Sterilization in Nazi Germany

Eugenics and Racial Categorization in Pre-war Germany

Sterilization Advocate Bernhard Rust Posing in Uniform
Nazi Sterilization Advocate Bernhard Rust.

Bettmann / Getty Images

In the 1930's, the Nazis began a massive, compulsory sterilization program inspired by eugenics. It was a form of social cleansing that affected a large segment of the German population. During this horrifying era, the German government forced these medical procedures on many people without their consent. What could cause the Germans to do this after having already lost a large segment of their population during World War I? Why would the German people let this happen?

The Concept of the 'Volk'

As social Darwinism and nationalism emerged during the early 20th century, especially in the 1920s, the concept of the Volk became established. The German Volk is the political idealization of the German people as one, specific and separate biological entity that needed to be nurtured and protected to survive. Individuals within the biological body became secondary to the needs and importance of the Volk. This notion was based on various biological analogies and shaped by the contemporary beliefs of heredity. If there was something—or more ominously someone—unhealthy within the Volk or something that could harm it, it should be dealt with.

Eugenics and Racial Categorization

Unfortunately, eugenics and racial categorization were in the forefront of Western science during the early 20th century, and the hereditary needs of the Volk were deemed of significant importance. After the First World War ended, the German elite believed that the Germans with the "best" genes had been killed in the war while those with the "worst" genes did not fight and could now easily propagate. By assimilating the new belief that the body of the Volk was more important than individual rights and needs, the state gave themselves the authority to do whatever necessary to help the Volk, including compulsory sterilization of select citizens.

Forced sterilization is a violation of an individual's reproductive rights. The ideology of the Volk, combined with eugenics, attempted to justify these violations by insisting that individual rights (including reproductive rights) should be secondary to the "needs" of the Volk.

Sterilization Laws in Pre-war Germany

The Germans were not the creators of nor the first to implement governmentally-sanctioned forced sterilization. The United States, for instance, had already enacted sterilization laws in half its states by the 1920s which included forced sterilization of the immigrants, Black and Indigenous people, poor people, Puerto Rican people, poor White people, incarcerated people, and those living with disabilities.

The first German sterilization law was enacted on July 14, 1933—only six months after Hitler became Chancellor. Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses (the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, also known as the Sterilization Law) allowed the forced sterilization for anyone suffering from genetic blindness and deafness, manic depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, congenital feeble-mindedness, Huntington's chorea (a brain disorder), and alcoholism.

The Process of Sterilization

Doctors were required to report their patients with genetic illness to a health officer, and petition for the sterilization of their patients who qualified under the Sterilization Law. These petitions were reviewed and decided by a three-member panel in the Hereditary Health Courts. The three-member panel was made up of two doctors and a judge. At insane asylums, the director or doctor who made the petition also often served on the panels that made the decision whether or not to sterilize them.

The courts often made their decision solely on the basis of the petition and perhaps a few testimonies. Usually, the appearance of the patient was not required during this process.

Once the decision to sterilize had been made (90% of the petitions that made it to the courts in 1934 ended up with the result of sterilization), the doctor that had petitioned for the sterilization was required to inform the patient of the operation. The patient was told "that there would be no deleterious consequences." Police force was often needed to bring the patient to the operating table. The operation itself consisted of ligation of the Fallopian tubes in women and a vasectomy for men.

Klara Nowak, a German nurse and activist who led the League of Victims of Compulsory Sterlisation and Euthanasia after the war, had herself been forcibly sterilized in 1941. In a 1991 interview, she described what effects the operation still had on her life.

"Well, I still have many complaints as a result of it. There were complications with every operation I have had since. I had to take early retirement at the age of fifty-two—and the psychological pressure has always remained. When nowadays my neighbors, older ladies, tell me about their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, this hurts bitterly, because I do not have any children or grandchildren, because I am on my own, and I have to cope without anyone's help."

Who Was Sterilized?

Institutionalized individuals made up 30 percent to 40 percent of those sterilized. The main reason given for sterilization was so that the hereditary illnesses could not be passed on in offspring, thus "contaminating" the Volk's gene pool. Since institutionalized individuals were locked away from society, most of them had a relatively small chance of reproducing. So, the main target of the sterilization program were those people who were not in the asylums but had a slight hereditary illness and who were of reproductive age (between 12 and 45). Since these people were among society, they were deemed the most dangerous.

Since slight hereditary illness is rather ambiguous and the category "feeble-minded" is extremely ambiguous, people sterilized under those categories included those the German elite didn't like for their asocial or anti-Nazi beliefs and behavior.

The belief in stopping hereditary illnesses soon expanded to include all the people within the east whom Hitler wanted eliminated. If these people were sterilized, the theory went, they could provide a temporary workforce as well as slowly create Lebensraum (room to live for the German Volk). Since the Nazis were now thinking of sterilizing millions of people, faster, non-surgical ways to sterilize were needed.

Inhuman Nazi Experiments

The usual operation for sterilizing women had a relatively long recovery period—usually between a week and fourteen days. The Nazis wanted a faster and less noticeable way to sterilize millions. New ideas emerged and camp prisoners at Auschwitz and at Ravensbrück were used to test the various new methods of sterilization. Drugs were given. Carbon dioxide was injected. Radiation and X-rays were administered, all in the name of preserving the German Volk.

The Lasting Effects of Nazi Atrocity

By 1945, the Nazis had sterilized an estimated 300,000 to 450,000 people. Some of these people soon after their sterilization became victims of the Nazi euthanasia program. Those who did survive were forced to live with the loss of rights and invasion of their persons as well as a future of knowing that they would never be able to have children.


  • Annas, George J. and Michael A. Grodin. "The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation." New York, 1992.
  • Burleigh, Michael. "Death and Deliverance: 'Euthanasia' in Germany 1900–1945." New York, 1995.
  • Lifton, Robert Jay. "The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide." New York, 1986.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Sterilization in Nazi Germany." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2021, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, August 9). Sterilization in Nazi Germany. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Sterilization in Nazi Germany." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).