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How does eugenics impact migration and citizenship law?

On 20 March 2019, the “Forum for Democracy”, established in 2015, became the largest party in the Dutch Senate. Some turmoil arose when its leader and founder Thierry Baudet (who explains his ideas and worldview here and whose party was recently featured in The Conservative) pointed at what he considers a massive influx of immigrants combined with a stagnating natality rate among the Dutch autochthonous population (with 1,6 children per woman higher than many other European countries, but below replacement rate nonetheless). He referred to the consequent risk of Dutch society losing its coherence and identity as a result of “homeopathic dilution”. Against the background of Baudet being accused of advocating eugenics, it is worth looking what role this phenomenon has played in the history of citizenship and migration.

From the mid-1930s the idea of selecting foreigners on the basis of national and ethnic criteria became publicly discussed in France. The main spokesperson for this line of thinking was Georges Mauco, an expert on immigration and secretary general of the High Committee of the Population, who in his doctoral thesis of 1932 entitled “Les étrangers en France. Leur role dans l’activité économique” classified the assimilability of foreigners on the basis of cultural-ethnic criteria. In his view it was not so much “blood” that determined foreigners’ assimilability but their “esprit”. His argument was based on a survey analyzing the degree of assimilability of different nationalities in which Arabs obtained the lowest score and Belgians the highest.

Although Mauco remained an influential figure in later years, his ideas were not put into practice; until 1939 the French naturalization policy did not take into consideration criteria of national, ethnic, racial and religious origin. As explained by Patrick Weil, it was only under the Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime that those advocating a racist and restrictionist policy would gain the upper hand at the expense of those who supported a policy of openness in nationality and immigration matters.

Demographic concerns also played a role after WWII, and France was eager to receive new immigrants. The post-war policy was characterized by an open, liberal approach on the issue of immigration and integration of immigrants and their children – regardless of their country of origin. When it came to naturalization, however, mostly other European nationals (Italians, Poles and Spaniards) were naturalized in the period 1945-1963. The naturalization policy in these years was grounded on selection based on ethnic criteria: certain nationalities (mostly European) were considered easier to assimilate. France thus had a post-war naturalization policy which selected on ethnic criteria and an immigration policy that did not.

David Scott FitzGerald and David Cook-Martín have shown that eugenics was also very influential in the US and Canada as well as in Latin America and the Caribbean. The authors show that at least until the early 1900s eugenics was a mainstream ideology and was considered a morally and scientifically sound way of improving the biological construction of national populations. Several International Eugenics Congresses were organised between 1912 and 1932. Scott FitzGerald and Cook-Martín explain that eugenicists were divided into two groups, with “hereditary determinists” emphasizing “the imperviousness of inherited traits to environmental factors” while “environmentalists” focused on “the impact of contextual factors on the expression of hereditary traits”. Throughout the Western Hemisphere it led to a policy of “selecting northwestern European immigrants and keeping out blacks and most Asians”, as we already described in our analysis of racialized citizenship.

While eugenics became discredited over time, especially after WWII, it seems to be on the rise again in some countries. With the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil, a country with a history of eugenics, the government is now run by a leader who is infamous for its racial discourse and who prior to becoming president “long campaigned in Congress to loosen laws around sterilization”.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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