By Hannah Lee
Now on display at the Free Library’s main branch is a traveling exhibit from the Holocaust Memorial Museum on how the Nazis used science to justify their contemptible work, titled “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race.” I was horrified to learn that all German geneticists believed in eugenics, including the Jewish ones such as Dr. Richard Goldschmidt (who re-established himself at the University of California at Berkeley). This felt devastating comparable to discovering in the permanent exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History that there had been rabbis of the American South who supported slavery.
In the time since Darwin’s publication of “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, others have sought to apply his breakthrough biological concepts to sociology and politics. Arguing that modern medicine, charity, and welfare have obstructed the natural selection of by keeping “defectives” alive to reproduce, these Social Darwinists have lobbied for legislation against free and natural procreation.
Germany was the leader in medicine and science in the early 20th century. Dr. Alfred Ploetz, a physician and economist, published a major treatise on Rassenhygiene, the German term for eugenics. He hoped that racial hygiene would help solve problems linked to the nation’s rapid industrialization and urbanization.
Dr. Eugene Fischer gained international renown for his 1913 study of “racial mixing” in the German colony in Southwest Africa. He shared the “respectable” antisemitism common among Germany’s educated middle classes and academic elite during the 1920’s, though “expressed largely in private and in measured tones.” Dr. Otmar von Verschuer studied twins for hereditary traits to criminality, feeblemindedness, tuberculosis, and cancer. He typified academics whose interest in Germany’s “national regeneration” provided significant motivation for scientific research.
A 1920 treatise by Karl Binding, a jurist, and Alfred Hoche, a professor of psychiatry, lead to Berlin’s first eugenics bureau that certified fitness for marriage. Although sterilization was illegal in Germany until 1933, some doctors were performing the procedure in secret.
In the United States, a 1924 law in Virginia prohibited intermarriage between whites and persons of “other blood.” Carrie Buck was committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeblemindedness in Lynchburg after bearing a child out of wedlock. Her mother was already on state support, so she was sterilized. By 1933, 26 states had laws permitting sterilization on eugenic grounds. From 1909-1933, some 16,000 people were sterilized in the United States, half of them in the state of California. Roman Catholics and supporters of individual rights opposed eugenics.
In the 1930’s, Norway, Sweden, and Finland along with parts of Switzerland and Canada had enacted sterilization laws. In Great Britain, it was proposed but not enacted. But, nowhere was there the scale of execution as in Germany which included persons living at home or in private clinics and hospitals. Hearings were pro forma and lasted a few minutes. These routine decisions to sterilize were seldom reversed on appeal. For women, sterilization meant full anesthesia and two weeks in the hospital. For men, it was on an outpatient basis. In Germany, about 5,000 died as the result of surgery and over 90% were women. Feeblemindedness was a plastic label applied to poor, uneducated persons from large families dependent on state support. There were over 400,000 people sterilized between 1934 to 1945.
Doctors joined the Nazi party earlier and in greater numbers than any other professional group. German medicine was historically conservative and many, especially the younger physicians, hoped their careers would improve under a new regime as Jews were ousted from positions in overcrowded medical fields. Many also endorsed the party’s support of eugenics and racial science.
From January 1940 to August 1941, over 70,000 institutionalized adults were killed in gas chambers in Germany and Austria. The victims included people with schizophrenia, feeblemindedness, and epilepsy. (Captured Soviet soldiers and Polish prisoners were used to test the operation of the gas chambers.) Poisonous carbon monoxide gas was used, in a program code-named Operation T-4. Dr. Friedrich Mennecke and his wife Eva expanded the inclusion criteria to include concentration camp residents too sick to work and later to the general Jewish prisoners. By the spring of 1946, all Jewish psychiatric patients had been murdered.
Dr. Julius Hallervorden, a neuropathologist at the Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research in Berlin, received brains extracted from euthanasia, many from children killed at the nearby Brandenburg-Gordon clinic. He ecstatically wrote about the specimens: “There was wonderful material among those brains, beautiful, mental defectiveness, malformations, and early infantile diseases.” Dr. Ernst Wentzler ran a clinic that served wealthy families and he developed methods to treat premature infants and children with severe birth defects, including an incubator dubbed “the Wentzler warmer.” He also supported ending the lives of the “incurably ill.”
The Nazi party from 1939 to 1945 was the primary coordinator of the pediatric euthanasia (“mercy death”) program. It originally targeted children younger than 3 years, but it later expanded to include older children. The methods used were: overdoses of the sedative Luminal (the brand name for phenobarbital); starvation; deadly injections of morphine; and asphyxiation by carbon monoxide. A letter from the Reich Ministry of the Interior directed midwives and physicians to register all children born with severe birth defects. These professionals were unaware that the information was fed to the euthanasia program. The Final Solution of the Nazi party (the systematic genocide of European Jews) determined the first victims to be infants and children with physical and mental disabilities. Over 5,000 such children were killed. Parents received letters falsifying the cause of death.
Using a chart of Mendel’s law of heredity, medical experts provided Hitler a purported claim for a law prohibiting Jews from marrying persons of “German blood.” The Nüremburg Laws and the related Marital Health Law of October 1935 banned unions between hereditary “healthy” and “diseased” persons. About 5,000 individuals of Jewish and Jewish hybrid unions were killed, many at the Brandenburg clinic.
In 1936, the Reich Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion stepped up efforts to prevent behavior seen as lowering the birth rate while new laws permitted abortions for Jewish and genetically “diseased” women.
Scientists considered racial types as “ideal constructs” never perfectly realized. Politically, more important than physical appearance were lineage and deep Germanic roots. Scientists regarded most Germans to be of “mixed” European lineage, corresponding to geographic origin: Nordic, Alpine, Mediterranean, and Balkan. The psychologist Robert Ritter lent legitimacy, claiming data that showed that most Gypsies were offspring of “highly inferior” “habitual criminals.” Dr. Eugene Fischer, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics taught courses for elite Nazi SS doctors and provided opinions on paternity and racial purity of individuals, including the hybrid offspring of Jewish and non-Jewish German couples.
In an insightful article in The New Republic from May 3, 1941, Michael Straight wrote about the protest by the Bishop of Münster, Clemens August von Galen, thus: “Persons were not killed for mercy. They were killed because they could no longer manufacture guns in return for the food which they consumed; because the German hospitals were needed for wounded soldiers; because their death was the ultimate logic of the National Socialist doctrine of racial superiority and the survival of the physically fit.” This article was used to drum up American support for entering the war.
After World War II, these immoral men and women of science met with mixed justice. Dr. Paul Nitsche was executed in 1948 for his war crimes. Dr. Carl Clauberg was sentenced to 25 years in prison for crimes related to sterilization experiments, released early, and died in 1957. Dr. Josef Mengele, with doctorates in anthropology and genetic medicine, fled abroad and died in Brazil in 1979.
Others enjoyed post-war careers: Dr. Eugene Fischer became professor emeritus at the University of Freiburg and he died in 1967. Dr. Otmar von Verschuer, a mentor of Mengele, established one of West Germany’s largest genetic research centers in Münster and he died in 1969. Dr. Ernst Rüdin, who developed the Third Reich’s sterilization law, was classified as a nominal Nazi Party member and he died in 1952.
The fruits of the gruesome Nazi experiments remained active, such as Dr. Julius Hallervorden’s specimens from the euthanasia program which were used for study at the Brain Research Institute in Frankfurt until as recently as 1990. He died in 1965. Dr. Sophie Ehrhardt enjoyed a long academic career and her data on Gypsies from the Nazi years appeared in journals as late as 1974. She died in 1990. Dr. Ernst Wentzler set up pediatric practice in his hometown. While he was questioned over his wartime activities, he was never prosecuted. He died in 1973.
People may recoil by the mention of this exhibit, much less attend it. But, if we as a society are to understand the developments of such gruesome manipulations of science and medicine, we must face the evidence. “Never again” means understanding history and educating ourselves to prevent its repetition.
“Deadly Medicine” will be on display at the Parkway Central Library, located at 1901 Vine Street, until July 8th. This exhibition, which is free and open to the public, will be located in the second floor gallery.