Eugenics – a side effect of progressivism?

(This Submission was retracted by the author - this electronic copy is not to be used, but remains as reference of a previously accepted submission)

Analysis of the Role of Scientific and Medical Elites in the Rise and Fall of Eugenics in Pre-War Poland. 

Olga Blach      

University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK

There exists a paradox of the existence of a strong eugenic movement in a country that has ultimately fallen victim to the Nazi Rassenhygiene.  This article explores the historical, social and political setting in which Polish eugenics flourished. 

Focusing predominantly on the role of scientific and medical elites in the rise and fall of eugenics in pre-war Poland, this paper explores the over ten thousand eminent scientists and cultured citizens, who declared the need to cleanse society of  ‘idiots’, ‘drunkards’, ‘beggars’ and ‘hereditarily ill’. It also reveals the matter of a distinction between the social and political acceptance of racial hygiene.

This article draws attention to the observation that eugenics, although now commonly perceived as a gloomy aberration of science and associated primarily with Nazi Rassenhygiene, enjoyed recognition and respect in the early twentieth century comparable to that of today’s genetics. It also highlights and explains how, despite the existence of other European countries with strong eugenic movements, such as Germany or Sweden, Poland remained a place where eugenic dogmas, so popular amongst scientists and physicians, remained separate from the sphere of politics.

Keywords: eugenics, racial hygiene, medical science, progressivism, Poland.

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The eminent Historian, Benno Muller-Hill, described eugenics as an

“explosive mixture between something we might call hard science, that is, human genetics, and the sphere of political action. On the one hand, geneticists needed politicians to implement their ideas. On the other hand, Hitler and the Nazis needed scientists who could say that anti-Semitism has scientific theoretical foundations.” (1)

For some Polish eugenicists, the Third Reich was not the home of the Nuremberg Laws, but a country that “boldly embarked on racial hygiene.” (2)  The enthusiastic attitude within Polish intellectual circles toward Nazi eugenic laws was characteristic of the status of pre-war science in Poland, which in many areas, particularly anthropology and psychiatry, remained strongly influenced by the paradigm of German science. While the professional and scientific context of the day promoted eugenic and racist ideas within the framework of the academic milieu and the curriculum of the medical and scientific community (3), eugenicists in Poland tended to refrain from anti-Semitic and racist phraseology. Indeed, the Polish eugenic movement was class-oriented rather than race-orientated (4). This hybrid language of eugenics, combining social sensitivity with repulsion and contempt for the sick and the weak, illustrated the ambiguous stance of the Polish eugenicists toward politics and science in Nazi Germany (2).

Poland's central location in Europe has always made it vulnerable to international conflicts, and particularly susceptible to the rivalries between Germany, Austria and Russia. In the wake of the insurrection of 1794, Russia, Prussia, and Austria ratified the third and final partition of Poland-Lithuania in 1795, erasing the Commonwealth of Two Nations from the map of Europe.  It would not emerge again until the Treaty of Versailles 123 years later (5). This dissolution, in the long term, upset the traditional European balance of power, dramatically magnifying the influence of Russia and paving the way for the Germany that would emerge in the nineteenth/twentieth century.

During the 123 years of occupation, a number of repressive measures were imposed on Polish citizens.  Political legislation varied across the three sections of the divided country (6). Policies of russification and germanization of the annexed lands were pursued by the invaders of partitioned Poland — Russian and German became official languages in schools and administration; political parties were prohibited; registration of any organisations had to be negotiated; and censorship was introduced. In the absence of a consistent health policy or sufficient number of hospitals, the provision of health care was mostly private. Morbidity among the general population and infant mortality were high, and infections and venereal diseases spread at alarming rates. In contrast, Poles under the jurisdiction of multicultural Austria (later Austria-Hungary) faced a more permissive administration, and, in return for loyalty, received considerable governmental and cultural autonomy. “Galicia gained a reputation as an oasis of toleration amidst the oppression of German and Russian Poland.” (6)

Following two major open revolts, the November Insurrection (1831) and January Insurrection (1863), Poles abandoned the idea of regaining independence through uprising, turning instead to consolidating the nation through the subtler means of organic work: education, economic development, and modernisation. The country, gradually deprived of normal means of political self-determination and social self-expression, put forth more energy into individual achievement, both intellectual and artistic (6).  Jagiellonian and Lviv Universities evolved into centres of intellectual activity and science, and Krakow became the home to Polish art and abstract thought.

The political activity of the intelligentsia was of key importance, alongside Polish language, culture, and religion, in nourishing hope and maintaining the identity of a nation strained by decades of tyranny, despotism and oppression, across all three partitions. With the Prussian Poland completely isolated, secretive political collaboration was possible only between Russian Poland and Galicia (4). The two waves of a blossoming eugenics movement reflected these two divisions and borrowed from positivistic ideals: one resulted from the lands under German occupation, the other originated from the Russian and Austrian partitions. It was not until 1918, however, that these two groups amalgamated to form the Polish Eugenic Society (4).

As a result of the industrial revolution at the turn of the century, there was a widespread concern among the general public, regarding the perceived degeneration of society and collapse of civilisation, and arising from the pathology of industrialisation and the degradation of traditional values. The Polish intelligentsia, however, believed that positivism was the remedy for all social dilemmas (7). Alexander Świętochowski, a philosopher widely regarded as a prophet of Polish positivism, taught and promoted Darwinism at the University of Warsaw after 1870. Benedict Dybowski, a physician and Professor of Zoology there, championed secularisation and abstinence. Jan Ludwik Poplawski translated the works of Cesare Lambroso, who prophesied innate criminality, into Polish. Interestingly, Poplawski, who was a publicist and nationalist, announced that mixing of the races (nations) made people healthier, while inter-breeding and isolation caused the degeneration of the race. The Socialists however maintained their negative attitude toward inter-race mixing (7). Frequent scientific debates and regular study groups took place, during which the works of Francis Galton, and German evolutionary biologists August Weismann and Ernst Haeckel were read and discussed. Polish interest in the theories of inheritance and Darwinism scrupulously followed breakthroughs in the discipline of race anthropology, and a particular notice was given to German and French developments (4).

Following the 1886 report on the health of the Polish recruits in the tsarist army (8), and a later anti-alcohol appeal presented by the Swiss psychiatrist and eugenicist, August Forel, in To the Polish People: On Degeneration (4), the subject of ‘degeneration’ dominated the public discussion and was featured by the press as a key issue to be addressed by social and medical reformers (9). The concern regarding the cultural degradation of the nation was soon replaced with a new anxiety pertaining to the physical degeneration of Polish citizens. In the partitioned and repressed country, where, due to the lack of official legislation, free and widely available health care was virtually non-existent, sexually transmitted diseases spread at an alarming rate. Infection control was further complicated by the lack of hygiene and sexual education amongst inhabitants of the overcrowded, newly urbanised towns. Physical and intellectual degeneration in humans was therefore attributed to alcohol consumption and venereal diseases (10) 

There was a strong belief among medical professionals that the ingestion of any alcoholic beverages around the time of conception would have adverse effects on the physique and intelligence of the conceived child (11), and that such offspring were most likely to be born weak and degenerate (12). Prostitution and pornography were seen as promoting promiscuity. Anti-alcohol and anti-pornography campaigns were therefore organised by Polish eugenicists (12) in an attempt to combat the spread of venereal diseases; birth control, child sex education and premarital sexual abstinence were likewise encouraged. Benedict Dybowski identified alcoholism, nationalism and religious devotion as common impediments hindering the cultural and intellectual progress of the society. He argued for the supremacy of science over religion by contrasting fanaticism, animosity and condescension– the detrimental consequences of religious beliefs – with the beneficial consequences of science, which “recommends love, unity and harmony” (13).

Encouraged by the liberal-left ideology of the day, Polish eugenicists aimed to create durable scientific foundations for the emerging ethical revolution, placing science in the centre of the new, “disenchanted”, and entirely rational world, which was free from religious superstition (13).  In doing so they drew from Darwinism and Max Webber’s works on rationalisation (14). The Polish eugenics movement was characterised essentially by its progressive nature, combined with faith in the ethical, scientific, and technological advancement of society. Eugenicists believed in John B. Bury’s “theory, which comprises a synthesis of the past and a prediction for the future. It is based on a historical interpretation, declaring that man is slowly moving forward - pedetemtim progredientes (step by step) – in a particular and desired direction, and concludes that this progress will continue without end.” (15) They envisaged a liberal, harmonious and dynamic society, free from the social problems of alcoholism and prostitution, as well as physical disabilities and diseases. Underlying their vision was “the belief that progress was possible, but only if all forms of social injustice and national antagonism were eliminated from society, thus enduring greater potential for individual happiness” (4).

On the swelling tide of the revolutionary mayhem of 1905, which raised hopes for national independence, medical circles aspiring to free society of prostitution, alcoholism and sexually transmitted diseases mobilised. In 1906, a thirty-five year old physician-venereologist, Leon Wernic, who was the editor of Zdrowie (Health), put forth a number of recommendations to tackle these problems. He advocated the teaching of hygiene and sexual education in schools, and promised to combat venereal diseases, alcoholism and other “racial poisons”. (10) He frequently published in the socialist and feminist journals Ogniwo (Link) and Ster (Helm), occasionally contributing to Medycyna (Medicine) and Kronika Lekarska (Medical Chronicle), as well as the fortnightly Czystość (Cleanliness), which was established by the anarchist-syndicalist, scientist and chemist Augustine Wroblewski, a close collaborator of one of the leading Polish bacteriologists - Odo Bujwid (16).

Columnists of Cleanliness, like feminist Justyna Budzinska-Tylicka, biologist Benedict Dybowski, and physician Waclaw Miklaszewski, broadcasted a new, science-based, morality (11). They openly criticised both bourgeois morality, which sanctioned double moral standards for men and women, and the hypocritical Christian morality, which ignored the oppression of lower social classes. Sexual abstinence and body hygiene were advocated as preventive measures against venereal diseases and prostitution (11). It was in Cleanliness in 1907 that Wernic first put forward the proposal of the prohibition of marriage between seriously ill, “socially unacceptable” individuals (12). “The fate of the human race - he insisted - should not be governed by a passing impulse and short-lived affection or by the sex-drive of a given individual but, rather, by a general concern of a mankind to exclude dwarfish types from among its ranks. Mankind must seek to create generations strong in spirit and in body. The ultimate goal of marriage is to preserve the perfect species.” The lack of scientific knowledge about the mechanisms of inheritance made Wernic and other physicians attribute almost all serious diseases - from epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and tuberculosis, to mental retardation, mental illness and alcoholism - to hereditary factors (17).

In the aftermath of the 1918 “Congress on the Depopulation of the Country” that dealt not only with subjects concerning the long-forgotten health care and welfare systems in Poland, but also with issues of birth control, venereal diseases and prostitution, care for orphans and unlawful progeny, and, most importantly, prevention of social degradation, a petition was sent to Polish authorities (4), calling for the introduction of compulsory sterilisation of the terminally ill and “degenerate” criminals serving jail sentences, as well as voluntary sterilisation of chronic sufferers of hereditary diseases and prohibition of marriage amongst them. According to Magdalena Gawin (4), “the looming prospect of the restoration of the Polish state seems to have been the factor which caused the demand for eugenic restrictions to appear so early in comparison to other countries,” as eugenic selection was intended to fortify the reborn society. This radical appeal reflected Wernic’s understanding (18) that “social engineering required state infrastructure.” Considerable financial resources were, however, necessary to employ an extensive clerical cadre for purposes of identification of the “individuals of little value.” The government furthermore possessed a measure for the implementation of eugenic proposals that was out of eugenicists’ reach, i.e. legal application of physical violence (19). Members of the Polish Eugenic Society (PES), therefore, recognised the importance of the state’s approbation for pursuing their policies on a national scale.

Physicians played an active part in erecting a governmental and administrational skeleton for the newly formed Polish state. It was through their perseverance and diligence that an independent Ministry of Public Health, Work and Social Welfare was approved in 1918 (20). In this process of modernisation of society, a fierce competition, involving the country’s finest professionals, developed. Tomasz Janiszewski, a physician single-mindedly advocating the allocation of civil service positions to medical professionals, believed that doctors deserved to be promoted to positions of power, just like engineers and lawyers did (21). Circles associated with Joseph Polak, physician and hygienist, which referred to the omnipotence of the state and the persona of Janiszewski with hostility and resentment, presented a much more traditional, positivistic approach to eugenics (21). They identified the concept of “improving the race” with improvement in the overall level of hygiene and the fight against alcoholism and pervasive venereal diseases. Supporters of the radical methods of healing the nation, however, were sceptical about the positivistic ideals of organic work, and believed that the much-needed rapid improvement in the quality of Polish society was only achievable through the endorsement of the repressive acts demonstrated by the American (and later German) eugenic models, which utilized the forces of the state apparatus (21). They envisioned that the Ministry of Public Health would become the sword of the Polish eugenic crusade.

The specificity of the days of authoritarian leaders and dictators, together with strongly promoted social collectivism, left a lasting impression on the minds of Poles. Soon after its formation in 1922, general physicians, venereologists, and dermatologists, dominated the membership of the Polish Eugenic Society. By the late 1920s the ranks of the PES expanded as prominent anthropologists, like John Mydlarski, renowned serologists, like Ludwik Hirszfeld, considered one of the co-discoverers of the inheritance of ABO blood groups, psychiatrists, like Jan Mazurkiewicz, the founder of the Polish school of psychiatry, and Oscar Bielawski, the author of reformed psychiatry, influential lawyers, and a few years later, proponents of birth control associated with Wiadomości Literackie (Literary News) and Życie Świadome (Conscious Life) joined. Particularly striking achievements, from the point of development of racial determinism, were brought into the eugenic movement by anthropologists and psychologists (16), who conducted extensive research into the characteristics of breeds, showing clear correlation between race, psyche and personality. It could have been learned from the works of Louis Jaxa-Bykowski, Stanislaw Studencki, and Halina Milicerowa, that racial differences were evident and manifested “from the level of the physical characteristics to the deepest recesses of the human psyche, influencing friendship, affection, sensitivity, impulsivity, and intelligence of an individual.” (16) Women's rights campaigners, such as Theodore Męczkowska, Julia Świtalska, and Eugenia Waśniewska, were also actively engaged in the PES, claiming that “eugenically-healthy” families should receive special patronage from the state (16). Among the most relevant figures of Polish eugenics were: populists, Stephen Kransztyk and Tomasz Janiszewski, socialists, like Sophie Daszyńska-Golinska, and democrats, like Henry Husbaum (7). The presence of eugenicists across the political spectrum gave them greater opportunity for proposing eugenic bills to the otherwise indifferent politicians of the ruling circle of Sanacja.

Government officials, particularly the socialists suspicious of the neo-Malthusian doctrine, chose to disregard eugenics, seeing it as an unnecessary distraction from more urgent political and social matters (5). The ruling camp of Sanacja, sternly opposing all forms of social and political extremism, repeatedly rejected all eugenic proposals for controlling the lives of Polish citizens (5). Segregation of society into residents of ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ value was compared to “a caricature of censured society”, and the relevant legislation described as “a perfect arena for enormous abuse, nepotism, and compulsion”. (22) Notwithstanding their popularity with intellectual and scientific elites of the day, Polish eugenicists gained little governmental support for their ideas. The exceptions were the 1918 proposal to establish an independent Ministry of Public Health and Welfare (which was dissolved in 1924 for financial reasons), and the 1935 foundation of a Eugenic Section accessory to the government-run National Health Council (6, 23). It was this widespread animosity of politicians towards theories of race, the strong condemning of eugenic doctrine by the Catholic Church, and the repellent example of Nazi Germany that played a crucial part in diluting eugenic ideas in Poland (4). In the midst of the countries with strong eugenic movements, Poland remained a place where eugenic dogmas stayed separate from the sphere of politics; thus Poland was an exception against the European background.

Eugenicists considered state interference in the public life as essential (18) and aspired to fortify their own position in society by assuming the role of experts on occupational hygiene. Despite little legislative success, members of the Polish Eugenic Society contributed significantly to other areas of social life (4), including the provision of living quarters and clean clothing to the poor, the opening of public baths, and the raising benefits for the citizens (23). Eugenicists expressed their interest in the welfare of the collective over the happiness of the individual. They emphasised the connection between improved working and living standards (hygienic design of housing, provision of airy and light homes and neighbourhoods) and higher worker productivity, arguing that “the advent of the new architecture inspired by Charles Le Corbusier helped raise the living conditions of the labour force.” (4) Through their extensive community work and educational interventions, members of PES achieved a decline in infectious and venereal diseases, prostitution and smoking within the general public, and succeeded in reducing the international trafficking of women (23). 

The Polish version of eugenics, lacking the venomous anti-Semitism characteristic of the German model, or the sterilisation initiatives of the Scandinavian one, prompts significant modifications to Polish historiography. In addition to showing that the ten thousand eminent scientists, cultural men and women with doctoral degrees, social authority and respect, who advocated the cleansing of  “idiots”, “drunkards”, “beggars” and “hereditarily ill” from society (23) deserve much greater consideration, this work also reveals a discrepancy between the social and political acceptance of racial hygiene. It shows that the fascination with the category of race in the twentieth century had a universal character (24), and applied to both the right and the liberal-left Polish intelligentsia. Furthermore, the attribution of particular psychophysical features to a race was characteristic not only of anti-Semitic statements; it was also a part of a wider scientific paradigm (24), in which the race was simultaneously the carrier of physical features, and a determinant of social behaviors. It would certainly be easier to deal with the legacy of eugenics by assigning it a patch of “pseudo-science” or “ideology”. However, eugenics was not a pseudo-science or a gruesome rivalry with God, but it was commonly believed to have real scientific foundations. Although nowadays it is frequently perceived as a gloomy aberration of science, and associated only with Nazis Rassenhygiene (24), eugenics in the early twentieth century enjoyed recognition and respect. It was this high regard for scientific advancement, fuelled by the ideology of progressivism, which stimulated the interest of the Polish scientific and medical elites in eugenics.

 Olga Blach has completed her third year of MBChB at the University of Aberdeen and is currently undertaking an iBSc. She may be reached for comment at:


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