Art critic discusses eugenics and modernism

Nashwa Bawab

During World War II, eugenics, combined with modernism, became a popular notion among progressives, Polish art critic Anda Rottenberg said in a lecture Wednesday.

Eugenics is the theory and practice that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population and leads to the mass popularization of sterilization, according to Rottenberg. 

“The individual body did not play any role anymore, and also, the notion of health shifted from the individual to the society,” Rottenberg said. “Nobody spoke about individual health; they started to talk about national health and how that might create a nation.”

Sterilization is a permanent form of birth control that has been historically forced onto oppressed groups and is a violation of human rights, according to the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many different countries popularized the idea of improving the human race, and this led to the mass sterilization in Germany, Japan and the U.S., according to Rottenberg.

Lecture attendee Marisa Plumb said it is important for her to understand the popular social ideas at the time in order to avoid repeating history.

“It made me think of World War II as a culmination of a lot of different trends in science and in cultural and social thinking,” Plumb said.

Great caution should be taken when people use the word “progress,” especially when it is coupled with scientific definitions and ideas, according to Robert Abzug, American studies professor and director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies.

“The quasi-scientific definitions in any kind of era will produce doctrines like eugenics that lead to pretty cruel … consequences,” Abzug said. “You can believe in hygiene and cleanliness and good health, but, when it extends to racial definitions of what that is, then we’re talking about thousands and millions being killed.”

Abzug said the importance of the topic to a historian might be to gain some perspective on the way society is configured today, but, for students, learning about the dangers of trying to create ideal types of humans means even more.

“If one of the reasons why we go to college and university is to have a perspective on our own beliefs, our own morals [and] our own society, then this was a very important set of lessons,” Abzug said.