Reading

Attitudes toward Life and Death

Learn about the pamphlet published by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche that sparked a national debate about race and eugenics in Germany in the 1920s.
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At a Glance

Reading

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • The Holocaust

The enormous loss of life during and immediately after World War I made many people think differently about the value of human life. According to historian Doris Bergen, the war “seemed to many Europeans to prove that human life was cheap and expendable.” 1 That attitude may have prompted some individuals to embrace a new movement growing in Germany, England, and the United States to “improve the race” through eugenics. Eugenicists believed that they could “raise the present miserably low standard of the human race” by “breeding the best with the best” and eliminating so-called “racially defective” human beings. 2

In 1920, Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche published a pamphlet that built on these ideas from eugenics and sparked a national debate in Germany. Binding, a lawyer, stated what the two men saw as the problem: “There are living people to whom death would be a release, and whose death would simultaneously free society and the state from carrying a burden which serves no conceivable purpose, except that of providing an example of the greatest unselfishness.” 3

The question was whether to permit the state to destroy those lives. Hoche, a psychiatrist, argued:

In the prosperous times of the past, the question of whether one could justify making all necessary provision for such dead-weight existences was not pressing. But now things have changed, and we must take it up seriously. Our situation resembles that of participants in a difficult expedition: the greatest possible fitness of everyone is the inescapable condition of the endeavor’s success, and there is no room for half-strength, quarter-strength, or eighth-strength members. For a long time, the task for us Germans will be the most highly intensified integration of all possibilities—the liberation of every available power for productive ends. Fulfilling this task is opposed by the modern efforts to maintain (as much as possible) every kind of weakling and to devote care and protection to all those who (even if they are not mentally dead) are constitutionally less valuable elements. These efforts have particular importance through the fact that, so far, preventing these defective people from reproducing has not even been seriously attempted. . . .

The next issue to explore is whether the selection of these lives, which have finally become worthless for the individual and for society, can be accomplished with such certainty that mistakes and errors can be excluded.

This concern can only arise among lay people. For physicians, there is not the slightest question that this selection can be carried out with one hundred percent certainty and, indeed, with a much higher degree of certainty than can be found in deciding about the mental health or illness of convicted criminals.

For physicians, there are many indisputable, scientifically established criteria by which the impossibility of recovery for mentally dead people can be recognized . . .

Naturally, no doctor would conclude with certainty that a two- or three-year-old was suffering permanent mental death. But, even in childhood, the moment comes when this prediction can be made without doubt. 4

In 1920, most people in Germany did not agree that the needs of society should dictate who should live or die. But a growing number, including Adolf Hitler and members of his Nazi Party, were intrigued by the idea.

Connection Questions

  1. What argument do Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche make in defense of their position? How might the enormous loss of life on the battlefields of World War I have given credence to their ideas?
  2. What do those ideas mean for a nation’s universe of obligation?
  3. Can a government and society whose highest ideal is the value of individual human life tolerate the ideas of Binding and Hoche?
  • 1Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 28.
  • 2William H. Tucker, The Science and Politics of Racial Research (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 40–41.
  • 3Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life: Its Extent and Form (1920), trans. Walter E. Wright and Patrick G. Derr, in Issues in Law and Medicine VIII, 2 (1992).
  • 4Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life: Its Extent and Form (1920), trans. Walter E. Wright and Patrick G. Derr, in Issues in Law and Medicine VIII, 2 (1992).

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, "Attitudes toward Life and Death," last updated May 12, 2020.

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