Recently I purchased a copy
of a Nazi Ahnenpaß, undated but certainly published in the late 1930s. It
contains blanks for ancestry for five generations in all lines, as well as forms
to be completed that provide the evidence for each genealogical connection. The
purpose of the book was to enable its owner to demonstrate his (or her?) "Aryan"
ancestry and prove that it was untainted -- or tainted only in certain ways, for
the Nazi laws were as specific as those of antebellum Louisiana -- by aboriginal
(that is, native Australian or American Indian), Gypsy, Asiatic, African, or, of
course, Jewish blood.
The Nazi use of genealogy
was outrageous and inhumane, as was practically everything about Adolf Hitler's
"Thousand-Year Reich." Purchasing this Ahnenpaß has led me to consider
how genealogy -- for most of us our favorite activity (before I receive some
off-color comments, perhaps I should say that it is one of them) -- has been
The celebrations in 1876
surrounding the centennial of the American Revolution were the catalyst over the
next quarter century for some of America's best-known hereditary societies.
Genealogy was also used for crude Nativism, a reactive response to the great
increase in immigrants that began with the Irish in the 1840s. In 1894 the
attitude of a then well-known genealogist was that ancestry should be
investigated because "the descendants of those who founded this country deserve
to run it." This view, as outrageous as it sounds today, was held by many. (I
hope that it isn't a cheap shot to point out that the ancestors of the 1894
genealogist were Tories during the American Revolution). I'm glad to say that
the New England Historic Genealogical Society and its Register avoided
the worst tendencies of some genealogists of the period.
A considerable impetus for
genealogical research can be traced back to Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), a
pioneer in genetics. One of his aims in genetic research was to attempt to trace
certain human characteristics over the centuries, especially genius, often in
one geographical locale. We now known that this approach was simplistic and
tended to place great emphasis on one genealogical line of descent as opposed to
the multitudinous lines all individuals have.
In the hands of later
scientists, Galton's emphasis on hereditary genius and other positive traits
turned into what came to be called eugenics, which emphasized the descent of
undesirable traits (usually criminality, mental retardation, and sexual
promiscuity), and the attempt to control or eliminate the right of such
"degenerates" to reproduce. This was again simplistic, since it was based on the
false notion that there was a gene for, say, promiscuity. Yet laws were passed
in this country and abroad allowing courts to order the sterilization of those
considered unworthy of passing on their genes, especially those
institutionalized who had been diagnosed as retarded.
In 1877 R. L. Dugdale
published his analysis of the "Jukes" family, a study of criminality, and in
1914 Henry Herbert Goddard published his study of the equally pseudonymous
"Kallikak" family, which focused on "feeble-mindedness." Both works became
central to the popular belief that such traits were hereditary, although recent
studies have shown that they were seriously flawed (see especially Stephen Jay
Gould's Mismeasure of Man , and, for the genealogical blunders in
Goddard's study, Shirley Garton Straney's article, "The Kallikak Family," in
The American Genealogist [TAG] 69 [April 1994]: 65-85). Many
people of good will and liberal inclinations supported the eugenics movement in
the 1920s and 1930s, and, for the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor,
New York, thousands of students filled out eugenics questionnaires through their
college classes (these questionnaires are discussed in the National
Genealogical Society Quarterly for June 1994 and are available on
microfilm). One of the chief sponsors of eugenics research in this country was
the Carnegie Foundation. Yet we now know that the entire program was based on
false premises, and that, if pushed to extremes, it resulted in policies of
great inhumanity that threatened some of the most basic human rights. With the
Nazis, it quickly moved from the rights of individuals to bear children to their
right even to exist, and became part of the cause of the Holocaust, which killed
some six million Jews.
Eugenics and the notion
that certain people are superior genetically to others certainly influenced some
genealogists of the period. In the first edition of his classic Genealogy as
Pastime and Profession (1930) and in an earlier article in The North
American Review, Donald Lines Jacobus, probably the greatest genealogist of
the twentieth century, thought that eugenics held a real possibility for human
improvement -- but he urged great caution in applying it. Others did not share
Jacobus's caution, and understandably he dropped the chapter on genetics in the
second edition of his book (1968).
Equally relevant here is
Frederick Adams Virkus's seven-volume [Abridged] Compendium of American
Genealogy (1925-42), which is one of the first sources beginners head to in
a library but is notorious among experienced researchers because it is chockfull
of errors. It should be equally notorious for its raison d'être expressed
in the first volume: Virkus stated that the pedigrees were first collected so
that the government officials could consider the ancestry of applicants for jobs
when they made hiring decisions!
To a lesser degree--because
it harms ourselves rather than others--the misuse of genealogy is found in those
who undertake genealogical investigation out of a desire to elevate themselves.
It is legitimate to take pride in outstanding ancestors but not to ignore those
more reprehensible. As David Humiston Kelley, FASG, pointed out, interest in
royal ancestry is justifiable because it can connect us with the historic past
(TAG 69 [April 1994]: 110), but distant royal blood says nothing about us
today. Jacobus thought that about ten percent of the ancestors of any of us were
outstanding, ten percent were painful to contemplate--I have recently discovered
a wife-abuser in one of my New Netherland lines--and eighty percent were
ordinary, fallible, decent human beings.
Jacobus provides by
implication the real justification for genealogy: It is not to claim the
superiority of one racial or ethnic group or gender over another, or to exclude
those who appear to be different from ourselves or from our own group, or to
deny essential human rights to others, or to pluck the luscious fruit off our
family trees while ignoring the rotten apples; it is to discover the closest
approximation to the truth about our ancestors that careful investigation and
critical evaluation can reach, and to follow the investigation wherever it may
A Nazi Ahnenpaß was
a sign that a modern society can use anything, even genealogy, to dehumanize; we
need to use the pursuit of truth as a way of recognizing our common
I am always happy to
receive comments on these columns. I may be addressed at email@example.com.
The next column will be on cemeteries and gravestones (for which I am now
seeking a witty title -- ).