Criminal Medicine

“Among all criminals and murderers, the most dangerous type is the criminal physician.” Miklos Nyiszli, prisoner and pathologist to Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz.

During the Third Reich’s 12-year reign, Germany’s once highly respected scientific and medical community legitimized and abetted one of the world’s greatest criminal states. Under the hands of these Nazi specialists, innocent men, women, and children were gassed, poisoned, frozen to death, and vivisected. They were injected with typhus and malaria. They were exposed to mustard gas, killed in high-pressure chambers, injected with lethal bacteria like gangrene and tetanus, injected with salt water, forcibly sterilized during fast and bloody operations, infected with jaundice, deliberately poisoned, exposed to incendiary bombs, and literally skinned, among other horrors.

Nazi doctors working at concentration camps exchanged humans with each other, as if they were supplies or lab animals. Many innocent victims, like those at Majdanek concentration camp, were murdered and then dissected. Criminal experiments often took place in special medical pathology rooms or barracks. Those medical rooms were usually located next to crematoria and morgues, in the same building. Auschwitz, the worst of the Nazi death camps, had special medical blocks dedicated to criminal science. (Essay is continued below; please click on each image for a larger view with the lightbox tool. Note, photographs were taken in 2000 and 2001.)

Sachsenhausen Medical TableBuchenwald Medical RoomBuchenwald Medical RoomTerezín Medical TableStutthof Medical RoomFlossenbürg Medical TableMajdanek Medical TableVught Medical TableBirkenau, Site Of Dr. Mengele's Criminal Experiments

The men — most were men — who joined the ranks of the Nazi hierarchy and benefited from its policy of terror did so with utter disregard for their moral duty to their fellow humans, patients, and profession. So completely did Nazi doctors pervert their Hippocratic oath, that one of Auschwitz’s notorious Nazi doctors and criminal scientists, Fritz Klein, could look at the smoking chimneys at Auschwitz-Birkenau and tell a prisoner doctor: “My Hippocratic oath tells me to cut a gangrenous appendix out of the human body. The Jews are the gangrenous appendix of mankind. That’s why I cut them out.”

In his study of prisoner and Nazi doctors and scientists at Auschwitz, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton called the members of the Nazis’ medical personnel the “ultimate biological warriors,” for carrying out Nazism’s extreme racial eugenics that saw Jews and other groups as biological diseases that needed to be exterminated to rejuvenate the Aryan race. Under these “warriors'” supervision at concentration and death camps, mental institutions, and hospitals, tens of thousands of innocent persons incarcerated by the Nazis were either directly killed and victimized by horrendous experiments. Auschwitz carried their role to its most unbelievable extreme, having them participate in every stage of the murder factory, from direct experiments, to lethal injections, to supervisions at the “ramp” where prisoners were selected for gas chambers. This legacy forever shaped the way the world’s scientific community viewed its practices involving human subjects, and even its semi-mystical moral stature. Lifton notes, “Psychologically speaking, nothing is darker or more menacing, or harder to accept, than the participation of physicians in mass murder.”

One doctor, Herman Voss, dean of the medical department at the Reich University in Posen, used corpses of dead Poles killed by the Nazi authorities for anatomy experiments, and built a profitable business selling skulls and other human remains to German research universities. After the war he became a prominent anatomist in East Germany and published a widely recognized medical textbook and received state accolades.

Yet before and during the war, Voss recorded his violent racism in his diary — later found by researchers — that clearly revealed how educated professionals could become accessories to genocide when a climate of state-sanctioned intolerance prevailed. He wrote on June 2, 1941: “The Poles are becoming quite impudent. … Their people is being decimated more and more because of such things. I think one should look at this Polish question without emotion, purely biologically. We must exterminate them, otherwise they will exterminate us. And that is why I am glad of every Pole who is no longer alive. ”

During the pre-war Nazi period, well-educated professionals like Voss climbed the ranks of the academic and medical communities when their Jewish colleagues were removed from their posts during the 1930s purges. These ambitious professionals joined numerous Nazi party bodies and institutes like the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, which participated in criminal science under the Nazi regime. Nazi scientists’ ranks included distinguished physicians, heads of medical departments at respected German universities, surgeons, research scientists, psychiatrists, and pseudo-scientific racial anthropologists. German psychiatry, for instance, fell in step with the Nazi state. Only one of the heads of Germany’s mental hospitals, or sanitariums, protested the forcible euthanasia of more than 70,000 so-called “useless eaters” (the mentally retarded, genetically deformed, mentally ill, and other institutionalized adults and children) from 1939 to 1941 alone.

After the war, the Allies indicted 23 of these war criminals before American judges during the subsequent Nuremberg Military Tribunals, also known as the “Doctors Trials,” in 1946 and 1947. After almost 140 days of proceedings, the American judges announced their verdicts on Aug. 20, 1947. Sixteen of the doctors were found guilty and sentenced to various prison terms. Seven were sentenced to death by hanging. They were executed on June 2, 1948. During his statements to the American tribunal, Chief of Counsel Gen. Telford Taylor called these crimes “thanatology,” or the “science of producing death.”

Taylor’s case attacked the Nazis’ scientific research as unscientific and made a stinging indictment against the war criminals and Germany’s scientific community for its total failure: “Guilt for the oppression and crimes of the Third Reich is widespread, but it is the guilt of the leaders that is deepest and most culpable. Who could German medicine look to keep the profession true to its traditions and protect it from the ravaging inroads of Nazi pseudo-science? This was the supreme responsibility of the leaders of German medicine . … They are the men who utterly failed their country and their profession, who showed neither courage nor wisdom nor the vestiges of moral character. It is their failure, together with the failure of the leaders of Germany in other walks of life, that debauched Germany and led to her defeat. It is because of them and others like them that we live in a stricken world.”

See attorney Baruch Cohen’s detailed notes from his article called “The Ethics Of Using Medical Data From Nazi Experiments,” published in Jewish Law. A detailed bibliography is listed providing sources that examine Nazi medicine and Nazi science.