Marking a century since the influential Second International Eugenics Congress was organised at the American Museum of Natural History in New York this new exhibition explores the history and legacies of eugenics.

Black and white german poster
Neues Volk, March 1, 1936, p.37. Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

In the mid-1930s, Nazi propagandists claimed that their programme of compulsory sterilisation was in no way different from other similar legislation introduced in countries such as the USA and Sweden, and planned in Japan and in other European countries such as Britain, Hungary, and Poland. “We are not alone,” they said, hoping to garner international support for their plans to eliminate “defectives” from society.  

Eugenicists operated nationally and internationally, fostering collaboration, in theory and practice, both before and after the Nazi Party came to power in 1933. After Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883 to describe his “science” of human improvement, international networks developed, beginning with the First International Eugenics Congress held in London in 1912, and then cemented at the Second and Third International Congresses held in New York in 1921 and 1932, respectively.

Nazi racial hygiene was perhaps the most extreme form of eugenics, including not only sterilisation but also euthanasia and human experiments in concentration camps during the Second World. Yet the association with the Holocaust did not bring an end to eugenic thinking, which continued to influence public health and reproduction policies throughout the second part of the twentieth century. This new exhibition reveals this post-1945 continuity as well as the transnational character of eugenics during the interwar period. It adopts a long perspective on the history of eugenics, highlighting the Second International Congress of Eugenics in particular.

A century later, we invite visitors to engage with the legacies of eugenics across time and space and to reflect on what eugenics means for us today. This remains a sensitive and emotional issue for many people, not least because for so long eugenics has reinforced discriminatory practices based on race, class, gender, disability and age.

In the current coronavirus pandemic crisis, we need to review how myriad assumptions and attitudes rooted in eugenics continue to affect our world in ways both obvious and hidden.