Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
International exhibition traces eugenics movement to Nazi regime’s “science of race”
Author: Lynne Rippenaar-Moses
Published: 08/05/2018

An international traveling exhibition produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and which explores the Nazi regime's “science of race" and its implications for medical ethics and social responsibility today is currently being hosted at the Stellenbosch University Museum until 28 May 2018.

The Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race exhibition is presented by the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation in South Africa ( After Stellenbosch it will travel to  Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and Namibia where it will be exhibited at the  Holocaust Centres in South Africa, as well as other universities and museums. 

Through reproductions of photographs and documents, historical films, and survivor testimony, the exhibition traces how the persecution of groups deemed biologically inferior led to the near annihilation of European Jews. It also challenges viewers to reflect on the present-day interest in genetic manipulation that promotes the possibility of human perfection and the legacy of racism.

As part of the exhibition a number of public lectures, film screenings, book launches and panel discussions have been presented by a range of South African academics including those from the Faculties of Arts and Social Sciences  and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU). 

In a country like South Africa, where issues around medical ethics continue to this day, and where there is an ongoing need to remind the country of the dignity of the individual, the exhibition has particular relevance. 

On Wednesday, 25 April, Prof Steven Robins from the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department, and Dr Handri Walters, a researcher for the South African section of the exhibition, presented a talk on Spectres of Racial Science: Understanding eugenics as a 'travelling science'. It explored how eugenics became a global science in the early 20thcentury and how German eugenics, which had roots in German South West Africa (now Namibia), travelled to many parts of the world, including SU. Robins is also the author of Letters of Stone, from Nazi Germany to South Africa a deeply personal and painful reflection of the true horror and extent of the Nazis' racial policies against Jews, which made the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for Non-Fiction shortlist in 2017. Read the full story here.

The exhibition examines how the Nazi leadership, in collaboration with individuals in professions traditionally charged with healing and the public good, used science to legitimise persecution and ultimately, genocide. The history of the Holocaust provides an invaluable context through which to view and reflect on contemporary issues 

“Deadly Medicine shows how the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler aimed to change the genetic makeup of the population through measures known as “racial hygiene" or “eugenics". It also highlights the role that scientists in the biomedical fields, especially anthropologists, psychiatrists, and geneticists, who were all medically trained experts played in legitimising these policies by helping to put them into practice," according to the pamphlet shared on the exhibition. 

Medical experimentation however started as far back as Eugen Fischer's and other scientists' study of African prisoners of war in Namibia during the Herero and Namaqua Genocide that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of individuals.  These studies influenced German legislation on race, including the Nuremberg laws, from the early 20thcentury onwards. 

“When Nazi racial hygiene was implemented, the categories of persons and groups regarded as biologically threatening to the health of the nation were greatly expanded to include Jews, Roma (Gypsies), the mentally and physically disabled and other minorities."

“Under cover of World War II, and using the war as a pretext, Nazi racial hygiene was radicalised and there was a shift from controlling reproduction and marriage to simply eliminating persons regarded as biological threats."

As part of the exhibition a two-seminar series was planned on Taking stock: Disability & Human Rights in contemporary South Africa. The firstwas Deadly Practices: Esidimeni and beyond which took place on April 16. The second Beyond the right to life: Disability, Personhood & Participation will be chaired by Prof Leslie Swartz from the Psychology Department on Monday, 7 May. Swartz is a distinguished professor who has trained as a clinical psychologist and is a leading expert on disability rights issues, particularly in low-income contexts. 

On Tuesday, 15 May, the film Skin, will be introduced by Ms Bonita Bennett, Director of the District Six Museum.This film depicts Sandra Laing's life. Laing was classified as 'coloured' because of her skin colour and hair texture,  although having 'white' parents. The screening will be followed by a Q and A session. 

The Stellenbosch University Museum is situated at 52 Ryneveld Street in Stellenbosch and can be contacted at at 021 808 3695.

Photo: Head shots showing various racial types: Most Western anthropologists classified people into “races" based on physical traits such as head size and eye, hair and skin colour. This classification was developed by Eugen Fischer and published in the 1921 and 1923 editions of Foundations of Human Genetics and Racial Hygiene. (Supplied by US Holocaust Memorial Museum)