Under the Nazis, medical research supported a new vision for a ‘racially pure’ Europe. Science and Nazi ideology worked together to shape this new world. Nazi policy eroded the legal basis for the protection of individual rights, including control over one’s own body, to promote the body politic Volkskörper.
Scientists seized the opportunity to advance medical research. They performed cruel and often fatal experiments on thousands of Jews and other ‘undesirables’.
Medical research relied on experimentation. Animals were soon replaced by human beings.
This exhibition examines coerced experimentation in Nazi-dominated Europe. Portraits of victims and perpetrators show how widespread and destructive the experiments were. The exhibition explores the legacy of medical research under Nazism and its impact on bioethics and research today.
The exhibition launched on 17 May 2017, and is based on the extensive research of Professor Paul Weindling, Wellcome Trust Research Professor in the History of Medicine at Oxford Brookes University. We are grateful to the Wellcome Trust and Wiener Library donors for their support of this exhibition and related programming.
With special thanks to University of Bristol & University of Southampton PhD Candidate Chad MacDonald for adapting this online exhibition.
From Eugenics to Experiments
Guidelines for New Therapy and Human Experimentation, 28 February 1931 [excerpt]
- Experimentation shall be prohibited in all cases where consent has not been given;
- Experimentation involving human subjects shall be avoided if it can be replaced by animal studies…
- Experimentation involving children or young persons under 18 years of age shall be prohibited in if it any way endangers the child…
- Experimentation involving dying subjects is compatible with the principles of medical ethics and shall therefore be prohibited…
The international eugenics movement became popular in the early twentieth century. It intended to promote physical and mental health. Eugenics advanced the idea that some people were ‘genetically superior’. Volunteer blogger Kirsty Dear recently published a post on the international eugenics movement on the Wiener Library blog, entitled Hitler’s Debt to America: The International Eugenics Movement.
Eugenics policies sought to prevent ‘inferior’ individuals from having children, often by forced sterilisation (removal or destruction of reproductive organs). ‘Superior’ individuals and groups were encouraged to have more children to create a more law-abiding, ‘fitter’ population. Eugenics became linked to theories about race. The Nazis absorbed eugenic ideas into their racist platform.
Experimental medicine was on the rise in Germany and elsewhere in the 1920s and 1930s. Often, researchers experimented on the poor, the mentally and terminally ill, and other vulnerable groups. Nazi Germany invested extensive skilled personnel, equipment and facilities into such experiments.
The German Minister of the Interior’s guidelines on human experimentation were not enforceable by law. Once psychiatric patients and racial ‘inferiors’ lost their status as ‘human subjects’, life and limb were at risk.
Image credit (below centre): American Eugenics Society Records, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, USA.
Image credit (below right): Vogel, Alfred. Erblehre, Abstammungs, und Rassenkunde in bildlicher Darstellung. Stuttgart, 1938.
Nazifying Medical Research
Our starting point is not the individual, and we do not subscribe to the view that one should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty or clothe the naked – those are not our objectives. Our objectives are entirely different…We must have a healthy people in order to prevail in the world.
Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, 1938
The medical field proved vital to the Nazis as they consolidated power and reorganised the German state and society from 1933. The medical profession was ‘co-ordinated’ and Jewish practitioners were purged. Nazi priorities shaped medical ethics, and medicine offered a means of control.
Racial hygiene fixated on ‘cleansing’ the German hereditary stream. In July 1933, the Nazis passed the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases. This law imposed sterilisation on people deemed to have hereditary illnesses or disabilities. Physicians sterilised those with schizophrenia, Huntington’s chorea and epilepsy, as well as so-called ‘mental defectives,’ chronic alcoholics and the blind and deaf.
The law marked a break with democratic structures of public health provision. The Nazis also targeted for sterilisation groups of ‘mixed race’, Roma and Sinti (‘Gypsies’), and those showing ‘antisocial behaviour’.
The Nazis pushed for a radicalised research agenda. Ambitious researchers saw new opportunities for coerced experiments. German medical education was oriented toward research and experimentation. German doctors demanded powers to screen, segregate and operate on victims in the name of science.
Image credit (below left): Volk und Rasse, VII, 1936.
Image credit (below right): Rechenbuch für Volksschulen:Gaue Westfalen-Nord und -Süd: Ausgabe B für wenig gegliederte Schulen: Heft 5: siebentes und achtes Schuljahr. Edited by Adolf Schiffner. Leipzig: F. Hirt & Sohn Crüwell, 1941.
‘Life Unworthy of Life’ and Brain Research
The Nazis justified the murder of ‘undesirables’ they viewed as a drain on national resources. They targeted infants and children with birth defects as the first victims of their plans for ‘mercy killing’. From 1939 to 1945, medical staff murdered about 10,000 children in special wards created at hospitals and clinics.
After the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Hitler ordered the ‘euthanasia’ (or ‘T4’) programme for the ‘incurably ill’. Medical staff selected adult victims, whom they transferred to designated killing centres. There they were gassed.
The launch of the so-called euthanasia programme brought new opportunities for research on patients before they were killed. After medical staff killed the victims, physicians investigated their brains and neural tissue. They wanted to prove links between brain abnormalities and clinical forms of illness.
One was really on one’s own, and totally alone with one’s fears. For any child, this is horrible. And the term “unworthy [of] life” is still ringing in my ears. There is still a sign above my life that says: strictly speaking, you have no right to live.
Leopoldine Maier, survivor of the Spiegelgrund clinic.
War, Genocide and ‘Research Opportunity’
As war and the genocide against the Jews and others unfolded, medical research intensified. Medical and racial experts preyed on the blood and bodies of people who came under Nazi rule.
German scientists set out to conquer new frontiers. Professional ambition drove forward ruthless agendas to advance careers. In most cases, medical researchers or industrial interests initiated experiments.
Medical professionals planned experiments, and administrators and funding agencies authorised them. The Reich Research Council and the German Research Fund approved and financed medical research and experiments.
War and occupation provided opportunities to study infectious diseases, immunity and race. Industry, the military and public health agencies supported the experiments in an effort to prevent infections and promote productive labour.
This inhuman Nazi [Claus Schilling] shut me inside a glass cage for two hours daily, and I had to bear thousands of anopheles mosquitoes on my body. When I could bear the pain no longer I [tried] to drive the blood poisoned mosquitoes off…but the doctor…had in a mirror seen my efforts. For that I was put under strict arrest for seven days. Before I was taken away to serve the seven days I received 25 strokes with a bloodstained bull-pizzle covered with leather.
Heinz Reimer, survivor of Schilling’s malaria experiments in Dachau.
Industry and Science
The longest-running coerced experiments were carried out from June 1940 to February 1945 on a shoe-testing track in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The victims were political prisoners, British prisoners of war, and one Irish prisoner of war.
Inmates had to run up to 40 kilometres per day on the track. They often carried heavy rucksacks. Physicians tested performance-enhancing drugs and stimulants, such as cocaine, on the victims.
The research aimed to benefit civilian and military needs. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Leather Research, the German Leather Institute and the Department of Rubber Research tested artificial shoe soles. Shoe factories, such as Salamander, Freudenberg and Fagus, commissioned the tests. Temmler-Werke, a pharmaceutical company, tested the amphetamine Pervitin on the inmates.
Wartime Expansion: Rascher’s Experiments
Sigmund Rascher, an ambitious rising star in medical research, joined the SS in 1939. In 1941, as captain of the Luftwaffe Medical Service, Rascher sought permission to conduct high altitude and low pressure experiments on human beings.
More than 540 Dachau inmates, including Soviet prisoners-of-war and Polish prisoners, were used in the experiments. Luftwaffe medical services, civilian aviation medical researchers, university academics and the SS Ahnenerbe, the Institute for the Study of the ‘Aryan’ Race, cooperated in the research.
Rascher conducted another set of deadly experiments on low temperature and freezing, during which he studied the process of death. The freezing experiments tried to recreate conditions for German airmen whose planes had come down at sea.
Rascher killed at least eighty inmates during the experiments. While the Luftwaffe became drawn into experimental research at Dachau, the extent to which it used Rascher’s results remains controversial.
Two warders pushed me to a bathroom. Three doctors and about ten students were already gathered there. After a heart examination I was injected with some red stuff and put into a bath-tub with a thermometer. They switched on a ventilator. I was covered in water all but head and hands. Two of the physicians took my wrists, controlling my pulse and making notes. I was able to describe the agony I felt being completely helpless in the hands of the so unscrupulous tormentors to whom the life of a concentration camp inmate meant less than nothing. The last thing I remember before I lost consciousness was that a slight ice-covering began to appear on the surface of the water.
Iwan Ageew, survivor of freezing experiment in Dachau.
The Ravensbrück ‘Rabbits’
Experiments and Resistance
The ‘Rabbits’ were 74 female inmates of Ravensbrück concentration camp. The women, all Polish political prisoners, endured severe wound experiments between 1942 and 1943. The women were called ‘Rabbits’, the German language equivalent of a test ‘guinea pig’.
Ordered by Heinrich Himmler, the experiments formed part of SS surgeon Dr Karl Gebhardt’s research on treating infected war wounds. Gebhardt and other researchers wanted to test the effectiveness of sulphonamide drugs on war wounds versus traditional surgery.
There were two sets of experiments on treatment war wounds, particularly gangrene, in Ravensbrück and Dachau. Homeopathic treatment was used in Dachau and sulphonamide drugs were tested in Ravensbrück. The physicians used surgery to inflict injuries, rather than as a treatment.
The women protested against their treatment and encouraged other inmates to do the same. They smuggled letters – written in urine – outside the camp. The letters reached the Polish underground and the Polish government-in-exile in London, which published information about the experiments.
We, the undersigned, Polish political prisoners, ask Herr Commander whether he knew that since the year 1942 in the camp hospital experimental operations have taken place…We ask whether we were operated on as a result of sentences passed on us because, as far as we know, international law forbids the performance of operations even on political prisoners.
Protest by the ‘Rabbits’ to Ravensbrück commandant Suhren, March 1943
Auschwitz Block 10
On the brink of their annihilation, Jews were targeted for experimentation. The arrival of Jews at Birkenau for selections for slave labour or gassing meant that large groups of men, women and children were subjected to experiments.
Professor of Gynaecology Dr Carl Clauberg approached SS chief Heinrich Himmler for research opportunities in Auschwitz. He wanted to devise a surgery-free method to sterilise en masse women deemed ‘unworthy’ of children.
Using more than 500 Jewish women as subjects, Clauberg injected toxic chemicals to seal the Fallopian tubes. He used X-ray machines, developed by Siemens, to sterilise with high X–ray doses. In the process of testing, researchers burned many of the women with radiation. The experiments caused severe pain and sometimes death.
Doctors also carried out racial research in Block 10. They selected some of the women for death so their skeletons could be used for anthropological and ‘racial’ study.
In the final days of the war, Clauberg also conducted experiments on women in Ravensbrück concentration camp. He transferred there as Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz and other camps.
Dr Clauberg performed sterilisation experiments on my person without my consent…Clauberg performed his first experiment on me. The sterilisation was done by injection and it was a very large size syringe that was injected subcutaneously into my vagina and a white substance was then injected into me. Most likely this substance was injected into my uterus. The syringe was about 30 cm long. The procedure occurred rather rapidly…
Such injections were done to me three times with breaks of 3 to 4 months. After such an injection I had a terrible burning session in my abdomen.
Rosalinde de Leon, Witness Testimony for Clauberg’s Trial, 1956.
Mengele and Twin Research
Scientists were eager to examine hereditary pathology, research the German Research Fund supported. SS physician Josef Mengele saw an opportunity to advance his research when he became the doctor in charge of the so-called Gypsy camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau in spring 1943.
At first Mengele focused on therapies for ‘Noma’, a gangrene infection of the mouth. ‘Gypsy’ twins were sought. Mengele collaborated with the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology in the research and killing of eight members of the Sinto family Mechau, because they had different coloured eyes. He selected research subjects for death so that their bodies and organs could be further experimented on.
Mengele improvised a research facility at Auschwitz. He obtained blocks to house twins and dwarves arriving from Hungary in Auschwitz from May 1944. He established a pathological laboratory next to the crematoria in June 1944, and recruited prisoner doctors, anthologists and artists to work with him.
When over 430,000 Hungarian Jews arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau in spring and summer 1944, his research intensified. He made selections from the streams of people deported to the camp as material of scientific interest.
Most of the Hungarian twin experiment victims were children aged between one-and-a-half and thirteen years. Between 650 and 732 Jewish twins were experimented on.
Mengele and his assistants X-rayed, photographed and drew pictures of them. They conducted hearing and eye tests. They extracted blood and brain fluid. The tests were painful and humiliating. Mengele selected certain twins for murder and some did not survive.
One day at midnight SS officers woke us and led us to the dissecting room, where Dr Mengele was already waiting for us…There were 14 Gypsy twins under SS guard, sobbing bitterly. Without saying a word, Dr. Mengele prepared a…syringe. From a box he took out Evipan, from another he placed chloroform in…vials on a table.
Then the first twin was brought in, a young girl of around fourteen. Dr. Mengele ordered me to undress her and place her on the autopsy table. Then he administered an intravenous injection of Evipan in the right arm. After the child lost consciousness, he touched for the left heart ventricle and injected 10 cm3 of chloroform. The child was dead after a single convulsion and Dr. Mengele had her taken to the morgue. The murder of all fourteen twins happened in the same way that night. Dr. Mengele asked us if we could perform…autopsies.
Deposition of prisoner Dr Miklós Nyiszli, July 1945.
Image credit (below left): USHMM, courtesy of Irene Guttmann Slotkin Hizme.
Image credit (below centre): USHMM archive, courtesy of Yehudit Csengeri Barnea.
Image credit (below right): USHMM archive, courtesy of Belarusian State.
Legacies of Nazi Medical Research
German scientists viewed coerced experiments as a benefit to the war effort, to science, and ‘racial purity’. More than 15,000 people, but possibly up to about 27,000, were experimented on during the Nazi period. This includes between 3,166 and 3,991 Jews. Research on identifying victims and their fates is still ongoing. The legacy of the experiments persists.
An American military tribunal held proceedings against 23 German physicians and administrators for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Medical Trial opened on 9 December 1946. It was part of the subsequent Nuremberg trials.
The verdict was announced on 29 August 1947: 16 doctors were found guilty, with 7 sentenced to death. The Medical Case was the only Nuremberg Trial to end with a set of judicial guidelines: the Nuremberg Code. The Code outlined conditions for ‘permissible medical experiments’ involving voluntary consent of research subjects.
Some medical staff of the ‘euthanasia’ centres were also tried after the war. Out of 265 known perpetrators, 9 died or were killed during the Second World War. 72 were tried after the war (25 were executed, 4 served life imprisonment, 31 were convicted to varying prison terms and 12 were acquitted). 125 evaded justice, 20 committed suicide, while the post-war fate of 39 is not known.
Surviving Victims and Compensation
Coerced experiments caused permanent disabilities, infertility, incapacity and death. Those who survived were forever marked by their experiences. While some survivors recovered, many lives never returned to normality.
In July 1951, the German government offered compensation to victims of medical experiments under National Socialism. Most victims received 3,000 marks or less as a single payment. Rather than compensate pain and suffering, the Federal Finance Ministry calculated loss of earning capacity. This meant that X-ray sterilisation victims, including many women who did not work outside the home, received only minimal compensation, or none at all.
Officials refused to compensate twins experimented on by Mengele until after Mengele’s death, arguing that a ‘twin experiment’ was not a medical experiment. Eventually, meagre sums were disbursed. Matters improved when Poland and Hungary requested adjudication by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Sums between 30,000 and 50,000 marks were awarded to victims in Eastern Europe.
The United Kingdom’s Foreign Office did not support claimants or negotiate for additional compensation for experiment victims who resided in the UK. Many victims were thus never monetarily compensated, even minimally, for their suffering.
Research uses and human remains
The scientific usefulness of research results gained from Nazi human experimentation remains meagre. Yet the extended use of victims’ remains has not been fully clarified.
For instance, Dr Heinrich Gross, who conducted research on and selected children for ‘euthanasia’ in the Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna, carried on with his research after the war. He became a celebrated forensic psychiatrist until he was stripped of the Austrian Medal for Science in 2003.
Slides of brain tissue prepared by the Kaiser Wilhelm Society’s Julius Hallervorden were uncovered at the Max Planck Society (the successor to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society) in the 1980s. In 2015, concern arose over brain tissues, some from ‘euthanasia’ victims, stored in the Max Planck Society archives. In 2016, the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry recognised that it has brain specimens from ‘euthanasia’ victims in its collections. The victims will be commemorated by name and their body parts given dignified burial.
The medical and scientific elite rarely confronted the destruction caused by their field during the Nazi period.
In 2012, the German Medical Assembly apologised for the role of German medical practitioners in coerced sterilisation, ‘euthanasia’ and experiments under Nazism. In 2017, the Max Planck Society opened its archival collections for research on its history of unethical, coerced research.
Today bioethics, research, and some medical practices remain controversial and contested. Debates surround abortion, stem cell research, assisted suicide, end of life care, the role of pharmaceutical companies, and genetically engineered births.
How can the past frame our understanding of these debates – and the consequences of our choices – today?
Science and Suffering: Victims and Perpetrators of Nazi Human Experimentation
Exhibition Type: Online Exhibition