Hitler’s “Struggle”: The Antithesis of Social Darwinism

BACKGROUND ON SOCIAL DARWINISM

Evolutionism, or unilinear cultural evolution, is the notion that human development progresses from “savagery” to “civilization” gradually over millennia. The main proponents of evolutionism were Edward Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan. (Fagan 2012: 19-20) The term “social Darwinism” was popularized in the 1940’s by Richard Hofstadter to describe the mechanism by which the development described in evolutionism occurs:

Richard Hofstadter seems to be the principal source of the widespread modern belief that both [Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner] were “social Darwinists.” But were they? What precisely is this “complex of late-nineteenth-century ideas,” as Eric Foner puts it, that the phrase “social Darwinism” is supposed to stand for? Perhaps the most frustrating thing about doing a little general reading in this field is discovering how difficult it is to find any sort of definition of that phrase — “social Darwinism” — especially if one is hoping to find a succinct and quotable definition of it. Entire books are written on the subject without ever carefully and clearly delimiting exactly what that subject is. In essence, however, “social Darwinism” seems to be the notion that success in the market proves an individual’s fitness to survive in the struggle for existence, so that both legislation and private charity meant to assist those who fail in the market are inadvisable, since our species will grow stronger if these “unfit” individuals are allowed to die off. [Riggenbach April 22, 2011]

Harris and Johnson identify Herbert Spencer as “[t]he most influential social Darwinist” and define the social Darwinism movement as being “based on the belief that cultural and biological processes depended on the free play of competitive forces in the struggle of individual against individual, nation against nation, and race against race.” (Harris and Johnson 2007: 24) Greene sees social Darwinism as “laissez-faire political economy rendered ‘scientific’ by association with Darwin’s theory of natural selection” (Greene 1981: 3) and goes on to point out that Harris viewed even Darwin himself as a social Darwinist, “accusing him of ‘biological Spencerism,’ or racial determinism.” (Greene 1981: 95)

Richard Hofstadter describes William Graham Sumner as “the most vigorous and influential social Darwinist in America” without offering his own definition of social Darwinism. (Hofstadter 1959: 51) He does, however, quote Sumner as saying “Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative: liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.”

ANALYSIS OF PRIMARY SOURCES

Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner advocated ideas related to self-sufficiency and “survival of the fittest,” with Spencer going “so far as to advocate the end of all attempts to provide charity and relief for the unemployed and impoverished classes.” (Harris and Johnson 2007: 24) Hitler, on the other hand, supported the exact opposite:

The German worker will not be raised to the framework of the German national community via feeble scenes of fraternization, but by a conscious raising of his social and cultural situation until the most serious differences may be viewed as bridged. A movement which sets this development as its goal will have to take its supporters primarily from this camp. It may fall back on the intelligentsia only in so far as the latter has completely understood the goal to be achieved. This process of transformation and equalization will not be completed in ten or twenty years; experience shows that it comprises many generations. [Hitler: 245]

In fact, Hitler seems to admit that natural selection actually favors the Jewish people:

When over long periods of human history I scrutinized the activity of the Jewish people, suddenly there rose up in me the fearful question whether inscrutable Destiny, perhaps, or reasons unknown to us poor mortals, did not with eternal and immutable resolve, desire the final victory of this little nation. [Hitler: 50]

This is a theme which he reiterates throughout Mein Kampf:

In gaining political power the Jew casts off the few cloaks that he still wears. The democratic people’s Jew becomes the blood-Jew and tyrant over peoples. In a few years he tries to exterminate the national intelligentsia and by robbing the peoples of their natural intellectual leadership makes them ripe for the slave’s lot of permanent subjugation. [Hitler: 236]

CONCLUSION

Although Hitler’s views on and treatment of the Jewish people are often attributed to social Darwinism, a careful reading of Mein Kampf demonstrates this is not true. Hitler emphasizes again and again that the German race, and especially the German worker, has been subjugated by the Jews. From a Spencerian perspective, this would indicate that the Jewish people were more fit than the Germans, rather than less. Instead of looking at the rise of the Jews to prominence (especially through capitalism) as an indication of their fitness, however, Hitler views them as a threat to the German race. His call for the ‘conscious raising of [the German worker’s] social and cultural situation” is in direct opposition to the beliefs espoused by Spencer and Sumner, as quoted above. Hitler’s views, as expressed in Mein Kampf, are therefore the antithesis of the ideas put forth by these so-called social Darwinists:  to quote Sumner, Hitler seems to favor “not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest” which “carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.”

CITATION:

Fagan, Brian M. 2012 Archaeology: A Brief Introduction. 11th ed. Boston: Pearson Education

Greene, John C. 1981 Science, Ideology, and World View. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California Press

Harris, Marvin and Orna Johnson. 2007 Cultural Anthropology. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson Education

Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Noontide. Web. Accessed January 18, 2018. http://www.angelfire.com/folk/bigbaldbob88/MeinKampf.pdf.

Hofstadter, Richard. 1959 Social Darwinism in American Thought. 3rd revised ed. New York: George Braziller, Inc.

Riggenbach, Jeff. Ludwig von Mises Institute, “The Real William Graham Sumner.” Last modified April 22, 2011. Accessed January 18, 2018. http://mises.org/daily/5206/The-Real-William-Graham-Sumner.

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