Medicine’s role in Nazism and the Holocaust should be examined, say researchers

An international group of experts are calling for all medical education around the world to include the study of medicine’s role in the Holocaust.

The high-profile medical journal The Lancet has published a commission on medicine, Nazism and the Holocaust, with the aim of strengthening modern medical ethics.

“Nazi medical atrocities represent some of the most extreme and best-documented examples of medical involvement in human rights violations in history,” says commission co-chair Dr Sabine Hildebrandt, a researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (US).

“While it is tempting to view the perpetrators as incomprehensible monsters, the evidence put forward by the Commission demonstrates how many health professionals were capable of committing ethical transgressions and even crimes against their patients under certain conditions and pressures.”

Hildebrandt and the 20-strong team of experts in medical education, history, and bioethics, have produced the series of reports on the atrocities committed by the medical establishment under the Nazi regime.

According to the commission, physicians joined the Nazi party and affiliated groups in higher proportions than any other profession, and Germany’s medical institutions played prominent roles in the regime.

This included the murder by gas of 70,000 psychiatric patients in the T4 program from 1939-41; the murder of 7,000-10,000 institutionalised children through deliberate starvation and neglect; and the gas murder of 10,000 ill concentration camp prisoners.

The report also states that science, medicine and public health “were used to justify and implement persecutory policies and eventually state-sanctioned mass murder and genocide,” during the Nazi regime. Six million Jews were murdered by the regime.

While it is not the only instance of atrocities committed by physicians and the medical establishment, the researchers believe it’s an effective one to teach because of its scope and documentation.

“It is often surprising how limited the knowledge about Nazi medical crimes in the medical community is today, perhaps apart from a vague notion of Josef Mengele’s experiments in Auschwitz,” says commission co-chair Professor Herwig Czech, a researcher at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria.

“Our report aims to change this. Although the examples we present are extreme, studying medicine under Nazism highlights the critical role of societal factors and of ethics in medical and scientific advancement.

“Today’s health professionals operate in systems and structures that do not benefit all patients equally. While there is no simple path ahead, knowledge of historical extremes can make us better prepared to work through ever-evolving ethical dilemmas in medicine.”

The report emphasises that medicine in Nazi Germany wasn’t “pseudoscience”, but a direct consequence of biomedical science in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nor were German scientists the only adherents: eugenics and racist medical beliefs were widespread internationally.

Nazi victims were also used for medical research, both dead and alive. Research and drawings done in this era are still used in some areas of medicine, but not necessarily acknowledged.

“Accountability for and recognition that crimes were committed in the name of medicine in the Nazi era and during the Holocaust remains woefully inadequate,” says commission co-chair Professor Shmuel Pinchas Reis, from the Center for Medical Education at Hadassah and the Hebrew University Faculty of Medicine, Israel.

“Medical students, researchers, and practicing health professionals should know where – and from whom – the foundations of medical knowledge come from.

“Victims of Nazism are owed that; they have a right to be honoured and treated with dignity in life and death for coerced contributions to medicine as we know it today.

“The goal of our report is to provide additional resources and information for medical schools, research institutions, and medical associations worldwide to continue accountability efforts as part of their responsibility to past and future generations.”

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