Eugenics and Racial Identity in Latvia: Scientific Transfer and European Zeitgeist

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Bjorn Felder

7th May 2009; Goethe Institute Riga, Latvia.

This paper seeks to examine these themes by scrutinising Latvian racial anthropology after 1918 within not only its local, but its European context. A ‘latecomer’ to the club of nation states, the Latvian state founded in 1918 was soon confronted with many of the problems it shared with many Central and East European states seeking to create a national history in the tradition of the European ‘master story’. The process of defining the Latvian nation was influenced by the contemporary European discourse that promoted biological paradigms as ‘modern’, while the Latvian national discourse on nationhood was dominated by ethno-nationalism by the 1930s, and that understood the nation as an organic unity generated by a distinct biological heritage. The introduction of a nationwide eugenic project in 1937 exacerbated the virulence of these biological tenets that came to dominate the definition of what a nation was.

Although racial anthropology had not been entirely new to this region and had been taught at the University of Dorpat/Jurew as early as the second half of 19th century, its 1918 institutionalisation at the Latvian University in Riga laid the foundations for an ethno-nationalistic idealisation of the Latvian nation’s racial ancestors. The Institute of Anatomy and Anthropology first headed by the Swedish anthropologist Gaston Backman, soon succeeded by his follower and assistant Jekabs Prīmanis. He became the first Latvian professor of Anatomy and Anthropology. Prīmanis sought to turn anthropology into a national science, and his students were tasked with measuring Latvian pupils, students and soldiers towards building an anthropological framework for burgeoning Latvian racial identity. Together with archaeological and paleo-anthropological research Latvian anthropologists set about generating their racial history by adopting the methods and conceptual paradigms advanced by German scholars such as Lenz, Fischer and Günther.
This paper will hence also examine racial anthropology’s relationship with the emergence of Latvian eugenics – the founding father of which was Professor Prīmanis who, having defined the Latvian ‘national body’, now sought to ‘improve’ it. Together with Pauls Stradinš, the eminent Latvian surgeon, and as leaders of the ‘Society for spreading Health’ (Veselības veicināšanas biedrība), Prīmanis initiated the Latvian eugenic project under the Ulmanis dictatorship in 1937 and led the Eugenics research institute, ‘Institute for Researching the Vivid Strength of the People’ (Tautas dzīvā spēka pētīšanas instituts) He also wrote scientific treaties promoting eugenic goals measures as a way to force the process of natural selection and “reduce the inferior.”
Apart from key figures such as Prīmanis, Latvian eugenics was intimately linked to its European context, and as such strongly influenced by the German brand of racial hygiene rather than the Scandinavian concepts of social engineering. This paper hence also seeks to locate Latvian racial anthropology and eugenics  within its wider European framework and Zeitgeist, and reflects upon how this case underlines the importance and influence of the natural sciences on discourses of national identity in the first half of 20th century.

Working Group in the History of Race and Eugenics



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