21 Historical Figures You Didn’t Know Supported The Eugenics Movement

Teddy Roosevelt, Helen Keller, and other revered historical figures who supported the eugenics movement at the height of its pre-WWII popularity.

Winston Churchill

21 Historical Figures You Didn’t Know Supported The Eugenics Movement

The eugenics movement will forever be associated with Adolf Hitler, whose quest to build an Aryan master race during the 1930s and ’40s culminated in the extermination of millions.

However, Hitler wasn’t the first to champion the idea of wiping away humans deemed to be unfit. In large part, he actually took inspiration from the United States. As Hitler remarked in 1924’s Mein Kampf, “There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”

The popularity of eugenics and related ideas in the U.S. (as well as Western Europe) at the time was in part a reactionary response to increased industrialization and immigration. The latter was on the rise and cities became more crowded as people moved to be closer to work. And with supporters of the early eugenics movement believing that people inherited traits like feeble-mindedness and poverty, this meant to them that society had an obligation to thin this growing herd.

Moreover, Western eugenics was an outgrowth or racist and colonialist ideologies. Pseudosciences (like phrenology, for example) allowed some whites to “scientifically” justify their bigotry — and then take things a step further by claiming that “lesser” races needed to be phased out. In this way, Social Darwinism became a means to construct a supposed hierarchy of race — and ensure that white people (and their genes) remained the ideal.

Fittingly enough, eugenics actually has some of its roots with Charles Darwin. His theories about “survival of the fittest” inspired his cousin, Francis Galton, to start the eugenics movement as the world would come to know it (and coin the word “eugenics” itself) in the late 19th century.

From there, eugenics actually enjoyed a period of mainstream popularity in both Darwin and Galton’s native England as well as the U.S. and elsewhere in the late 19th century and early 20th. Both abroad and in the United States, proponents of the eugenics movement believed it a Caucasian responsibility to Westernize other civilizations. This was coupled with the idea of producing fewer, better children who would create a better race, and cure many economic and social problems.

Before Hitler took eugenics to its deadly extremes, more people than you might think considered at least some eugenics-related ideas to be completely legitimate — despite their serious moral implications. Eugenics was something that many prominent people once supported, whether vocally, financially, or politically. Presidents, economists, activists, and philosophers — many of which you’d never think would be supporters — all once spoke out in support of the eugenics movement.

See for yourself in the gallery above.


Next, dig deeper into the ugly history of American eugenics. Then, learn about how Hitler’s eugenics efforts as part of the Lebensborn program.

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