Dagmar Herzog. Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe. George L. Mosse Series in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2018. Illustrations. 176 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-299-31920-5.
Reviewed by Sebastian Weinert (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-Disability (January, 2022)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
The year 2021 was full of anniversaries in Germany in terms of the history of sexuality. For example, in 1871, §218 of the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (German Civil Code), which criminalizes abortion, was enacted. Many years later—in 1961—birth control pills were made available on the German market, and another ten years later—in 1971—the well-known German magazine Der Stern published its famous campaign “Wir haben abgetrieben” (“We had an abortion”) in cooperation with several female celebrities in Germany.
By following the recent discussions about these three—without a doubt intertwined—anniversaries, one quickly gets the impression that Dagmar Herzog’s Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe deals with some current problems in German—and probably also Western—society. The central aim of the book is to trace the entanglement of eugenic thinking after the Second World War; the rise of the sexual revolution in connection with social movements, especially the women’s movement in the 1970s; the development of the disability rights movement; and the question of sexual and reproductive self-determination. A special emphasis is given to the situation in Germany, but other European countries are also given attention.
Herzog’s book consists of a short introduction and three chapters, which “exist in some dialectical tension with each other” (p. 10). Herzog covers the period from 1950 until the 2010s—the whole postwar period—although she focuses on different topics in each chapter. The first chapter explains how the women’s rights movement used negative images of disability to legitimize women’s urge for sexual and reproductive self-determination. The second chapter deals with the euthanasia discussion initiated by Peter Singer in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), and the reaction of the disability movement toward that discussion. The third and last chapter shifts to the European efforts of the disability rights movement in the 2000s and 2010s.
Chapter 1, “Abortion and Disability: Western Europe, 1960s-1970s,” concentrates on the fight by the women’s rights movement for sexual and reproductive self-determination, especially for the right to abortion. Herzog pays special attention to the participation of European churches and theologians in the public debate. One major focus of the discussion is the National Socialist past, but Herzog specifically highlights “how prevalent references to disability were” (p. 28). Especially in connection with the thalidomide scandal, eugenic arguments gained more and more public acceptance and became integrated within several European laws concerning abortion.
Chapter 2, “Moral Reasoning in the Wake of Mass Murder,” is a case study about the Singer affair in Germany. It mainly focuses on the debate surrounding Singer’s thesis that “active mercy killing [of unborn children with disabilities] by doctors to shorten these newborns’ agony should be permitted” and the reaction of the disability rights movement toward this provocation (p. 48). The author elaborates on the interdependency between the massive media coverage of the affair, the social position of the disability rights movement at this time, and of course the state of the culture of remembrance in the 1980s and 1990s. The history of racial hygiene and euthanasia in Nazi Germany has not been fully acknowledged by German historians or German society. As a result of the affair, the right of women for reproductive self-determination and the right of life for unborn children with disabilities have become somewhat contrary arguments in the discussion about the right of abortion in Germany; these arguments have influenced the debate until recent times.
The last chapter, “Time Well Wasted,” draws attention to the remarkable growth of self-determination, and possibilities for participation, of people with disabilities since the turn of the century—culminating in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006. Herzog presents theorists and thinkers who helped promote a new model of disability beyond the long-predominant medical model. Furthermore, she describes several projects and approaches to finding a new way of living together for people with and without disabilities. On the other hand, she does not hide that new technologies of prenatal diagnostics have led to an increase of abortion of children with congenital disabilities, especially with cognitive disabilities. So there is still a way to go to finally “unlearn eugenics.”
Herzog has written an inspiring book about the entanglement of sexuality, reproduction, and disability in Europe after the Second World War. She offers some interesting insights in key social processes, processes that are of great importance today, and are sometimes still linked with the National Socialist past. She draws on her wide knowledge about the history of sexuality, social movements in Europe, and the history of National Socialism. A conclusion, even a brief one, to sum up the three chapters and to point out some overarching findings would have been a valuable addition to the book. Nonetheless, Herzog’s book is well written and offers many meaningful insights in the debates about sexuality and disability in Europe. Reading it is time well spent.
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Sebastian Weinert. Review of Herzog, Dagmar, Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe.
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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