The Nazis’ cloven hoof: Finnish critiques of legal sterilisation

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook chapter


In 1935, a law on prescription-based sterilisation of ‘the idiot, the imbecile, and the mentally ill’ was passed by a majority in the Finnish parliament. Complementary of earlier eugenic legislation, it was considered beneficial for public health and economy, following the examples of ‘advanced’ countries such as Sweden and Germany. The cultural journal Tulenkantajat (The Fire Bearers, 1932-1939) was a rare forum for dissenting left-liberal opinion. Even though its distribution was limited, its controversial reputation ensured frequent citations in other media. Editor-in-chief Erkki Vala launched a campaign against the sterilisation law proposal in 1933. He warned that the law would inevitably target the poor in a society permeated by class injustice. Drawing on Marxist theory and liberal humanism, Tulenkantajat promoted health care based on voluntary participation and education. Its stance on voluntary sterilisation was unclear, but it became consequently opposed to coercive sterilisation, especially after the passing of the law. Even though this campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, it is an early example of a liberal rights discourse where the protection of the rights of the individual against the state became a premise for global human rights, contradicting the hegemonic idea of the people as a single organism, the needs of which override the rights of its individual members.


  • Ainur Elmgren
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • History
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationConceptualising Public Health
Subtitle of host publicationHistorical and Contemporary Struggles over Key Concepts
EditorsJohannes Kananen, Sophy Bergenheim, Merle Wessel
PublisherRoutledge/ Taylor and Francis Group
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781351712897
ISBN (Print)9781138036833
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Jan 1
Publication categoryResearch