The long, twisted shadow cast by Nazi medical experiments
Seven decades after Nazi camp inmates were tortured in the name of medical research, it is increasingly clear the experimentation was conducted by scientists well beyond known ‘Nazi hacks and SS quacks’
Probably not for the last time, human remains from inmates used in Holocaust-era “medical experiments” were accidentally discovered in Germany last year.
Employees of the Max Planck Psychiatric Institute in Munich found the brain samples during construction in 2015, but the finding was not announced until the end of last month. The institute regularly received human remains from experiments performed on Nazi camp inmates during World War II.
The man most closely associated with these “medical” activities was Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death” who selected inmates for the gas chambers or forced labor on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. According to the Max Planck Institute, the remains found last year were collected by Mengele and other physicians for analysis at the lab, which was then called the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.
“We are embarrassed by these findings, and the blemish of their discovery in the archives,” said the institute in a statement about the remains, found in jars during building renovations.
Israel’s Yad Vashem expressed concern over how long it took officials to publicize the discover, pointing to other examples of the mishandling of human remains from Nazi-era experiments. Two years ago in Berlin, for instance, victims’ bones were discovered in the trash. Last year, the remains of Jews gassed for research were uncovered at a forensic medical institute in Strasbourg, France, meticulously labeled with the victims’ information.
“Next year, we’re going to organize a convention about this issue,” said Yad Vashem’s Dan Machman in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio following the Planck Institute’s announcement.
“This [discovery] is something new that was previously unknown, and joins other events that are suddenly uncovered after 70 years,” said the director of research at the international Holocaust center. “Whoever thought this chapter was completely finished is mistaken.”
‘Life unworthy of life’
Just as he was in charge of implementing the “Final Solution,” SS chief Heinrich Himmler sat atop the chain of command for medical experiments in Nazi camps. Because his guiding obsession was to advance Hitler’s racial utopia, Himmler took special interest in projects like “Block 10” of Auschwitz, where women underwent artificial insemination by SS physician Carl Clauberg, as well as forced sterilization.
Long associated with Nazi medical experiments are the 1,000 pairs of twins that Josef Mengele “operated” on at Auschwitz. By murdering twins to perform simultaneous autopsies, Mengele hoped to unlock mechanisms involved in multiple births. As with the insemination and sterilization experiments, the twins were murdered in order to create a world repopulated by Germans.
Next to advancing the Nazis’ racial utopia, the second focus of experiments was to assist the war effort. Whether forcing Roma and Sini prisoners to drink sea water, or freezing 300 prisoners to record their shock from exposure, victims were subjected to one atrocity after another. Outside Hamburg, Jewish children had tuberculosis injected into their lungs. At Dachau, a decompression chamber was used to simulate high-altitude conditions, with 80 of 200 victims dying outright.
Even before the Holocaust, physicians played a key role in Hitler’s secret T4 euthanasia program, through which 60,000 physically or mentally disabled Germans, including children, were murdered by lethal injection or in gas chambers. The personnel who ran these gassing installations went on to apply their findings at death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.
According to historians, Hitler did not need to entice or coerce medical professionals into implementing the T4 program. Not widely probed until recent decades, German scientists apparently outpaced the regime in their haste to deal with “life unworthy of life,” as Nazi propaganda described the disabled.
“The German medical community set its own course in 1933,” wrote Hartmut M. Hanauske-Abel in a seminal paper titled, “Not a Slippery Slope or Sudden Subversion: German Medicine and National Socialism in 1933.”
In that 1996 paper, Hanauske-Abel wrote about “[the German medical] profession’s eager pursuit of enforced eugenic sterilizations.” His research detailed physicians’ leadership in projects like the T4 “mercy killings,” shattering the image of a few monsters like Mengele being responsible for Nazi atrocities.
“The image of Nazi hacks and SS quacks engaged in lethal experiments in the seclusion of death camps is widely held to epitomize the type of doctor on trial in Nuremberg. But it is a false image — a stereotype constructed from incomplete data,” wrote Hanauske-Abel, accusing the German medical community of “enlightened amnesia” about its role in crimes against humanity.
For all his research into history, Hanauske-Abel’s license was revoked by Germany’s Chamber of Medicine. He currently teaches at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, with department appointments in women’s health and pediatrics.
Justice and silence
Largely forgotten among the notorious defendants at the Nuremberg Trials, two-dozen doctors were charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. During almost five months of testimony from 85 witnesses, evidence of atrocities committed at Auschwitz, Dachau and elsewhere was presented, and the tribunal sentenced seven physicians to death.
Although thousands of medical personnel were involved in Nazi-era medical experiments on unwilling inmates, just 23 men stood in for all of them at Nuremberg.
“To untrained judges, attorneys, investigators and juries, as existed during the time of the Nuremberg trials, what emerged was an incomplete, often hasty, and unfair prosecution of crimes that demanded more resources and research,” said Victor Shayne, author of the 2009 book, “Remember Us: My Journey from the Shtetl Through the Holocaust.”
“The degree of interest in bringing criminals to justice must be questioned, and one must wonder how much this had to do with political interests of the post-war period,” said Shayne in an interview with The Times of Israel. “These included the grab for Nazi scientists that occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the incestuous relationship between Nazi corporations and Allied nations, including the US,” said Shayne.
Indeed, several of the most notorious Nazi physicians were rehabilitated after the war. Among these men was Carl Clauberg of Auschwitz’s horrific Block 10. After being released from a Soviet prison, Clauberg listed Auschwitz on his business card and gave a press conference about his work there and the women’s camp Ravensbruck. Clauberg was arrested in 1955, although the German Chamber of Medicine refused to revoke his license.
Another prominent Nazi physician who continued his medical career was Baron Otmar Von Verschuer. As Mengele’s chief mentor, the doctor received eyeballs and other remains taken from Mengele’s victims. As with Clauberg, Germany’s Chamber of Medicine upheld Von Verschuer’s medical license after the war, and he enjoyed a career of prominence until the late 1960s.
“The annals of the downfall of German medicine are replete with the names of internationally renowned scientists like Professors Planck, Rudin, and Hallervorden and clinicians like Harvard-trained Professor G. Schaltenbrand, who conducted neuro-immunological experiments on uninformed subjects — not at a concentration camp but at the Julius Maximilian University of Wurzburg,” wrote Hanauske-Abel.
There is still debate over whether or not it is acceptable to use data obtained from Nazi experiments. For instance, Nazi-era research into the gas phosgene became relevant during the Gulf War, when US military strategists feared it might be deployed against their forces. Publications like The New England Journal of Medicine have rejected papers that make use of data obtained from the Nazis’ victims, including the human “cooling curve” derived from freezing experiments.
“In dehumanizing people, whether Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, Communists or others, there arises a rationalization for any sort of crime, from torture to stealing to murder,” said Shayne. “And this dehumanization lies at the bottom of Nazi experimentation,” he said.
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