Was evolution the basis for Nazism or the Holocaust?

The short answer

No, nor would this have a bearing either way on whether or not it is true:

  1. Scientific facts are morally neutral.
  2. To argue that x must be false because bad people have appealed to x is a logical fallacy, and would undermine Christianity.
  3. The Nazis appealed to a “bastardized” form of evolution that had little to do with the actual theory.

The longer answer

I. Scientific facts are morally neutral.

As is the case with all scientific facts, evolution is a description of the way things are, not a prescription for the way things ought to be. Although scientific facts can be relevant in moral decision-making, moral principles cannot be drawn directly from them without the benefit of other moral principles already in place. One would look in vain to any scientific theory to find such principles.

II. To argue that x must be false because bad people have appealed to x is a logical fallacy.

As philosopher Philip Kitcher notes:

Various people have appealed to the theory of evolution to lend respectability to their appalling moral views … But this fact says very little about evolutionary theory itself. Virtually any morally neutral, or even morally good, doctrine can be misused for evil purposes. (Kitcher 1982:196)

Since most creationists appear to be fundamentalist Christians, the logic of the point is probably easiest understood by considering some of the horrendous moral doctrines people have justified by appealing to Christianity, and asking whether this means Christianity must be false. Philip Kitcher, again:

The most popular doctrine for use in rationalizing evil and immoral actions has surely been Christianity. There is a long record of brutalities and atrocities perpetrated in the name of Christ: the Crusades, the persecution of the Huguenots, periodic waves of anti-Semitism, sporadic witch burnings, the Inquisition, 300 years of Irish “troubles”; the list could go on and on. Add to this the explicit racism of some contemporary Christian sects, the repressive moral doctrines imposed by the Church at many times in the past, the denials of justice and human rights in the name of the “divine right of Christian princes.”

Yet although the Christian Church has a checkered history, it is evident that Christians can claim—quite justifiably—that the evils result from perversions of religious doctrine. Evil or misguided men have twisted the Gospel to evil ends … But if charity ought to be extended to the Christian doctrine, then it is equally appropriate for evolutionary theory. Both the Bible and evolutionary theory can be misread and their principles abused. (Kitcher 1982:197-198)

Even more to the point, consider how Christian antisemitism helped set the stage for the Holocaust:

[1] For century after century, the Christian church had designated the people to be despised: religious believers called Jews, the “Christ-killers,” the “enemies of God.” All the religious massacres [of Jews] of 900 years—by Crusaders pursuing infidels, by inquisitors hunting backsliders, by superstitious mobs fearing tales of child-sacrificing, host-nailing, and well-poisoning—branded Jews as accursed. When popes ordered Jews to wear badges and live in ghettos—or when they were expelled entirely—it told the populace that these pariahs were unfit to live among decent folk. Passion plays depicting Jews as cruel mockers of Christ, and cathedral paintings of the evil non-Christians, fanned hatred of those the church called “the perfidious Jews.”

Thus, when Adolf Hitler needed a scapegoat group to rally the discontented majority to his cause and catapult himself to power, natural victims clearly marked by the church were at his disposal. The Christian public, not only in Germany, but also throughout Europe, was predisposed to receive the Nazi message of hatred. (Haught 1990:157-158)

[2] The Holocaust was, of course, the bitter fruit of long centuries of Christian teaching about the Jewish people. (Dr. Franklin Little, chairman of the Department of Religion at Temple University, as quoted in Haught 1990:158)

[3] [The Holocaust] could not have been done had not the name of God been used for centuries to preach hatred of the Other, the Jews. (A. M. Rosenthal, editor of the New York Times, as quoted in Haught 1990:158)

[4] [The Nazis] are inconceivable apart from this Christian tradition [of hostility to the Jews]. Hitler’s pogrom, for all its distinctiveness, is the zenith of a long Christian heritage of teaching and practice against Jews. (Clark Williamson, theologian at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, as quoted in Haught 1990:159)

[5] [The Nazis] did not invent a new villain…They took over the 2,000-year-old tradition of the Jew as villain…The roots of the death camps must be sought in the mythic structure of Christianity. (Richard Reubenstein, theologian, as quoted in Haught 1990:160)

[6] Everything Hitler did to the Jews, all the horrible, unspeakable misdeeds, had already been done to the smitten people before by the Christian churches…The isolation of Jews into ghetto camps, the wearing of the yellow spot, the burning of Jewish books, and finally the burning of the people—Hitler learned it all from the church. However, the church burned Jewish women and children alive, while Hitler granted them a quicker death, choking them first with gas. (Dagobert Runes, historian, as quoted in Haught 1990:163)

[7] The Holocaust was made possible by the continued denigration of Jews over many centuries, by professed Christians of Central Europe. (Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne, in Swinburne 1998:107).

Does all of this entail that Jesus did not rise from the dead?

III. The Nazis did not understand evolution

Philosopher and historian Michael Ruse notes that while Germans from Bismarck to Hitler did seem to absorb a “bastardized” form of Darwinism, this form “bore little resemblance to anything to be found either in The Origin of Species or The Descent of Man” (Ruse 2000:81). Moreover, explains Ruse:

it does not take much to see that there could have been no simple relationship between any philosophy based on evolutionary ideas and the ideology that was so important for the national socialists (Kelly 1981). Apart from anything else, evolutionism—Darwinism in particular—stresses the unity of humankind. The Victorians were quite happy to put themselves at the top of the evolutionary tree—others, including Slavs and Jews, came lower down. However, ultimately, we are all part of one family. A consequence like this was anathema to Hitler and his cronies. It is revealing that although [German evolutionist Ernst] Haeckel (like so many of his countrymen at the time) was anti-Semitic, his solution to the Jewish problem was one of assimilation rather than elimination. This was the very opposite of the policy endorsed and enacted by the Nazis … Truly, as scholars have shown, national socialism owed far more to the Volkish movements of the nineteenth century, and particularly to the so-called redemptive anti-Semitism of the group of Wagnerians at Bayreuth, than it did to anything to be found in the writings of evolutionists (Friedlander 1997). (Ruse 2000:81-82)

III. Additional comments

1. The late Carl Sagan adds a few comments:

Nazis and other racists may call on “survival of the fittest” to justify genocide. But Darwin did not make … Adolf Hitler … Ethnocentrism, xenophobia, social hierarchies, the long history of anti-Semitism in Germany, the Versailles Treaty, German child-rearing practices, inflation, and the Depression seem adequate to explain Hitler’s rise to power. Very likely [this] or similar events would have transpired with or without Darwin. And modern Darwinism makes it abundantly clear that many less ruthless traits, some not always admired by … Führers—altruism, general intelligence, compassion—may be the key to survival. (Sagan 1997:260)

2. A book by Discovery Institute fellow Richard Weikart (2004) arguing for a strong link between Darwin and Hitler once gained tremendous popularity among creationists since it told them what they want to hear. However, Weikart’s book was thoroughly panned by experts. Historian and philosopher Sander Gliboff, for instance, wrote in a review that “it is dismaying to see such opinions being passed off as results of scholarly research. The book’s few merits only deepen the dismay because they suggest that Weikart knows better” (Gliboff 2004).


Friedlander S. 1997. Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution 1933 – 1939. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Haught JA. 1990. Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness. Buffalo: Prometheus.

Gliboff S. 2004. Darwin  on trial again. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=9837. Last accessed 22 Feb 2016.

Kelly A. 1981. The Descent of Darwin: The Popularization of Darwinism in Germany, 1860-1914. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Kitcher P. 1982. Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Ruse M. 2000. The Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debates. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Sagan C. 1997. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House.

Swinburne R. 1998. Providence and the Problem of Evil. Oxford: Clarendon.

Weikart R. 2004. From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. New York: Palgrave.