scientists who did not engage in overtly criminal acts, but rather practiced “normal research.” We do not hesitate to condemn researchers who actively promoted and implemented the racial policies of the National Socialist state. We know what to think about those who produced anti-Semitic propaganda or reports on racial ancestry in connection with enforcement of the Nuremberg laws, helped formulate euthanasia policy, informed on colleagues who employed half-Jewish or politically suspect assistants, or conducted obscene experiments on human subjects. But more difficult, and more interesting, questions are raised by the behavior of scientists whose work was no more racist in either its intention or its assumptions than that of their non-German peers, but who in some way sought to profit from the National Socialist regime.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1999

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