Constance Sommerey

Haeckel-File #3: Haeckel the Nazi

Would evolution theory inescapably have to lead to fascist eugenics?

Haeckel has not only been badmouthed for things he actually did or believed during his life (see the two previous Haeckel-Files on racism and fraud), he has also been partially blamed for what happened years after his death in 1919: Nazi Germany.


Pensive Ernst Haeckel - A scientist working on his theories

In 1933, 24 years after Haeckel’s death, the NSDAP came to power. And, if we believe some historians, Haeckel returned. This reading of German history began in the 1970s with the book of historian Daniel Gasman called The Scientific Origins of National-Socialism (1971). Gasman’s argument was that Haeckel’s science-based worldview was in fact proto-Nazi. His belief in the applicability of scientific knowledge to society coupled with his Romantic view of harmony and order of the organism as well as the state, according to Gasman, shaped the ideology of national-socialism. Furthermore, he argued that Haeckel was a strident anti-Semite. In the foreword to his book he writes:

“It will be the principal purpose of this study to demonstrate that the content of the writings of Haeckel and the ideas of his followers – their general political, philosophical, scientific, and social orientation – were proto-Nazi in character, and that the Darwinist movement which he created, one of the most powerful forces in nineteenth- and twentieth-century German intellectual history, may be fully understood as a prelude to the doctrine of National Socialism.” (p. XIV)

This Haeckel-Hitler argument has been continuously reproduced by Gasman and other historians ever since (Gould 1977; Gasman 1998; Gould 2000; Gasman 2002; Weikart 2004).

The Haeckel-Hitler argument has however not remained uncontested. Some historians have argued that Gasman’s claim is a-historical and flawed (Hoßfeld 2007; Gliboff 2008; Richards 2008; Richards 2008). It is a-historical because it is futile to blame a person for things that occurred after his death. The Haeckel-Hitler argument is flawed because Haeckel’s philosophy actually did not fit into the national-socialist agenda. Historians have argued that instead of having been a resurrected hero, Haeckel was explicitly condemned in national-socialist literature because of his atheist and materialist convictions. Leading Nazi officials would, under no circumstances, want to be affiliated with a scientist who shared such a socialist and heretic mindset. Furthermore, the careful study of interviews with Haeckel has revealed that Gasman’s attempt to present Haeckel as an anti-Semite is rather questionable (Richards 2007).
Existing scholarship confronts us with two seemingly opposed histories. Haeckel was either a proto-Nazi and thus an important inspiration for national-socialist thought or he was completely rejected by the Nazis. Historians tend to reduce Haeckel to a certain view in order to construct a historical argument. Haeckel the atheist materialist does not fit into the national-socialist outlook while Haeckel’s science-based, Romantic worldview does.

What to make of all that? Well, we can say that Haeckel was certainly not a Nazi as Nazism, or national-socialism, is an ideology linked to a movement that occurred after his death. Some of his ideas seemingly shaped national-socialism whereas others did not fit this particular ideological agenda. As such, Haeckel was therefore also not proto-Nazi.

Furthermore, national-socialism did not develop in a vacuum. Instead, it was shaped by many ideas from previous centuries. Haeckel’s vision of a science-based Weltanschauung might have been one of them. But holding his vision accountable for the horrors of the Holocaust, just as much as blaming for example Wagner because Hitler was a fan, is simply historically groundless.

Gasman, D. (1971). The Scientific Origins of National Socialism. Social Darwinism in Ernst Haeckel and the German Monist League. New York, American Elsevier Inc.

Gasman, D. (1998). Haeckel's monism and the birth of fascist ideology. New York, P. Lang.

Gasman, D. (2002). "Haeckel's scientific monism as theory of history." Theory in Biosciences 121(3): 260-279.

Gliboff, S. (2008). HG Bronn, Ernst Haeckel and the origins of German Darwinism, MIT Press Cambridge.

Gould, S. J. (1977). Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Gould, S. J. (2000). "Abscheulich! (Atrocious!)." Natural History 109(2): 42-49.

Hoßfeld, U. (2007). Haeckel als NS-Philosoph. Jena. Ein nationaler Erinnerungsort? J. John and J. H. Ulbrecht. Köln, Böhlau Verlag: 445-464.

Richards, R. J. (2007). "Ernst Haeckel's Alleged Anti-Semitism and Contributions to Nazi Biology." Biological Theory 2(1): 97-103.

Richards, R. J. (2008). The Moral Grammar of Narratives in the History of Biology - the Case of Haeckel and Nazi Biology. The Tragic Sense of Life. Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought. Chicago, Chicago University Press.

Richards, R. J. (2008). The Tragic Sense of Life. Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Weikart, R. (2004). From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. New York, Palgrave Macmillan.