Trump, eugenics, and the historical precedent for his anti-Muslim travel ban
- Steven Robins
- 16 Feb 2017 12:42 (South Africa)
President Trump’s Muslim travel ban and executive order preventing Syrian refugees from entering the US did not appear from nowhere. These extreme measures can be traced to the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act that sought to keep southern, central and eastern Europeans out of the US because they were seen to threaten the cultural and genetic makeup of the dominant white American population. This policy, which ended up reducing the influx of Italians, Slavs and Jews to a mere trickle, was a product of the world-wide emergence of eugenics as a cutting-edge science in the early decades of the 20th century. By STEVEN ROBINS.
Eugenics, which was endorsed by politicians and scientists across the ideological spectrum, sought to “improve” and strengthen human populations by means of compulsory sterilisation and restrictive immigration policies. The US were leaders of eugenics in the 1920s, but soon the Nazi state would take over this mantle.
What is less well known is that eugenics also provided pro-Nazi “America First” propagandists such as the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh with the scientific evidence needed to demand drastic measures to protect the “superior” Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon genes of “Western Europeans”. The US advocates of immigration restrictions drew on H.H. Goddard’s 1912 study, which used intelligence tests for identifying the “feebleminded” among immigrants arriving on Ellis Island.
Such studies allowed eugenics activists such as Charles Davenport and Madison Grant to successfully lobby the US Congress to introduce these immigration restrictions. Eugenics went into sharp decline soon after this 1924 legislative victory. A decade later, the Nazi regime used eugenics to justify racial laws to protect “pure Aryan” genetic stock.
In his history of scientific racism in America, The Legacy of Malthus, Allan Chase claims that these country quotas prevented an estimated 6-million southern, central and eastern Europeans from entering the US from 1924 to 1939. As Stephen Jay Gould concludes in The Mismeasure of Man: “We know what happened to many who wanted to leave but had no place to go. The pathways to destruction are often indirect, but ideas can (be) agents as sure as guns and bombs.”
Trump’s presidential campaign seems to have borrowed from Lindbergh’s rhetoric of “America First”, which the latter deployed during his unsuccessful 1940 US presidential campaign. In an interview in the 1939 edition of Reader’s Digest, Lindbergh had referred to a metaphorical “Western Wall” to protect white Americans from “the infiltration of foreign blood”: “It is time to turn from our quarrels and to build our White ramparts again. This alliance with foreign races means nothing but death to us. It is our turn to guard our heritage from Mongol and Persian and Moor, before we become engulfed in a limitless foreign sea…. Our civilisation depends on a united strength among ourselves; on strength too great for foreign armies to challenge; on a Western Wall of race and arms which can hold back either a Genghis Khan or the infiltration of inferior blood; on an English fleet, a German air force, a French army, an American nation, standing together as guardians of our common heritage, sharing strength, dividing influence.” As the by now very familiar refrain goes -- history repeats itself, first as farce, then as tragedy. With Trump it is wall-to-wall tragicomedy.
It was the tragic history of the Holocaust that prompted Mark Hetfield, the chief executive of Jewish refugee programme HIAS, to recently observe that it is a “deep and tragic irony that Donald Trump is slamming the door in the faces of refugees right before International Holocaust Remembrance Day”. This was especially disturbing since “the entire refugee convention came out of the Holocaust and the failure of the international community to protect Jews and survivors”. Trump antagonised Jews and Holocaust survivors further when he omitted to mention Jews in his public statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Both Holocaust amnesia and denial seemed to converge in Trump’s enactment of the Muslim ban. Yet, some do insist on remembering.
In commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January this year, Russell Neiss, a 33-year-old grandson of Holocaust survivors, set up a Twitter account to automatically generate the names and photographs of German Jewish refugees who were on board the St Louis Manifest in May 1939, when the majority of passengers were refused entry into the US. The 937 passengers had left Hamburg on 13 May 1939. After being refused entry to the US, their ship was forced to return to Europe, where 532 passengers were later transported to various concentration camps where 254 were murdered; the 254 are the names that are tweeted at a rate of one every five minutes for 21 hours.
Neiss, who builds apps and interactive technology for Jewish education, came up with the idea as International Holocaust Remembrance Day was approaching. At the time, he was aware that there were other name-reading Twitter bots such as the ‘Every Three Minutes’ account, which uses the fact that a person was sold into slavery every three minutes in the antebellum US. He was also aware of a bot that “reads” the names of the St. Louis victims based on data from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In addition to the ‘reading’ of the names, Neiss included photographs in these tweets. One of the photographs in this stream of tweets is that of a small, smiling boy all dressed in white. This photograph has a standardised caption: “My name is Joachim Hirsch. The US turned me away at the border. I was murdered in Auschwitz.” One of the countless responses to these tweets was from the Democratic Party’s Elizabeth Warren who declared that Trump’s order restricting immigrants from seven Muslim countries and refusing admission of Syrian refugees was “a betrayal of American values”. Under Trump, immigration restrictions are not rooted in early twentieth century eugenics ideas about “feebleminded foreigners”, but rather through the conflation of Islam and terrorism. So, how did we get from Nazi eugenics to the Muslim ban?
My 2016 book, Letters of Stone: From Nazi Germany to South Africa, is a Holocaust family memoir that tells the story of how eugenics-influenced immigration policies resulted in Jews being unable to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. The book is based on one hundred letters my father received from his parents and siblings who were trapped in Berlin. The letters were sent from 1936, when my father arrived in South Africa, until 1943, when his parents and siblings were deported from Berlin to Auschwitz and Riga. My grandmother’s letters to my father, Herbert Leopold Robinski and his younger brother Arthur, who had managed to escape to Northern Rhodesia in 1938, are mostly about the immense difficulties facing German Jews who desperately wanted to.
Although I wrote Letters of Stone in the shadow of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, I never imagined the possibility of Trump’s Mexican wall, the Muslim travel ban and the closing of US borders to Syrian refugees. Neither did I realise then that a US president would resuscitate Lindbergh’s 1940 “America First” campaign and inspire far right movements in Europe. While my book focuses on how the Nazi state used eugenics to justify its persecution and murder of Jews, Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, the disabled and other “racially inferior” groups, US immigration policy in the first half of twentieth century relied upon eugenics to justify shutting its doors to unwanted foreigners. Now Trump administration is using the imperatives of “national security” to justify its Muslim ban. So how did we get here?
Whereas most histories of Nazism tend to be confined to Europe, Letters of Stone draws attention to its transnational roots. Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “boomerang effect” shows how the seeds of Nazi racial hygiene, as well as later US immigration policies, were planted in the far-flung fertile soils of the colonies. In 1913, the German physical anthropologist and anatomist Eugen Fischer published his ethnographic study of “racial mixing” among the Rehoboth Basters in German South West Africa. Hitler praised the book after reading it in a Munich prison in 1923. The trajectory of Fischer’s professional career reveals how scientific findings incubated in the human laboratories of German South West Africa later rebounded back into the heartland of Europe. By the mid-1930s, Fischer had become one of the Nazi’s most senior racial scientists, and from 1929 to 1942 he was director of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology Human Heredity and Eugenics in Berlin. It was here that Fischer’s Rehoboth study and his Berlin Institute became intimately entangled with Mengele’s experiments in Auschwitz as well as Nazi racial classifications of Jews, Roma and Sinti.
Letters of Stone tells the story of the desperate attempts by my grandmother and my father to get the family out of Germany. It is also about the moral indifference of immigration law in the face of human catastrophe. We now witness Trump’s travel bans that, in the name of national security, demonstrate a similar indifference to the human suffering of refugees from Syria and other countries engulfed in war and violence. Trump’s Muslim ban re-enacts an especially dark period in America’s past when Lindbergh was the leader of the pro-Nazi America First Movement. In 2004, Philip Roth published The Plot Against America, an alternative history in which Franklin D Rooseveld is defeated by Lindbergh in the 1940 presidential elections. While Roth’s book is fictional, the rise to power of Trump has made it frighteningly prophetic. Roth’s novel implies that there has always been this dangerous undercurrent of chauvinistic patriotism and fascism embedded within conservative American politics.
German Jewish scholars such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who were exiled in the United States following the rise of Nazism, also identified this potential for fascism and authoritarianism in America. Whereas Trump’s medium for his America First messaging is twitter, Adorno and Horkheimer were concerned about the fascist aesthetics of the US “Culture Industry”. In 1940, Lindbergh was the spokesperson for the America First movement; now, almost 80 years later, Trump and Bannon promise to “Make America Great Again”, resuscitating once more this dangerous American brand of populism. Bannon’s valorisation of apocalyptic war and destruction as the ideological furnace for forging a return to “traditional” white American values has eerie echoes with Nazism and other catastrophic forms of fascism. Just as economic depression in Germany paved the way for Hitler, so too has neoliberalism and growing economic inequality in the US created the conditions for Trump’s rise to power. Trump’s particular brand of Islamophobic populism may not look exactly like Nazism, but its logic certainly mirrors Lindbergh’s pro-Nazi America First movement and his calls for a “Western Wall” to keep foreigners out.
In recent weeks, political activists and media commentators have stressed parallels between the refusal to allow European Jews to enter the US in the 1930s and Trump’s Muslim ban. In a YouTube video produced by UNICEF, an elderly German Jewish refugee and Holocaust survivor speaks about how, as a small boy, he became a stateless refugee fleeing from Nazi terror; sitting right next to him, a small boy describes his own terrifying flight from war in Syria.
As UNICEF’s description of the video states: “80 years apart, these two refugees have more in common than you’d think”. Similarly, in an article published in the Independent on 27 January 2017, the journalist Peter Walker writes that many Holocaust survivors find that Donald Trump's refugee ban is tragically similar to what happened in the 1930s. What has not been mentioned much is the history of eugenics-inspired immigration restrictions and how early twentieth century ideas about “dangerous foreigners” have re-entered American public consciousness. This is a reminder of how immigration policies continue to be shaped by histories of racism and scientific studies that were incubated in the human laboratories of the colonies. DM
Professor Steven Robins is with the Department of Sociology & Social Anthropology, University of Stellenbosch.
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump waves outside the entrance to the West Wing after seeing off Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (not pictured) following their meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 15 February 2017. This is the first official meeting of the two leaders since President Trump has taken office. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS