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Nazi atrocities and the role doctors played

November 15, 2023

A report shows what function doctors and other medical professionals played in Nazi crimes — and how doctors today can learn from reflecting on the past.

A medical report and old photographs from Nazi times
A "medical report" from the Third Reich: countless doctors aided and abetted Nazi crimesImage: Thomas Frey/dpa/picture alliance

"It's often surprising how limited the knowledge about the Nazis' medical crimes is in today's medical community, maybe with the exception of Josef Mengele's experiments in Auschwitz," said Herwig Czech of the Medical University of Vienna in Austria. 

That's why Czech and his colleagues suggested establishing a new commission to the editor-in-chief of renowned medical journal The Lancet three years ago.

They planned to raise awareness of the Nazis' medical crimes and enable today's medical professionals to draw conclusions for the future.

The commission came to be and released its report in November 2023.

Details of Nazi atrocities

The researchers collected historical evidence of the medical atrocities committed during the Third Reich.

Their results show that the atrocities were committed by more than just a small number of individuals. They also show the consequences can still be felt today.

The report details how doctors and medical experts helped to come up with the so-called forced sterilization laws and actively participated in the sterilization of more than 350,000 people who had been categorized as "genetically inferior" according to the Nazis' race laws.

Many of the people who were sterilized suffered severe physical and psychological consequences from the procedure, and a large number of victims died. At least 230,000 people with mental, cognitive and physical disabilities were murdered "euthanasia programs" in Germany and the occupied territories during World War II.

Tens of thousands were abused as medical test subjects, for example in concentration camps.

Eugenics were used to justify crimes

The National Socialist racial ideology was used as a pseudo-scientific justification for these atrocities. The basis for what Nazis called "racial hygiene" was eugenics, the study of allegedly superior hereditary traits.

Eugenics in turn goes back to the theory of evolution, which was published by British researcher Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century.

According to this theory, only the fittest members of a species survive in a process of natural selection, while the others disappear.

Eugenicists applied this theory of natural selection to human society.

Their goal was to further the procreation of people with supposedly "good" hereditary traits and prevent the procreation of people with what they perceived as "inferior" hereditary traits.

'Inferior' traits as a scapegoat for society's ills

In Germany and elsewhere, society across all parties and classes accepted eugenics as a science. Even researchers and doctors were on board. That caused immeasurable suffering.

In early 20th century Germany, the theory had no trouble finding its footing, because many people were struggling. Mass unemployment meant many people lived in squalor, there was a drastic rise in crime, illnesses spread easily and mortality rates were high. Eugenics supporters said that "inferior biological substance" was responsible for this dismal state of affairs.

They claimed that only drastic eugenical measures, such as forced sterilization or the killing of "unworthy life," could stop the imminent demise of society. According to eugenicists, there just wasn't enough money, food and space to share with "unworthy life."

The Nazis' obsession with race

The Nazis latched onto eugenics as a welcome justification for their race laws. They encouraged the raising of so-called "racially pure Aryan children," and wanted to eradicate what they considered "unworthy life" through forced sterilization, euthanasia and systematic murder, for example in concentration camps. Researchers and doctors were active participants in this endeavor.

The new report uses 878 sources and is the most comprehensive of its kind so far, The Lancet says. It chronicles the development of medical research during the Nazi regime, portraits individual perpetrators and victims, including imprisoned doctors, who treated their fellow inmates under the most difficult circumstances.

Children with mental disabilities holding hands and playing with nurses outside, picture from Germany, around 1930
The Nazis wanted to eradicate people with mental disabilities, like these children in the German town of Schwäbisch Hall (image from around 1930)Image: dpa/picture-alliance

Nazi anatomy textbook still in use today

Despite efforts to deal with past crimes, many perpetrators and accomplices were not held responsible after the war, or only saw justice years later.

The report has found that knowledge gathered by the Nazis has often continued to be used without reexamination.

An anatomy textbook by Austrian anatomist Eduard Pernkopf, for example, is still used today because of its close attention to detail, even though the avid Nazi included images of people who were executed during the Third Reich.

One of the commission's goals is to make doctors and medical personnel aware of the origins of the medical knowledge they use.

"Medical students, researchers and practicing medical professional should know where and from whom the basics of medical knowledge originated. They owe that to the victims of National-socialism," said Shmuel Pinchas Reis from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the commission's co-chairs. 

Implications for the future

The authors see the commission report as a first step. They plan to create extensive online documentation.

"The medical atrocities committed by the Nazis are among the most extreme and best documented examples for medical participation in human rights violations in history," said Sabine Hildebrandt from the Harvard Medical School in Boston, another commission co-chair.

"We must study the history of the worst of humanity to recognize similar patterns in the present and counter them with the goal to encourage the best."

This article was adapted from German.

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