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The movement that inspired the Holocaust - Alexandra Minna Stern and Natalie Lira


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Since ancient Greece, humans have controlled populations via reproduction, retaining some traits and removing others. But in the 19th century, a new scientific movement dedicated to this endeavor emerged: eugenics. Scientists believed they could improve society by ensuring that only desirable traits were passed down. Alexandra Minna Stern and Natalie Lira detail the history of eugenics in the US.

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The eugenics movement had many facets and eugenicists sought to control society through measures aimed to increase the reproduction of the “fit” (“positive” eugenics) and decrease the reproduction of the “unfit” (“negative” eugenics). In their attempts to control the composition of U.S. society in the first half of the 20th century, in addition to sterilization laws, eugenicists passed laws that restricted marriages between whites and non-whites (often known as anti-miscegenation laws) and laws that restricted unions between so-called “normal” people and “unfit” people. Eugenicists also played a key role in the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed immigration act, which established nation and racial-based quotas in an effort to keep the United States as Nordic and Anglo-Saxon as possible. To learn more about the eugenics movement, visit the image archive of the American Eugenics Movement, which presents this history in themes and with a wealth of documents from historical archives.

Like Andrea Garcia but 2,000 miles away in Virginia, Carrie Buck was sterilized based on state eugenics laws. Buck was raped at the age of 17, labeled “promiscuous” and sent to the Lynchburg Colony for the Feebleminded. She, her daughter, and her mother, were then categorized as “feebleminded” despite significant evidence to the contrary, like good school grades. Moreover, her case became a test case for the constitutionality of eugenic sterilization, making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in 1927 under chief justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that the law was constitutionally sound because it aimed to protect the public health from defective heredity. It was in this majority decision that Holmes uttered the now well-known phrase that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Buck v Bell emboldened additional states to pass eugenic sterilization laws and set the stage for a marked increase in involuntary sterilizations in the 1930s. To learn more about the Carrie Buck case, visit the University of Virginia’s Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. You might also consider listening to (or reading the transcript of) an episode from Hidden Brain (an NPR/WNYC podcast), which includes soundbites of an interview conducted with Carrie Buck.

Even if many people are not aware of the history of eugenics and sterilization in the United States, they do know about the “racial hygiene” campaigns in Nazi Germany. Nazi eugenicists took inspiration from eugenic sterilization laws passed in the United States, specially in Indiana and California, which informed the 1933 “Hereditary Health Law.” This law gave medical authorities the power to sterilize people deemed “unfit.” As scholars have shown, the sterilization of “livings not worth living” was the first step towards the final solution, which ultimately resulted in the death of six million Jews and millions of other “undesirable” groups through euthanasia, disease, and hard labor, many in concertation camps like Auschwitz and Dachau. It can be instructive to compare the similarities and dissimilarities in histories of eugenics in the United States and Germany. To do so, consider consulting the virtual exhibits developed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Alexandra Minna Stern, Natalie Lira
  • Director Héloïse Dorsan Rachet
  • Narrator Christina Greer
  • Music Stephen LaRosa
  • Sound Designer Stephen LaRosa
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-Checker Jennifer Nam, Charles Wallace

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