Human Genetics with(out) Eugenic Knowledge? Towards a History of Knowledge about Human Heredity in West Germany

Since 1945, no German book on eugenics has been published. However, during two decades of reconstruction of the science of human genetics, which is fundamental to eugenics, the problems of eugenics repeatedly came to the fore and were discussed lively in wide circles.1

In the preface to his monograph Eugenik. Kommende Generationen in der Sicht der Genetik (1966, Eugenics: Coming Generations in the View of Genetics), the West German human geneticist Otmar von Verschuer (1896–1969), presenting himself as an expert in eugenics, emphasized that it was necessary for “this complex of topics” to be presented in a way that was “generally understandable.” His academic accomplishments might have proven his expertise as his career was largely intertwined with the academic boom in eugenics, or “racial hygiene,” as it was called in Germany before 1945. With the help of hereditary knowledge, the eugenics movement aimed to improve the genetic health of human populations. In addition to their intention to solve social problems by biological means, eugenicists also desired to be perceived as a scientific community. In the Weimar Republic, representatives of racial hygiene not only gained access to political decision-makers but also began an intensive process of professionalization.2

Otmar von Verschuer in front of his twin files at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin-Dahlem around 1930. Courtesy of the Archiv der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Berlin-Dahlem.

The beginning of the scientization of eugenics coincided with Verschuer’s academic education. After studying medicine, he turned to questions of human heredity and racial hygiene—a choice that enabled him to pursue an unprecedented career: Between 1927 and 1945, he worked as the division head of human heredity and later became the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Berlin-Dahlem. He interrupted this career stage with a seven-year stint as the director of the University Institute for Heredity and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt am Main. In addition to his research on heredity, Verschuer enabled and shaped the eugenics legislation and racial policies of the National Socialist state: he served on committees, as a marriage counselor, and as an expert witness for certificates on paternity, sterilization, and marriage health. Like other researchers in his field, he benefited from the expansion of his science and research capabilities. But after 1945, Verschuer’s cooperation with his former assistant Josef Mengele in the Auschwitz concentration camp rendered him politically culpable.

Despite the seemingly hopeless disciplinary situation after 1945, some racial hygienists returned to German universities by mobilizing their various networks. Verschuer, for example, was appointed director of the newly founded Institute for Human Genetics at the University of Münster in 1951 and was able to continue his scientific work within a new democracy. Consequently, there was clear overlap between eugenics knowledge and human genetic knowledge. Since eugenics had emerged in the late nineteenth century, its representatives had endeavored to apply their knowledge to improving the genetic makeup of a population, or at least to saving it from the “degeneration” they postulated it would suffer if it were left to develop without scientific intervention.3

Towards a History of Knowledge about Human Heredity in West Germany

With hereditary knowledge a central category of eugenics thinking and acting, the questions arise as to how eugenics knowledge was circulated, applied, and produced within the field of human genetics. Even though these three dimensions are entangled in many ways, they help to shed some light on eugenics continuities in human genetics in the early Federal Republic of Germany and to draw attention to potential research topics in the history of human genetic knowledge. In our research project, Isabel Heinemann and I take a broader look at the formation of human genetics as a field in West Germany based on the guiding categories of “population, family, and individual.” In doing so, we investigate the relevant research institutes founded between 1945 and 1960 in Münster, Berlin, Kiel, Göttingen, and Munich. By conceptualizing these institutes as hubs of knowledge, we can trace the development of the scientific field of human genetics. Philipp Sarasin’s epistemic reflections on the history of knowledge4 allow us to map the historical field beyond the established topics in the historiography of the discipline. Accordingly, we focus on actors in the field of human genetics in the context of their need to acquire national funding for their research and to build their international knowledge networks, especially into the US.5 We are also interested in the systematization and ordering of the discipline and its knowledge resources based on local case studies. In addition, we ask about representation and mediality in the circulation of knowledge between human genetics experts and political decision makers. Finally, we also wish to examine the practice of human genetics counseling in more detail between human genetics knowledge, agencies, and the intentions of experts and clients.6 All of these research questions relate to the interplay between eugenics knowledge and reproductive norms.

Circulation of Knowledge

It is remarkable that Verschuer was initially quite reserved about eugenics issues after 1945. The first order of business, he told a colleague in 1954, was “to order the space of our science again. I am therefore more in favor of quiet work and consistent reconstruction of our science.”7 It was precisely this colleague, the eugenicist Fritz Lenz (1887–1976), who joined geneticist Hans Nachtsheim (1890–1979) in calling for voluntary sterilization of subjects with eugenic indications as early as the early 1950s. Both professors considered the Nazi sterilization law not an injustice but a legitimate eugenic practice, reinforcing their views with reference to sterilization laws in other countries and the scientific evidence of such laws’ effectiveness.8

Verschuer did not enter into such eugenics discourse until the early 1960s. At that time, the West German Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat) recommended that university chairs for human genetics research be expanded on a large scale. Within this context, Verschuer had completed the construction of his new Human Genetics Institute in Münster, and, in his view, the discipline was now re-established and in “order.” The debate surrounding sterilization was also so broad and diverse that Verschuer could present himself as a human geneticist whose expertise was urgently needed. From 1960 onward, he addressed wide audiences with lectures, journal articles, and, finally, the monograph on eugenic issues cited at the beginning of this article. In public, Verschuer styled himself as a representative of a science abused by National Socialism. In the Nazi era, he claimed, “the unfinished results of eugenics research”9 had been misused by ideology. To counter this, Verschuer demanded in his farewell lecture in 1965 that eugenics be subordinated to “human dignity, human rights, love of neighbor, responsibility under God.”10

For several years now, German historical scholars have been researching the circulation of knowledge about eugenically “correct” behavior mostly by examining expert discourses in human genetics. Against the background of the Nazi past, scholars have reappraised postwar debates about sterilization.11 In these recent publications, it becomes clear how deeply biologistic ideas had shaped the social policy of the Federal Republic. The shift away from the classical eugenic view on populations and the orientation toward individual medical goals were neither rapid nor straightforward.12

Application of Knowledge

In the postwar period, Verschuer assumed that an increasing mutation rate in the population required human genetic knowledge to be more generally applied to achieve eugenic goals. He argued that medical progress had undermined natural selection as people with hereditary diseases could survive until adulthood, with an increasing number of mutations further amplifying this already negative effect. Accordingly, Verschuer named three starting points in his eugenics monograph: First, he advocated sterilization “as a sacrifice before God” and eugenic marriage counseling to prevent the transmission of pathological hereditary traits to future generations. Second, he argued that couples should bear children early on in marriage and that potential parents be protected from mutagenic influences such as chemicals and radiation to prevent new pathological hereditary traits from emerging. Third, he held that it was necessary to influence how hereditary factors manifested themselves by regarding them both as destiny and a challenge. Verschuer called for public education to steer individual couples toward making responsible reproductive choices that could prevent the spread and development of inheritable diseases and disabilities.13 Even though he placed the health of the family and the individual at the center of his concept of eugenics, he referred to collective arguments regarding the well-being of human populations in its implementation. Most postwar human geneticists hoped couples would voluntarily include “eugenic idealism” in their reproductive decision-making. Thus, even beyond the 1960s, human geneticists continued to focus on producing powerful und healthy future generations despite the gradual turn toward more preventive individual medicine.

So far, historians have only researched the practical implementation of such eugenic demands on a general level. Studies on human genetics counseling in West Germany show how difficult it is to investigate concrete counseling situations on the basis of medical files.14 An exception is the work of Britta-Marie Schenk, which describes the counseling practice of Hamburg physician Marianne Stoeckenius in the 1970s and 1980s as a top-down relationship.15 Verschuer’s counseling practice, by contrast, assumed a holistic and Christian approach after 1945, as Isabel Heinemann was able to show. In a large share of his counseling cases, Verschuer tried to reduce public concern about the degradation of the postwar population—a concern often provoked by the persistence of eugenic ideas. Instead, he often prioritized the “will to marriage” over an assessment of uncertain human genetic risk.16

Production of Knowledge

The uncertainties and room for interpretation in counseling practices and debates about eugenic measures point to obvious gaps in knowledge about genetic inheritance. The two previous dimensions, eugenic knowledge circulation and application, depended on the production of new genetic knowledge and, at the same time, influenced it. Historians of human genetics, therefore, have a special interest in researching exactly how and what knowledge was produced in the two postwar decades. The “Genetics Register” in Münster provides an ample case study, shedding light on how Verschuer produced eugenic knowledge after 1945.

Beginning in 1957, the West German Ministry of Atomic Energy funded human genetic population registers to measure a possible increase in genetic mutations caused by atomic radiation. Under Verschuer’s guidance, assistants in the district of Münster searched four million medical files for genetically diseased persons and prepared file cards about them. After ten years of work, the Münster “Genetics Register” contained over 63,000 personal datapoints and diagnoses.17 This register, for one thing, provided an access point to test persons for genetic research. For another, the survey of over 200 different hereditary diseases and forms of disability provided an overview of the pathological components in the region’s genetic heritage.

Record card from the so-called Genetics Register in Münster. Courtesy of the Universitätsarchiv der Westfälischen Wilhelms-Universität Münster.

When enumerating the initial results in 1961, Verschuer stated that it was important not only to monitor mutation frequency but also to “tak[e] into account the entire complex of pathological hereditary characteristics.”18 In consequence, he expanded the register’s research field just as a lively public and professional debate about fetal malformations erupted in the wake of the thalidomide scandal.19 As a result, the head of the registry division, Wilhelm Tünte, conducted research on the possible causes and distribution of congenital malformations. However, these epidemiological studies did not definitively establish any genetic cause for the malformations because the registry’s file cards lacked crucial information.20 Nevertheless, the registry was used for further research on congenital malformations even after Verschuer’s retirement. In the 1970s, for example, Wilhelm Tünte investigated questions of reproductive and contraceptive practices of patients with malformations in interviews. Tünte interpreted the data sets in terms of a “gratifyingly high” willingness of the population to avoid genetic risks and sought to make human genetic counseling “more effective.”21 This research was framed within the concept of “social genetics,” a field that aimed to make supposedly value-free, eugenic ideas acceptable.

In sum, after 1945, human geneticists in West Germany forged a new field and took up a new cause, investigating the genetic degeneration of the German population, which they identified with an increase of mutations and congenital malformations. Yet, in the end, this field, as evident in the Genetics Registry of Münster, had numerous continuities—in the logic of the data it recorded and the questions it asked—with eugenics under the National Socialists, even though researchers eliminated some terms and categories of difference that had been contaminated by National Socialist ideology. Verschuer’s successful career both as a eugenicist under the Nazi dictatorship and as a geneticist in the new West German democracy attests to these continuities. If one examines—for Verschuer’s case and beyond—the interconnections and interdependencies of eugenic and human genetic knowledge, also with special regard to the striking uncertainty, one has a good chance of discovering fundamental insights for the history of human genetics.

Lukas Alex is a research fellow and PhD student at the Chair for Contemporary History of Professor Isabel Heinemann at the WWU Münster, Germany. In a DFG-funded project, he is working on the history of knowledge of human genetics in the early Federal Republic of Germany. @LukasAlex20

  1. Otmar von Verschuer, Eugenik. Kommende Generationen in der Sicht der Genetik (Witten: Luther-Verlag, 1966), 7. ↩︎
  2. Hans-Walter Schmuhl, Grenzüberschreitungen. Das Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Anthropologie, menschliche Erblehre und Eugenik 1927–1945 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2005), 19–32. ↩︎
  3. See, for example, the definition by Hans-Peter Kröner, “Eugenik,” in Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte, ed. Werner E. Gerabek, Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil, and Wolfgang Wegner, 380 (Berlin, New York: de Gruyter 2007); Heike Petermann, “Der Wunsch nach ‘guter Abstammung’. Zur Geschichte des Begriffes ‘Eugenik’ bei Medizinern und Biologen,” in Medizin im Dienst der “Erbgesundheit”. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Eugenik und “Rassenhygiene”, ed. Stefanie Westermann, Richard Kühl, Dominik Groß, 57–78 (Berlin: LIT, 2009), 61–62. ↩︎
  4. Philipp Sarasin, “Was ist Wissensgeschichte?,” Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur 36, no. 1 (2011): 159–172, 167. ↩︎
  5. We trace the knowledge networks back to the US, among other places, via correspondences in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming. ↩︎
  6. Archiv der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, III. Abt., Rep. 86C. ↩︎
  7. Verschuer to Lenz, 13 Jan. 1954, Archiv der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, III. Abteilung, Rep. 86B, Nr. 18. ↩︎
  8. Anne Cottebrune, “Eugenische Konzepte in der westdeutschen Humangenetik 1945–1980,” Journal of Modern European History 10, no. 4 (2012): 500–518, here 504–505. ↩︎
  9. Otmar von Verschuer, “Eugenik,” in Handbuch der Sozialwissenschaften, ed. Erwin v. Beckerath (Stuttgart, 1960), 3:356. ↩︎
  10. Abschiedsvorlesung Verschuer 25 Feb. 1965, Seite 7, III. Abt., Rep. 86A, Nr. 102. ↩︎
  11. Dirk Thomaschke, In der Gesellschaft der Gene. Räume und Subjekte der Humangenetik in Deutschland und Dänemark 1950–1990 (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2014); Henning Tümmer, Anerkennungskämpfe. Die Nachgeschichte der nationalsozialistischen Zwangssterilisation in der Bundesrepublik (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2011). ↩︎
  12. Cottebrune, “Eugenische Konzepte,” 501. ↩︎
  13. Verschuer, Eugenik, 14, 20, 26, 40, 50, 75. ↩︎
  14. See, for instance, Gabriele Moser and Birgit Nemec: “Counselling, Risk and Prevention in Human Genetic Early Diagnosis in the Federal Republic of Germany,” in History of Human Genetics: Important Discoveries and Global Perspectives, ed. Heike Petermann, Peter Harper, and Susanne Doetz, 367–392 (Cham: Springer, 2017); Anne Cottebrune, “The Emergence of Genetic Counselling in the Federal Republic of Germany: Continuity and Change in the Narratives of Human Geneticists ca. 1968–1980,” in Human Heredity in the Twentieth Century, ed. Bernd Gausemeier, Staffan Müller-Wille, and Edmund Ramsden, 193–204 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013). ↩︎
  15. Britta Marie Schenk, Behinderung verhindern. Humangenetische Beratungspraxis in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1960er bis 1990er Jahre (Frankfurt am Main/New York: Campus, 2016). ↩︎
  16. Isabel Heinemann, “Die ‘erbgesunde Familie’ als transatlantisches Projekt: Paul B. Popenoe, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer und die Kontinuitäten der Eugenik, 1920–1970,” Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte (forthcoming, 2022). ↩︎
  17. Lenz an Gesundheitsministerium, Kurzbericht über das Forschungsvorhaben “Genetische Erhebungen und Untersuchungen zur Feststellung der natürlichen und technisch-zivilisatorisch bedingten Mutationsrate beim Menschen im Bereich des Regierungsbezirks Münster,” 29 May 1968, Archiv der Universität Münster, Bestand 128, Nr. 150. ↩︎
  18. Otmar von Verschuer, “Gefährdung des Erbguts – ein genetisches Problem,” in Abhandlungen der Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlichen Klasse/Akademie der Wissenschaften und Literatur (Wiesbaden, 1962), 3:191. ↩︎
  19. Thalidomide was a tranquilizer sold and dispensed millions of times between 1957 and 1961. It damaged fetal growth when taken in early pregnancy. Several thousand newborns were born with congenital malformations, triggering one of the largest pharmaceutical scandals in the world. Anne Helen Crumbach, “Contergan im Diskurs. Ärzte und ihre öffentliche Verantwortung zu Beginn der 1960er Jahre,” in “Disability Studies” meets “History of Science”. Körperliche Differenz und soziokulturelle Konstruktion von Behinderung aus der Perspektive der Medizin-, Technik- und Wissenschaftsgeschichte, ed. Dominik Groß and Ylva Söderfeldt, 67–92 (Kassel: University Press, 2017). ↩︎
  20. Wilhelm Tünte, Vergleichende Untersuchungen über die Häufigkeit angeborener menschlicher Mißbildungen, Habilitationsschrift Universität Münster (Stuttgart: Gustav Fischer, 1965), 49–50. ↩︎
  21. Wilhelm Tünte and Widukind Lenz, “Biologische und soziale Auswirkungen angeborener Fehlbildungen auf das Leben erwachsener Patienten,” Endbericht Sonderforschungsbereich 88, Teilprojekt A4 (Münster, 1978), 205 and 9. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Lukas Alex, “Human Genetics with(out) Eugenic Knowledge? Towards a History of Knowledge about Human Heredity in West Germany,” History of Knowledge, September 9, 2022,