While I was researching something completely different I came across a note in Science from 1917 that caught my attention. It informed readers about the launching of a state sponsored race hygiene program in Norway, under the leadership of biologist Jon Alfred Mjøen (1860-1939). After reading up a little I started wondering about the relation between Mjøen’s politically quite active laboratory, Vindern Biologisk Laboratorium (VBL; established 1906), and the heritage of Norway’s progressive legislation in areas such as healthcare, public loans, targeted taxation policies, etc, which are still deeply felt today. Could there be a discernible eugenic motivation behind them?
That eugenics and the questions of racial hygiene were popular among progressives and people relatively on the left in politics is no secret. Despite post-WWII stereotypes connecting the whole enterprise to National Socialism and Fascism, such policies were found in all camps. In fact, sterilization policies were in place and active in the whole of social-democratic Scandinavia as late as the 1970s, making it one of the most “eugenics friendly” regions in history.
What caught my attention this time was reading the programmatic statements of the Norwegian eugenicists, and comparing them to the passing of progressive social policies in the decades before the war – policies which pretty much laid the foundation of the expansion of the modern welfare state after the war.
There seemed to be some interesting correlations. Mjøen and the VBL were responsible for drafting a “Norwegian program for racial hygiene” (“Norsk program for rasehygiene”) in 1908. The program was basically a manifesto suggesting eugenic policies that ought to be adopted, and was used for lobbying in the parliament. It was followed up by the book Race hygiene (1914), which the journal Science called “an important work setting forth the scientific reasons for each of the lines of action proposed” in the program for racial hygiene (Vol. XLV, No. 1155, p. 168).
For those who read Norwegian, a version of the program published in 1932 is available online from Norway’s National Library.
The manifesto categorized eugenic measures in the usual way, with a distinction between “negative”, “positive” , and “prophylactic race hygiene” . Negative race hygiene included the isolation of groups seen as socially problematic, especially criminals, the mentally ill, alcoholics and addicts. All of these social ills were considered to be strongly hereditary by eugenicists – a position which was by no means uncontested by contemporary zoologists and biologists, it should be noted. The Norwegian program suggested compulsory isolation of such groups in labour camps for society’s protection. It also suggested sterilization, but originally wanted to keep it a voluntary option.
The positive strategies included new legislation to encourage selective breeding, and enhance the fertility of groups possessing “desirable” hereditary traits. Finally, the prophylactic strategies were concerned with protecting children, from the prenatal stage to infancy and early childhood.
It’s usually the negative measures of eugenics and race hygiene that get people shouting. Right now I find the positive and prophylactic strategies more interesting, because these are closer to policies which are still considered mainstream – at least in social-democratic Scandinavia.
For instance, I was intrigued to read that the transformation in 1915 of Den Norske Stats Småbruk- og Boligbank, a state financed bank guaranteeing loans to encourage people to live in rural areas, was considered part of the positive eugenic policy of “selective internal colonization”. The institution was selective in that one had to get a personal recommendation from one’s regional municipality to get help starting a new farm or building a home. This, according to Mjøen, would help populate the Norwegian countryside with only the best specimen of the Nordic race. As for later influences, Statens Landbruksbank (State bank of agriculture) was a direct descendant of the institution, which was incorporated in other structures only in 2000. It seems that the active decentralization policy which has characterized Norway has roots in the eugenics movement, with its ideals of internal colonization.
There are also other measures which one may not think about as necessarily eugenic in nature, but which were promoted on those grounds by Mjøen and VBL. A progressive wage system following family sizes paralleled with a regressive taxation is an example of a positive measure, while payed maternity leave, social security for children, and health declarations before marriage were all suggested as prophylactic eugenic policies. Another example which interested me was the use of progressive taxation to control alcohol and other “racial poisons”. Although the rhetoric and the grounds on which the policy is argued has changed, this strategy is very much present still.
So there is, it seems safe to say, at least a correlation between suggested eugenic policies and some progressive social-democratic policies which are still around. But that doesn’t mean that such policies were necessarily adopted on those grounds – indeed, one could be against the free distribution of alcohol without being an eugenicist, and care for the social welfare of children and mothers without thinking too much about racial hygiene. So what do we know about the actual impact exerted by Mjøen and VBL on the politicians?
As I wrote earlier, they were involved in lobbying and did have an influence. A natural channel through which it could be exerted was Mjøen’s brother, the respected politician Alf Mjøen. Alf represented the liberal party Venstre (literally “The Left”), and indeed it seems that this is the party with which the eugenicists had most success. And particularly, we could note, on the party’s left wing (which for a while split from the mother party under names such as Arbeiderdemokratene [Labour Democrats] and Det radikale folkeparti [Radical People’s Party]).
A meeting in Oslo in 1915, headed by prime minister Gunnar Knudsen of Venstre ended up deciding that the prevention of “racial and people’s diseases” was a proper state function. In the years following, several of Mjøen’s proposals were incorporated in legislation in one form or other, while many others were seriously discussed. Many of the laws that Mjøen was particularly proud about were suggested and hamemred through by another Venstre parliamentarian, Johan Castberg. Finally in 1934, a law starting the sterilization program of the mentally ill (both voluntary and by force) was passed by the parliament – with only one single vote against. The law was active until 1977.
Mjøen wrote about Johan Castberg in 1938, noting that this “primus motor” of the new laws protecting children and mothers had not originally fought his battle out of considerations of racial hygiene. Only later did he realize that his and our labours had the same goal and the same effect for our future heritage.” (Rasehygiene, pp. 244-6). Perhaps this is typical of the relation between eugenics and progressive social policies in this period in general. At any rate, it would be interesting to see more research on this. Particularly if it could leave behind the more exhausted topic of sterilization, and focus in stead on the role of the positive and prophylactic policies.
This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.