"The Sanger-Hitler Equation" #32, Winter 2002/3
Search for Margaret Sanger's name on the Internet and you will quickly be bombarded by claims that she supported Hitler and the Nazi's human elimination programs, or at the very least inspired the Nazi architects of race improvement. "Hitler and Sanger Join Hands" blares one anti-Sanger diatribe; "Margaret Sanger, Sterilization and the Swastika" is the title of another; "Let us look forward to the day when Planned Parenthood clinics are made into holocaust museums," concludes another attack on Sanger's writings. One web site features photos of Sanger and Hitler united under a Swastika. Another inserts the phrase "concentration camps" into a 1932 Sanger speech to demonstrate her real motives, a novel form of textual annotation that is then passed on like a virus to other sites who point to the phrase as documented evidence of Sanger's final solution.
Though this disinformation campaign, designed to arouse anger and anti-choice activism, resides largely on the Internet, in colorful, sensationalized pages, even the more respectable print outlets have picked up many of the most extreme Nazi-related allegations about Sanger as voiced by anti-abortion activists at newsworthy events or on Op-Ed pages. They then print them without comment, in effect publishing them as fact. The Associated Press, for example, reported on an anti-abortion march in Birmingham on October 14 of this year, quoting a participant who described Sanger "as racist as she could be," and linked her to Hitler's race policies. A Canadian paper, the Calgary Sun, ran a Sept. 1 opinion piece that claimed Sanger "backed the Nazi race purification program until it became unfashionable." And even though mainstream publications are not actually calling Sanger a Nazi, they are, increasingly, referring to her (as the New York Times did in a September 19 article on the opening of the Museum of Sex in New York City) as a "eugenicist" before associating her with birth control.
Every year there are dozens more characterizations of Sanger as a pro-Nazi, genocidal racist appearing in newspapers, right-wing biographies and purported histories of planned parenthood, and especially on the Internet. Sanger is by no means alone among controversial social reformers and liberators painted as grotesques by extremist opponents of their beliefs and accomplishments; Martin Luther King, Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt can ably compete with her for this posthumous fame. But the attacks against Sanger resonate in a way that attacks on others do not, largely because of the emotions generated by the abortion debate.
Unfortunately these misrepresentations of Sanger as a Nazi sympathizer who carried out her own quiet form of genocide through abortions, the spread of harmful contraceptives and the advocacy of racist "eugenic" policies – supported by the circulation of Sanger's controversial writings on eugenics – have begun to infect unbiased student research that is increasingly dependent on unverified and unsubstantiated information only a mouse click away. Granted most of the Internet sites that link Sanger and Hitler as the dark angels of human carnage don't hide their pro-life, anti-choice associations. But the "Big Lie" theory works – the more you say it, the more it sticks.
Sanger never met Hitler, except in her unconscious (see below). And the reality is that despite the fact that Sanger's anti-militarism and isolationism during the 1920s and 1930s at times obscured her abhorrence of the Nazis, she was deeply shocked and horrified by the evils and dangers of fascism, Hitler and the Nazi party. "All the news from Germany is sad & horrible," she wrote in 1933, "and to me more dangerous than any other war going on any where because it has so many good people who applaud the atrocities & claim its right. The sudden antagonism in Germany against the Jews & the vitriolic hatred of them is spreading underground here & is far more dangerous than the aggressive policy of the Japanese in Manchuria." (MS to Edith How-Martyn, May 21, 1933 [MSM C2:536].) She joined the American Council Against Nazi Propaganda and "gave money, my name and any influence I had with writers and others, to combat Hitler's rise to power in Germany." ("World War II and World Peace," 1940? [MSM S72:269].) For Hitler the feeling was mutual; in 1933 the Nazis burned Sanger's books along with those of Ellis, Freud, German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, and others. (Ellis to MS, Sept. 3, 1933 [LCM 3:385].)
How then does Sanger end up keeping company with Hitler? In this predominantly Internet-based netherworld of revisionist Sanger profiles there are two paths linking Sanger to Hitler, and they frequently intersect. On one, Sanger is accused of murdering millions through abortion, either directly as an abortionist, or as the primary force in creating a culture that devalues human life as evidenced by the rising number of abortions through the twentieth century. This is the unacknowledged "holocaust" commandeered by Sanger. In these absurd depictions she was an even more efficient killer than Hitler or Stalin. One well-quoted assault on Sanger's legacy, George Grant's 1995 book, Killer Angel, charges Sanger with the "brutal elimination of thirty million children in the United States and as many as two and a half billion worldwide." The fact that Sanger's clinic did not offer abortions and that she advocated birth control as the only remedy for abortion does little to dispel the myth that Sanger pressed abortion upon the masses.
But the main vehicle used to metamorphose this feminist liberator into a Nazi is Sanger's limited and largely self-serving role in the short but spectacular rise of American eugenics – a movement that sought to apply the principles of genetics to improving the human race. By lifting passages from Sanger's writings on eugenics and sterilization while failing to provide the complete argument or proper context, and by linking her with notorious racists within the eugenics movement, debunkers of Sanger's achievements have given her a fiendish make-over.
In one of the seminal texts in this extremist assault on Sanger, the 1979 Margaret Sanger: Father of Modern Society (both its title and cover – pictured here– prepare the reader for the many leaps of faith to come), the author suggests that Sanger, through her "eugenic" writings and speeches, put into motion a "‘polite' genocide with an army of biologists, sociologists, eugenicists and psychologists at her side," and did so without raising any suspicions among the people. (p. 24) So effective was Sanger as a propagandist, claims the author, that her debased "values" have become "those of modern Western civilization and are rapidly becoming the morals which dominate the rest of the world." (p. 9)
What is, of course, overlooked is that Sanger used the popular eugenics movement to help promote birth control as a science-based remedy for overpopulation, poverty, disease and famine. Incorporating the rhetoric of the eugenics movement into her writings allowed Sanger to make a stronger biological argument that fertility control was necessary for the improvement and health of the entire human race, not only as a means to liberate women. Sanger did seek to discourage the reproduction of persons who were, in the terms of her day, "unfit" or "feebleminded," those, it was believed, who would pass on mental disease or serious physical defect. And she did advocate sterilization in cases where the subject was unable to use birth control. This was a popular position espoused by many progressive medical leaders, scientists and health reformers of the day – those groups who Sanger hoped to win over to the birth control fight. But in approaching eugenics as a propagandist rather than a scientist, Sanger's language became dehumanizing, her eugenic recommendations overly simplistic, and her understanding of genetics flawed. Take the oft quoted 1931 "My Way to Peace," in which Sanger recommends that the government:
. . . keep the doors of Immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feeble-minded, idiots, morons, insane, syphiletic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class . . . apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization, and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring. (Jan. 17, 1932 [LCM 130:198].)
These are harsh words intended to appeal not only to eugenicists, but social and health workers who came in contact with all manner of sickness and suffering. Sanger was not referring to short stature or pattern balding when she used the phrase "objectionable traits," rather she was talking about diseases such as syphilis that were ravaging especially the poor. Unfortunately, she did sometimes apply the term to moral as well as mental defects, though never as virulently as others in the eugenics community.
Offensive terminology aside, Sanger's beliefs, however inhumane they may seem in the current age of medical enlightenment when human suffering is much less visible in our daily lives, actually came from her direct experience with the poor and oppressed. An illustration can be found in a 1932 letter written to Sanger by a woman requesting birth control advice:
"I will be thirty-six years old on December 16, 1932. and I shall have been married fifteen years on December 13, 1932. During this time I have given birth to eleven children, of whom four are now living–a boy of 13 1/2 years–a girl of 12 years and twin boys two years old. Three of these eleven children were born badly deformed–one with a hare lip and split palate and two with excessive water and a frog-like form. The last birth (one of the deformed ones) was in August 1931 and had to be accomplished with instruments and the Doctor . . . feared for my life and warned us against further pregnancy." (Client to MS, July 5, 1932 [MSM S7:218].)
Such dilemmas led Sanger to the strongly held belief that the best way to reduce human suffering was to first provide greater access to birth control. It was also necessary, she argued, to somehow regulate the procreation of those individuals likely to pass on physical or mental disease and disability who were incapable of using or denied access to contraception. But her writings on eugenics, including her 1922 book Pivot of Civilization, argued that eugenic measures in and of themselves were not practicable. Instead, she concluded that women's empowerment through birth control offered the only viable means of improving the human condition.
While "My Way to Peace" is brutally frank and among the most extreme of any of Sanger's eugenic writings, it does not condone race-based eugenics. Sanger never accepted the racial hierarchies that led to the deadly racist policies of the Nazis. Rather, she vehemently rejected any definition of the "unfit" when it referred "to race or religions." (MS to Sidney Lasell, Jr., Feb. 13, 1934 [MSM S8:541].) This was not true of the broader eugenics movement, both in Europe and the United States, which blurred the distinction between good science and racial prejudice, and generally failed to protest the perversion of its ideals under the Nazis. A number of American eugenicists excused or even commended reprehensible Nazi race policies camouflaged, however poorly, under the veneer of science.
Sanger did write to and share organizational memberships and conference programs with any number of eugenicists, including such champions of scientific racism as Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin, who ran the genetics laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York; and Leon Whitney, secretary of the American Eugenics Society. All of them conflated physical and mental deficiencies with racial ones. While Sanger publicly criticized these most notable eugenicists for their opposition or indifference to birth control, she never publicly condemned their racial views. Her silence is damning in retrospect, but it does not make her a Nazi.
Those who insist on labeling Sanger a Nazi claim time and again that she inspired the men who unleashed the barbarism lurking in eugenics, yet many of the men she supposedly roused to action had, in the main, only a grudging respect tinged with contempt for the woman they saw as a major deterrent to their quest to breed more of the "best." And though Sanger sought their support for birth control, in most cases she failed to win their endorsement. With few exceptions, American eugenicists advocated increased breeding among the "fit," defined by them as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants with middle or upper class values, and viewed birth control as the major impediment to the proliferation of these "better stocks."
Even more than her links with American eugenicists, Sanger's so-called association with Ernst Rudin, the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry in Munich, who helped align prevalent eugenic theories with Nazi race policy, has been featured in nearly every right-wing assault on Sanger's legacy. The grounds for charges that she knew, corresponded with, or influenced Rudin stem from the April 1933 Birth Control Review (BCR), a special "sterilization number." Rudin did contribute an article to this issue, as did Harry Laughlin and Leon Whitney and other eugenicists. The issue also included excerpts from the works of Havelock Ellis and influential gynecologist Robert Dickinson. Taken as a whole, the issue presents a clear, if not always comfortable, debate on compulsory sterilization, with forceful arguments for and against, and calls for further research on sterilization as a eugenic measure. But Sanger had resigned as editor of the BCR in 1929 and no longer had any affiliation with the publication. Nevertheless the BCR issue has been held out like a smoking gun in the campaign to brand Sanger a sterilization missionary and Nazi sympathizer. What is never noted is that the one voice absent in the issue is Margaret Sanger's.
Historians must grapple with the phenomenal amount of material that is being dumped on the Internet. This flood of historical "evidence" is at once liberating and dangerous, for it includes information and disinformation, and there are no help menus to tell the difference. This has become an immense challenge to historical editors who seek to deliver accurate texts in historical context. Some of the incredible attacks on Sanger have existed in book and pamphlet form for several decades now, but in the past only the most zealous would pay for them or go to the trouble to track them down. Now search engines bring them in an instant to our desktops. With sensational headlines, comical juxtapositions, bold assertions and a kind of Twilight Zone aura about them, these anti-Sanger web sites appear to have a sizeable and growing audience. And therein lies the problem; the proliferation of extremist material makes it all seem less extreme, more acceptable to students, journalists and others looking for a quick take on a controversial and complicated figure. History is never that easy.
AD MSP, MN-SSC (MSM S70:513-14).
(Sanger's letters on the war and on Hitler, the controversial writings quoted in this newsletter, and more of Sanger's eugenical views will appear in Volume III of The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, The Politics of Planned Parenthood. )
Revised: November 18, 2011