Atheists and Jews and eugenics before World War II: Greg’s joking, right?

I’m always loathe to criticize a fellow ScienceBlogger, but, as the resident World War II buff and tireless debunker of Holocaust denial, I couldn’t let this one pass.

While perusing the Last 24 Hours feed yesterday, I came across a most curious statement in a slapdown by Greg Laden of an attempt by Bruce Chapman to spin an appearance of John West at the University of Minnesota as anything other than an utter disaster. The debate was over who were the true advocates of eugenics, Christians or scientists, the argument being made that more advocates of eugenics in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century. (My answer to that question would be: Both. After all, support for eugenics in the U.S. was widespread, so much so that Hitler actually admired eugenics programs in some states and wanted to emulate them.)

Quoth Laden:

I am particularly interested in the following connections:

  • Most eugenics supporters of the early 20th century were Christians.
  • Most eugenics opposers of the early 20th century were either atheists or Jews (or both).

Had it not been for the atheists and Jews, Christian-style eugenics would have had a much more solid base. It is possible that the anti-Nazi and anti-German sentiments (the former because people were annoyed by Hitler, the latter because people had been annoyed by the Kaiser) may have paled in comparison to the “Promise of Eugenics” and it is quite likely that it would have been very difficult to get the US in to World War II.

The Germans would have been defeated anyway, by the Soviets, and all of Europe (possibly except England) would have become Soviet Bloc. Interesting prospect. Interesting ironies.

My first reaction upon seeing this was: WTF? Is he joking?

The first problem with this argument is that, in his zeal to blame Christians for supporting eugenics, he simply doesn’t have the facts to back his claims up. Maybe he’s right, but, if he’s going to make such an overreaching statement that “most” supporters of eugenics were Christians (besides, I would be surprised if most supporters of eugenics weren’t Christian, given how overwhelmingly Christians outnumbered Jews and atheists in the early part of the 20th century), even carrying it forward to make the implication that atheists and Jews, through their resistance to eugenics, prevented support for Nazi Germany’s vision of eugenics from being so great that the U.S. would not declare war on Germany, he really needs some hard numbers.

No, I don’t think that’s a strawman of what Greg said (and I’m sure someone will explain to me why if it is). In any case, he couldn’t be more hopelessly wrong in speculating that support for eugenics would have had any effect whatsoever on whether or not the U.S. entered the war. Politics and a very bad decision by Hitler after Pearl Harbor did. It wouldn’t matter if he’s absolutely correct about how many Christians supported eugenics policies, which he probably is, although it’s unclear to me whether he is correct about how many Jews and atheists opposed it. (I may have to dip into my World War II book collection to see if I can find out more.)

The reason he’s wrong is that he takes his argument one step too far, into the realm of the ridiculous. Nazi eugenics had virtually nothing to do with the reasons that the US ended up going to war with Nazi Germany. Greg can’t really be suggesting that, if Jews and atheists hadn’t been against it, the unopposed greater support for Nazi-style eugenics by Christians would have prevented the U.S. from going to war in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and that atheists and Jews were what held that desire at bay, can he? Here’s a hint in the form of a bit of history: In his hubris, Hitler foolishly declared war on the U.S. first after Pearl Harbor, effectively emasculating the isolationist sentiment that had kept the U.S. out of the war to that point. (Look it up if you don’t believe me.) Had he not done so, it would have been very difficult for Franklin D. Roosevelt to go to war with Germany. Public sentiment was all for taking revenge on Japan immediately, given that it had attacked the U.S., and leaving the European war to the Britain and the Soviet Union. Unless Greg can somehow argue that a greater support for eugenics in the US would somehow have prevented Hitler from declaring war in the wake of Pearl Harbor, thus depriving Roosevelt of the unassailable reason he needed to throw the weight of the U.S. into the war against Germany and to adopt a policy of defeating Germany first, his argument falls apart.

Finally, it’s not at all clear that the Soviet Union would have won if the US hadn’t entered the war, making Greg’s seeming implication that it was those atheists and Jews who resisted eugenics who kept the entire continent of Europe from ending up under Soviet domination after World War II by preventing those darned Christian eugenicists and their admiration for Nazi eugenics from keeping us out of the war. The USSR might have won and may even have been more likely than not to have won, given that its forces could fall back so many hundreds of miles into the vastness of Russia and absorb the initial German attack, but its victory was by no means assured. Also, there was this little thing called the Lend-Lease Program, without which it is questionable whether the Soviet Union could have continued to fight long enough to recover from the devastation of operation Barbarossa and counterattack. For example, although the Soviet Union made mostly its own tanks, 2/3 of the trucks that supported its forces were made in the U.S. (Wikipedia actually has a list of the materials delivered to the USSR.) Remember, Hitler nearly captured Moscow in December 1941, and without the Allied bombing campaign of 1943 and 1944, necessitating the diversion of large amounts men and materiel to the defense of its cities and the threat of an Allied invasion from the west requiring large numbers of troops to be made unavailable for duty in the East, Hitler would have been able to throw the full force of his military might against Stalin. In this alternate history, with the U.S. occupied defeating Japan, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the resources sent to Britain and the Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease would have been drastically curtailed, if not eliminated. Even so, it’s possible that the Soviet Union would have managed to win anyway, but it was by no means anywhere near definite.

A word of advice to Greg, which I hope he’ll take as ScienceBlogger tough love: The problem with making historical arguments like this is that you should actually know the history before you make them. It’s also a bad idea to criticize someone else’s understanding of history while making glaring errors in history yourself.

Of course, I must emphasize that none of my criticism of Greg is meant to provide any tactical air support whatsoever to an idiot like John West, whose transparent attempt to link Darwin to eugenics is such transparently bad history that it should be included in the Carnival of Bad History, if not a visit from the Hitler Zombie. It’s just in refuting him we as skeptics should be very careful not to provide our own contribution to this carnival.