A Warhol show explores Germany's Master Race philosophy

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later
Idealized Nordic types, which appeared on the cover of the Nazi journal "New People" in 1938, pervaded Nazi propaganda. This image is part of the show at The Andy Warhol Museum.
Click photo for larger image.

"Our starting point is not the individual, and we do not subscribe to the view that one should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, or clothe the naked. ... Our objectives are entirely different: We must have a healthy people in order to prevail in the world."

-- Josef Goebbels at a Nazi Party rally in 1938

Even before Adolf Hitler and his Nazis launched their genocidal campaign across Europe, doctors became white-coated killers and nurses served as accomplices in the murder of about 200,000 German children and adults, all in the name of creating a superior strain of humanity.

How could members of the healing professions do so much harm to so many people?

"Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," an exhibition from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, shows how Nazi politicians and doctors embraced a science called eugenics that held out the biological promise of improving the human race by encouraging people with desirable genetic traits to reproduce repeatedly.

A traveling version of the show opened this week at The Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side and runs through March 18. With more than 200 photographs, 50 artifacts and heart-rending videotaped testimony from survivors, this exhibition is a well-documented look at the twisted path that led to the murder of 6 million European Jews, hundreds of thousands of Slavs, including 200,000 Poles, 30,000 Gypsies, between 5,000 to 15,000 homosexuals and Soviet prisoners of war.

Forums scheduled at Warhol

In February and March, a series of forums that explore the roles that art, science and ethics can play in the dangerous pursuit of perfection will be held at The Andy Warhol Museum in conjunction with the show "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race."

The educational programs are organized by the museum's staff and the University of Pittsburgh Schools of Health Sciences and Center for Bioethics and Health Law.

A forum will be held on March 1 from 5 to 10 p.m. The evening will include a short talk and discussion with Andrew Lee, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health Sciences, and Thomas Sokolowski, director of The Andy Warhol Museum.

The forum will include an opportunity to view the exhibition and special related displays in the museum's permanent collection. Visitors also will have a chance to work in the museum's open studio and do hands-on exploration of the intersection of art and science.

These forums are free with museum admission. Additional talks will be scheduled.


In Germany, where eugenics was called "racial hygiene," the Nazis twisted this science and used it to legitimize a thorough, systematic approach to eliminating what they called "life unfit for life."

The exhibit's in-depth look at the evolution of eugenics helps people understand how the Holocaust could have happened, said Dr. Susan Bachrach, who curated the exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

In the decades since the Holocaust, "American physicians would like to think they would never get to that point. That's a distorted view," she said.

The show, Dr. Bachrach said, is informed by more than two decades of recent scholarship, including that of Benno Muller-Hill, the German author of "Murderous Science," published in 1984. His comments are interwoven with survivors' recollections in a video shown at the exhibition's conclusion.

Edie Naveh, director of the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation in Squirrel Hill, said the show outlines the origins and scope of the Holocaust.

"The Holocaust was not only a Jewish event. It was a human event that had ramifications for all humanity. When you have a government that is based on the Aryan master race philosophy, then all humanity is at stake.

"What this exhibit shows is how pervasive the philosophy of the master race was," Dr. Naveh said.

Once Germany adopted that philosophy, she said, "You could easily move to groups that did not fit into their world view -- from German nationals who had genetic diseases to Gypsies who were on the periphery of society and did not work, so they were expendable. They were burdens on society."

Initially, German doctors saw eugenics as a solution to squelching the diseases spread by rapid urbanization and industrialization, including venereal disease and tuberculosis. And they were not alone. As early as 1911, millions of visitors attended a health exhibition that discussed eugenics at the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden.

By 1942, German supporters of eugenics who wanted to increase infant survival rates circulated public health pamphlets urging women not to smoke or drink alcohol during pregnancy or while nursing.

But eugenics also lent scientific authority to Charles Darwin's survival of the fittest theory. Such reasoning was used to rationalize harsh inequalities in capitalistic countries as well as Europeans' colonization of European and Asian peoples.

Once eugenics combined with the Nazis' nationalistic views, German physicians and politicians used the science to legitimize forced sterilization and kill German adults and children whose lives were deemed worthless because they did not work.

Between 1934 and 1945, 400,000 Germans were sterilized against their will and, sometimes, without their knowledge. Those sterilized included people who suffered from mental retardation, manic depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, Huntington's chorea, blindness, deafness, physical deformities or alcoholism.

Blinden-Museum an der Johann-August-Zeune-Schule fur Blinde, Berlin
Students at the Berlin School for the Blind examine racial head models circa 1935. Students were taught Gregor Mendel's principles of inheritance and the purported application of those laws to human heredity and principles of race. During the Third Reich, Germans born deaf or blind, like those born with mental illnesses or disabilities, were urged to submit to compulsory sterilization as a civic duty.
Click photo for larger image.

s During that same period, 5,000 boys and girls born with deformities or disease were starved, poisoned with overdoses of morphine or a sedative called Luminal and gassed to death in rooms that served as models for the gas chambers disguised as showers in Nazi death camps. This murder of German children and adults was called "Operation T-4."

"Many of these doctors [and staff] were taken from the T-4 program and used in the death camps," Dr. Naveh said. "A tremendous amount of research went into this exhibit. They have uncovered vast numbers of Nazi publications never seen before. It's chilling to stand there and see these original artifacts. It gives an authenticity, a veracity to this historical exploration."

German doctors were not alone in performing sterilizations. In the early 20th century, eugenics gained credence among prominent scientists in the United States, Britain, Canada and Sweden.

In fact, between 1909 and 1935, California doctors used eugenics to justify the sterilization of 295 people at a mental hospital in Mendocino. By 1933, 26 states in the United States had passed sterilization laws inspired by eugenics.

Visitors to the exhibition at the Warhol are greeted by a plastic model of a woman with upstretched arms.

The model shows the woman's interior veins and organs and is a replica of similar models made and exhibited in Europe during the 1930s. Such models attested to German strength in science and medicine.

"Wherever those figures were, you could find support for eugenics," said Dr. Bachrach.

In the 1920s, doctors from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin used sharp-edged steel calipers, which look like a weapon, to measure the width and length of a person's nose and face.

The institute's staff helped select 63 towns in Germany where they measured the country's residents to determine if people were of Alpine, Nordic, Mediterranean or Baltic descent.

Eugenics was promoted in Pennsylvania, too. As early as 1905, both houses of Pennsylvania's Legislature passed a law called, "An Act for the Prevention of Idiocy."

The bill mandated that if trustees and surgeons of the state's institutions for feeble minded children decided that procreation was inadvisable, they could sterilize the children.

As he vetoed the law, Pennsylvania's then-Gov. Samuel Pennypacker, denounced it. Mr. Pennypacker wrote:

"Scientists, like all other men whose experiences have been limited to one pursuit ... sometimes need to be restrained. Men of high scientific attainments are prone ... to lose sight of broad principles outside their domain ... To permit such an operation would be to inflict cruelty upon a helpless class ... which the state has undertaken to protect."

Post-Gazette staff writer Marylynne Pitz may be reached at 412-263-1648 or mpitz@post-gazette.com .


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?