May 13, 2009


The 1000 Swiss franc note might not be seen often (it's the equivalent of roughly $900), and the one beneath is no longer in circulation (replaced by a new note in 1998). It gives homage to Auguste Forel (1848-1931), famous Swiss myrmecologist and sexologist. And pioneer of eugenics in Switzerland and Europe. While directing Burghölzli asylum in the 1890's, he favored the sterilization of mentally retarded, disformed or otherwise socially "unadapted". 

Forel's disciple Alfred Ploetz developped eugenics in Germany and coined the term of "racial hygiene". Ernst Rüdin, another Forel's pupil has become a leading Nazi Rassenhygieniker as well. 

As notes Philippe Ehrenström, "sterilization thus became the most common feature of negative eugenics in Switzerland. Introduced in Zurich in the 1890s, it was thought of as a therapeutic measure which did not require explicit legalization. The existing legal framework allowed such an operation to be performed as long as it was in the best interest of the patient. Communes, which were confronted during the 1930s with an ever worsening economic crisis, thought otherwise. The numerous compulsory sterilizations of the poor and the destitute which followed forced cantons to adopt stricter administrative frameworks. The only canton which went as far as to adopt a new statute on the matter was once again the canton of Vaud in 1928.8 It is somewhat ironical that this famous and much vilified example of a eugenic health policy was adopted to protect the mentally insane from the communes’ unrestricted desire to sterilize their poor and destitute".

Auguste Forel's portrait by Oskar Kokoschka 1909/10 (source)

However my point is not to blame Auguste Forel for the consequences of his ideas. Professor Regina Wecker  of the University of Basel points out that he was a pacifist, advocated full equality of the sexes, recognition of unmarried mothers, gay marriages etc. Many of his ideas were revolutionary indeed, but his highly utilitarian and rational outlook was well in phase with modernist philosophyof the time. One must remember, that his advancements in the field of sexology and myrmecology were never questionned.

By the way, it seems that the study of ant colonies might have helped him develop eugenic ideas. Ant colonies - often described as superorganisms - could have served him as a model of perfect society, which in the minds of many eugenicists was more valuable than the lives of individuals (especially if they were "unfit"). It's interesting to note, that his most important work in myrmecology was entitled The social world of the ants compared with that of man (Genève, Kundig, 1921-1923, 5 volumes). 

As I wrote in one of my previous posts, I don't try to prove, that the popularity of eugenics among Western societies of the early 20th Century could serve as the explanation for Karl Denke's killings. Nevertheless it seemed more than likely that the widespread reception of eugenics catalyzed atavistic behavior, which in this case took the form of killing vagabonds, beggars and homeless - people regarded as unfit by the eugenicists. Also the fact that none of the killer's neighbors had ever noticed Denke's crimes seems highly symptomatic.

I will come back soon with more posts about the reception of eugenics.

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