MuggleNet Academia: American Eugenics, German Genocide, and Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them

fb60Ezra Miller, the actor who plays Credence Barebones in Fantastic Beasts, and David Yates have both said in interviews that Rowling’s New Salem Philanthropic Society is largely an allegorical depiction of the Progressive Era eugenics movement in the United States. This chapter of American history — how social engineering know-betters on the political left and right campaigned successfully for sterilization and extermination laws to rid the American gene pool of ‘moron women, sexual deviants, and racial inferiors’ in 31 states — has largely been scrubbed from the history textbooks. It’s more than a little embarrassing for us to learn, after all, that Adolf Hitler modeled his Final Solution, the Holocaust of European Jewry, on tracts, scientific publications, and laws written by Americans with the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation (among others). Not only can it happen here, it started here.

gavaler-originTo discuss American eugenics and how Rowling chooses to give that history lesson as an embedded story within her screenplay, not to mention how some of her historical connections are bizarre and off-base, Keith Hawk and I asked Washington & Lee professor Christopher Gavaler to join us on MuggleNet Academia. Gavaler is the author of On the Origin of Superheroes which largely turns on the subject of eugenics as it was told in the Superman/Ubermensch dramas of the late 19th and early 20th Century UK and US and then in the first superhero comic books. He explained to us how Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga’s Pureblood/Mudblood purity theme is straight up anti-eugenics story-telling — and that in Fantastic Beasts she is picking up where she left off.

Another mind-blowing conversation on MuggleNet Academia! Here is a link to Professor Gavaler’s article ‘The Well Born’ Superhero’ that we discuss on the show. Enjoy that challenging read before or after you listen to our conversation — and please share your thoughts about the podcast in the comments boxes below!

Link to MNet Academia podcast on Fantastic Beasts and Eugenics with Chris Gavaler!


  1. Kelly Loomis says

    This was very informative. Wow!! We as a country have been so condemning of Nazi Germany. Who would have thought much of it started here.

    An interesting note is that Hitler modeled his propaganda after our treatment/promotion of WWI here in the States. The national holocaust museum in DC had a great exhibit that I saw in 2009 proving this point. He learned from us. (Also reminds me of how Hussein used our training to throw us off in the Gulf War with fake missile launching sites)

    How Eugenics is playing out now is fascinating to think about and how each side is so solid in their beliefs. I liked the explanation of California being a driver of this and how they’ve flip flopped. I think it’s interesting that in world history Eugenics was argued from a religious angle and then later what at the time was thought to be a scientific angle. And each to keep the “ruling powers” in place – much of it to keep the patriarchy (as SJWs would call it).

    I thought the comments about Rowling throwing all this in a blender was interesting. There are inconsistencies- which I think you find in many dogmas.

    Thank you for giving us a place to learn about the deeper issues in Rowling’s writings. Much more satisfying than seeing who fans are “shipping” on Tumblr!!

  2. Brian Basore says

    I want to ask this before I listen to this episode of Mugglenet Academia: How did JKR pick up on Hitler learning about eugenics from Americans, and not also pick up at the same time on Hitler’s learning about eugenics and genocide by studying the history of British (French and Indian Wars)/American Indian history? American policy is a continuation of British colonial Indian policy. There is a map available online that shows that in 1763 the Crown defined the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains of the 13 colonies as the Indian Territory.

    I read recently that the only real losers in the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812, were the aborigines who, in the words of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, encumbered the land.

    JKR has already been pilloried about American Indians, so my question is, I suppose, rhetorical.

  3. Brian Basore says

    Now that I’ve taken in the podcast I’m not as upset as I was about the relatively ahistorical aspect of JKR’s writing. This does not mean that to my mind she’s the most effective storyteller out there. At the moment I prefer reading and re-reading Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. But I still read JKR’s writing and like her Newt Scamander movie.

    I also keep going back to an old English Lit textbook that explains 19th Century Great Britain in a way that made this podcast make more sense. From it, for example, I learned that the Labour Party in the UK developed out of the Fabion Society, and that the Charter Movement proposed reforms that did not come about in British society until decades later. The reforms were needed right then but democracy is mob rule, as evidenced by the horrors of the French Revolution. At the same time the Romantic movement in literature worked hand in hand with the ugly glory and progress of the Industrial Revolution by celebrating Nature, which was rapidly being destroyed, and looking to the natural leader who was obviously fit to lead. The idea of the natural leader has not worked for everyone yet, but countries still go with it in “this best of all possible worlds”, as Candide would say, even now.

  4. Brian Basore says

    (“Fabian”, not ‘Fabion’. Sorry about that.) The podcast about eugenics was a bit much for all at once, and at the moment I agree with Newt that humans are the most dangerous animals on earth. This is a dilemma for humans who are part of society. I guess that’s what JKR wants me to know, even as my mind wanders to something I read about how the early Greek democracies worked because slaves did the work, thus freeing men to gather to do things like decide to invade another island, kill all the men on the island, loot the island, and enslave the women and children. Genocide was okay because they did it all themselves at their own expense at their own bodily risk. So little has changed. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck says the widow says smoking is a bad habit and a body oughtn’t to do it, but that the widow dips snuff but that’s all right because she done it herself.

    People: you can’t live with ’em and you can’t live without ’em.

  5. So glad to hear that I’m not the only one thinking about these connections, and am excited to keep the conversation going.

    Three things really struck me as I listened to this episode:

    (1) Eugenics didn’t begin just because Galton named it. Although Plato didn’t use the word, much of his writings and philosophies are quite explicitly eugenic in nature (particularly The Republic). As long as people have been around, people have been trying to define themselves as the best by defining who is the worst, and justifying their presence and place in the world by arguing for the absence and removal of others.

    (2) On a related note, eugenics has not fallen out of favor. Dr. Galaver mentioned that in the example of California’s goals and tactics that the goal changed, but the tactics didn’t. I’m biased here because I am a professor of rhetoric, but I’d argue that the goals and the tactics remained the same: it was the framing of each in its appropriate cultural context that changed. Abortion, immigration laws, prenatal care, healthcare, and the criminalization and pathologization of unwanted people (poor folks, people of color, LGBTQ folks) bear the same goals and tactics of the eugenics era in US history that you focused on in this episode (even Platonian eugenics).

    (3) Lastly, I think it is SO important to remind folks that eugenics wasn’t just about class and race. Disability was, and continues to be, a motivating factor in conversations about eugenics. This is important, given the sheer absence of disability in Rowling’s works (that is, disability as something other than a metaphor, or something to teach nondisabled folks about living in the world). For example, squibs are treated in much the same way that folks in the US and Britain with disabilities are treated (think of Filch’s employment at Hogwarts and the employment of people with disabilities: in an institution of learning, Filch has no contribution directly related to the function of Hogwarts. He’s never presented as anyone who has any valuable contributions to the learning spaces around him). Muggleborns are praised as if they are “overcoming” something (the “supercrip,” as well call it in Disability Studies). Actually, a project I’m in the early stages of developing is the argument that Rowling’s world is the world in which eugenics succeeds, and a commentary on the failure to sustain such a world (and even go back to a “pre-eugenics” world).

    Thanks for all you do, and above all, creating a space for folks to think and talk about these very important issues!

  6. This podcast is the first time I’ve ever heard someone besides myself comment at all on how there are no wizards – or anybody – in the HPverse who think that full integration between muggles and wizards is a good option. You either are supremacist, or isolationist, and in both cases you believe that one party is superior in one respect or another. the closest thing we have is Arthur Weasley, who really still takes a sort of patronizing attitude towards muggle and their “clever ways of getting along without magic.” Insofar as it relates to the eugenics message, yeah this is a problem. Rowling seems to present that some people (wizards) are just innately better than others (muggles), and though it has nothing to do with who your parents are, it does mean that the better people have no obligation to share their better world with the inferior muggles. Some muggles can be made an exception if they win the heart of a wizard, but aside from love there are no muggle virtues that give them the right to be among wizards. Jacobs are the exception, Dursleys are the rule. And would you want to share the secrets of Hogwarts with the Dursleys or the Shaws?
    Oh, yeah, this is a huge problem with the wizarding world, but I don’t think it was Harry’s job fix to it – his job was to stop Voldemort, and he did that. His story is very much over at the end of Hallows, as Cursed Child proved – if you want to write more about Harry’s life, you just end up backtracking. But Voldemort was symptom of a larger disease, because the wizards maintain that segregation is correct there will always be Voldemorts and Grindlewalds who decide to follow the wizard-are-better logic a step further. The wizarding world is unfinished as a eugenics story – which isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s more realistic, that one war and one hero won’t solve everything. And I think that the next generation will have to confront the eugenics problem again. Because the thing is, the muggles aren’t inferior at all. We’re actually rather brilliant. We now have cameras absolutely everywhere, global tracking systems, communication at the speed of light. The wizarding community cannot practically stay hidden with their heads in the sand for much longer in the 21st century – much in the same way Bigfoot had pretty much been disproved in our real world by the fact that everyone has an iphone. I think the story of Harry Potter took place in the last decade it practically could have – the 1990s – before the Wizarding world cocoon starts to fall apart.

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    There are two books by Eric Voegelin which I have not yet read but which sound interesting, and useful in this context: Rasse und Staat (Tübingen, 1933) – translated by Ruth Hein as
    Race and State (U Missouri P, 1997) – and Die Rassenidee in der Geistesgeschichte von Ray bis Carus (Berlin, 1933) – translated by Ruth Hein as The History of the Race Idea From Ray to Carus (U Missouri P, 1998) – usefully introduced at the U Missouri Press site. Ray is John Ray (1627-1705) and Carus is Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869), so Voegelin goes well back into modern history. Also of interest here is George G. Watson’s The Lost Literature of Socialism ((1998, 2002, 2010) for his attention to Marx and Engels’ favorable mid-Nineteenth-century discussion of “Völkerabfälle” – ‘people(s)’ deserving of complete extermination.

  8. I don’t read the Harry Potter world as anti-disability at all, and I am currently disabled by chronic depression. In fact I find it refreshingly affirming of people with mental differences. Luna sees things others don’t (wrackspurts) and it helps her save Harry from the Petrificus Totalis spell while he’s invisible. Harry is extra sensitive / susceptible to dementors (bringers of depression) and hoes on to teach other kids how to produce a Patronus. Mad-Eye Moody (note “mad”) is physically disabled and keeps up the good fight and sacrifices himself for Harry. Ariana Dumbledore is clearly valued immensely by the God figure in the book, Albus, perhaps even BECAUSE of her need for a caregiver.

    As for eugenics in the 20th century, yes Hitler drew inspiration from U.S. efforts… and some of his very first efforts were targeted at people with disabilities.

    And we’re not past the danger today. Every time there is a mass shooting, the debate about better mental health care pops up. Except better mh care always ends up being code for ways to protect society from those scary mentally ill people who could at any moment pull out a gun. So the legislative solutions that get tossed around or actually passed include things like making institutionalization (segregation) of people with diagnoses easier, requiring therapists to report to authorities anyone they suspect (in vague terms) might be a danger, and forced medication measures.

    We still otherize people with disabilities and mental differences in our society. We still scapegoat them.

    But I never felt otherized or scapegoated by Rowling’s work.

  9. Another thought.

    In the Fantastic Beasts movie Newt is a nature conservationist, trying to protect magical creatures from being systematically exterminated by other wizards and witches. Your readers might be interested to know that there was something of a crossover between natural conservation efforts in the U.S. and eugenics in the early 20th century. Despite this, our first National Parks Service director, Stephen Mather, himself suffered from at times disabling depression. He was actually institutionalized for a time while he was director, and his assistant, Albright, kept his secret and covered for him so that when he recovered, he was able to resume his work.

  10. Brian Basore says

    The elephant in the room of any HP-based discussion of Eugenics is the story of Tom Riddle, son of Merope Gaunt and Tom Riddle, both of Godrics Hollow. In American terms, this is Appalachian/Southern, a cautionary tale about the problem of (gasp!) Poor White Trash, and why it was so wrong for Merope Gaunt to entrap the son of the local lord of the manor using love potion.

    It’s amusing at Hogwarts, when the subject of love potions comes up, to see what happens when Ron and Harry have girls slip love potions to them. It’s a part of growing up at Hogwarts, probably not the staff’s favorite part, but then it’s a boarding school.

    Then the reader is told the cautionary tale of Tom Riddle. Not funny anymore, then. This seems to be another bit of JKR’s cultural background, like her faith, that she struggles with, and that helps drive her intolerance of intolerance. As Hamlet says, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

    If Appalachia does not seem applicable to England, Appalachia is where Queen Elizabeth I’s language and culture persisted into the twentieth century, while in 1603 England became the United Kingdom and the English language shifted so much that Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible became almost unintelligible soon after publication. The UK’s social problems were just beginning as life became less agricultural and more urban. Not that it’s easy to see things change or know what to do about them except to make a small jest and say no more. (Monty Python’s Flying Circus was not considered to be at all funny in Britain. It wasn’t until the shows were converted to NTSC format and were shown on Public Broadcasting System TV stations in America that Monty Python became popular. The English are so funny, aren’t they, with their gumbies, pepperpots, and funny vicars, undertakers, and Members of Parliament? No, not really.)

    JKR also sees fit to tell the reader that Dolores Umbridge’s father was a wizard, but only a janitor at the Ministry of Magic, and her mother was a muggle. Umbridge does not seem to be generally good at magic. Another cautionary tale?

    If it weren’t for JKR’s message of hope and encouragement that it’s our decisions that matter, and that Love Will Conquer All, what would be the point of reading her storytelling?

    (If anybody wants to denounce me as a Racist “cracker”, okay, that’s my historic background, and part of what I learn more about as a historical researcher. It is requisite to recognize something as part of dealing with it, and historical records tend to be “politically incorrect” in today’s parlance.)

    Isn’t it interesting that Lord Voldemort has the more narrow Puritan viewpoint and that Grindenwald believes in making a better world for everyone? Poor Credence is in danger between the two positions.

  11. Brian Basore says

    I apologize to the Professor and the readers of this blog for saying on December 26th that “Monty Python’s Flying Circus was not at all considered to be funny in Britain.” That was absurd and, as stated, false.

    Besides the fact that The Pet Shop Sketch (AKA the dead parrot sketch) continues to be enjoyed worldwide, there is also that when the Comedy Division of BBC1 Television offered John Cleese a show, they seriously expected that show to be funny, so as to have good ratings. It did, but not all at once. In fact, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was almost cancelled after the first episode was aired. (See Point 5 at for the internal BBC memos listing the objectionable parts.) The show made it through the first 13-week series, with a ‘passing’ memo from the executives that said the show had improved. (Again, see the mental floss article.) It’s more like the public and the executives had come to accept the show as it was. It wasn’t the kind of funny they were expecting at first. Monty Python’s Flying Circus did not receive The British Comedy Academy Lifetime Achievement Award until 2014.

    The shows ratings were never high. The Pythons shared George Orwell’s view that: “The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being but to remind him that he is already degraded.” Here are a couple of John Cleese quotes from the Internet: “Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited.”; and, “Most of the bad taste I’ve been accused of has been generic bad taste; it’s been making fun of an idea as opposed to a person.” The Pythons’ humor is not funny to people who suspect they are being ridiculed. That is, this kind of person (yes, another MPFC quote):

    I think that all good, right thinking people in this country are sick and tired of being told that all good, right thinking people in this country are fed up with being told that all good, right thinking people are fed up with being sick and tired. I’m certainly not, and I’m sick and tired of being told that I am. [end of quote]

    In that sense the Pythons never “improved”, as is particularly evident in The Undertaker Sketch at the end of the second series, and in the humor on the Contractual Obligation Album CD. The Pythons continued a long tradition of British commentary, as can be seen in this quote from Thomas Carlyle, who was so important to 19th Century Britain: “Teach a parrot the terms “supply” and “demand” and you’ve got an economist.” (Incidentally, if you check online, Terry Jones of the Pythons helped make a program about how economists are still like that.)The ratings reached high enough in the third series that BBC felt it should appear that it had a hand in the management of the show, and tried to censor it without understanding what it was. (Again, the mental floss article goes into that.) John Cleese left the show after the third series, to do Fawlty Towers, as it happened, and the rest of the Pythons did six more episodes — that is, the fourth series — at which point the Pythons felt relieved the show was cancelled. John Cleese rejoined the group when it went on to make movies, not TV episodes.

    It’s important to remember that this was a network TV show that ran from 1969 till 1972. Star Trek suffered under the same conditions during its three seasons on TV about the same time, though in the case of Star Trek the threat of cancellation in the first season came at the end of the season, not the end of it. Both shows did not prosper until after TV cancellation, that is, until syndication. (This is too much business history stuff; see Wikipedia for more of that, and, to come back to the subject of Monty Python there’s an article in The Atlantic magazine (“The Beatles of Comedy” that discussed how the Pythons relate to the postmodern world, in case you are wondering why I mentioned the Pythons at all.) I mentioned them as the fulfillment of the British habit of making a joke about common everyday frustrations.

    I’m going to end this apology/correction with a couple of quotes from John Cleese (I think you’ll appreciate that he has a goal in common with JKR):
    If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at the particular point I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge its truth;
    A wonderful thing about true laughter is that it just destroys any kind of system of dividing people.
    [end of the two quotes]

    I didn’t understand or accept Aristotle’s catharsis theory of comedy (which included both tragedy and comedy) until the Pythons and JKR explained it to me, Professor. So, the ring cycle is ‘Harry Potter is Lumos’ and ‘Lumos is Harry Potter’? I had no real opinion about orphanages when I started reading the first HP book. JKR slowly convinced me the reader that orphanages are, as a general rule, bad, and she started that by showing that the Dursleys were better for Harry than no family at all.

    [Please, sir, am I forgiven? Mea culpa. Henceforth I promise to proofread better before posting.]

  12. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    At The Oddest Inkling blog, attention has lately been drawn by a commenter to an interesting BBC talk by John Gray, “Is it ever right to try to create a superior human being?”, about eugenics, with attention to C.S. Lewis’ 1943 critique and Leon Trotsky’s 1923 championship, among other things.

    And, a link provided:

  13. Brian Basore says

    A 2017 additional source for this discussion is Chapter 13, “The Doctor’s Crusade Against Race Degeneracy”, in Howard Markel’s book, The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek. The whole book helps with thinking about the Fantastic Beasts movie, but Chapter 13 discusses the history of eugenics before WW2.

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