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  • The Misuse of Genealogy

    David L. Greene

    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 misused.

    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 [1981], 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 lead.

    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 humanity.

    I am always happy to receive comments on these columns. I may be addressed at The next column will be on cemeteries and gravestones (for which I am now seeking a witty title -- ).

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