Coercive Sterilization in Nazi Germany

by Kurt Nowak
Translated by Martha Humphreys and Sybil Milton.

Gisela Bock. Zwangssterilisation im Nationalsozialismus: Studien zur Rassenpolitik und Frauenpolitik. Schriften des Zentralinstituts fur Sozialwissenschaftliche Forschung der Freien Universitat Berlin, Vol. 48. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1986. 494 pages.

Historical treatments of biological and psychiatric topics, apparently considered peripheral areas within social and political history and of interest only to specialists, have long been neglected in research on Nazism. Recognition of the primary importance of social history for an understanding of Nazi health policy has meanwhile gained acceptance. Biological terminology and conceptual models were used to express and justify social diagnoses and related sociopolitical strategies. Sociohistorical. decoding of biological policy has contributed to the emergence of a heightened awareness of the continuities between health and social policy, a connection that neither began in 1933 nor ended in 1945. A maleficent interpretation of German history permeated the Wilhelmian era, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, and in transformed modes remains relevant up to the present. The utopian project of a society made up of productive people capable of forming a community accompanied the thrust toward technological modernization in Germany. The mentally ill and handicapped constituted merely the tip of the iceberg of persons to be excluded from the present and future society.

Gisela Bock's book grew out of a doctoral dissertation at the Technical University of West Berlin. Even before it was published, this study had an impact on social policy in conjunction with a petition submitted by the well- known psychiatrist Klaus Dorner of Gutersloh to the German Bundestag on 26 January 1984 "concerning public recognition of the unjust character of the Nazi law 'For the Avoidance of Genetically Defective Offspring' and recognition of sterilization and killing because of psychic and mental impairment during the Nazi era as a form of persecution." Together with other publications1 and specialized activities by relevant organizations, Gisela Bock's work has heightened public awareness of the endangered social position of the handicapped in the past and present. In this context, we might mention the speech by President Richard von Weizsacker on 8 May 1985 in the plenary chamber of the German Bundestag, where he explicitly referred to the suffering caused by "inhuman compulsory sterilization." Nazi biological policy has been less explored than other aspects of Nazi policies, but its effects persist in the lives of the victims and their relatives as well as in structural continuities.

The main topic of Bock's work is the theory and implementation of the "Law for the Avoidance of Genetically Diseased Offspring" of 14 July 1933. In comparison with other questions concerning the injustice of Nazi genetic and race policy, source material about sterilization policy is relatively favorable. In the codification of the law and its application after 1 January 1934, the German government was able to count on a social consensus that extended far beyond the ranks of NSDAP voters and therefore saw no reason to conceal the intended eugenic cleansing. There was almost no potential in German society for criticism of sterilization on "eugenic" grounds, except for protests by the Catholic church based on natural law, i.e., man's resemblance to God, and resistance by those immediately affected. In view of the frequency of eugenic sterilizations prior to 1933, the result of a kind of genetic thinking that permeated all social and political groups, Bock correctly stresses that the Nazi law was not "in itself revolutionary." Only the legalization and state regimentation of former sterilization theories and the coercive implementation that grew from it indicated a qualitative change.2 Bock's interpretation, also otherwise reflected in academic literature, is contradicted to some extent by her own statement that the sterilization law was imposed on the German people in "secrecy and haste."3 Certainly the coercive nature of the sterilization law was something new in comparison with previous

Coercive Sterilization in Nazi Germany legislative attempts at regulation, especially with the law proposed by the Prussian State Council of Health in 1932. However, it is questionable whether coercion forced the regime to operate by stealth. Even the Central Committee of the Inner Mission, which through its Permanent Commission for Eugenic Questions had clearly opposed compulsory sterilization in May 1931, did not raise objections on principle, though it did offer some criticism of details. This partial approval of compulsory sterilization by the Inner Mission shows how low the barriers had been. Opposition to compulsion was limited because the experts had repeatedly pointed out that the presumably limited capacity of the "hereditarily diseased" for judgment and decision greatly blurred any distinction between volition, agreement, and compulsion in eugenic sterilization. The thesis that "the sterilization law would not have passed in a parliamentarily governed Germany" remains open in view of the German majority consensus concerning measures of negative eugenics.4 This thesis applies to an ideal type of parliamentary democracy and not to the specific molding of public opinion on these questions in the Weimar Republic. It can be stated with certainty that only the Center Party would have voted against such a sterilization law.

Regardless of how one judges the social acceptance of compulsory sterilization, Nazism could count on extensive domestic public approval as well as agreement by foreigners interested in eugenics. It is therefore not surprising that as a rule the sterilization policy, to the extent that it is based on the title of the law of 14 July 1933, lacks elements of concealment and conspiracy. From 1933 to 1945, members of the scientific, political, and cultural communities published extensive literature on the sterilization law. These publications, in addition to national and regional archives, were used by Bock as sources for her study. Her multi-perspective study takes into consideration the legislative development and the institutional and practical implementation of the sterilization law. But it also includes the everyday historical reality resulting from the sterilization policy and the frequently tragic consequences for the persons affected. Not only Germans but also persons of so-called foreign race (Gypsies, Jews) were sterilized after 1934 within the framework of this law.5 Bock does not view the mass sterilizations, as so much of the literature does, as merely the prelude to the Nazi policy of murder. They were an "injustice of its own kind." It is not necessary to point to the later escalation in order to prove the historical and ethical injustice of sterilization.6 This view of sterilization as a phenomenon sui generis produced a monograph whose wealth of material and abundance of new insights may long assure its status as one of the primary works on this topic.

Bock's study originated as an investigation into Nazi policy vis-a-vis women and the conditions of women under Nazism.7 The eugenically negative Sanierungspolitik of the sterilization law is added to the topics included under "gender injustice."8 Bock maintains that the implementation of the policy of sterilization was not gender neutral. Instead she argues that it was applied to the different sexes (which must also be seen as social classes with specific social functions) with varying degrees of intent and rigidity. In contrast to male victims, Bock asserts that female victims of sterilization were subjected in addition to male sexual domination.

Bock employs the American terms pronatalism and antinatalism to characterize the reproductive policies embedded in the sterilization issue. This new approach seems surprising at first, but it is altogether logical. The resulting interpretative system creates an even more comprehensive category that attempts to see Nazi genetic and racial policy as the ultimately unified ideology and strategy of racism. In order to allow racism to subsume Nazi biological and health policies, however, certain definitions must be established. Bock defines the theories of eugenicists as "hygienic racism." In general, racism that recurs in phenotypical and genotypical differences between the races (Aryans, Semites, Negroes, etc.) is defined as "anthropological racism." In Bock's view, both forms of racism coincide in a substantially identical value system: the shared content of hygienic and anthropological racism is the perception of human beings as a "type" and the transformation of the differences between them into a hierarchy of inequality.9 We can easily agree with Bock's contention that the negative application was the common denominator between eugenics and race doctrine. Nonetheless, it is impossible to suppress a question about the historical implications of a sweeping equation of eugenics and race doctrine.

One difficulty of Bock's study is that she merges several perspecfives: sterilization, reproductive, gender, and racial policies. Although mutual relationships between these perspectives are in every respect historically tangible, these interdependencies can in part be created only by manipulating the sources. The monograph does not achieve complete methodological clarity nor a framework for assessing the respective perspectives and their values. Many contradictions in the factual assertions of the text are probably due to this partial blurring of the contours.

The very convincing presentation of the legislative development and implementation of the sterilization law yields a number of cleanly researched new facts. Thus it is interesting that on 4 April 1933, Sauckel, the Thuringian prime minister and Gauleiter, used financial and genetic arguments to press for the rapid passage of a sterilization law. Within a short time, he found support from the state governments of Braunschweig, Lippe-Detmold, Bremen, MecklenburgStrelitz, Mecklenburg- Schwerin, Saxony, and Hamburg. This law went through three different drafts in the second week of July 1933.10 During this initial phase, "state and party collaborated closely in popularizing and implementing sterilization policy regardless of their rivalries in other areas."11 Soon, however, relations between state and party over sterilization policy became tense. Reiner Pommerin had already pointed to the differences between state and party based on the concept and jurisdiction of a racist scale for sterilization.12

Bock documents with additional material the competing interests, for example, of the Reich Ministry of the Interior and the Reichsarzteffihrung. A classic example is provided by the dispute about the interruption of pregnancy for eugenic reasons that went all the way to Hitler's desk. Added as the amendment of 26 June 1935 to the sterilization law, it served not only as a legislative provision but also continued the special powers of the Reich Physician Leader.13 The conflict between the Reich Ministry of the Interior (Ministerialdirektor Dr. Arthur Gutt) and the Reichsarzteffihrung. (Dr. Gerhard Wagner) peaked in the years 1936-1937. For this conflict, Bock was able to use revealing new sources. Conflicts about ideology and turf became entangled during these quarrels. Ironically, it was the Nazi party, represented by Wagner, that questioned the diagnostic bases of sterilization decisions, admittedly only for the purpose of making sterilization policy into a "party matter."14 The will of the party required the use of sterilization criteria that did not cut all too deeply and painfully into the flesh of the German people, while simultaneously facilitating the broad inclusion of all persons of "foreign race." In keeping with this Nazi logic concerning sterilization policy, Bock views developments after 1938-1939 in two ways: restriction of eugenic sterilizations accompanied simultaneously by the radicalization of techniques for the exclusion of "inferiors" (transition to policy of murder) and expansion of racist sterilizations which then took shape in the known plans for mass sterilization of Jews and Slavs in 1941-1942.

Following the fall of the Third Reich, the sterilization law was not considered typical of Nazi injustice. Rather, opinion held that the legal basis for sterilization was scientifically supportable. Particularly in regard to feeblemindedness the hypothetical character of the genetic dogma was overlooked. Even after 1945, the Nazi logic which held that hereditary taint justified exclusion from the "community of 1 propagation" was silently accepted as a self-evident truth. The human rights principle of the inviolability of the body was not considered. Furthermore, the personal dignity of the handicapped and equality before the law remained noticeably absent.

In her discussion of the sterilization law and in her evaluation of the sterilization processes, Bock is able to show the untenability of the genetic premises. The parallels to "anthropological racism," particularly to anti-Jewish racism, which was likewise based on biological fictions, are obvious. Genetic paradigms (concerning the genetics of population) should not, however, be entirely divested of their scientific support, as occasionally occurs in the work despite Bock's insight into genetics. After all, the field of genetics is not exclusively ideological in character. However, it remains true that genetic discoveries do not grant the state the right to sterilize and that genetic dogma often simply reflected social status. By means of a social value logic that seeks to determine a person's alleged productivity value based on social position, occupational image, intelligence, and family circumstances, social diagnoses were falsified into genetic prognoses and vice-versa. The definitely hereditary disease of hemophilia was no reason for sterilization, but prostitution, which was attributed to feeblemindedness, fell under the provisions of the law. Like a number of dissertations written during the seventies, Bock's empirical investigation of sterilization practices contributes to unmasking the "scientific" bases of genetic diagnostics as a myth. Negative eugenics was primarily an instrument of social planning. Asocial behavior was the umbrella term applied.

The number of persons sterilized between 1934 and 1945 on the basis of the sterilization law can be determined quite precisely. In Germany, the number is approximately 360,000. In addition, there are approximately 40,000 beyond the borders of the German Reich of 1937. Apart from the approximately known number of sterilizations of persons of mixed race from the Rhineland, it is impossible to determine the number of sterilizations performed outside the purview of the law. One of the book's advantages is that the reader is precisely informed about the "quantitative dimension" of the sterilizations, including their regional variations; about the proportion of denunciations, applications, and sterilization decisions; about the officially admitted risk of death (0.5 percent among women and. 0. 1 percent among men); and about the actual mortality figures (5 percent, of whom 90 percent were women).

In addition, new light is shed on the gray zone of consent and compulsion in sterilization policy. Bock is able to make clear the basically compulsory character of the sterilization law. The authorities could implement their decisions with various types of direct and indirect coercion as well as psychological duress. One form of indirect coercion was the refusal to grant release from psychiatric hospitals and mental institutions without sterilization. Conversely, the price for being spared from sterilization was incarceration in locked facilities. These facts, although basically familiar, acquire new weight through Bock's detailed presentation. Highly suspect was the practice of group denunciations by welfare offices, directors of institutions, and others. Within this context of harsh and subtle coercion, selfinitiated requests for sterilization must be viewed with mistrust. In Hamburg, which was considered an "exemplary district" in terms of genetics, 80 percent of the applications for sterilization were submitted "voluntarily." Ambiguity is revealed in the practice, particularly among Protestant hospitals and mental institutions, of motivating persons to apply for sterilization on the basis of making a sacrifice for the community. Only "in the rarest instances" did self-initiated applications derive from free choice, regardless of whether the candidate for sterilization was housed in an institution.15

Resistance against the sterilization law involved primarily the victims and their relatives. Catholic resistance is not treated separately, since it has already been dealt with in recent literature.16 Nonetheless there is interesting supplementary information about Catholic resistance. In 1934, 70 percent of those sterilized in Munster officially objected to the operation, whereas the average for the entire Reich is 15 percent. The protests in predominantly Protestant regions were low: 5 percent in Kiel, 9 percent in Berlin, and 13 percent in Hamburg. 17

Less convincing is the thesis that the law, including its amendments, was a specific form of male sexual force against women. In principle, a preliminary investigation that attempts to classify the effects of the sterilization law in terms of gender and age is useful. Reservations arise, however, when an exaggerated feminist perspective leads to overly farreaching conclusions. Men and women were equally affected by the sterilizations. For this reason it is not entirely convincing when, among 11 instances of sterilization, the fates of eight women are described for the purpose of bolstering the argument that the law was asymmetrical in its hostility to women.18 A one-sided, "male- oriented" historical interpretation cannot be eliminated by introducing a predominantly "female-oriented" perspective. To avoid the suspicion that all victims were not equally victimized, Bock should have analyzed the impact of the sterilization law on male subjects in greater detail. The historical relevance of a sex-differentiated analysis could only have been strengthened by a balanced double perspective.

It seems that Gisela Bock used value judgments of the women's movement that transcend the methods of historical investigation to emphasize the particular anti-female intentions and practices of the sterilization law. In other words, Bock affirms women's free and individual rights to sterilization and abortion.19 From the point of view of those who make the emancipatory claim of women's complete right to control of their bodies and the embryo or fetus within it, state regimentation of sterilization and abortion must seem an even more reprehensible act.

The intended biological purification of the German people by means of the sterilization law is, as already mentioned, analyzed as part of Nazi birth policy. Contrary to the widely accepted view concerning the regime's pronatalist bias (promotion of an increasing birthrate among the "genetically fit"), Bock maintains that the Nazi dictatorship was predominantly inclined toward antinatalism. The pronatalist aspect was mostly propaganda and remained largely ineffective.20 The increase in the birth rate after 1933 is interpreted as the result of a protracted demographic transition to the modem era, but not as the outgrowth of a new orientation in Nazi birth policy, which always pursued the twofold goal of impeding and promoting births. This is obviously true to the extent that it concerns the biological logic peculiar to Nazism-impeding birth among "genetically inferior" persons and members of "lesser races," promotion of births among the "genetically fit" and the "superior races." The central argument of the antinatalist thesis is therefore located elsewhere. Even among the "genetically fit" and "superior races," the pronatalist motif was permanently overwhelmed by antinatalist positions. The pessimistic logic of genetic fundamentalism gave rise to genetic anxiety and the practice of snooping around in quest of an inferiority that extended far into the ranks of the healthy. The group of persons to be factually and potentially excluded from the "genetic stream" and the "propagating community" was in principle undetermined and indeterminable. Pronatalism had to turn into antinatalism ' or alternatively pronatalism had to be significantly restricted by antinatalism.

In addition, Bock's women's history perspective leads her to interpret both pronatalism and antinatalism as anti-female. Antinatalism withheld from women their natural rights, while the basic Nazi attitude degraded them into being "protectors of the species." The basic antinatalist attitude of Nazism increasingly blurred the demarcations between the "genetically unsuitable" minority and the 11 genetically suitable" majority, making no distinction between women to whom the right of bearing children was granted and those to whom it was denied. "Rather, a distinction was made among women who should bear children; women who were permitted to bear children; women who, despite reservations, were permitted to bear children; and those who were not permitted to bear children."21 Bock accurately recognizes the radicalizing tendency inherent in genetic fundamentalism. Nonetheless, the question remains whether the emphases on pronatalism. and antinatalism are properly distributed. Bock has primarily used antinatalist evidence. She could have just as easily amassed pronatalist evidence. Bock states that the trend toward the family with one or two children was not reversed in the Third Reich. It is nevertheless possible to refer to figures that at least limit these findings.22 Although the rate of 90 births per 1000 women of child-bearing age of 1922 was not again achieved, not to mention the birthrate of 128 in 1910-1911, it is impossible to overlook the increase in the birthrate from 59 in the year 1933 to 85 in 1939.23

The number of families with four or more children rose from 9 percent in 1932-1933 to 21.7 percent in 1939.24 Nazi birth policy showed much ambivalence on the issues of birth promotion and birth strikes, as well as on pronatalist social policy and the increasing financial burden on the German economy because of the war. But to use the catchword antinatalism simply because the pronatalist position was not monolithic hardly seems justified. How can it encompass phenomena as divergent as "the marriage institute" project developed by Dr. Leonardo Conti (the Reich Physician Leader after Wagner's death) and by his mother Nanna Conti, the advertisements for "war motherhood" in the Schwarze Korps, and the complaint by Guida Diehl about the "animal-like population increase"? In fact, Bock does not fully deny, despite her antinatalist emphasis, the conceptual model of pronatalism. In her view, pronatalism represented the male-patriarchal dominance of the state in the regulation of birth and thus intentionally and ultimately resembled antinatalism. But the sociological reorientation of the role of women in Nazi Germany is only delineated and not proven by such statements.

Now and then Bock's theories appear artificial and of limited applicability. She views eugenics (race hygiene) as a close ally of "anthropological racism," maintaining that a hierarchical value scale based on biology was the pivotal point for both forms of racism. But the accuracy of this assertion does not tell us much about the historical relationship between eugenics and racial anthropology. In one passage the author maintains that the arsenal of values of "anthropological racism" had been transferred to eugenics, 25 but states a few pages later that "race hygienics did not so much adapt to the nordic movement as the nordic movement adapted to race hygiene."26

Thus Bock's formulation about the relationship between eugenics and racial anthropology is self-contradictory. Such generalizations, which no doubt apply to the lowest common denominator, do not provide information about specific historical relationships. Existing scientific literature already delineates the development of eugenics and racial anthropology in Germany since the end of the nineteenth century with greater subtlety.27 Bock's generalized and partially contradictory conclusions do not attain this level of scholarship. Moreover, it is questionable whether the equation of eugenics and racial anthropology adequately expresses the specific directions of these two fields. In any case, racial anthropology grew from entirely different religious, social, political, and cultural prejudices-for example, against Jews and Blacks-than was the case in the eugenics movement, which was directed by Germans against their own people. An analysis of both movements at the level of the lowest common denominator will only explain certain aspects of their separate origins and aims.

It is also problematic to apply the concept of racism to Nazi policy toward women. Bock links racism and sexual policy by two analyses of sterilization. On the one hand, sterilization policy was oriented to the dogma of hereditary inequality. On the other, it was "sexist" in that it "put birth control, formerly the domain of women, under government control." Thus in the coupling of these two components, 11 racial policy and women's policy merged."28 Perhaps one should adopt Bock's formulation and therefore speak of biological-sexist racism. Bock holds that the desire for a "solution to the women's question" became visible in the constellation of "racial policy as women's policy."29 Thus, the "Solution of the Women's Question" is now to be added to the well- known historical "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" and to the recently formulated "Final Solution of the Social Question." To what extent is this thesis supported by historical reality? To what extent does this sociohistorical interpretation need definition more detailed than can be provided by data about Nazi policies on sterilization and birth? But despite certain sections of Bock's study that demand critical discourse, her careful monograph contains a wealth of material and enhances our knowledge about Nazi sterilization policy.


1. An example is Norbert Schmacke and Hans-Georg Guse, Zwangssterilisiert- verleugnet-vergessen: Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Rassenhygiene am Beispiel Bremen (Bremen, 1984).

2. Bock, p. 48.

3. Ibid., p, 89.

4. Ibid., P. 52.

5. Ibid., p. 362.

6. Ibid., P. 8.

7. Ibid., P. 9.

8, [bid., p. 407,

9. Ibid., p. 61.

10. Ibid., p. 86

11. Ibid., p. 91.

12. Reiner Pommerin Sterilisierung der Rheinlandbastarde Dusseldorf 1979).

13. Bock, pp. 341ff.

14. Ibid., p. 344.

15. Ibid., p. 273.

16. See Hans-Josef Wollasch, Beitrdge zur Geschichte der deutschen Caritas in der Zeit der Weltkriege (Freiburg i.Br., 1978), and Kurt Nowak, "Euthanasie" und Sterilisierung im "Dritten Reich" (Weimar, 1977); 3d ed., G6ttingen, 1984).

17. Bock, p. 281.

18. Ibid., pp. 211-30.

19. Ibid., pp. 382ff.

20. Ibid., p. 157.

21. Ibid., p. 457.

22. Ibid., p. 157.

23. Statistisches Jahrbuch Pr das Deutsche Reich (1932): 29; (1941-43): 77.

24. VdIkischer Wille 18 (1939): 2.

25. Bock, p. 62.

26. lbid., p. 68.

27. See Hans-Martin Died, ed., Eugenik: Entstehung und gesellschaftliche Bedingtheit (Jena, 1984).

28. Bock, p. 465.

29. Ibid., p. 456.

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