The project proposes an integrative history of human genetic knowledge and its use (production, circulation, reception) in the Federal Republic of Germany at the crossroads of the Nazi dictatorship and Western democracy. It focusses on actors, orders and the science of human genetics (formerly racial biology and eugenics) while also taking into account representations of human genetic knowledge. While investigating the use of the terms “population”, “family” and “individual” as central categories of human genetic research and counseling after 1945, we look for continuity and change in a period of institutional and research-based reorganization – the transformation from National Socialism to democracy, from race science to human genetics, from phenotypical screening to molecular research.
Our analysis focuses on five human geneticists and their respective research institutes in the FRG who all started their careers in the period of National Socialism: Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer (Münster), Hans Nachtsheim (Berlin), Fritz Lenz (Göttingen), Wolfgang Lehmann (Kiel), and Karl Saller (München). After shaping and implementing race science in the Third Reich, all of them succeeded to continue or relaunch their careers after the war. In the FRG, these scientists built their respective research institutes from scratch until the late 1950s/early 1960s and helped to establish human genetics in Germany after 1945. Despite these striking personal continuities, no historical study has ever investigated the methods and approaches to human genetics used by these veterans of race science in this crucial period of transformation. We thus ask: Which were the conditions that allowed the former core science of the Nazi regime to morph into the widely accepted and internationally connected field of human genetics? Which methods were used by the five main actors, which topics researched and which research questions dealt with, which international networks reactivated or built anew? How did these men define „human genetic knowledge“ as such (compared to race ideology)? How did they shape their discipline’s approach towards society and politics?
Drawing on Philip Sarasin, we propose to analyze actors, orderings and representations of human genetic knowledge in a broad history-of-knowledge-approach. To access the broad scope of post-war human genetics, we integrate methodologies of contemporary history, science and technology studies, historical epistemology and history of science into our analysis. Our main sources consist of the papers and (international) correspondences of the five main protagonists and their research institutes, their research publications and public lectures.