Monday, July 30, 2012

Völkisch Thought in the World of Dogs

Did you know that Konrad Lorenz, that Austrian father of Ethology, the study of animal behavior, was both a Nazi and a cheerleader for "race cleansing"?


Now, to be fair, a lot of folks believed in eugenics in the 1920s, and a lot of folks in Austria and Germany also became Nazis, some with more passion than others.

What is distinctive about Konrad Lorenz, however, is that he did not join the Nazi party early on, or as a callow youth.

Lorenz was 35 years old when he joined the Nazi party in 1938, just four months before Kristallnacht.  Eager to ingratiate himself with the Nazis, he suggested that animal behaviorism provided a solid platform and rationalization for "racial cleansing."

As Richard W. Brukhardt, Jr. notes in Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology:

Summoning up an image with which the Nazis were obsessed, the naturalist [Lorenz] who only a few days before had applied for membership in the Nazi Party likened degenerate members of society to cancerous cells in an organism: "Nothing is more important for the health of an entire people [Volk] than the elimination [Ausschaltung] of invirent types, which, with the most dangerous and extreme virulence, threaten to penetrate the body of a people like the cells of a malignant tumor."

Apologists for Lorenz
paint him as a simple opportunist willing to say anything for money or advancement, but the true history is a little more troubling. 

In private letters, Lorenz is overtly antisemitic, and in his application to join the Nazi party, his supporters noted that his father's autobiography was "a decidedly Nazi book."

There is more, of course.  Sworn in as a Nazi in 1938, Lorenz was a member of the Office of Race Policy and a goose-stepping supporter right up until 1943, when it became clear the Nazi cause was doomed. 

In 1940, even as trains full of of Jews rolled to the ovens, Lorenz saluted the cause of extermination for racial purtity, writing that:

The selection of toughness, heroism, social utility ... must be accomplished by some human institutions if mankind in default of selective factors, is not to be ruined by domestication induced degeneracy. The racial ideas as the basis of the state has already accomplished much in this respect.

In 1942,  Lorenz participated in a study of 877 children of mixed German-Polish marriages to determine their potential for assimilation into German culture. Those considered of inferior social or genetic value were sent to concentration camps where, presumably, most were killed.

At the end of the war, Lorenz was rounded up by the Russians and put in a camp for former Nazis from which he was discharged in 1948.

After being released by the Russians, Lorenz found it hard to get funding in Austria or Germany because of his past Nazi associations.  What to do?

The answer, of course, was to lie overseas, where his track record was less clear due to time, distance and translation issues.  Lorenz now claimed he was never a Nazi, and downplayed his numeous published papers which supported racial cleansing.

It worked. 

In 1973, Konrad Lorenz joined Dutch biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen and Austrian biologist Karl von Frisch, as one of three joint winners of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine -- the same award given in 1912 to Alex Carrel, the French scientist who, in 1935, first proposed using gas chamber "as we do in the breeding of dogs" to improve the human race.

The notion that Konrad Lorenz gave up his Nazi theology is simply not true.  In his last book (Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, 1974), Lorenz has a chapter on "genetic decay" in which he continued to claim that domestication of animals had weakened them -- a Nazi idea now stripped of Swastika's, but otherwise unchanged from its original permutation.

And what was Lorenz's solution?  Lorenz believed that aggressive measures should be embraced in order to prevent "degeneration" of both humans and animals, and that to achieve success both humans and animals should be to bred to a standard enforced through eugenic measures.  If this was done long enough for humans, Lorenz argue, we might be able to perfect a new species of man, but to do so we would have to replace the Golden Rule with a new maxim; "You shall love the future of your Volk above all else."

. .


Water Over The Dam said...

I've heard this before but it is still hard to take, "King Solomon's Ring" and "Man Meets Dog" were two favorite books from my childhood. Maybe I should read them again to find out what they were really about....

PBurns said...

A lot of thing come out of WWII Germany that are great: submarines, rockets, and jet airplanes to name three.

That said, read this and the claim that the wolf/jackal stuff may be (at least patially) allegorical.

I do not hold to that opinion, but it's interesting none-the-less >>

So too is the notion that there is a subtext to Lorenz's ideas about canine breding (aka Judenhund).

plenkj said...

This is definitly a hairy subject to write about for me, as i am austrian and my grandfather was also a scientist and a friend of Konrad Lorenz. Firstly i have to say that for scientists the Nazis where attractive in the 30ies in austria, as the deeply catholic fascist governement provided no funding for biology and especially for scientists interested in evolution or the similarities of humans and (other) animals: The origin of species at that time was still on the vaticans list of forbidden books and Dollfuß ( the austrian dictator of this time) was deeply loyal to the vatican. The idea of eugenics was, at that time, and into the fifties widespread also in the anglosaxon world, and mentaly retarded or ill people and also socalled sociopaths were sterilized also in the United states where laws stayed in place in some states untill the eighties.(source among others wikipedia:compulsary eugenics in the usa)This is by no way an apology for Lorenz -or my grandfather, who was also supportive of the nazis until about 42/43- but explaines that the mindset of well educated and scientists of that era was not a singularity, and not specific to german speakers. as for personally committing atrocities, both Lorenz and my grandfather were also officers in WWI, and no inhuman orders or actions are documented during two hard and long wars.
His Work has to be seen as it is- a breakthrough regarding scientific explanation of human and animal behavior.
Best regards J.Plenk

Donald McCaig said...

Dear Patrick,

Like any other primitive people we value the evolutionary advantage of tribal unity over simple honesty. As modern primitives, we don't usually bash outsiders, we just call them names: "Communist" and "Fascist" are pop faves.

When I wrote the intro to Lorenz's Man Meets Dog, I mentioned his Nazi beliefs because they are pertinent to understanding his ethological views.

But heading this post "The Nazi Origins of Ethology", er, misleading. Tinbergen was no Nazi and, indeed, would speak to no German scientist after the war - except Lorenz. Does that mean he "ignored" Lorenz's Nazism? No. Tinbergen understood that men cannot be defined by a single label and that Lorenz was a great scientist, his dear friend and, for a time, a member of the Nazi party.

For the sake of tribal unity we over simplify those we disagree with. Because Bush 41 is a war criminal, we don't credit the enormous good he did for AIDs treatment in the third world. I won't vote for Mitt Romeny but I've known many decent men just like him. Robert E Lee was a great American. Although Jerry Sandusky is a pedophile who should spend the rest of his life in prison, he probably was a brilliant defensive coach.

Donald McCaig

PBurns said...

Actually, Donald, I agree and will retitle to reflect that agreement. I write this stuff either very early in the morning or very late at night, and sometimes I strike the cymbal wrong. Good call!


Steve Bodio said...

Got here late to find Donald had said what I intended, more eloquently (no surprise). Humans are troublingly complex. I know several who knew Lorenz, and one who took a post- doc under him at the Planck. The last especially testified to his kindness and wisdom, at least late in life...

Auden, from his memorial to Yeats: "Time that with this strange excuse/ Pardoned Kipling and his views/ Time that pardoned Paul Claudel/ Pardoned him for writing well..."