Is an Apology Enough for Genocide?


Edwin Black is the author of numerous books on genocide and the Holocaust, including "War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race" (Dialog, 2008). This article originally appeared in the Roanoke Times and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

Everyone knows that Nazi Germany designated Jews and others for mass murder. Some know that Hitler's racial ideas were inspired by the early twentieth-century pseudo-scientific American eugenic concepts he studied and adopted.  But few are aware that long before Jews and blacks were targeted by eugenicists, white Virginian Appalachians with dark hair were chosen for extinction.  They were not only targeted by academics, but by Virginia's own state government.  The state perniciously traced their ancestry and, periodically, agents rounded them up and dispatched them to sterilization mills.

More than twenty-seven states joined the shameful decades-long campaign.  Virginia led in developing the legal concepts and merciless enforcement that propelled eugenics into the annals of genocide.

In 2002, Gov. Mark R. Warner promulgated a formal apology to the thousands the state had coercively sterilized, some as late as the 1970s.  Since then, other culpable states have issued their own apologies.  Only one state, North Carolina, has advanced beyond mere words of regret and is now contemplating official compensation to surviving victims.  Should Virginia follow in the footsteps of North Carolina, and who should pay compensation?

Remember the history.  The academic and financial elite believed better men and women could be cultivated using the same techniques a farmer would employ to create a better herd of cattle or field of wheat—eliminate the bad stock and proliferate the good. Eugenicists planned to eliminate all those who did not resemble themselves, 10 percent at a time—as many as 14 million people at a slice.  The goal: eliminate the reproductive future for some 90 percent of Americans.

The preferred method was the gas chambers.  The first public euthanasia laws were introduced into the Ohio legislature in 1908.  That measure was unsuccessful.  The next best thing was forced surgical sterilization under specific state authority.  In 1927, one of America's stellar jurists, Oliver Wendell Holmes, ruled on an obviously collusive Virginia lawsuit seeking to justify the forced sterilization of three generations of Carrie Buck's Lynchburg family.  Carrie Buck was considered "poor white trash" in the parlance of the day.

"It is better for all the world," Holmes infamously wrote in validating Virginia's statute, "if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime ... society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind ... Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

The U.S. Supreme Court's validation of Virginia's law opened the floodgates of sterilization nationwide.  Ultimately, more than 60,000 Americans, mainly women, were forcibly sterilized.  Of this number, some 7,300 to 8,300 individuals were sterilized in Virginia—more than 60 percent female.  While the justification was generally the never-defined condition of "feeblemindedness," the real crime was poverty.

America's eugenics movement, powered by millions of dollars from the Carnegie Institution, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Harriman railroad fortune, sought to extend its reach into Germany.  Rockefeller and Carnegie spent Depression-era fortunes to finance the worst Nazi doctors and race institutes.  Hitler promptly implemented American precepts with stunning ferocity and velocity.  Among the chief recipients of Rockefeller money was top Nazi doctor, Otmar von Verschuer.  During the Holocaust, Verschuer's assistant, Josef Mengele, continued Rockefeller's eugenic twin research at Auschwitz, yielding monstrous experiments.

Forced sterilization was deemed "genocide" from the first moment that term came into use.  The United Nations' original Nazi-era Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide identifies forced sterilization as a genocidal transgression.  Article 2, section D:  "imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group."

In the tear-stained ashes of post-Nazi Europe, Americans recoiled at their legacy.  Collective amnesia set in. Eugenics was renamed genetics, and states began repealing or dead-lettering their laws.  The genocidal nature of the crime was understood.  But Virginia continued its crusade for decades after World War II.

In North Carolina, some have suggested compensation of $20,000 per survivor.  But can you right a wrong by merely writing a check?  And who should pay?  Virginia was the agent of destruction, but its policies were triggered, spurred on, and validated by the fake race science of the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and key universities.  The Genocide Convention cites as a crime "direct and public incitement to commit genocide," right next to the section that mandates the list of who "shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials, or private individuals."

If compensation becomes a debate in Virginia, it is not only the trigger-pullers of state and county government who must be called to account, but also the taxpayer-enabled philanthropic charities and prestigious universities who pseudo-scientifically justified the unthinkable and made it all possible.

comments powered by Disqus