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Nazi resistance victims buried in Berlin
Image: Reuters/F. Bensch

Nazi medical research victims laid to rest

Ben Knight Berlin
May 13, 2019

The remains of some 300 Nazi resistance fighters, executed for standing up to Adolf Hitler's dictatorship, have been buried in Berlin. Anatomy professor Hermann Stieve used the bodies for research during the war.


The remains of German anti-Nazi resistance fighters, kept by a controversial gynecologist and anatomist during the Nazi era, were buried following a short ceremony at the Charite hospital in Berlin on Monday.

The date of Monday's ceremony was chosen as the anniversary of the execution of 13 members of the Red Orchestra resistance movement in Plötzensee, including Erika Gräfin von Brockdorff, whose daughter Saskia was at Monday's service.

Hermann Stieve, director of the Berlin Anatomical Institute from 1935 until his death in 1952, used the corpses of several hundred executed resistance fighters, mainly women aged between 20 and 40, to study the human reproductive system.

Some of the relatives of those resistance fighters were gathered at the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin on Monday to watch the small casket containing some 300 microscope slide tissue samples be lowered into the ground. The identities of only 30% of the samples were established, and the names have not been released to the public. The burial was preceded by a brief religious service held by a Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor and a rabbi.

Read more: As Holocaust survivors grow older, activists keep their stories alive

Though never himself a member of the Nazi party, Stieve was able to arrange for the bodies to be transported to his laboratory — sometimes within 15 minutes of their decapitation or hanging at the Plötzensee prison, where 2,800 people were executed between 1933 and 1945.

No graves

Stieve's descendants discovered 300 preserved tissue samples of these remains in 2016, which led to a study by the Institute for Anatomy at Brandenburg Medical School and the Charite hospital on the samples, all measuring around one square centimeter and a hundredth of a millimeter thin.

"We are also working on the assumption that the unidentified samples came from the murders in Plötzensee, because they were almost all from people who died as young women," Karl Max Einhäupl, head of the Charite university clinic, told DW at the event.

Read more: New Berlin Stolpersteine honor victims of Nazi Germany

In his address during the memorial service, Einhäupl described Stieve as an "accomplice" to the Nazi crimes who had helped dispose of the bodies of resistance fighters. The hospital director said Stieve was certainly aware of who his samples had come from, and how they had died. The rest of their bodies were cremated, with more than 80 urns containing their ashes found at the institute seven years after the end of the war. Hardly any of the resistance members executed in Plötzensee were ever given graves.

Burial at the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin
The victims' remains were buried in a small casket at the Dorotheenstadt cemeteryImage: Reuters/F. Bensch

Ethical blind spot

Historical records show Stieve was particularly interested in the effect of stress on sex glands and the menstrual cycle, and saw the use of capital punishment as a research opportunity. In a letter to the Science Ministry in 1938, Stieve wrote that the executions provided his institute with a "material that no other institute in the world possesses. I have a duty to work on, isolate and preserve this material."

According to a statement by the Charite hospital, Stieve's assistant, Charlotte Pommer, refused to take part in these dissections and left the institute. Pommer, who died in 2004, was honored at a symposium on Stieve's work at the Charite hospital last week.

Read more: Holocaust literature: Beyond the labels of victim and perpetrator

But Stieve's work during the Nazi era drew little concern in postwar Germany. His work was praised in an obituary in Neues Deutschland, the state-run newspaper of East Germany, which wrote: "Great were his deeds. In his work he will live on."

In 2013 the Charite hospital began to investigate the extent of its cooperation with the Third Reich. "We didn't want to just erect a memorial, there are a lot of memorials in Berlin that deal with this issue," said Einhäupl. "Because for the young doctors we wanted to start a process that would explain how doctors could be brought to take part in such crimes."

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight
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