George M. Weisz, MD
University of New South Wales, School of History, Sydney, Australia
This material was presented as an exhibition, Nazi Medicine, at the Sydney Jewish Museum in 2007
The curator was Mrs. Roslyn Sugerman. The supervising historian was Prof. Konrad Kwiet
The Nazis, who seized power in Germany in 1933, believed in a doctrine of racial purity: “The German people, the Aryans’ mental powers exceed that of the other races.”… “We have to eliminate the degenerates.”
Adolf Hitler had stated in 1924, “The National Socialist State, using medical science, must see that only healthy people beget children.” In 1933, he appealed to doctors, “I can not do without you for a single day, not for a single hour.” In response, 44% of the profession enthusiastically joined the Nazi Party.
Nazi doctors played an important role in implementing the Nazi government’s murderous programs - a four step ‘E-program’: eugenics, euthanasia, extermination and experimentation.
Eugenics predated the Nazis, who promoted it to prevent the ‘degeneration’ of the German Volk (people). In 1923, Professor Ernst Rüdin (Head of the Research Institute of Psychiatry in Munich) advocated sterilization of the ‘unfit’. In 1927, Prof. Otmar von Verschuer (Head of the Department of Human Heredity, Munich) demanded sterilization of the ‘mentally subhuman’.
In 1933, Prof. Fritz Lenz (Head of the Department of Eugenics in Berlin) announced, “it is the will of Hitler that racial hygiene should be put into practice”. A ‘genetic purification’ process was implemented in the following stages:
The Sterilization Law, proclaimed in July 1933, sanctioned “the prevention of genetically diseased offspring with illnesses”. Two hundred ‘Genetic Health Courts’ were set up to assess people with ‘feeble-mindedness’, microcephaly (small heads), macrocephaly (big heads), schizophrenia, manic depression, epilepsy, spastic paralysis, Huntington's chorea (involuntary movements), Down's syndrome, facial, spinal and limb malformations (cleft lip/palate, spina bifida, club feet, etc.), congenital blindness or deafness, congenital syphilis and severe alcoholism.
In 1935, an amendment legalized 20,000 forced abortions, even in the late stages of pregnancy, on those with physical or mental disabilities. Marriage laws were introduced in 1935 to secure genetic health.
In 1937 some 500 children of mixed origins were sterilized, being ‘Rhineland bastards’, offspring of the French African (North-African and Sub-Saharan) and Indo-Chinese occupying forces and German mothers after World War I.
By 1945, some 400,000 Germans had been forcibly sterilised. Physicians helped to implement Nazi policies (Susan Bachrach, New England Journal of Medicine, 2004).
The ‘euthanasia’ centres
The state-sanctioned killing program provided for the murder of the mentally and physically disabled. With the outbreak of WWII, Adolf Hitler charged Dr. Karl Brandt, his personal physician, and Philip Bouhler, administrative Head of the Chancellery, with “the responsibility to extend the power of specific doctors in such a way…… that those suffering from incurable illnesses may be granted a mercy death”. The ‘euthanasia’ program took several successive ‘actions’. At the start was the obligatory notification of ‘those with a life not worth living’.
Initially, the ‘children’s euthanasia’, performed in 30 German and one Austrian children’s hospitals, killed children by exposure to cold, starvation, or injection by doctors of morphine/ scopolamine with luminal or veronal (medication normally used as anaesthetics during surgery).
Soon the killings were conducted from 4 Tiergarten Street, Berlin, the Centre for the program named Aktion T4. The murders were extended to include teenagers and adults and were perpetrated in six German and Austrian institutions equipped with mobile gas vans or stationary gas installations and crematoria. Viktor Brack, head of Aktion T4, ordered that the “gassing should be performed only by physicians”.
Whilst the Aktion T4 program was officially halted by 1941, largely due to public protest, the killing continued by other means. The victims were starved or killed with morphine /scopolamine injections and the handicapped were killed by doctors and nurses in numerous hospitals and asylums. Relatives were told that the victims had died of illness.
This uncoordinated, decentralized killing was called ‘wild euthanasia’ (killing the physically malformed, the mentally disturbed or intellectually retarded or the ill-behaved at places other than the designated gassing centres) and was performed in Hadamar and Bernburg. (USHMM)
A parallel action, from 1941 until 1944, was Aktion 14-f-13 (at the order of Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, the feared Schutzstaffel or ‘Defence squadron’). Concentration camp inmates unfit for physical work were designated for ‘special treatment’, namely to be killed in ‘euthanasia’ gassing centres. They were transported to the Bernburg, Sonnestein and Hartheim centres for killing. (USHMM)
More than 5,000 children and some 70,000 adults fell victim to the Aktion T4 program, and almost 120,000 in the combined ‘wild euthanasia’ and Aktion 14-f-13 program.
A total of 200,000 people were killed with the help of Nazi doctors, through starvation, exposure, narcotic ingestion, lethal injections and carbon monoxide gassing.
Doctor selecting on arrival in Auschwitz [Courtesy of Yad Vashem]
Adolf Hitler had said in 1919, “Jewry, a racial association, will bring about racial tuberculosis of the Volk. The final objective of our policy must be the removal of the Jews altogether”. This policy led eventually to the ‘Final Solution’ or Holocaust, the murder of six million European Jews during World War II.
In March 1943, the necessary staff and a doctor experienced in the killings in the ‘euthanasia’ program were transferred to the extermination camps. ‘Operation Reinhard’ commenced in conquered Poland: Jews were deported to Chelmo, Belzec, Treblinka, and Sobibor; and were killed with carbon monoxide gas. Zyklon-B gas was used later in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
It is estimated that six million Jews (including one-and-a-half million children) and 250,000-500,000 Romany (gypsies) were murdered.
Nazi doctors selected victims on arrival at the camps; they participated in the management of the camps, by being present during gassing and occasionally by giving phenol injections into the heart of patients kept at the medical block in Auschwitz. According to Pastor Martin Niemoller, a prisoner from Dachau:
First, they came for the Communists and I did not speak up because I was not a Communist. Next they came for the Jews and I did not speak up for them because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics and I did not speak up because I was a Protestant. Finally they came for me and there was no one to speak up for me anymore” Pastor Martin Niemoller, prisoner, Dachau
80 different kinds of experiments were carried out in camps, performed by approximately 400 doctors on 7,000 victims. Some experiments were conducted for military purposes, others out of genetic curiosity; some were based on racial fantasies.
Survival and rescue ‘research’ Experiments tested bodily functions, adaptation to inhuman conditions, resuscitation measures and the ability to survive extremes. The ‘findings’ were meant to help save the lives of Air Force and Navy personnel.
Victim in low oxygen environment [courtesy US Holocaust Memorial Museum, USHMM]
High altitude experiments
In Dachau, victims were placed in chambers simulating the low oxygen pressures encountered in falling out, or bailing out, of aeroplanes. (Dr. Rascher).
The victims were ‘parachuted’ from various altitudes. At a simulated altitude of 13 km, they developed muscle spasms and became unconscious. At autopsy (post-mortem dissection), they were found to have air in the blood vessels of the brain and swelling of the brain; at 15 km ‘altitude’, they had difficulty breathing, turned blue, foamed at the mouth and then stopped breathing. At 30 km altitude, they went into an immediate coma. 70 out of the 200 victims did not survive the experiments.
In Dachau, inmates were exposed to 9-15 hours of dry cold, in the outside winter environment, or to wet cold, through immersion for 1-4 hours at 3º-12º C in a water tank. Some were clothed, others naked. The ‘findings’ were to help save the lives of sailors and airmen who fell into the cold North Sea.
The doctors measured external and internal responses of the human ‘guinea pigs’: body temperature with thermometers on the skin, in the rectum or in the stomach; blood thickness, sugar content, fragility of red blood cells, changes in the urine and the time until death. Some were anaesthetized, others given alcohol, which was of no benefit. Blood thickness increased, causing clotting, the heart rate increased, consciousness became clouded, the pupils of the eyes dilated and stopped reacting to light. At a body temperature of 29º C, irregular heart beats appeared. After 50 minutes, at a body temperature of 25º C, the heart stopped.
Re-warming methods were tested to revive the frozen victims: blankets, bathing in warm or boiling water, sunlight, hot water irrigations in the stomach, rectum and bladder; human body-to-body contact (with one or two females), with forced sexual intercourse. 80 out of the 300 victims perished.
Victim immersed in icy water [Courtesy of Yad Vashem]
In Dachau, the victims were mostly Romany. 90 inmates were selected, the number of deaths is unknown.
Experiments with mustard gas
Carried out in Sachsenhausen and Natzweiler camps. 50 of the 220 victims died.
Incendiary bomb (phosphor)
These experiments were carried out in Buchenwald camp. There were no deaths, but much pain and disfigurement.
These were carried out on Russian prisoners in Buchenwald. All died and underwent autopsies. Exact numbers are not known.
Blood clotting experiments
Performed in Dachau. The victims were given POLYGAL to clot the blood. Success was claimed, but was not confirmed in ethical post-war experiments.
Phenol injections were used in camps and ‘euthanasia’ centres. In Buchenwald camp, 150 prisoners were injected intravenously. All 150 victims died in minutes.
Experimentation related to infectious diseases
Experimentation related to infectious diseases was carried out for the protection and treatment of soldiers.
Hepatitis (infectious jaundice) experiments were carried out in Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Natzweiler camps. Many victims died, others survived with permanent liver disease.
Typhus (spotted fever) is a disease caused by rickettsiae and transmitted by lice. In 1941 and in 1943-44, doctors experimented on 729 victims. 154 deaths were recorded.
Similar tests were perpetrated on hundreds of victims infected with yellow fever, smallpox, paratyphoid A and B, cholera or diphtheria.
Malaria was the subject of the largest experimentation, carried out in Dachau, involving 1,200 victims. Inoculated by mosquito bites (their hands held in cages full of infected insects), the victims were given various combinations of medications, quinine, neosalvarsan, pyramidon and antipyrine. 300 victims died, 30 from malaria, 270 from overdoses.
Pharmaceutical experiments and simulated battle wounds
In Auschwitz, 50 inmates had pus injected into their limbs, followed by a trial of three separate treatments: with sulphonamide, inert chemicals or surgery. The sulpha group survived, the rest suffered severe pain, fever and sepsis, and 19 died.
Sulphonamide experiments were also performed in Ravensbrück women's camp, testing the effect on various bacteria (streptococcus, staphylococcus, tetanus), all causing bone infection (osteomyelitis). Legs were cut open, and cultures of the bacteria were forced into the wounds. The doctors inserted wood shavings, rusty nails and ground glass to facilitate the gas gangrene infection and tied off blood vessels to deprive the muscles of oxygen (creating the anaerobic conditions in which the bacteria were known to thrive). Many victims remained mutilated and many died.
Bone-tendon transplantation, muscle and nerve transplantation experiments
These experiments were performed in Ravensbrück. Arms and legs of prisoners were cut off and parts were implanted into other victims. Bone was removed and transplanted to the victim’s other leg or into other victims. Nerves were cut out to observe how they re-grew.
Some 700 amputations were performed, 75 women victims remained invalids, 11 died.
Experiments to ‘prove’ Jewish inferiority: injecting children with Tuberculosis
This experiment was carried out on 20 children, aged 5-12 years, transferred from Auschwitz to Neuengamme camp. Tuberculosis bacteria were injected into the veins and, through the windpipe, into the lungs, to prove the reduced resistance of an ‘inferior race’. This study, performed on emaciated children, and resulting in a rapid deterioration of the children's condition, was a brutal, non-scientific experiment, with inaccurate conclusions.
School, rebuilt after bombardment [Courtesy of KZ-Gedenkstatte Neuengamme]
Memorial plaque in the school garden (modified), with names and comment [Courtesy of KZ-Gedenkstatte Neuengamme
At the end of the war the German authorities decided that all traces of these experiments had to be eliminated. Two weeks before liberation, on 20 April 1945, the children were taken to Bullenhuser Damm School, injected with morphine, hanged on hooks in the basement and cremated.
Schematic illustration of hidden radiation on boys vs. girls[designed by R. Cupples]
Short-wave radiation to the lower abdomen of women over various length of time was studied. Severe abdominal pain resulted, and then the abdomen was opened, without anaesthetic, to allow for dissection. The method did not cause sterilization. Many women died.
X-ray and radium irradiation of the genitals of victims aged in their late teens or early twenties were performed in Auschwitz (Drs Schumann, Gebhardt). The dose required for immediate sterilization was assessed by subsequent removal, without anaesthetic, of the testicles or ovaries for examination. The dosage needed was found to be 500 rads for men and 300 for women.
The immediate effects of radiation were local skin burns and radiation sickness. Out of some 300 victims who survived, a delayed effect was reproductive sterility. Skin burns and radiation sickness made 100 prisoners incapable of work. They were put to death by poison gas.
A late effect, discovered 40 years later on, was cancer of the bowel (colon and rectum), published by Rotmensch and others in the medical journal CANCER (no. 57, 1986). The later on published list of victims in whom the diagnoses were made: Aliza B, Auschwitz no. 41544, Rigreta A, no 38968, Eleonora M, no 41579, Bella N, number unknown, Dora C, no. 38782, and Dora V, no 41624. The common factor was their exposure to radiation sterilization in 1942-1943.
Hundreds of female prisoners were injected into their wombs with chemical agents which produced inflammation and blockage of the ovarian tubes.
Schematic illustration of injection in uterus, with blockage in the left half.
With no anaesthetic, the chemicals introduced, causing excruciating pain, were caladium plant extract, carbolic acid, formalin, progynon (hormone), iodipirin (by Dr. Clauberg), or carbon dioxide. The inflammation of uterus, tubes and ovaries was immediate, causing perforation and peritonitis (infection in the abdominal cavity). Many of the 300 victims died.
Hereditary studies and irrational experiments
These experiments were conducted to provide a ‘scientific’ basis for Nazi racist ideology and biological evidence for the extermination of ‘inferiors.’ In Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jews, before being gassed, were subjected to a wide range of tests by Dr. Mengele. Head, body and limbs were measured, for studies in proportions. Blood serology studies and x-rays were repeated on a daily basis.
Romanies, too, were subjected to these experiments. Body and head characteristics were recorded and blood differences studied. Eye color, particularly heterochromatic (eyes being of different colour) was studied in Sachsenhausen. The removed eyes were sent to the Berlin Museum for further studies.
Dr. Mengele experimented on twins to search for clues to multiple births, in order to increase the Aryan birth rate, and also to try to obtain the desired Aryan blue eyes. Drops containing blue dye were instilled into the victims’ eyes. Another experiment was with TB: bacteria were injected into one twin, then both twins were killed and autopsied to observe the different pathology. 14 pairs were killed by phenol injection. Out of more then 1,000 pairs of twins, only 200 survived the torture.
Twin sisters from Prague, A. (Auschwitz no. 72890) and S. (no. 72919) who were interned aged 19, were exposed to repeat blood tests (serum protein research) and whole-body X-rays. They received blood transfusions from a pair of twin boys, leading to weeks of illness. The next intended stage in this experiment, copulation with the twin boys, was prevented by the advancing Russian troops. Pregnancies could not have resulted in any event as the under-nourished girls had ceased their monthly cycles. The ‘scientist’ Dr. Mengele had not even inquired about the regularity of their cycles. Today the twins live in Melbourne, in reasonable physical health, but in constant mental anguish.
Twins Annetta Able & Stephanie Heller Age 19
Recent photo of twins Annetta Able & Stephanie Heller
Small people with a congenital growth defect (chondrodystrophy) called ‘dwarfs’, attracted the special interest of Dr. Mengele. He wanted to prove that dwarfs were a ‘degenerated’ form of humans. Relatively well fed, they were extensively investigated for physical characteristics, exposed to repeated total body x-ray examinations, daily blood tests, spinal punctures and semen examinations. Ears were injected with cold or hot water and their reactions recorded. Their family trees were studied, and their forced sex life observed.
The little peoples’ family, with some normal sized siblings [Courtesy of USHMM]
In Our Hearts We Were Giants; The Remarkable Story of The Lilliput Troupe - A Dwarf Family’s Survival of the Holocaust tells the story of the Ovitz family from Transylvania and their survival in Auschwitz.
Collection of bones [Courtesy Yad Vashem}
The bone collectors
The Anatomy museum of Strasbourg University (Prof. Dr. August Hirt) collected 115 skeletons. 109 Jews, 2 Poles and 4 Russians in Auschwitz and Natzweiler were killed for their bones.
The letter below, from the Anatomical Institute at the University of Posen, illustrates skeletons and facial masks being offered for sale to Dr Joseph Wastl, Director of Anthropology at the Natural History Museum, Vienna, (letter dated 4 March 1942):
In response to your inquiry, I am offering you skulls of Poles for the price of 25 Reich marks each. For the time being I can not supply you with skulls of Polish children. I can offer you Jewish skulls, 25-50 years old for the price of 25 Reich marks each and give you the exact age and birthplace. I could also make plaster busts of the quintessential eastern Jews for you that you can see the form of the head and the often very peculiar ears.
Brain Histology from Euthanasia victim K.R. [Courtesy of WStLA Otto-Wagner Spital, Wien, previously Psychiatric Hospital Baumgartner Hohe Steinhof]
The brain collectors
The Eidinger Institute of Brain Research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin collected children’s brains. A well-known neuropathologist, Prof. Dr. Julius Hallervorden, described a genetic, fatal disorder of the brain (proven later on to be due to an excessive iron deposit resulting from an enzyme deficiency). He had studied hundreds of brains, collected from euthanasia centres. The origin of the supplied brains, which were declared to be ‘wonderful material’, was known to the professor. He had even examined some of the children before their death in the euthanasia centre and had then done the autopsies. After 1945, he continued his successful scientific career. He was never tried in court and died in 1966, aged 84.
The eye collectors
Prof. Otmar von Verschuer, at the Berlin Institute of Human Heredity, collected eyes from Romany victims.
The skin collectors
Jewish and Romany women were at the mercy of the pathologically sadistic female guards, Irma Grese in Auschwitz and Ilse Koch, wife of the commanding officer, in Buchenwald. Both were collectors of human skin to make lampshades, book covers, items of furniture and hand bags.
After the war, the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg sentenced seven Nazi doctors to hanging, six were acquitted, and eight were sentenced to 10-20 years imprisonment. The evolving Cold War left other indicted doctors at the benign mercy of ‘denazified’ judges. As a result, sentences were either nil or short prison terms. In the 1960s, with the new generation of judges, a few Nazi doctors were tried.
Dr. Herta Oberheuser, involved in hundreds of limb amputations at Ravensbrück camp, was sentenced to 20 years, reduced to 10, and eventually to five. She resumed medical practice in 1952, until her license was revoked in 1958.
Dr. Heissermeyer, the tuberculosis expert responsible for the children's tragedy, returned to practice his ‘lung specialty’ in Magdeburg, East Germany. He was tried 21 years later and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1966. He died in prison after 17 months, having served just three weeks for each child he had experimented on and killed.
Dr. Irmfried Eberl, director of the Bernburg euthanasia centre, was the only doctor to be the commandant of an extermination camp (Treblinka). He evaded punishment by committing suicide in 1948.
Dr. Horst Schumann, who had experimented on hundreds of men and women with radiation sterilization, was acquitted in 1960, being ‘unfit for trial’ (high blood pressure), was again held in prison for one year in 1972, was then released and lived in Frankfurt until his death in 1983.
Dr. Joseph Mengele, the ‘Angel of death’ in Auschwitz, escaped and lived in South America, where he died in 1979.
Dr. Eduard Wirth, chief medical officer at Auschwitz, committed suicide on his arrest in 1945. His brother, Dr Helmut Wirth, was never found.
Dr. Carl Vaernet, who attempted to ‘cure’ homosexuals with hormone injections or castration, was arrested and handed to the Dutch authorities for prosecution. He escaped and died in South America in 1965.
Dr. Heinrich Gross, a Viennese psychiatrist, involved in euthanasia and in experiments on thousands of children, escaped prison on three occasions. He died in Vienna in 2005, aged 90.
The cold exposure (hypothermic) experiments were the ones most studied after the War.
Robert Berger, a cardio-thoracic surgeon, concluded in perhaps the world’s most prestigious medical journal, The New England Journal of Medicine, in 1990:
The review of the hypothermia experiments in Dachau (shows that) they were fraudulent, unscientific and of no value………and morality would not permit their clinical application.
Indeed, the alleged effects of cooling on the heart tissue and on the brain have been disproved in many thousands of heart operations, performed since the advent of open heart surgery in the 1950s.
Nazi medicine remains the darkest page in the history of medicine.
GEORGE M. WEISZ, MD, FRACS was trained as an orthopedic and spinal surgeon in Israel, the USA and Canada. He has been in practice in Sydney since 1975. His interest in history and the arts led to a BA degree in European History at the University of New South Wales and to an MA in Renaissance Studies at the University of Sydney. As someone who had escaped the atrocities of World War II, his research has combined his two interests – history and medicine – looking at medical incompetence in early times and at the betrayal of medical ethics in modern times. In 2007 he authored a successful exhibition on Nazi Medicine at the Sydney Jewish Museum that then travelled to three other universities. His present research continues on both medical and historical lines, on ‘Ghetto Doctors’ Contributions to Medicine’ and on ‘Medical History Hidden in Renaissance Paintings’. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.