Darkness on the edge of campus
University’s philanthropic ‘godfather’ was mad about eugenics
The dark, quiet arboretum on the north edge of California State University, Sacramento, reminds professor Tony Platt, as he heads onto campus, not of the diversity in plants on the three-acre parcel, but of the complex history of the man for which the arboretum was named.
Charles M. Goethe wasn’t a big fan of “diversity.” A respected philanthropist and conservationist, he wrote adoringly of California’s forty-niners and the state’s great redwoods and supported movements for public playgrounds and guided tours throughout California. But he also recommended forced sterilizations for the “socially unfit,” opposed immigration and praised German scientists who used sterilizations to “purify” the Aryan race before the outbreak of World War II.
In spite of his politics, in 1965, Goethe received letters of appreciation on his 90th birthday from not only the president of the Nature Conservancy, but also then-Governor Edmund G. Brown and then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was Goethe’s friends at CSUS who solicited those letters on his behalf.
Up to his death in 1966, Goethe was a very good friend to CSUS, and that’s the relationship that most interests Platt, professor emeritus of social work at the university. CSUS has kept Goethe’s memory alive through the naming of the arboretum and through the management of his stately Julia Morgan House at 3731 T Street (named after its famous architect), which was willed to the university after Goethe’s death. Goethe’s donations both to the university and to specific staff members solidified his place in local history. According to Platt, one of CSUS’s education professors received at least $50,000 from Goethe’s will.
The honors bestowed on a man with such questionable politics led Platt to dig further into the local history of eugenics and to compile a report of his findings on the history of the relationship between Goethe, eugenics and CSUS. He will present his findings on February 24 at the university.
In preparation, Platt presented a summary of his findings to the university’s president, Alex Gonzalez. Though Gonzalez declined to comment to SN&R because of time constraints, Platt said that the president was interested and emphasized the idea that the university needs to learn from past experiences.
In Sacramento, during Goethe’s life, people didn’t consider eugenics—improving the human population by controlling hereditary characteristics—to be particularly radical. The Los Angeles Times has reported that the paper’s publisher, the president of Stanford University and a Nobel-prize winning physicist all were in support of “eugenics crusades” in the early part of the century. Eugenics even gave rise to some important social advances, including the birth-control movement. But, like many slippery slopes, the policies of eugenics were taken to the extreme, especially in Germany, where Adolf Hitler studied the work of American scientists and began instituting forced sterilization of the mentally ill—also practiced at the time in America—which expanded into genocide during World War II.
Goethe regularly identified himself in his correspondence as a loyal American, but he also admitted to admiration for German scientists before World War II. In a speech to the Sacramento Twenty-Third Club before World War II, Goethe mentioned that “Germany in a few months outdistanced California’s sterilization world record of a quarter-century. … We must study Germany’s methods.”
Estimates, which can’t be confirmed because of the privacy of medical records, suggest that as many as 20,000 Californians were sterilized up until the 1960s. Historians report that California sterilized those with mental illnesses or “feeblemindedness,” as well as those considered socially inadequate, which sometimes meant promiscuous.
In March of 2003, former Governor Gray Davis issued an apology, stating, “To the victims and their families of this past injustice, the people of California are deeply sorry for the suffering you endured over the years. Our hearts are heavy for the pain caused by eugenics.”
Platt suggests the university also confront and learn from the past. In a list of general recommendations to the university, Platt suggests CSUS open up access to the financial details of the relationship between the university and Goethe so that the university community can have a full discussion and “think imaginatively” about using Goethe’s gift to “remedy the harm done in his name.” Platt also suggests the university prepare ethical guidelines for dealing with financial benefactors in the future and acknowledge members of the university community who spoke out against honoring Goethe in the past.
In 1965, student activists protested the naming of a new science building after Goethe and published a pamphlet that read: “Goethe is referred to as ‘our Godfather’ by the administration of [CSUS]. Why is Goethe so honored and esteemed at [CSUS]? Because he is immensely wealthy. Because he gives his money away. And, most importantly, because he is a very old man and will soon have to leave his money behind.”
With the Julia Morgan House valued at $2 million, Platt estimates the university has grown Goethe’s original gift to approximately $3.6 million. Of the $1.6 million in funds, Platt said the biggest chunk goes to interest-free student loans, as per Goethe’s will.
CSUS was not the only institution to honor Goethe. A park and a middle school in Sacramento are named after him, which is beginning to interest members of the local Jewish community. Barry Broad, a local attorney, wants to withhold judgment until he knows for sure that Goethe supported the Nazis throughout World War II, but he says that many in his community are looking at Goethe with fresh eyes. “The real question,” said Broad, referring to Goethe’s support of sterilization and support of the Nazis, “is how long did he stick with it?”
Like many Americans trying to deal with the historical biases of those who came before, Broad wonders what should be done about a man like Goethe, who was responsible for conservation efforts and praised women’s suffrage but supported racist policies here and abroad.
“Let’s say you wipe the guy out of history,” said Broad. “Is that appropriate?” Maybe, he suggested, there should be a display devoted to Goethe, warts and all.
Reading through Goethe’s correspondence and his pamphlets, some of which detail his worldwide travels and his adventures in other societies, one finds praise for Muslim cultures, the belief that every culture creates gifted children, racist diatribes against Mexicans and constant support for the idea that Nordic families owe the world lots of children because the Nordics are responsible for so much of what’s good in the world. Though much of what may have been a voluminous correspondence has disappeared, some letters remain, including a number written to a German scientist and quoted in Edwin Black’s book, War Against the Weak, which follows the national and international roles of eugenics.
“Again and again,” Goethe wrote to a Nazi eugenicist in early 1938, “I am telling our people here, who are only too often poisoned by anti-German propaganda, of the marvelous progress you and your German associates are making.” And once violence broke out in 1938 against Jews in what is now known as Kristallnacht, Goethe wrote again: “I regret that my fellow countrymen are so blinded by propaganda just at present that they are not reasoning out regarding the very fine work which the splendid eugenists of Germany are doing.”
Though there’s little known about Goethe’s response when he heard that Nazi Germany not only sterilized non-Aryans, but also murdered them, Platt claims that Goethe never issued any kind of condemnation of Nazi policies against the Jews and others.
But Platt also acknowledges that Goethe didn’t believe himself a racist; he believed in the scientific need for a master race of “high-powereds.” As the founder of the Eugenics Society of Northern California, he often equated human beings with plants and animals. If we work to produce a fatter tomato and a stronger bull, Goethe believed, we should apply at least as much care to the production of a high-powered populace. His books include passages—capitalized for emphasis—such as, “The remarkable race that can produce such intellects will remain strong as long as it keeps that strain pure” and “It is not the slums that make the slum folk. It is the slum people that create the slums.”
After visiting Germany in 1934, when Black claims that Hitler’s “race hygienists” were sterilizing more than 5,000 people per month, Goethe returned to praise his peers for inspiring Hitler.
Black quotes from one of Goethe’s letters to a noted eugenicist: “You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought, and particularly by the work of the Human Betterment Foundation. I want you, my dear friend, to carry this through with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.”
Platt has collected evidence from Goethe’s own writings, along with a history of eugenics, to help the current university community decide what to do in light of Goethe’s lifelong dedication to eugenics. He believes that with the added attention eugenics is receiving from historians of late and with a rash of recent apologies from politicians around the nation and Canada, it’s a good time for full disclosure.
“The fund is still there,” said Platt, who believes that Goethe’s gift to CSUS truly could be used in the service of human betterment now. “It makes it a live issue.”