Historical Social Research

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Cornelie Usborne, Social Body, Racial Body, Woman’s Body. Discourses, Policies, Practices from Wilhelmine to Nazi Germany, 1912-1945 [Abstract]

This article compares the responses to the declining birthrate by three very different regimes in Wilhelmine, Weimar and Nazi Germany. In their intent these policies were markedly different: just before and during the First World War a declining birthrate symbolised national decline, sapping national progress and military power and the central aim was to boost fertility almost at any price; eugenics was not yet a major influence on official Wilhelmine po­licy. In the wake of the devastation reaped by the lost war and also influenced by the depression at the end of the 1920s the democratically elected governments of the Weimar Republic attempted to ‘rationalise’ reproduction to suit the prevailing socio-economic circumstances and the belief in modernity in industry and everyday life. They favoured ‘fewer but better children’ but their policies remained fragmented and heavily contested; lawmakers tried to balance individual rights and collective interests, welfarism and eugenic concerns. In contrast, Nazi leaders developed a comprehensive and sophisticated system of selective reproduction based on racial prejudice; legal safeguards to protect the rights of individuals were ruthlessly dismantled. Material and ideological inducements to boost the birthrate benefited only ‘Aryans’ and healthy Germans. A series of extremely repressive measures were introduced: on the one hand they were meant to curb the breeding of the ‘unfit’, like Jews, gypsies, or those considered congenitally diseased and, on the other, they aimed to curb individual birth control by those deemed ‘fit’. But of course the picture is more complicated. If we compare official population programmes with their implementation at the local level and also with the reproductive strategies employed by ordinary women and men, a more subtle picture emerges about the regimes which is marked by both fundamental changes but also striking continuities.