The Compassionate Prussian:
The legacy of “eugenics” has forever injured Germans. The images of the Mengele as the sadistic German doctor endures, yet prior to 1800s the German and Austrian doctors were known for their humanitarian values. Rudolf Virchow and Max Weber carried this torch on through the turn-of-the-century against an overwhelming opposition by the onslaught of a youth radicalized by Darwinism and Socialism. However, none exemplified the image of the compassionate and empathetic Prussian like Alexander von Humboldt. Alexander von Humboldt was, during his time, a great traveler like Darwin and Galton, a statesman like Benjamin Franklin, and a popularize of science like H.G. Wells. Humboldt’s journal “Kosmos” was in publication between 1845 and 1862, and through its leadership came the notion that science and biology was internationalist, popular, and respectful of all races and cultures. Paul Weindling, author of the 1989 book, “Health, Race and German Politics Between National Unification and Nazism: 1870-1945,” documents that Humboldt was “quick to condemn Gobineau for his arrogance and misunderstanding of German literature,” which Gobineau used to formulate his Aryan and racialist theories. (Pg. 52) Humboldt could authoritatively defend such a view of German culture prior to the surge of racialist nationalism that evolutionary views engendered.
Stephen Jay Gould, author of the “Mismeasure of Man,” rightfully identifies him as the “hero of all modern egalitarians” and qualifies him by stating that “He, more than any other scientist of his time, argued forcefully and at length against ranking on mental or aesthetic grounds.” He was equally outspoken against slavery, and wrote as eloquently as Jefferson in defense of human dignity, looking past petty prejudices and focusing on the innate wonder that is each individual human life.
Nicolaas A. Rupke, author of “Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography,” cites Manfred Kossok in recognition of Humboldt’s “private impressions and opinions.” He states that Humboldt’s personal views are extensively described in the diaries he meticulously kept while circumnavigating the globe, and that the Humboldt Research Center undertook the task of where Humboldt stood on issues contemporary to him such as the French Revolution and the slave trade.
Humboldt set off to circumnavigate the globe in 1799. Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt travelled extensively in Latin America, exploring and describing it for the first time in a manner generally considered to be a modern scientific point of view. His description of the journey was written up and published in an enormous set of volumes over 21 years. During this voyage, Humboldt made a short visit to the United States, staying in the White House as a guest of President Thomas Jefferson. Humboldt made his views of slavery known as he toured the country and was welcome by an enviable list of individuals. Below is the comments made to the Architect William Thornton:
This abominable law that permits the importation of Negroes in South Carolina [until 1808] is a disgrace for a state in which I know many level-headed people to live. Conforming to the only course of action dictated by humanity, undoubtedly less cotton will be exported at first. But alas! How I detest this politics that measures and evaluates the public welfare simply according to the value of its exports. The wealth of nations is like the wealth of individuals. It is only secondary to our welfare. Before one is free, one must be just, and without justice there is no lasting prosperity.” (Moheit, Ulrike – Alexander von Humboldt: Briefe aus Amerika. 1799–1804. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1993 – pp. 299–300)
Thomas Jefferson was a naturalist, and shared with Humboldt’s views on politics, philosophy, and nature. Humboldt not only left Jefferson with a treasure trove of scientific information gathered in his travels. He provided key information and consultation for the President in regards to the West at a time when Jefferson was commissioning the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, which ultimately lead to the Louisiana Purchase, and the expansion westward which in turn sparked the Civil War. Jefferson was delighted to have Humboldt as a guest and the two held numerous intense discussions on scientific and political matters. He was only 34 years old when he visited the United States, but was respected as an accomplished man and welcome like Benjamin Franklin had been received in Paris. Humboldt had achieved the status of an International celebrity as few scientists before or after him have been able to. Jefferson and Humboldt kept in touch after Humboldt’s visit.
Historians recognize Humboldt’s ability to divorce science from superstition. His writing style accomplished this without sacrificing the poetry and wonder inherent in nature. This was an example to follow, as this is where nineteenth century scientists would fail due to their contempt for the sentimentalism found in religion. Humboldt was the embodiment of the humanitarian spirit that emerged with the Enlightenment, and which was intentionally discarded in the nineteenth century for its supposed “sentimentality” and misplaced compassion. Humboldt’s work is definitive refutation to the excuse that figures like Darwin, Galton, H.G. Wells, Margaret Sanger, and Theodore Roosevelt should be excused from their racist agenda because they were simply reflecting the time that they lived in. Their pessimistic polemics were a distinct turn for the worse that did not need to be so. Science did not need to devalue humanity through the use of false racial charts and evolutionary hierarchies. Their predecessor, Humboldt, pointed in a direction of greater scientific and social worth.
Compatriots such as Frederich Nietzche would be the ultimate popular proponents of this base rejection of Enlightenment egalitarian values. These egalitarian and humanitarian values would be supplanted by a utopian and pseudo-erotic pursuit for the “racially pure” and “perfected” man or, if possible, “superman,” which had no use for emotions such as compassion or sentimentality. Humboldt’s life stands as a decisive refutation of the idea that the German culture suffers from an inherent disposition towards militancy and bigotry. This was the ludicrous claim of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials, and a bi-product of their “collective guilt” slight-of-hand deception, which was more likely than not intended to draw attention away from the fact that American and British elites were the most enthusiastic and zealous about enacting the eugenic policies the prosecutors condemned.
Whilst we maintain the unity of the human species, we at the same time repel the depressing assumption of superior and inferior races of men. These are nations more susceptible of cultivation than others – but none in themselves nobler than others. All are in like degree designed for freedom.” (Alexander von Humboldt – Kosmos – 1849 – Pg. 368)
EXCERPT: This sample chapter did not make the final edit of “From a ‘Race of Masters’ to a ‘Master Race’: 1948-1848” and is presented here with all of its defects and imperfections.