[(essay date 2010) In the following essay, Sprengel provides a general overview of the influence of Darwinism on German and Austrian literature written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Various Naturalist works are discussed as examples of this influence.]
Once upon a time there were two friends. They meet in Breslau as students at the end of the 1870s, and both are fascinated by Germanic and utopian-socialist ideas. A few years later, one of them—we’ll call him A—founds a society called Pacific. On assignment from this society, A travels to America to survey the development of the “Icarian” utopian colonies in Iowa and elsewhere. After the disappointments suffered on this venture abroad, he immerses himself in the study of biology, which he had begun in Jena under the mentorship of Ernst Haeckel. He becomes the founder of racial biology or, as it was called back then, “Racial Hygiene.” His primary work on this topic, The Virtue of our Race and the Defense of the Weak [Die Tüchtigkeit unserer Rasse und der Schutz der Schwachen], appears in print in 1895 through the publishing house S. Fischer (which was known as a Jewish business), thanks to negotiations made by his friend B; as of yet the book features no anti-Semitic elements. After the turn of the century, however, A becomes affiliated with circles of the völkisch movement, founding the journal Archive for Racial and Social Biology. In this publication he releases articles and perpetrates positions that will find a more or less direct continuation in the racial politics of National Socialism. And in fact, in 1933, at the age of 70, A participates in a ‘committee of experts’ for the planning of the Nuremberg Laws.
B, on the other hand, becomes a famous writer. In 1889, in his first drama to appear on stage, he creates a portrait of his friend and companion as a precarious character with partly laughable, partly heroic traits: a do-gooder with an insufficient understanding of other people, one who causes great harm due to his faith to principles. As A’s racial biology becomes (with some changes) a state ideology, B—in numerous private writings—confronts his friend’s thought and its representatives in the fields of biology and medicine. B himself, however, does not hold an especially clear political position, and on other points, allows himself to be influenced and instrumentalized by the National Socialists.2
The names of the two friends are Alfred Ploetz and Gerhart Hauptmann; it is in Hauptmann’s first naturalist drama Before Sunrise in which Ploetz is immoralized as Alfred (!) Loth. If their story is told as a fairy tale, as I have done, it inspires the following conclusion: around 1900, there were indeed very direct personal networks linking the literary scene with the reception of Darwinism in Germany (including its fatal political consequences later on). But these connections are, so the story goes, quite superficial, insofar as Hauptmann always maintained distance to the eugenic dogmatism of his friend. Such a...