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Skeletons in the Closet of German Science

Vivi Papanayotou (jp)May 18, 2005

Enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath is a commitment to "treading with care in matters of life and death." During the Third Reich, science jettisoned these principles in a bid to advance the perfection of the German race.

Josef Mengele was often dubbed the angel of deathImage: dpa

Researchers recently stumbled across new information on extensively documented projects co-conducted during the Third Reich by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi's Auschwitz Angel of Death, and the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Berlin.

Kinder im Konzentrationslager in Auschwitz, 60 Jahre Gedenktag
Image: dpa

Best known for his unspeakably horrific medical experiments using twins, Mengele's first project with the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute was an investigation into how specific proteins can help identify racial origin. The second project, overseen by biologist Karin Magnusson, was a look at pigmentation in human iris color.

Thin end of the wedge

After spending six years researching the history of the Institute, Hans-Walter Schmuhl from the University of Bielefeld is convinced that these were not the only instances of collaboration between the institute and Auschwitz.

"There were most probably further ties, beyond these two research projects," he said. "On the strength of my studies, I also believe that samples of people with disabilities were also sent from Auschwitz to Berlin. During the war years, this field was one of the institute's man research areas."

In 1942, Josef Mengele's former professor Othmar von Verschuer was made director of the Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Dahlem, Berlin. He and his protégé went on to work together on the two eugenics projects.

Aussenansicht des Konzentrationslagers Auschwitz, 60 Jahre Gedenktag
Image: dpa

Mengele sent blood samples from some 200 patients of various race to his partner at the Berlin institute, while Karin Magnussen received human parts from the notorious concentration camp, such as eyes taken from a dead Sinti family.

Who else was involved?

It seems likely that these scientists weren't the only researchers receiving Nazi support for their studies on heredity and eugenics.

"Department head Wolfgang Abel may have also been profiting from deliveries from the concentration camp in Auschwitz," said Schuhl, "as well as Hans Grebe, another one of Verschuer's students, whose work concentrating on hereditary physical deformities. We don't know that for sure, but that is our considered opinion."

Mengele: monster or middle man?

What role did Josef Mengele play in the development of this research? Was he really the "Angel of Death," or was he just a gifted scientist taking orders from the Third Reich's elite research centers, such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute?

Ehemaliges KWI-Institut für Anthropologie, menschliche Erblehre und Eugenik
Image: GNU-FDL

"It's a very controversial question," explained Schmuhl. "He wasn't literally taking orders, because the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (photo) wasn't in a position to issue instructions to a camp physician, who was part of the SS hierarchy. It was basically a network of colleagues, although as Mengele's mentor, Verschuer had a certain authority over his former student. Rumor has it that Mengele was working on his postdoctoral thesis in Auschwitz, which was being supervised by Verschuer. That would have meant Mengele was answerable to Verschuer. In that sense, he was taking orders."

Perhaps Mengele was just the middle man, but he was able to carry out his work thanks to the academic infra-structure of Nazi Germany, kept well-oiled by fervent believers in the master-race.

Basic human rights suspended

"It's important to stress that there were never any fixed hierarchies," said Schmuhl. "Instead, there were horizontal networks, which is typical of the science community. People don't tend to work alone, they work together -- drawing colleagues' attention to interesting cases, providing samples and son on. It always works like that, and that's how it worked in the Third Reich."

The difference was that Nazi death camps meant scientists were able to conduct experiments that could never have taken place before.

"It was war-time," pointed out Schmuhl. "There were prisoner of war camps and extermination camps, where basic human rights had been suspended. It would be easy to accuse the scientists in Dahlem of failing to think about the morality of their actions. They accepted human samples without bothering to ask who had to die first."

Many of the scientists incriminated in these cases were never even prosecuted in the post-war years. After disappearing in 1945, Josef Mengele allegedly drowned in Brazil in 1979. Karin Magnussen was simply deemed a Nazi "fellow traveler," and spent twenty years as a biology teacher in Bremen before dying in 1997 at the age of 89.

Most spurious of all was the fate of Othmar von Verschuer. He remained a respected scientist in Germany and became Dean of the University of Münster, as well as an honorary member of numerous scientific societies.