A dose of Deadly Medicine
Canadian War Museum’s chilling exhibit explores evolution of eugenics in Nazi Germany
A life-sized glass woman, with her arms raised, stands at the entrance to a new, five-month-long exhibition at the Canadian War Museum. She looks very familiar to anyone who has recently been to the National Gallery of Canada because a life-sized glass man, also with arms raised, stands at the entrance to a new summer-long exhibition at that institution as well.
The two transparent figures, with their entrails exposed, are both reproductions of glass figures created in Germany in the 1930s. They could serve as representatives of the ideal husband and wife, destined to have perfect blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan children.
Glass figures in exalted poses, such as the two on display in Ottawa these days, are symbols of the eugenics movement in the 1930s. This was a movement designed to eliminate so-called “undesirables” from society. The “feeble-minded” were particularly targetted. In some countries, the “undesirables” also included criminals, homosexuals, alcoholics and certain ethnic groups.
Eugenics had varying degrees of popularity throughout the western world in the period leading up to the Second World War. But nowhere was eugenics as popular as in Nazi Germany, where it was known as “racial hygiene.”
opened last week. The War Museum opened yesterday Deadly Medicine, a travelling exhibition organized by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
The National Gallery show explores the art of this period. The War Museum exhibition is more concerned with artifacts, including photographs, film footage, documents and posters like an American one that reads: “Every 15 seconds, $100 of your money goes for the care of persons with bad heredity, such as the insane, feeble-minded, criminals and other defectives.” A far slicker British poster, showing a man scattering seeds, declares: “Only healthy seed must be sown.” Bad seeds were obviously meant to be destroyed.
At the War Museum, a small Canadian component has been added to the American-created eugenics exhibition. Alberta and British Columbia both passed laws in the 1930s aimed at the forced sterilization of people declared mentally defective. Eugenics had some high-profile Canadian supporters, including pioneering feminists Emily Murphy and Nellie McClung.
In Germany, the notion of weeding out “undesirables” was taken to an extreme end: the Holocaust.
Fittingly, images from the Holocaust close the exhibitions at both the National Gallery and War Museum.
The National Gallery show, The 1930s: The Making of “The New Man,” Before becoming Saskatchewan premier and then the federal New Democratic Party leader, Tommy (“The Greatest Canadian”) Douglas also flirted with support for eugenics.
But Nazi Germany remains the main focus of the exhibition. We see how eugenics evolved from the forced sterilization of the “feeble-minded” to the euthanization of “undesirables” and, ultimately, to the slaughter of millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and handicapped.
The exhibition is well-crafted but chilling. It leaves one weak in the knees.
Coincidentally, it opens the same week in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on behalf of all Canadians, issued a formal apology for Canada’s own long-running, disastrous, race-based experiment in social engineering: the removal of aboriginal children from their homes to attend church-run residential schools, with the aim of destroying aboriginal culture and languages. Deadly Medicine continues at the Canadian War Museum until Nov. 11. For information, www.warmuseum.ca.