The name Ichabod, as in Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820), is biblical and means “departed glory.” When it was his time to enter eternity in 1937, Madison Grant departed this life gloriously, with several hundred people attending his funeral at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, N.Y. The terrifying Headless Horseman of the short story eventually gave up haunting the secluded, bewitching glen of Sleepy Hollow, but not so Madison Grant’s racist ghost, which lived on, even appearing at the Nuremberg Trials in Germany following World War II.
No list of the 100 most influential 20th-century Americans would be complete without the name of Madison Grant, conservationist, environmentalist, philanthropist, eugenicist, amateur anthropologist, and early celebrity. His forbears included Robert Treat, who in 1630 was one of the first Puritan settlers in New England; Robert Treat Paine, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; and Charles Grant, an officer in the War of 1812.
He is remembered -- and some do remember him -- for espousing “scientific racism,” defined by Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy in their insightful A History ofAnthropological Theory as: “Improper or incorrect science that actively or passively supports racism.” Today, scientific racism is considered pseudo-scientific trash, but during the 1920s and 1930s it helped shape social attitudes and policy here and in Nazi Germany.
For Grant, race lay at the heart of civilization, and he maintained that the Nordic [from Old English nord, “of or pertaining to the north”] race, a sub-race within the Caucasian race, was mainly responsible for human progress. He vehemently opposed the immigration policy that opened America’s doors to the influx of southern and eastern European peoples, considered by him “inferior people.”
Meanwhile, his colleague Lothrop Stoddard had introduced the term “under-man” in a 1922 publication, The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-man, to identify this sub-population. In the book’s German translation, the word used was Untermenschen. (Untermensch, sing., in English is usually translated as “sub-human.”)
Alfred Rosenberg, one of the principal Nazi Party ideologues, even extended the term to include Russian communists, whom he considered “the kind of human being that Lothrop Stoddard has called the ‘under man’ [Untermensch]…the man who measures under the standards of capacity and adaptability imposed by the social order in which he lives.” (From his book, The Myth of the Twentieth Century, 1930, English title.)
Grant’s ideas on Nordic superiority and eugenics, coming at a time when eugenics was a popular supper-table topic of discussion here in the United States, drifted across the ocean and into the hands of the National Socialists, Adolf Hitler’s party on the rise.
Hitler soaked up Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race. For the Nazis, the Nordic race meant a “master race.” Hitler sagte, “Wir Deutschen, nicht die Juden, sinddie gewaehlten Menschen. Die Juden sind die schlechtesten der Untermenschen.” (Hitler said, “We Germans, not the Jews, are the chosen people. The Jews are the worst of the sub-humans.”)
In The Passing of the Great Race, Grant saw Nordics as an endangered sub-species, thus his motivation for championing racial separatism. He came up with the term Nordicism, which the Nazi regime would appropriate as its official ideology.
As an outspoken eugenicist, Grant promoted the idea of improving the human gene pool: “A rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak or unfit – in other words social failures – would solve the question in one hundred years….” (p. 46). Grant’s thinking fed the Nazi ideology as to who was fit and who was not fit to live.
One of the defendants at the infamous “Doctors Trial” in Nuremberg that began in December 1946, was the Reich Commissioner for Sanitation and Health, Dr. Karl Brandt, charged with the program of exterminating the mentally handicapped. Brandt resurrected Grant’s ghost as a key part of his defense by reading a passage from The Passing ofthe Great Race. It didn’t save him from the gallows.
Other physicians on trial cited the 1927 United States Supreme Court’s Buck v Bell decision, in which the Court upheld a Virginia statute allowing for the forced sterilization of those deemed mentally defective. They, too, lost out, shocked as they were at being found guilty of “race crimes” which many American eugenicists defended as sound public health policy. (Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the Buck v Bell majority decision, which endorsed “negative eugenics” – eliminating “defectives” from the gene pool.)
The anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws of 1935 were based on American eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin’s Model Eugenical Sterilization Law of 1922. Against incendiary criticism, Laughlin nevertheless defended the Nuremberg decrees as “scientifically sound.” The U.S. Congress used his expertise as a eugenicist in drafting the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act, which would subsequently hinder many Jewish refugees from escaping the Nazis. Law professor and historian Paul A. Lombardo (The American Breed) described Laughlin as “among the most racist and anti-Semitic of early twentieth-century eugenicists.” In 1936, the University of Heidelberg awarded Laughlin an honorary degree for his work on behalf of the “science of racial cleansing.”
Nazi eugenicists fed off their American counterparts, wittingly assisting Hitler in fattening up his racial theory of Nordic superiority and how to deal with racial groups considered inferior.
Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, was also an outspoken eugenicist. Jonah Goldberg, in Liberal Fascism (2008), describes Sanger as “a thoroughgoing racist.” In September 1930, she had Nazi physician, anthropologist and eugenicist Eugen Fischer in her home, where she heard him outline his theory of racial hygiene legitimizing the extermination of the Jews. A.E. Samaan (From a “Race of Masters” to a “Master Race”: 1948-1848), wrote: “Hitler learned about ‘scientific racism’ from the likes of Eugen Fischer” reading his Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene while in prison following the failed Munich Putsch in 1923.
Sanger published an article on racial purity written by Dr. Ernst Rudin, head of Nazi Germany’s eugenics program, in the April 1933 issue of her Birth Control Reviewmagazine. Rudin was a pioneer in the field of psychiatric inheritance studies and was one of the most celebrated psychiatrists in Europe in his time. His objective to improve the quality of Germany’s gene pool may have been laudable, but his methodology was reprehensible. It consisted of mass sterilization and the killing of those considered unfit to propagate, in particular, Jews and black Germans, who were labeled “Rhineland Bastards” (see Clarence Lusane’s Hitler’s Black Victims). And Margaret Sanger embraced him.
Through it all rode the ghost of Madison Grant, unable to find rest for his boneless frame, not until the day racism has been extirpated from the human soul. So he rides on....