Physical Anthropology and Nazi Population Policy


National Socialist population policy has been traced to the demographic pessimism of midcentury social science and more generally to the high modern search for a rational order by the German technocracy. We argue that the high modern search for a rational order extended to Nazi racial policy. Although German raciology (Rassenkunde­) failed to provide a scientific anchor for the identity of the Volk and the regime had to peddle back on Nordicism in rhetoric, we show that German population policy was in fact consistent with and informed by midcentury scientific racialism.


In the 1990s, following the seminal theoretical work by Zygmunt Bauman, a new generation of German scholars led by Götz Aly situated National Socialist population policy as a socio-economic rationalization project pursued by Weberian technocratic experts who were motivated more by social scientific rationality than racial ideology.

Bauman proposed to treat ‘the Holocaust as a rare, yet significant and reliable, test of the hidden possibilities of modern society’. ‘The light shed by the Holocaust on our knowledge of bureaucratic rationality is at its most dazzling once we realize the extent to which the very idea of the Endlösung [the Final Solution] was an outcome of the bureaucratic culture.’ ‘The most shattering lesson’ for Bauman was that ‘the choice of physical extermination as the right means to the task of Endlösung was a product of routine bureaucratic procedures: means-ends calculus, budget balancing, universal rule application’. Not only did the Holocaust not come in conflict ‘with the principles of rationality’, Bauman insisted, ‘it arose out of a genuinely rational concern, and it was generated by bureaucracy true to its form and purpose.’[1]

Aly and Heim followed in Bauman’s footsteps with a path-breaking history of German population policy more broadly. Across the reports of economist-demographers involved in the articulation of population policy, they found ‘a recurrent paradigm: time and time again the argument came back to the ‘overpopulation problem.’… And in nearly every case the exposition of this ‘problem’ was followed by calls for an early ‘solution’, in the shape of a fundamental change in the population structure.’ They frame ‘the policy of mass murder as a form of demographic engineering’ and trace it via Bauman’s logic of bureaucratic rationality to a discursive rigidity of midcentury social science — ‘the theory of overpopulation’.[2]

We do not propose to challenge the framework of Bauman, Aly and Heim. Rather, we propose to extend and broaden it. Specifically, we shall argue that Nazi population policy should be seen as the consequence of not one but two rigidities of midcentury thought, both of which were firmly grounded in transnational intellectual discourses, and both of which were implemented to their merciless logical conclusion with as much bureaucratic efficiency as the German state apparatus could muster in the midst of a world struggle. On the one hand, the social scientific theory of overpopulation. On the other, the central theorem of midcentury physical anthropology: the existence of a natural hierarchy of the races. Moreover, the two were complementary to each other. To wit, the racial worth of an individual as ascertained by physical anthropology predicted the labor productivity of the individual in question and vice-versa. This “fact” was of great import to German grand-strategists and population planners. The twin diagnosis of demographic pessimism and racial pessimism were both central to the Nazi understanding of the German predicament at midcentury that, we shall show, informed German grand-strategy and population policy. It was not (just) the regime’s irrational ideology of ‘a world Jewish conspiracy’ but the regime’s commitment to natural science that shaped Nazi racial policy.


Aly and Heim note in passing that 1,928,000 people from the annexed eastern territories were registered to be fully absorbed into the population of the German homeland.[3] The policy of absorbing two million foreign nationals into the national body politic is particularly surprising for a regime thought to be the most xenophobic in history. Was National Socialism not in fact committed to defending the biological integrity of the German Volk? What was the logic at play? Protecting the biological integrity of the German Volk was indeed a central commitment of National Socialism.[4] This is precisely why this question offers a key test of the factors governing Nazi population policy and the Nazi vision of world order.

Historians have framed the policy of Germanization, or re-Germanization (Wiedereindeutschungsverfahren), and ethnic resettlement policy (Volkstumspolitik) in a functionalist, utilitarian paradigm. In his pioneering 1957 study of the SS resettlement apparatus, Robert Koehl concluded that Nazi racial ideology was a ‘red herring’ used as cover for power-political ambitions.[5] In the 1960s, Martin Broszat argued that the Germans had to abandon racial for pragmatic principles in occupied Poland. A decade later Jan Gross argued that ‘in order to allow for the participation of some segments of the conquered population, the Nazis proceeded to re-define race so as to make such participation acceptable to themselves’.[6] Mark Mazower argued more recently that despite ‘their commitment to the ‘science’ of race’, ‘Nazi racial goals … mattered less than military, diplomatic, and economic considerations’. ‘Even in Poland, as it turned out, the Nazi regime was … forced to retreat from its hardline insistence on biology as a criterion for nationality’.[7]

The ‘guidelines for the Germanization of Polish families’ issued in March 1942 stated,[8]

The Germanization of families of other nationalities is not primarily intended to swell the ranks of the German nation by incorporating persons of predominantly Nordic-Dinaric blood, but rather to sap the quality of the leadership caste in the foreign ethnic stock…. [There is a] high preponderance of Nordic blood [that] should be creamed off the Polish nation.… A poor knowledge of German, or a political past, are no impediment.

In Aly and Heim’s interpretation, ‘Germanization meant the ‘creaming-off’ of ‘human resources’ for the social and economic ‘rebuilding of the Reich’ and the conduct of the war’.[9] In other words, the document’s authors were taken at more than face value on their claim that the policy was ‘not primarily intended to swell the ranks of the German nation by incorporating persons of predominantly Nordic-Dinaric blood’. Yet, as we shall see, there were perfectly good reasons for the regime to downplay this logic even if it was the governing logic of Germanization.

While it cannot be denied that strategic and economic considerations (as indeed simple expediency) often modulated the implementation of Nazi racial policy in detail, it is a mistake to think that the latter was in obvious tension with the former in the minds of German planners. The Nazi regime was not a Janus-faced regime pulled between rational power-political and socioeconomic goals on the one hand and irrational aesthetic-racial goals on the other. The dichotomy posited between pragmatism and racialism is false and misleading. For a high racialist, there was no tension between power-political goals and racial goals. To the contrary, augmenting the Reich’s racial stock was crucial to enhancing German power.


National Socialism emerged from the völkische Bewegung that began in the late-nineteenth century. The völkisch world historical diagnosis was gloomy with racial pessimism. ‘There was agreement among völkisch ideologues that Germany was facing a crisis,’ Christopher Hutton writes; ‘the focus was on the biological: charts, graphs and statistics were produced which painted a gloomy prospect for the future vitality of the Volk’. The thesis of race decline was founded on what we may call Rassenkatastrophein or racial catastrophism in the völkisch world historical imaginary. This view was often traced to Count Arthur de Gobineau’s The Inequality of the Human Races.[10] Put simply, the thesis was that the course of world history was determined by decisions in the Rassenkrieg or race war. The deep pattern of history was the conquest and replacement of weaker races by stronger races. In Ekkehard’s 1936 quip, ‘races make history’. [11]

Rassenkatastrophein can be traced in a straightforward manner to the nascent science of physical anthropology that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century when Retzius invented the cephalic index, or the length-breadth index of the skull. Craniology offered a novel insight into the deep past. Physical anthropology (skull measurements in particular) allowed one to track the movement of peoples (fossils) in deep history and associate them with cultural developments in the archaeological record. Specifically, one could track dolichocephalic (long-headed) and brachycephalic (broad-headed) “peoples” in the paleontological record and the archaeological record associated with the fossil skulls could then be examined to run a horse race between the two. It could thus be shown scientifically that (Germanic) Iron Age races had replaced (Aryan but inferior) Bronze Age races, who had in turn replaced the “most primitive” autochthonous Stone Age races of Europe.

These results were immediately interpreted as revealing “the natural hierarchy” of ‘the races of Europe’ for it was assumed that craniology allowed scientists to identify contemporary populations with paleo-demes and order them in terms of their material culture.[12] The results laid a solid foundation for Nordicism and Rassenkatastrophein to emerge later. The modern scientific discourse of ‘the races of Europe’, when it emerged at the turn of the century, grounded racial classification in selected half a dozen characters or so but retained the core hierarchy projected onto the cephalic index in the mid-nineteenth century.[13] Nordicism thus emerged from dolichocephalism, although the connection was downplayed once attention moved from ‘the races of Europe’ to the ‘races of man’ and it was realized that the Bantu and the Hindoo were also dolichocephalic. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. World map of cephalic index.

But the thinker who had the most influence on National Socialist thought was the zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), ‘the recognized spokesman of Darwinism in Germany’ according to Daniel Gasman, the CUNY historian who traced the National Socialist world historical imaginary (and Hitler’s world view) to Haeckel and his Monists.[14] Gasman noted that ‘in no other country’ did ‘Darwinism develop as seriously as a total explanation of the world as in Germany’.[15] The professor in Jena — the home of Goethe, Fichte, Hegel, Shiller, Schelling — was an important natural scientist and functioned as a bridge between natural science and Nazi ideology. He was accorded membership in more than 90 scientific and professional societies across the world. He coined ecology and was known for his pithy dictum ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’. The Riddle of the Universe (1899) sold more than 500,000 copies by 1933, having already been through 10 editions and translations into 25 languages by 1919.[16]

According to Haeckel, ‘struggle is the father of all things’.[17] The World War broke his heart. He had envisioned a racial alliance. ‘Germany’s army as the strongest power on land, England’s navy as the strongest power on sea, could, when united, bring the gift of permanent peace and progress to the whole civilized world.’[18] Gasman notes that for Haeckel, ‘Successful politics was in reality nothing more than applied biology’. In a sense Haeckel took the thesis of race pessimism and Darwinism to its logical conclusion.

The most ‘remarkable’ aspect of Spartan history, Haeckel wrote, was their ‘obedience to a special law’ whereby ‘all newly-born children were subject to careful examination or selection.’ Then, those children who were ‘weak, sickly, or affected with any bodily infirmity were killed.’ It was only the ‘perfectly healthy and strong children [who] were allowed to live, and they alone afterwards propagated the race.’ In this way the Spartans were ‘not only continually in excellent strength and vigor,’ but they also perfected their bodies and increased their strength with every generation. Haeckel concluded, therefore, that the ‘destruction of abnormal new-born infants’ could not be ‘rationally’ classified as ‘murder’ as is ‘done in modern legal works.’ … Was it not, he argued, only a ‘traditional dogma’ that life had to be sustained under all circumstances?[19]

This was of course one of the stories Hitler would narrate in his Table Talks. There is no tension between the emerging social sciences and Haeckel’s world view. He understood the foundation of the modern world in the same way. But this was consistent with ‘the natural hierarchy’:

In fact, the enormous productivity and diversity of modern life could be traced to the division of labor itself. In the organization of society men fell naturally into their various occupations, classes, and estates. Their abilities determined their social rank and, given the free operation of natural laws, the actual place a man held in society was a true reflection of his talents. ‘It is natural and necessary that the progressive division of labor constantly furthers mankind and urges every individual branch of human activity into new discoveries and improvements. Thus, progress itself universally depends on differentiation.’[20]

The central theorems of Nazi race policy can be found in Haeckel.

For Haeckel, the ‘mental differences between the lowest men and the animals are less than those between the lowest and the highest man.’ Similarly for Hitler the ‘difference which exists between the lowest, so-called men and the other highest races is greater than that between the lowest men and the highest apes.’ For Haeckel, the difference between the reason of a Goethe, a Kant, a Lamarck, or a Darwin and that of the lowest savage … is much greater than the graduated difference between the reason of the latter and that of the most “rational” animals.’ Similarly, for Hitler ‘there is less difference between the man-ape and the ordinary man’ than there is between the latter and a ‘man like Schopenhauer.’[21]

Page 171:

In February 1934, also to commemorate the Centenary of Haeckel’s birth, Der Biologe, distributed by the enthusiastically pro-Nazi publishing firm of J. F. Lehmann, devoted an entire issue to Haeckel. One of the articles praised Haeckel as a pioneer in the development of National Socialism and the author remarked how Haeckel could hardly have realized during his own lifetime how faithfully the Nazi leadership would be willing and able to carry out his ideas, especially in the realm of eugenics.

When the question of surrender is raised in 1945, Hitler refuses, saying that the race deserved to be wiped out and the future belonged to the eastern races. More than any other piece of evidence, that nails Hitler to Haeckel. But bigger forces were at play than Hitler’s thinking in shaping German population policy.


The modern science of raciology emerged at the turn of the century. This was a transnational intellectual discourse whose status as a scientific discipline was not in doubt in Europe or America. Precisely because it was a scientific discourse and not ‘a pseudoscience’, it enjoyed relative autonomy from the state even in Nazi Germany. As the gravitational center of European raciology, Germany formed the dominant hub in the transnational network. In McMahon’s citation database, 38 per cent of all raciology papers in 1919-1939 were published in Germany. But there were other poles, even in Europe: 18 per cent were published in Britain and 12 per cent in France.[22] This meant that bending the discourse to the regime’s will threatened to destroy the credibility of German scholarship in what was a very vibrant transnational discipline.

There was in fact no such threat. For sober scientists continued to enjoy the regime’s support and were not marginalized in favor of party ideologues. As Hutton reports in his magisterial treatment, Race and the Third Reich: Linguistics, Racial Anthropology and genetics in the Dialectic of Volk,[23]

True believers who hoped to find in the Nazi revolution the triumph of their particular ideology were often disappointed by the direction of policy or the ruthlessly pragmatic nature of the regime. Bureaucrats such as Walter Gross (1904-1945) of the Race Policy Office recognized that there was a benefit to be obtained from the promotion of scientific researchers who were loyal to the National Socialist cause without being Nazi activists or ideologues.

Hutton goes on the debunk an enduring myth about Nazi race ideology: That the Nazis bought ‘the myth of the Aryan race’. The ‘notion that Nazism involved a confusion of language and race’, Hutton writes, ‘is an extended historical red herring’.

If it could be shown that Nazi scholars promoted this ‘myth’, then we would have a simple model to show how racist ideology undermined science and scholarship. However, while the term ‘Aryan’ was used in various fundamental ways in Nazi Germany, there was no academic support at all for its use as a strictly racial label, and by 1935 this was accepted as orthodoxy by the political authorities. There was complete unanimity among scholars of race, and in official publications, that the notion of an ‘Aryan race’ lacked any scientific basis.[24]

As Walter notes, ‘Eventually the National Socialist state effectively terminated all the rogue Aryan science…’. The ‘dominant model that emerged in Nazi Germany’ as elsewhere, Hutton concludes, ‘was the overt separation of ideology from science.’ [25] In fact, the persistence of the usage of the term ‘Aryan’ — albeit more often in the negative, as in ‘non-Aryan’ (meaning Jews and gypsies), or as code for their exclusion from economic life (‘Aryanization’) — reflects a fundamental impasse of Nazi race ideology. Exploring this impasse tells a great deal about the logic at play in the policy of Germanization and Nazi racial policy more generally.


Nordicism was the central thread of scientific high racialism, a discourse that emerged at the turn of the century with the work of Deniker and Ripley. In Germany it was championed by Fisher, Gunther, Clauss, and Lehmann and others. Disagreement on the question of the supremacy of the Nordic or Teutonic race over all other European races was minor.

Wild speculation of whether all civilizational achievements from the building of the great pyramids in ancient Egypt on were authored by this race were eventually abandoned in favor of a narrative congruent with racial pessimism and Rassenkatastrophein. The discourse eventually stabilized around the narrative that the master race was not the author of ancient civilizations but ‘blonde barbarians’ who had brought down the mighty Roman Empire. The race now constituted the vigorous ruling elite of European nations, the author of modern European civilization, and the racial foundation of Anglo-Saxon geopolitical supremacy. The narrative was congruent with the discourse of Anglo-Saxon self-congratulation that held that ‘the Anglo-Saxon was destined to rule the world’. Of course, the Nazis were in no sense free to abandon the narrative without an unthinkable loss of racial status.

But this world historic diagnosis posed a very serious problem for present-day Germany, as that could be seen from a glance at the map of ‘the races of Europe’. See Figure 2.

Races of Europe.png
Figure 2. Races of Europe roughly as understood as midcentury.

Physical anthropologists, even vulgar popularizers like Madison Grant in America, knew of the German problem. Put bluntly, Germany had fewer members of ‘the great race’ than either England or America with all that implied about the balance of power and the fate of Germany in world history.[26] It wasn’t even a question of relative size. Only half the populace of the German Reich had any Nordic blood at all. Compounding the pessimism was what was perceived as another empirical fact: Gegenauslese or adverse selection whereby the normal functioning of natural selection was inverted so that the superior Nordic element was disappearing through regressive selection (rückschrittliche Auslese). This was called ‘Ammon’s Law’ after Otto Ammon who had argued along these lines in 1893.[27] So not only did Germany did not have enough Nordics, the ‘great race’ was vanishing from Germany.

The problem was not only one of grand-strategy and Nazism’s world historic bid for supremacy. Physical anthropology had revealed the non-Jewish biological population of Germany to be a hybrid combination of many ‘races of Europe’. This generated anxiety about racial status in Nazi Germany. In 1936, psychologist Ernst Rittershaus diagnosed a racial ‘inferiority complex’.[28] The title of one of the chapters of Hutton’s book nails it: ‘Germany as a Nordic Colony? Confusion and Anxiety Post-1933’.[29] Beyond the Jewish question, what were the regime’s intensions? Was the population structure of ‘Aryan Germany’ to be modified too along the lines suggested by raciology? Was Germany to be ‘ruled over by a Nordic elite, as the darkskinned Dravidians had been in ancient India’?[30]

National Socialist racial policy was thus caught between Rassenkatastrophein and Rassenkunde. That is, between its world historical imagination and the disappointing reality of Germany’s population structure. How could the circle be squared?

Nordicism was sidelined in the discourse of Nazi race propaganda by 1935. For the same reason, the usage of ‘Aryan’ continued to persist, as Hutton argued. The tension between the logic of applied physical anthropology and Nazi racial policy could not to be resolved by mere window-dressing however. Even if the regime tolerated people making fun of Nordicism — what did Sweden or Denmark ever achieve compared to Germany? — and decided against any ambitious project to modify Germany’s core population structure, physical anthropologists involved in the articulation of German population policy could hardly ignore the dire implications of the problem posed by German population structure. The Nazi synthesis would instead be achieved by secretly implementing the Nordicist insights of physical anthropology while downplaying Nordicism in official pronouncements and propaganda.

This is how we can begin to understand the otherwise surprising policy of Germanization. The lessons of midcentury raciology were woven into official race classification schemes thereby informing German population policy. In the final analysis, it was the scientific consensus in physical anthropology that dictated not only who was to be the victim of ‘negative population policy’ but also who was to be the winner of positive population policy. Germanization reflected the regime’s effort to modify the German racial order. The infusion of ‘Nordic-Dinaric blood’ into the Volk was indeed designed to augment German power in accordance with midcentury Rassenkunde.

[1] Zygmunt Bauman. Modernity and the Holocaust. Polity Press, 1989, p. 12-20. Emphases removed.

[2] Aly, Götz, and Susanne Heim. Architects of annihilation: Auschwitz and the logic of destruction. Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 283-285.

[3] Architects, p. 86.

[4] As indeed for modern nation-states in general and the Western powers in particular. See Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Vol. 1. Macmillan, 2003.

[5] Koehl, Robert Lewis. RKFDV: German resettlement and population policy, 1939-1945: a history of the Reich Commission for the Strengthening of Germandom. No. 31. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957.

[6] Quoted in Nichols, Bradley Jared. “The Hunt for Lost Blood: Nazi Germanization Policy in Occupied Europe.” (2016), p. 3.

[7] Mazower, Mark. Hitler’s empire: how the Nazis ruled Europe. Penguin, 2009, p. 103, 194.

[8] Architects, p. 82. Emphasis mine.

[9] Architects, p. 82.

[10] Comte de Gobineau, Arthur. The Inequality of Human Races. GP Putnam’s Sons, 1915.

[11] Hutton, Christopher. Race and the Third Reich: linguistics, racial anthropology and genetics in the dialectic of Volk. Polity, 2005, p. 32-33. Kindle Edition. Ekkehard is quoted on page 33.

[12] Breeding populations situated in spacetime. See Howell, F. Clark. “Paleo-demes, species clades, and extinctions in the Pleistocene hominin record.” Journal of Anthropological Research 55, no. 2 (1999): 191-243.

[13] The title of Ripley (1899) and Coon (1939). The two works served as authoritative reference texts for physical anthropologists. They continue to be cited.

[14] Gasman, Daniel. Scientific Origins of National Socialism. Transaction Publishers, 1971. Kindle Edition (2019), loc. 724.

[15] Scientific Origins, loc. 570.

[16] Scientific Origins, loc. 11-14.

[17] Scientific Origins, loc. 131.

[18] Scientific Origins, loc. 132.

[19] Scientific Origins, loc. 91. Question mark inserted.

[20] Scientific Origins, loc. 82. Punctuation adjusted.

[21] Scientific Origins, loc. 164.

[22] McMahon, Richard. The Races of Europe: Construction of National Identities in the Social Sciences, 1839-1939. Springer, 2016, p. 43. Table 2.1.

[23] Race and the Third Reich, p. 16-17.

[24] Race and the Third Reich, p. 3.

[25] Race and the Third Reich, p. 4.

[26] Grant, Madison. The Passing of the Great Race; Or, The Racial Basis of European History. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916, passim.

[27] Race and the Third Reich, p. 34.

[28] Quoted in Race and the Third Reich, p. 359.

[29] Race and the Third Reich, chap. 9.

[30] Race and the Third Reich, p. 359.


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