The Sound of the Machine

Mike Perry is a free-lance writer living in Seattle, Washington, as well as a professional technical writer. This article was developed from research done during graduate study in biomedical history at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine. © Mike W. Perry

Everything they saw that day, from the vast fields of ripening grain to the numerous children, spoke of fertility. Nothing, it seemed, could change the vitality of these people. As Martin and Karl drove from village to village their faces grew increasingly grave.

In the evening the men returned. Martin told of all the children he had seen and warned that, “someday they may give us a lot of trouble” because they were “brought up in a much more rugged way than our people.” Alarm spread through the group until the group’s leader began to speak.

Obviously peeved, he pointed out that someone had suggested that abortion and contraceptives should be illegal here. He continued, “If any such idiot tried to put into practice such an order . . . he would personally shoot him up. In view of the large families of the native population, it could only suit us if girls and women there had as many abortions as possible. Active trade in contraceptives ought to actually be encouraged.”[1]

The date was July 22, 1942. The place was the “Werewolf” headquarters in the Soviet Ukraine. The group’s leader and abortion advocate was Adolf Hitler. The two men were Martin Bormann, his Secretary, and Karl Brandt, his personal physician.

Operation Blue, the 1942 German offensive in the East, had been under way for almost a month and already its success was assumed. At Hitler’s headquarters thoughts turned to what should be done with the occupied territories. Some wanted a lenient policy to gain Ukrainian support in the war against the Soviet Union. Others wanted to eliminate the Slavic population to make room for Germans.[2]

As Bormann hoped, that evening Hitler chose the second policy and the next day he told Bormann to issue population control measures for the occupied territories. Bormann developed an eight-paragraph secret order which included the following: “When girls and women in the Occupied Territories of the East have abortions, we can only be in favor of it; in any case German jurists should not oppose it. The Führer believes that we should authorize the development of a thriving trade in contraceptives. We are not interested in seeing the non-German population multiply.”[3]

This was not the first such policy. On November 25, 1939, shortly after the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Commission for Strengthening of Germandom issued a circular containing the following:

All measures which have the tendency to limit the births are to be tolerated or to be supported. Abortion in the remaining area [of Poland] must be declared free from punishment. The means for abortion and contraceptive means may be offered publicly without any police restrictions. Homosexuality is always to be declared legal. The institutions and persons involved professionally in abortion practices are not to be interfered with by police.[4]

This policy was confirmed on May 27, 1941, at a Ministry of the Interior conference in Berlin. There a group of experts recommended population control measures for Poland that included authorization of abortion whenever the mother requested it.[5] On October 19, 1941, a decree applied the measures to the Polish population. Hitler’s July 23, 1942, decree extended it to other parts of Eastern Europe.

German experts also worked out practical ways to control population. On April 27, 1942, in Berlin, Professor Wetzel issued a memorandum suggesting ways to deceive people, it included the following:

Every propaganda means, especially the press, radio, and movies, as well as pamphlets, booklets, and lectures, must be used to instill in the Russian population the idea that it is harmful to have several children. We must emphasize the expenses that children cause, the good things that people could have had with the money spent on them. We could also hint at the dangerous effect of child-bearing on a woman’s health.

Paralleling such propaganda, a large-scale campaign would be launched in favor of contraceptive devices. A contraceptive industry must be established. Neither the circulation and the sale of contraceptives nor abortions must be prosecuted.

It will even be necessary to open special institutions for abortion, and to train midwives and nurses for this purpose. The population will practice abortion all the more willingly if these institutions are competently operated. The doctors must be able to help without there being any question of this being a breach of their professional ethics. Voluntary sterilization must also be recommended by propaganda.[6]

The planning for this goes back still further. In the summer of 1932, almost a year before the Nazi Party took power in Germany, a conference took place at the party headquarters in Munich. It discussed Eastern Europe and assumed Germany would someday conquer the region.

Agricultural experts pointed out that controlling Eastern Europe would make Germany self-sufficient in food but warned that the region’s “tremendous biological fertility” must be offset with a well-planned depopulation policy. Speaking to the assembled experts Hitler warned, “what we have discussed here must remain confidential.”

Not all Nazi insiders remained silent though. Hermann Ranschning, a prominent Nazi in the early thirties, defected in the mid-thirties and tried to warn of Hitler’s plans. In The Voice of Destruction he described a 1934 conversation with Hitler about the Slavs.

“We are obliged to depopulate,” he went on emphatically, “. . . . We shall have to develop a technique of depopulation. . . . And by remove I don’t necessarily mean destroy; I shall simply take systematic measures to dam their great natural fertility . . . .

“The French complained after the war that there were twenty million Germans too many. We accept the criticism. We favor the planned control of population movements. But our friends will have to excuse us if we subtract the twenty millions elsewhere.”[7]

Within Germany itself, Hitler also advocated government-supported birth control to weed out those deemed “unfit.” In his 1924 Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that one of the seven major responsibilities for government was “to maintain the practice of modern birth control. No diseased or weak person should be allowed to have children.”[8]

Once in power, Hitler wasted no time in legalizing eugenic sterilization and abortion. Gitta Sereny describes what happened this way: “The 1933 law for compulsory sterilization of those suffering from hereditary disease was followed two years later, on October 8, 1935, by the Erbgesundheitsgesetz—the law to ‘safeguard the hereditary health of the German people.’ This expanded the original law by legalizing abortion in cases of pregnancy where either of the partners suffered from hereditary disease.”[9]

Within Germany, however, these “negative eugenic” policies were paralleled by positive programs to encourage births among the fit. Laws were passed limiting access to birth control and prohibiting abortion. Government programs encouraged large families.

These positive programs, along with the need to keep secret why Germany was so willing to help Slavs limit their births, created a confusion about Nazi policy that led to Hitler’s remark about “shooting up” anyone who tried to ban abortions in the Ukraine.

For instance, in the spring of 1942, SS Reichsführer Himmler had to get the chief of German police in Poland, SS-General Krueger, to intervene so the courts would no longer punish Poles for having abortions. Similar court behavior in Byelorussia led SS-General Berger to remark that some German administrators, “have no idea what the German Eastern policy really means.”[10]

From beginning to end, Nazi policies expressed not only their peculiar views of race but a consistency demanded by the logic of socialism itself. Hitler explained it to Rauschning this way:

At its most revolutionary, Nazi policy aimed to socialize people, not property, Hitler once commented, “Our socialism is much deeper than Marxism . . . . It does not change the external order of things, but it orders solely the relationship of man to the state . . . . What do we care about income? Why should we need to socialize the banks and factories? We are socializing the people.”[11]

Society as a Machine

Socialists see human society as a machine, not a living organism. At first, their machine may engulf only the larger elements of the society, the “hanks and factories.” But with time it takes over more and more until the people themselves are swallowed up. Human reproduction, like factory production, must come under state control. As Hitler noted, Nazism merely skipped the preliminary stages for the critical one.

In spite of worldwide condemnation of Nazi atrocities, some people in the United States found their population control policies attractive. Given its socialist underpinnings, it isn’t surprising that the ideas would especially appeal to those ideologically closest to socialism, New Deal liberals.

President Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, found Hitler’s ideas on birth control amusing. In Allies of a Kind the British historian Christopher Thorne describes what happened this way:

Subjects to do with breeding and race seem, indeed, to have held a certain fascination for the President . . . . Thus, for example, Roosevelt felt it in order to talk, jokingly, of dealing with Puerto Rico’s excessive birth rate by employing, in his own words, “the methods which Hitler used effectively.” He said to Charles Taussig and William Hassett, as the former recorded it, “that is all very simple and painless—you have people pass through a narrow passage and then there is a brrrrr of an electrical apparatus. They stay there for twenty seconds and from then on they are sterile.”[12]

Fortunately, FDR’s information was inaccurate. The Nazis had hoped to sterilize people while they filled out forms at a counter, not while passing through a narrow passage. But they found that the dose required to sterilize also left obvious burns, making it impossible to keep the sterilization secret.

Nazi attempts secretly to sterilize large populations indicate how population controllers often begin with measures that allow “freedom of choice.” But if their goals aren’t met, they won’t hesitate to use as much coercion as necessary. FDR’s comments show that coercive birth control can be attractive even to those who, in general, believe in democracy. The crucial factor is an ideological commitment to a controlled, planned society.

In the United States, the idea that the state should control human reproduction was first promoted by the birth control groups of the 1920s and ‘30s. Like Nazism, these groups broke society into two major groups, the “fit” (generally equated with the affluent) and the “unfit” (the poor). The only real difference lay in emphasis. Nazis wanted to raise the birth rate of the fit and lower that of the unfit. The birth control groups wanted only to “stop the multiplication of the unfit.”[13]

Birth controllers also hoped to “socialize people” to the machine. For instance, in 1935 a sociologist named James Bossard wrote in The Birth Control Review:

The demand for unskilled labor has been declining . . . but it is in this group . . . that the reproductive rates are highest . . . . As the demand for unskilled, low intelligence labor decreases, corresponding readjustments must be made in the supply of this type of labor, if we are to avoid the crystallization of a large element in the population who are destined to become permanent public charges. This points again directly to birth control on a scale which we have not yet fully visioned.[14]

In March 1939 Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League, wrote a letter describing what her group was doing. She tells what Bossard’s “not yet fully visioned” plans mean—massive government involvement in birth control through the social welfare and public health system:

. . . statisticians and population experts as well as members of the medical profession had courage to attack the basic problem at the roots: That is not asking or suggesting a cradle competition between the intelligent and the ignorant, but a drastic curtailment of the birth rate at the source of the unfit, the diseased and the incompetent . . . . The birth control clinics all over the country are doing their utmost to reach the lower strata of our population, but as we must depend upon people coming to the Clinics, we must realize that there are hundreds of thousands of women who never leave their own vicinity . . . but the way to approach these people is through the social workers, visiting nurses and midwives.[15]

During the war, public outrage at Nazi ideology forced American birth control groups to stop talking about the “unfit.” By 1942 the various birth control groups had merged to form the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The new name, however, didn’t mean that these groups had abandoned their plans. Linda Gordon explains it this way:

“Planned parenthood” seemed a more positive concept than “birth control” especially to those who were general advocates of the importance of planning. Presumably “birth control” left matters such as population size and quality to the anarchism of individual, arbitrary decision. The propaganda of the birth-control organizations from the late 1930s through the late 1940s increasingly emphasized the importance of over-all social planning. A Birth Control Federation of America poster read: “MODERN LIFE IS BASED ON CONTROL AND SCIENCE. We control the speed of our automobile. We control machines. We endeavor to control disease and death. Let us control the size of our family to insure health and happiness.”[16]

As the poster notes, these people believed that family size, like highway speed limits, should be a matter of law and public policy. “Planned parenthood” is thus similar to the planned economies of socialist countries and “family planning” to urban planning.

The poster’s reference to “modern life” as being based on “science” refers to the other aspect of the family planning groups, their use of pseudo-science (especially statistics) to promote their programs.

During the twenties and thirties, eugenic fears were common among the educated classes of the industrialized nations. Modern medicine, it was believed, enabled the unfit to live and reproduce in large numbers. Birth control groups used these fears to get support for their clinics. Birth control would provide “quality control” for the human factory.

After Nazism discredited these eugenic arguments the same people (now with “family planning agencies”) dropped their language about unfit genes and began talking about a poor environment. By the sixties they had adopted another machine analogy, production control, to justify themselves. As birth control curtailed the birth rate of the unfit, so family planning would advert a “population explosion.”

Like the earlier arguments, the warning about a population explosion, while totally wrong, had the appearance of truth. The children of the postwar baby boom were creating social unrest on the campuses and in inner cities. It really did look like we were having too many children.

In reality, with the arrival of the birth control pill in 1960, the nation’s birth rate nosedived. By the late sixties when rhetoric about a “population bomb” hit its peak, it was obvious that the nation was actually in the midst of a birth dearth. In 1972 the nation’s birth rate dropped below the replacement level and a decade and a half later it shows no sign of rising.

The fears of a population explosion in this country were unfounded but they made an excellent argument to get Federal funding for family planning programs and to legalize abortion. These programs helped target one of the main groups in the country with above-average birth rates, the poor underclass. (The other is conservative religious groups.)

Because Catholic immigrants were an early target of birth controllers, Catholic leaders understood this better than anyone else. In August 1965 William Ball, General Counsel of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, testified to a Senate subcommittee considering government funding for family planning services and warned that: “We have a particular concern over this because we believe that if the power and prestige of government is placed behind programs aimed at providing birth control services to the poor, coercion necessarily results and violations of human privacy become inevitable.”[17]

William Ball’s warnings have proved correct. In a news article in the June 6, 1969, issue of Medical World News, Dr. Alan Guttmacher, president of Planned Parenthood-World Population, used the same word, coercion, to describe what he felt would be necessary if voluntary means failed. He noted that: “Each country will have to decide its own form of coercion, and determine when and how it should be employed. At present, the means available are compulsory sterilization and compulsory abortion. Perhaps some day a way of enforcing compulsory birth control will be feasible.”[18]

One of the countries where Dr. Guttmacher felt coercion would be needed was mainland China. In the past decade Planned Parenthood has been helping the Chinese government set up a population control program. A 1985 article in the Washington Post described the result:

. . . China, to be sure, is curbing its population growth, but its success is rooted in widespread coercion, wanton abortion and intrusion by the state into the most intimate of human affairs.

“The size of the family is too important to be left to the personal decision of a couple,” Minister of Family Planning Qian Xinzhong explained before resigning last year.

“Births are a matter of state planning, just like other economic and social activities, because they are a matter of strategic concern,” he said. “A couple cannot have a baby just because it wants to.”[19]

In 1979 China’s Vice Premier Chen Muhua explained the relationship between his country’s socialism and coercive population control this way: “Socialism should make it possible to regulate the reproduction of human beings so that population growth keeps in step with the growth of material production.”[20]

Such open socialism has never been popular in the United States and our laws make it almost impossible to use the degree of coercion used by mainline China. However, as William Ball warned, this doesn’t mean that government and family planning agencies can’t use other means to coerce women into abortion.

For instance, a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association featured an exchange of letters about whether Center for Disease Control guidelines should recommend abortion when the mother was carrying the AIDS virus. Louise Tyrer of Planned Parenthood, among others, wanted the pro-abortion guidelines. Others objected for the following mason:

Some of their objections were based on the fact that since not all children born of AiDS-infected women are afflicted with AIDS, some women might wish to carry pregnancy to term and should not be pressured toward another course of action by the federal government. Vigorous objection was made be cause of the belief, based on past practice, that minority women in public clinic settings would be coerced into having abortions using these guidelines as the basis.[21]

There is a warning here. In comparison to the limited resources of any individual, the power of the government (and quasi-government agencies) is immense. When that individual is young, poor, minority, and female that power is multiplied many times. As the Center for Disease Control consultants noted, abortion for these women is often coerced, not chosen.

It matters little that these coercive planners believe they can create a perfect world. As Charles Frankel, Old Dominion professor of philosophy and public affairs at Columbia University, wrote in Commentary:

The partisans of large-scale eugenic planning, the Nazis aside, have usually been people of notable humanitarian sentiments. They seem not to hear themselves. It is that other music that they hear, the music that says that there shall be nothing random in the world, nothing independent, nothing moved by its own vitality, not out of keeping with some idea; even our children must be not our progeny but our creations.[22]

Their music is the music of a machine; a machine made from the bodies of each of us. []

1.   Clarissa Henry and Marc Hillel, Of Pure Blood. Translated by Eric Mossbacher (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976), p. 148. See also: Henry Picker, ed., Tisehgesprache im Führerhauptquartier, 1941-2 (Bonn, 1951) and Josef Ackerman, Himmler als ldeologe (Gottingen, 1970).

2.   For more details see: Jochen von Lang with Claus Sibyll, The Secretary, Martin Bormann: The Man Who Manipulated Hitler, Trans. Christa Armstrong and Peter White (New York: Random House, 1979), pp. 209-11. David Irving, Hitler’s War (New York: Viking Press, 1977), pp. 402-03.

3.   Leon Poliakov, Harvest of Hate (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1954), p. 273, Nuremberg document: NO-1878.

4.   Quoted in Ihor Kamenetsky, “German Lebensraum Policy in Eastern Europe During World War II” (Ph,D. dissertation, University of Illinois, 1957; Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilm, #25,236) p. 171.

5.   Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961), p. 642. Nuremberg document: NG-844.

6.   Thoughts and suggestions on “Plan East” prepared for the SS Reichsführer by Professor Wetzel. Berlin, April 27, 1942. Nuremberg document: NG-2325. In Poliakov, pp. 273-74.

7.   Hermann Rauschning, The Voice of Destruction (New York: G-P. Putnam’s Sons, 1940), pp. 137-8.

8.   Louis L. Snyder, ed., Hitler’s Third Reich: A Documentary History (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1981), p. 46.

9.   Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), p. 62-

10.   Kamenetsky, p. 173. From Himmler’s File #1302. Folder H. 11 and Nuremberg document: NO-3134.

11.   Hermann Rauschning, Hitler Speaks, Political Conversations with Adolf Hitler on His Real Aims (London: Gollancz, 1939), p. 27. Quoted in Koonz, Claudia, Mothers in the Fatherland (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987). p. 179.

12.   Annex to memo. of March 15. 1945, Taussig Papers, Box 52. In Christopher Thorne, Allies of a Kind: The United States, Britain and the War Against Japan, 1941-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 158-59.

13.   Linda Gordon. Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1974, 1976), p. 287, The quote is from Margaret Sanger’s autobiography. See also Mike Perry, “How Planned Parenthood Got Its Name,” international Review of Natural Family Planning (Fall. 1986), Vol. X, No. 3., pp. 234-42.

14.   James Bossard. “Population and National Security,” Birth Control Review, September 1935, p. 4. Quoted in Gordon, p. 339.

15.   Sanger to Frank G. Boudreau, March 12, 1939, in the Sanger Papers at Smith College Library. In Gordon, p. 359.

16.   Gordon, p. 345.

17.   Stephen P. Strickland, ed., Population Crisis (Washington, D,C.: Socio-Dynamics Publ., 1970). p. 99.

18.   “Outlook,” Medical Worm News (June 6, 1969), p. 11.

19.   Michael Weisskopf, “Abortion Policy Tears at Fabric of China’s Society,” Washington Post (January 7, 1985), p. A1.

20.   Stephen W. Mosher. “China’s Coercive Population Control Program Continues,” National Right to Life News (December 3, 1987), p. 9.

21.   Albert E. Gunn, “The CDC and Abortion in HIV-Positive Women” Journal of the American Medical Association (January 8, 1988), Vol. 259, No. 2., p. 217.

22.   Charles Frankel. “The Specter of Eugenics,” Commentary (March, 1974), p. 33.