Sterilization laws

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Sterilization laws were and are state regulations for the sterilization (rendering infertile) of certain persons or groups of people to prevent reproduction.

Laws in the context of eugenics that have been introduced and implemented since the beginning of the 20th century are of particular importance . These laws aimed to prevent so-called hereditary "inferior" offspring and concentrated on rendering the carriers of such hereditary diseases sterile . Ideally, between voluntary, i.e. H. to distinguish sterility based on advice and conviction (or massive persuasion) of such “hereditary diseases” by the bureaucrats or medical professionals and a forced sterilization determined in advance by the state . In practice, however, numerous laws combined voluntary and coercive measures that were applied to different target groups.

United States

The USA was a pioneer in the eugenics field . The great political autonomy of the individual states of the USA promoted the regionally limited implementation of eugenics. For the first time in 1897 in Michigan the parliament of a US state dealt with a bill on eugenically motivated sterility, which was rejected at the time. Eugenics activists achieved a breakthrough in the state of Indiana , where the first US sterilization law was passed in 1907. Forced sterility became a legal option for bureaucratic and medical experts against the “mentally ill” who were housed in institutions, but also against people in poor houses and prisons. After the sensational decision of Indiana, similar bills reached other state parliaments in the USA. In some they were rejected, in others, however, the triumphant advance of the sterilization laws continued rapidly; so in populous California (1909), where most of all US sterilizations have taken place since then. - By 1917, 15 states had such laws, and that number doubled over the next 15 years.

Initially, the officials in charge were reluctant to apply the new sterilization laws. The vast majority of Catholics in the United States strictly opposed such interference. The Protestant ruling elite saw it differently: In 1913, the former US President Theodore Roosevelt publicly showed solidarity with the negative-eugenic goal of preventing "inferior" offspring, and in the same year, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, a politician, was elected as the new President of the USA, who had signed one of the new sterilization laws as governor of New Jersey in 1911.

In 1933, there were 41 states (48 states at the time) which were legally banned from marrying the “mentally ill” and 30 states had eugenic sterilization laws. The US sterilization legislation also had an impact on some provincial parliaments in neighboring Canada and Mexico around 1930 .

Between 1907 and 1933, 16,000 people were made sterile in the United States, and by 1939 that number had doubled to around 31,000 (to less than 36,000 by the end of 1940). By 1964 the total had grown to at least 64,000 people.

From 1933 onwards, US eugenicists like Charles Davenport felt confirmed by Germany's Nazi racial hygiene. They valued the assertiveness of the Nazi dictatorship in the rapid implementation of a compulsory law, which quickly outstripped the sterilization rates achieved in the United States over decades. She was particularly impressed by the German law for the prevention of genetically ill offspring , which was passed in July 1933 and came into force in early 1934, and its rigorous implementation in the following years. This resulted - in addition to racist affinities - the "Nazi connection" of many American eugenicists, which they have been resented in the USA since 1941.

European states

US eugenics had a great influence on the more timid European eugenics development - initially as a horror picture, more and more often as a model. This fascination resulted from the laboratory character of US eugenics: in the USA, what was still theorized about in small circles in Europe has long been used (that is, tested on living human "objects"). In terms of sterilization policy - the main area of ​​application of eugenics at the time - European countries did not follow suit until 1929 and only followed suit in 1933/35. Remarkably, this only applied to Protestant or Protestant-dominated states, while Catholic states, but also Anglican-conservative Great Britain (despite the oldest eugenics movement in the world) did not participate in eugenics debates per se, but certainly with a view to Clearly withheld sterilization policy. For most devout Catholics, the official rejection of sterility by Pope Pius XI. mandatory in 1930.


The sterilization policy in Germany was not a National Socialist invention, even if National Socialism first helped a sterilization law and its systematic implementation to achieve a breakthrough.

The time before 1933

As early as July 1923, the state of Thuringia , which was then led by a left-wing SPD government, advised the Reich government to legally regulate sterilization for financial and “welfare-political” reasons, which should be voluntary in principle, but should be carried out with the consent of the guardian for incapacitated persons. A little later, in May 1924, the Saxon State Health Office voted in response to a petition from the Zwickau doctor Gustav Boeters for the statutory introduction of voluntary sterilization. In July 1924, the Saxon state parliament - with the votes of the social democratic and liberal coalition factions SPD , DDP and DVP - asked the Dresden state government to negotiate this question with the Reich government (solely responsible for this). This tried the Saxon government 1924-1926 actually several times, but came Saxony thus at the then bourgeois-conservative kingdom governments no love in return. In Thuringia, a bourgeois right-wing government that had ruled since 1924 reversed the “modern” advance of its left predecessor.

In the German Reichstag before 1933, the discussions about eugenically motivated sterilization concentrated on the context of the criminal law reform of the time , which resulted in a “criminalistic” narrowing down of “criminals” as sterilization victims. In 1928, in the Reichstag committee for criminal law reform, bourgeois representatives of the liberal parties DVP and DDP as well as the Bavarian-Catholic-conservative BVP demanded the legal approval of voluntary sterilization of "habitual criminals" who were in "preventive detention" for an unlimited period of time after their prison term to offer them - quasi in return - the early release from preventive detention. This application failed not only because of the variously justified contradictions of other parties, but also because the DDP and BVP moved away from their own internally controversial application. In 1931 it was the SPD parliamentary group that, through its MP Wilhelm Hoegner, put a similar voluntary sterilization option for criminals up for discussion. Despite the tactical solidarity of the then second largest parliamentary group in the NSDAP and the fundamental sympathy of the Reich government Heinrich Brüning , the SPD initiative failed to find a majority. As a result, due to the incapacity to work at the last Reichstag of the Weimar Republic, all further consultations on sterilization policy were completed.

In the crisis of Weimar parliamentarism in 1932, it was the Social Democratic-Catholic coalition government of the largest German state, Prussia , that unexpectedly pushed ahead with the legislative preparations. Since the early twenties, the Catholic Center in particular had been able to strictly block the sympathy for a sterilization law that had repeatedly appeared in the Prussian SPD and to divert it to other eugenic policy areas (especially marriage counseling ). In July 1932, however, it was the Prussian Center and its People's Welfare Minister , Heinrich Hirtsiefer , who moved the Prussian State Health Council to draft a law on voluntary sterilization for eugenic reasons. This draft formed the basis of the National Socialist Sterilization Act, which was implemented one year later, which of course stood out clearly due to the significantly larger number of "hereditary sick" groups involved and, above all, the possibility of forced sterilization. But the willingness to use compulsory sterilization was also not typical of the Nazi regime: at the Prussian deliberations in 1932, both members of the NSDAP and the SPD found a voluntary sterilization law to be insufficient and called for compulsory measures to be added. The serious difference between Nazi racial hygiene and all varieties of Weimar eugenics was the open racism of the National Socialists: the NSDAP representative and later "Reich Health Leader" Leonardo Conti also called for an openly racist indication to prevent "racially abusive" births at the 1932 state health council which was rejected by all other parties.

The time of National Socialism

Reichsgesetzblatt of July 25, 1933: Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Offspring
Stone at the Weilmünster Clinic to commemorate Nazi forced sterilization

A radical sterilization law was passed during the Nazi era. The farewell was prepared in the Ministry of the Interior under Wilhelm Frick ; the medical advisor Arthur Gütt played an important role in the formulation . On July 14, 1933, Frick and Gütt submitted a bill to the cabinet for approval. The Reichstag and the federal states did not have to deal with it. The "Law to Eliminate the Need of the People and the Reich" of March 24, 1933 authorized the government to take legal measures under its own authority. The draft law was approved by the cabinet on July 14, 1933, the law was not published until July 25, 1933 in the Reichsgesetzblatt. The law came into force on January 1, 1934. This " law for the prevention of genetically ill offspring " was characterized by the wide range of options for forced sterilization and the inclusion of a large number of, often unclearly defined groups of "hereditary diseases". For the assessment of a sterilization procedure, formally legally acting “ hereditary health courts ” were created in which National Socialist lawyers and medical professionals worked together; the individual concerns of the “sick” were not valued highly in the context of the “national community ideology” of the Nazi regime, the “spirit” of the Nazi era drove most of the experts (including men recognized then and partly still today as “scientists”) Actionism. One of these experts was Karl Bonhoeffer , another Werner Villinger . The latter received the Federal Cross of Merit in what would later become the Federal Republic of Germany and worked as an expert on the Bundestag committee for "reparation" .

According to the "Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Offspring" , at least 400,000 people were forcibly sterilized by May 1945, around 1% of the population of the German Reich of reproductive age (Bock 1985, 88). Around 5,500 women and 600 men died from the operation (ibid., 101). In 1935, this NS policy of forced sterilization also opened up the eugenically-conditioned release of abortions, which was not a majority in Germany until 1933 .

The eugenically motivated degradation, exclusion and (sterile) “special treatment” of “hereditary patients” may also have contributed to the NS-specific acceptance of later murders in the context of “ euthanasia ”. However, this effect of the “inferiority” discourse was indirect. The consequence of supplementing the sterilization of so-called “inferior” people with “destroying life unworthy of life” was rejected even by numerous proponents of Nazi racial hygiene.

Treatment of the Nazi legacy in the post-war period

The "Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Offspring" was not repealed by the Allied Control Council in 1945, but formally repealed in the American and Soviet zones of occupation. Even after the Basic Law came into force, statutory ordinances of the Federal Republic of Germany were based on the authorizations to intervene contained in this law . It was not until 1974 that the law was repealed in the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1988 the German Bundestag declared the law to be a National Socialist injustice. As a result of a nationwide signature campaign, the sterilization decisions were repealed in August 1998. To this day (2012), the forcibly sterilized persons have been denied the persecution status that would have enabled them to receive compensation under the Federal Law on Compensation for Victims of National Socialist Persecution (BEG).


Forced sterilization was carried out in Switzerland until the 1980s - mainly on women. The authorities sometimes obtained the “consent” legally required for these sterilizations through persuasion or blackmail. For example, welfare recipients were threatened with the loss of support, others with imprisonment; Abortions were often only approved if the women consented to sterilization at the same time. On March 24, 2000, the National Council unanimously declared these acts unlawful and granted the victims the right to compensation.


The first nationwide sterilization law in Europe came into being in the 1920s in the partly bourgeois, partly social democratic democracy of Denmark . In 1923 the local bourgeois government decreed that the “mentally handicapped” and “seriously insane” were only allowed to marry with special permission from the Ministry of Justice. And when the Social Democrats, who were particularly pro-eugenic in Denmark (as in Germany), came to power for the first time in 1924, a commission of experts was immediately set up, which in 1926 recommended a draft sterilization law for certain groups of prison inmates defined as “hereditary”. Such eugenics policy was hardly controversial between the political parties: the Danish sterilization law came into force in 1929 under a bourgeois government and was not only retained by a social democratic successor government, but also supplemented in 1938 by a more stringent eugenic marriage law and in 1939 by a law on the termination of pregnancy , which also contained a eugenic indication.

All other Scandinavian countries followed Denmark's example in 1929: Similar eugenic sterilization laws came into force in Sweden and Norway (1934), Finland (1935), Latvia (1937) and Iceland (1938). In the “classic” social democratic welfare states of Scandinavia in particular, these laws survived after the war. The American eugenics justified itself after 1945 with references to the democratic eugenics of Scandinavia. There, the sterilization laws of the 1920s and 1930s were not abolished until the 1960s and 1970s.

In Sweden between 1934 and 1976, a total of 62,000 people are said to have been sterilized, 20,000 to 30,000 of them under duress. In Denmark around 11,000 people were sterilized between 1929 and 1967, and 40,000 and 1,400 cases are estimated for Norway and Finland, respectively. With these total figures, however, one has to take into account that in Sweden after 1950 the proportion of voluntary sterilizations for medical purposes rose sharply, while eugenically indicated sterility treatments decreased.


  • Gisela Bock : Sterilization Policy in National Socialism. Planning a healthy society through prevention. In: Klaus Dörner (ed.): Progress in psychiatry in dealing with people. Value and recovery in the 20th century. Psychiatrie-Verlag, Rehburg-Loccum 1985, ISBN 3-88414-057-4 , pp. 88-104.
  • Karl Bonhoeffer : A look back at the impact and handling of the National Socialist Sterilization Act. In: The neurologist. Volume 20, 1949, pp. 1-5.
  • Corinna Horban: Gynecology and National Socialism. Forced sterilized former patients of the I. University Women's Clinic today. A late apology. Herbert Utz, Munich 1999, ISBN 3-89675-507-2 (also: Munich, Univ., Diss., 1999).
  • Gunther Link: Forced eugenic sterilizations and abortions under National Socialism. Shown using the example of the Freiburg University Women's Clinic. Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main et al. 1999, ISBN 3-631-33871-6 (also: Freiburg (Breisgau), Univ., Diss., 1999).
  • Gunther Link: Forced eugenic sterilizations and forced abortions at the Freiburg University Women's Clinic during National Socialism. In: Bernd Grün, Hans G. Hofer, Karl H. Leven (Hrsg.): Medicine and National Socialism. The Freiburg Medical Faculty and the Clinic in the Weimar Republic and in the "Third Reich" (= medical history in context 10). Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main et al. 2002, ISBN 3-631-38819-5 , pp. 301-330.
  • Udo Benzenhöfer : On the genesis of the law to prevent hereditary offspring. Klemm & Oelschläger, Münster 2006, ISBN 3-932577-95-7 .
  • Hans-Christian Harten, Uwe Neirich, Matthias Schwerendt: Racial hygiene as an educational ideology of the Third Reich. Bio-bibliographical manual. (= Education and Science Edition 10). Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 2006, ISBN 3-05-004094-7 .
  • Henning Tümmers: recognition battles. The post-history of the National Socialist forced sterilization in the Federal Republic . Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2011, ISBN 978-3-8353-0985-2 .

Sources on Nazi history

Individual evidence

  2. ^ Steriliseringsfrågan i Sverige 1935 - 1975 Historisk belysning - Kartläggning - Intervjuer

Web links