THIS BOOK reconsiders deaf education during the era of National Socialism. A leading historian on the education of hearing-impaired children in Germany has written that "German deaf education was set back decades as a consequence of National Socialism and the war," but this is hardly an adequate explanation for the monstrous events of this period. Before reviewing the historical record connecting deaf education to the sterilization of deaf men and women, forced aborting of deaf women's fetuses, and killing of deaf people's children that characterized the Nazi period, I will discuss how the positive, humanitarian achievements of deaf education degenerated into the degrading form it took under Nazism in the 1930s—what must be called the deaf education of National Socialism.
In 1861, a prominent teacher of deaf pupils, Friedrich Hill, noted a growing tendency among German physicians to speculate on hereditary biology. Hill saw this as a threat to deaf people, whose basic human rights could be violated without justification. He suspected that "physicians in general were quite unqualified to provide well-founded assessments" of deaf people. In particular, Hill was concerned about doctors who denounced congenital deafness as a "moral deficiency." He wrote that these doctors were incompetent to judge the significance of the impairment they designated as "heritable." "These moral deficiencies [of deaf people] are simply illusory and exist only in the minds of such persons as do not recognize the nature of the infirmity under discussion and its consequences for the temperament of those so afflicted," Hill wrote.
Hill believed that the medical establishment's political stance was conservative and aligned with the confused, irrational, racist ideas of the French philosopher of history, Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, that were popular among the German nobility and upper middle class in the late nineteenth century. Gobineau wrote in "Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races" that racial variability and inequality determined the course of every social development. He defined revolutions as "social diseases," supported demands for unrestricted one-class rule, and characterized claims for social equality as contrary to both law and nature.
Following the nobility and haute bourgeoisie, the German middle class also became increasingly interested in theories that justified the existing power structure and the unequal distribution of property in the face of growing social opposition to such privilege. Charles Darwin's theories, as well as the laws of heredity published by Gregor Mendel in 1865, became handy instruments in these interpretations. Darwin had taught that evolution was possible only through the principle of natural selection, as the result of a struggle for existence that would eliminate weak and helpless individuals. Yet Darwin rejected the idea of the extermination of humans, since the preservation of the weak was a necessary aspect of the human instinct of sympathy.
Within this milieu, in 1895 physician Alfred Plötz first used the concept of "racial hygiene" as he sought to develop an ideal of "Germanness" in human beings. Plötz believed that political and economic measures were insufficient to create a society based on "Germanness," but he thought that medicine offered hope for creating a new society. Plötz gained acceptance from the mainstream medical establishment after founding the Archive for Racial Science and Social Biology in 1904 and the Society for Racial Hygiene in 1905. Interested parties in the growing German steel industry also supported Plötz's argument that the medicalization of social problems, regulated by the government, could produce an ideal society, and large industrial corporations provided substantial financial support for research and public information on racial hygiene. These commitments enhanced the subsequent acceptability and feasibility of the National Socialists' eugenics program.