Nazi eugenics leave mark at SU museum

Lian van Wyk

The things committed by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi following remain firmly rooted in history and have inspired discourse among Stellenbosch University (SU) students.

The Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race exhibition aims not only to refresh what time has dulled, but to demonstrate the relevance of the events that occurred in Germany decades ago to the students of SU today. Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race is a traveling exhibition hosted in the SU Museum from 4 April to 28 May 2018.

It is presented by the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation and is produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where a permanent exhibition of the same name has resided since 2004. By means of photos, Nazi propaganda videos and harrowing survivor accounts, the exhibition traces Nazi eugenics back to its roots. The viewer is guided from the dawn of the “science of race” to its very practical heights at the hands of Adolf Hitler.

From one set of imagery to the next, the exhibition treats topics like the forced sterilisation of the mentally and physically disabled, the so called “euthanasia” programme and the wellknown Jewish genocide with extreme care, all the while imprinting vivid pockets of compact information on the minds of viewers. At the back of the room used for the exhibition; almost hidden behind harrowing images of emaciated children – the victims of the “euthanasia” programme – stands a small glass-case exhibition.

In the case are two containers with a life-like array of glass eyes and a collection of synthetic hair strands. Dr Handri Walters, a postdoctorate fellow at SU and researcher for the abovementioned South-African component of the exhibition, said that “in a corner office of the Stellenbosch University museum the director removed an unassuming cardboard box and, one by one, started to unpack its contents on the table in front of me.

“An old film reel and maps; a bruised and battered tin with Rudolf Martin’s name printed on the lid that, when opened, revealed 16 glass eyes ranging in colour; another tin inscribed with Eugen Fischer’s name that held 30 different shades and textures of synthetic hair threads.”

Eugen Fischer was one of Germany’s leading anthropologists who was opposed to interracial unions. According to Walters, these instruments were acquired by the Zoology department at SU in 1915 as part of a recently introduced Anthropology course.

“At the Zoology Department of Stellenbosch University these objects were employed to measure an array of human beings between 1925 and 1950 under the guidance of physical anthropologists respectively trained in Berlin and Zurich,” she wrote. “The results these studies rendered, with the support of the objects, acted in service of racial categorisation.”

“Today,” said Walters, “these objects are displayed to inspire critical reflection on the part of their viewers. As individual objects and as a collection, the display illustrates both the arbitrary nature of racial categorisation, as well as the absurdity and danger of ideologically informed science.”

About the relevance of the exhibition to the students of SU, Prof. Steven Robins from the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department and writer of Letters of Stone, from Nazi Germany to South Africa, said: “My view is that there is much for South Africans, and students in particular, to learn from eugenics in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in the world. “‘Eugenics’ was a global science in the early decades of the twentieth century and it led to disastrous consequences in the 1930s and early 1940s in Europe.

“In Letters of Stone, I highlight the significance of eugenics in relation to its influence on South African racethinking during apartheid.” The Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race exhibition will be hosted by the SU Museum until 28 May 2018.

Photo: Leanne Swanepoel

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