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ss nucleus - summer 1997,  The Nazi Doctors - Lessons from the Holocaust

The Nazi Doctors - Lessons from the Holocaust

1997 marks the 50th anniversary of the Nuremberg medical trial, when 23 physicians and scientists stood trial for war crimes. CMF Student Secretary Peter Saunders outlines the history and reflects on lessons learnt in the light of contemporary developments in medicine.

Most remembering the holocaust think of six million Jews, but the tragic drama which ended in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Belsen and Treblinka had far more humble beginnings; in nursing homes, geriatric hospitals and psychiatric institutions all over Germany. When the Nazis arrived, the medical profession was ready and waiting.

'Life unworthy of life'

Germany emerged from the First World War defeated, impoverished and demoralised. Into this vacuum in 1920 Karl Binding, a distinguished lawyer, and Alfred Hoche, a psychiatrist, published a book titled The granting of permission for the destruction of worthless life. Its extent and form. In it they coined the term 'life unworthy of life' and argued that in certain cases it was legally justified to kill those suffering from incurable and severely crippling handicaps and injuries. Hoche used the term Ballastexistenzen ('human ballast') to describe people suffering from various forms of psychiatric disturbance, brain damage and retardation.

By the early 1930s a propaganda barrage had been launched against traditional compassionate 19th century attitudes to the terminally ill and when the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, 6% of doctors were already members of the Nazi Physicians League. In June of that year Deutsches Arzteblatt, today still the most respected and widely read platform for medical education and professional politics in Germany, declared on its title page that the medical profession had 'unselfishly devoted its services and resources to the goal of protecting the German nation from biogenetic degeneration'.[1]

Purifying the gene pool

From this eugenic platform, Professor Dr Ernst Rudin, Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Psychiatry of Munich, became the principle architect of enforced sterilisation. The profession embarked on the campaign with such enthusiasm, that within four years almost 300,000 patients had been sterilised, at least 50% for failing scientifically designed 'intelligence tests'.[2]

By 1939 (the year the war started), the sterilisation programme was halted and the killing of adult and paediatric patients began. The Nazi regime had received requests for 'mercy killing' from the relatives of severely handicapped children, and in that year an infant with limb abnormalities and congenital blindness (named Knauer) became the first to be put to death, with Hitler's personal authorisation and parental consent.[3]

This 'test-case' paved the way for the registration of all children under three years of age with 'serious hereditary diseases'. This information was then used by a panel of 'experts', including three medical professors(who never saw the patients), to authorise death by injection or starvation of some 6,000 children by the end of the war.[4]

The slippery slope

Adult euthanasia began in September 1939 when an organisation headed by Dr Karl Brandt and Philip Bouhler was set up at Tiergartenstrasse 4 (T4). The aim was to create 70,000 beds for war casualties and ethnic German repatriates by mid-1941. All state institutions were required to report on patients who had been ill for five years or more and were unable to work, by filling out questionnaires[5] and chosen patients were gassed and incinerated at one of six institutions (Hadamar being the most famous). False death certificates were issued with diagnoses appropriate for age and previous symptoms, and payment for 'treatment and burial' was collected from surviving relatives.

The programme was stopped in 1941 when the necessary number of beds had been created. By this time the covert operation had become public knowledge. The staff from T4 and the six killing centres were then redeployed for the killing of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians and disloyal Germans. By 1943 there were 24 main death camps (and 350 smaller ones) in operation.

Medical involvement

Throughout this process doctors were involved from the earliest stage: in reporting, selection, authorisation, execution, certification and research. They were not ordered, but rather empowered to participate. Dr Leo Alexander, a psychiatrist who worked for the Office of the Chief of Counsel for war Crimes at Nuremberg, described the process:

'The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians. It started with the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans.'[6]

The War Crimes Tribunal reported that 'part of the medical profession co-operated consciously and even willingly' with the 'mass killing of sick Germans'.[7] Among their numbers were some of the leading academics and scientists of the day; including professors of the stature of Hallervorden (neuropathology), Pernkopf (anatomy), Rudin (psychiatry/genetics), Schneider (psychiatry), von Verschuer(genetics) and Voss(anatomy). None of these men was ever prosecuted while of the 23 defendants at Nuremberg, only two were internationally recognised academics.[8]

Looking back

It is easy to distance ourselves from the holocaust and those doctors who were involved. However, images of SS butchers engaged in lethal experiment in prison camps don't fit the historical facts; the whole process was orchestrated through the collaboration of internationally respected doctors and the State. Furthermore the thinking which laid the foundation was well-entrenched throughout the Western world of the time. The International Eugenics Congress which elected Ernst Rudin as its president in 1932, met not in Berlin, but New York.[9] The United States had itself sterilised 30,000 mentally ill and criminally insane before the war and within Europe Denmark had beaten Germany to the operating table by four years.[10]

The lessons of history should alert us to similar trends in demands for euthanasia and genetic selection in our own society. What similarites can we identify?

Deja Vu?

First, propaganda campaigns were prominent. Films such as 'The Inheritance' degraded and stigmatised handicapped patients; disputing their humanity, inflaming resentment against 'luxury' asylum conditions and advocating the 'natural' elimination of the weak.[11] Others promoted euthanasia as a merciful relase. 'I accuse' depicted a woman with multiple sclerosis being willingly killed on request by her husband while a colleague played soft piano music in the next room. The similarity between this and the recent euthanasia case on Dutch (and UK) television is striking.

The use of euphemisms distorted the facts and added a veneer of respectability to the proceedings. The 'Reich Committee for the scientific approach to severe illness due to heredity and constitution' arranged for the killing of handicapped children. 'The charitable transport company for the sick' transported adult patients to the killing centres while 'The Charitable Foundation for Institutional Care' collected the cost of killings from bereaved relatives. The 'SS Xray Battalion' identified TB patients in the general population and then shot them. Killing has to be sanitised. Abortion has similarly attracted euphemisms: 'termination of pregnancy', 'products of conception', 'selective reduction'; and we have recently seen 'The Commission for the Acceptability of Life Terminating Actions' endorsing euthanasia for handicapped children, head injury patients and those with dementia in the Netherlands.[12]

An obsession with cost-benefit analyses was a third feature of Nazi medical deliberation. School children were given mathematics problems balancing the cost of housing units for young couples against the costs of looking after 'the crippled, the criminal and the insane'. The killing of 70,000 patients the T4 programme was calculated to save 245,955.50 Reichsmarks per day.[13] Killing is extremely cost-effective. The 'cost-benefit' of identifying and aborting Down's Syndrome children in the womb has been casually discussed in contemporary medical literature for some years; and statistics on PVS (£30m to keep the 1,000 patients in the UK alive) were widely disseminated in the British Press at the time of the Bland decision. The past-president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Jacques Attali, recently made the following pronouncement in L'Avenir de la vie:

'As soon as he goes beyond 60-65 years of age man lives beyond his capacity to produce, and he costs society a lot of money... euthanasia will be one of the essential instruments of our future societies.'[14]
The Germans were diligent gatherers of statistical information. Both the child and adult euthanasia programmes relied on extensive form filling; which became the basis of decisions to kill. What a Hitler could do with the Human Genome project or the NHS Information Management and Technology Strategy defies belief.

The Nazis' experiments on human subjects have been well-publicised: Hallervorden's collection of brains for his neuropathological collection; radiation and castration for sterilisation; intravenous phenol, gasoline and cyanide; hypothermia and haemorrhage studies. It was these which prompted the drafting of the Nuremberg code[15] in 1947, making informed consent an absolute requirement for research. By contrast, the Helsinki Declaration later adopted by the World Medical Association softens respect for persons and differentiates between therapeutic and non-therapeutic research.[16] Experimentation on human embryos and fetuses fall outside its remit, for all practical purposes. There is little difference between Hallervorden's use of brains and contemporary medicines use of fetal tissue, apart from the age of the subjects. The ideology which drove the holocaust was utilitarian and Hegelian. The status of certain human beings was denigrated while that of animals was elevated. Ironically, laws restricting research on animals in Nazi Germany were particularly stringent.[17] Peter Singer, editor of the Bioethics Journal, Director of the Centre for Human Bioethics in Melbourne, Australia, and one of the most influential thinkers in bioethics today, puts the same sentiments bluntly:

'We can no longer base our ethics on the idea that human beings are a special form of creation made in the image of God... Once the religious mumbo-jumbo surrounding the term "human" has been stripped away, we may continue to see normal members of our species as possessing greater qualities of rationality, self-consciousness, communication and so on than members of other species, but we will not regard as sacrosanct the life of every member of our species, no matter how limited its capacity for intelligent or even conscious life may be...'[18]
Such thinking from one of the world's leading respected academics brings Binding and Hoche full circle. Not surprisingly, Singer has been banned in Austria and Germany, and his hopes to found a state for the great apes (called Gorillastan) under the auspices of the UN finds little support there.[19]

The final lesson to learn is the danger of too close a relationship between medicine and the State. In June 1933, Deutsches Arzteblatt affirmed the medical profession's 'special responsibility to work within the framework of the state on the tasks posed by population politics and racial improvement'.[20] This principle was overruled in the Declaration of Geneva in 1948 which stressed the independence of political and medical decision making and the importance of confidentiality.[21] Since then the profession and the state has become increasingly interdependent; in payment for health services, resource allocation and in support for education and research.


The Nazi holocaust arose from small beginnings. Such a progression initially required only four factors; favourable public opinion, a handful of willing physicians, economic pressure and no prosecution for those involved. All of these conditions are present today in various parts of the Western World. The remaining ingredients were a eugenic social policy and war. It is sobering to remember that the two most devastating wars in the history of mankind have resulted in this century from failed political alliances in Europe.

The many similarities between Germany in the 1930s and the direction Western Medicine is moving today give great cause for alarm. The 55 million abortions per year worldwide, pressure for infanticide, trends in embryo research and prenatal eugenics, and the growing acceptance and practice of euthanasia in Australia, the United States and the Netherlands ring familiar bells. All run counter to post-war ethical declarations adopted by the World Medical Association. This coupled with growing health propaganda, specious euphemisms, obsession with cost-benefit analyses, computerised knowledge and a developing intimacy between profession and state leave no room for complacency.

Most worrying is that all this is taking place against a shifting ideological background; the Christian ethic of the strong laying down their lives for the weak (Rom 5:6), is giving way to a Darwinian creed whereby the weak are sacrificed for the strong. As Christians we need to know where we stand so that we can resist these trends in our own place of work and in our own lives. Human beings are special; each one is made in the image of God, and therefore worthy of the utmost love and respect (Gn 9:6). Our Saviour took on human form to secure our salvation, and leaves us an example to follow in his footsteps (1 Jn 2:6). Our injunction is to love as he loved (Eph 5:1,2), to live our lives in humble service to those who need what we have; in time, resources and medical skills, while we await his return.

  1. Hanauske-Abel HM. Not a slippery slope or sudden subversion: German Medicine and National Socialism in 1933. BMJ 1996; 131:1453-63.
  2. Proctor RN. Racial Hygiene. Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1988:95-117.
  3. Lifton RJ. The Nazi Doctors - a study in the psychology of evil. Papermac. 1986. pp50-51
  4. Ibid pp52-3
  5. Alexander L. Medical Science under Dictatorship. NEJM. July 1949. 241:2 pp39-47 (Reprinted in Ethics and Medicine 1987, 3:2 pp26-33)
  6. Ibid p44
  7. War Crimes Tribunal. Doctors of Infamy. 1948.
  8. Seidelman WE. Nuremberg lamentation: for the forgotten members of medical science. BMJ 1996;313:1463-7.
  9. Hanauske-Abel H. Op Cit p1456.
  10. Proctor RN. Op Cit.
  11. Burleigh M. Death and Deliverance - Euthanasia in Nazi Germany 1940-45. Cambridge University Press. 1994.
  12. Hellema H. Dutch doctors support life termination in dementia. BMJ 1993;306:1364
  13. Hanauske-Abel H. Op Cit p1458
  14. Attali J. La medecine en accusation. L'Avenir de la vie. Ed Seghers. Paris.
  15. Vollmann J, Winau R. Informed consent in human experimentation before the Nuremberg code. BMJ 1996;313:1445-7.
  16. Katz J. The consent principle of the Nuremberg code: its significance then and now. In Annas G, Grodin M eds. The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human rights in human experimentation. New York:Oxford University Press, 1992.
  17. Foreign Letters. New Regulations concerning vivisection. JAMA 1933;101:1087.
  18. Singer P. Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life? Paediatrics. 1983;72;1, 128-9
  19. Marr A. Just a step away from animal rights. Independent. 22 January 1996.
  20. Hanauske-Abel H. Op Cit p1457.
  21. Declartion of Geneva adopted by Gen Assembly of World Medical Association, Geneva, Switzerland, 1948.
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