Military history



In March 1940 William Guertler, Professor of Metallurgy at the Technical University of Berlin and a long-time Nazi, wrote a personal petition to Hitler. There were many such petitions, and they were routinely dealt with by Hitler’s staff. There is no evidence that Hitler ever read what Guertler had to say. But it was regarded as sufficiently significant to be forwarded to Hans-Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery, who had it copied and distributed to a number of ministers, including Hermann G̈ring. What concerned Guertler, seven months into the war, was a decline in educational standards so precipitate that it was leading, in his opinion, to catastrophe. As soon as the war had begun, the Education Ministry had decreed, in the interests of the most efficient use of students’ time, that the traditional two-semester university year should be replaced by a three-term year, without any diminution in the length of the term. The university year had thus been increased from seven and a half months to ten and a half. So, Guertler complained,

we teachers received the order to ensure that the students would learn in one year as much as they used to learn in one and a half. We did our utmost. It was completely in vain. The students’ capacity for learning had already long been overtaxed. Even before this, we had been unable to maintain the level of training, but now every examination told us of a catastrophic decline in the knowledge they had acquired. Young students had long since been forced to give up those pleasures even of the most industrious years of study that had once been so celebrated - and so well-deserved. They tormented themselves outrageously - it was beyond their strength.183

Neither Lammers nor any of the petition’s other readers disagreed. Even Reich Education Minister Bernhard Rust accepted the professor’s alarming diagnosis.184

The decline in educational standards had begun long before the war and affected schools as well as universities. In 1937 the nine years of secondary education had been reduced to eight. The influence of the Hitler Youth had reduced the authority of many teachers, and the emphasis of Nazi education on sport and physical exercise had curtailed the time available for academic study. Even had they managed to acquire a reasonable knowledge in this situation, school students were liable to forget much of it in the two and a half years or so they were obliged to spend doing labour service and serving in the armed forces before they were allowed to matriculate at a university.185 The war saw a further increase in the ideological content of the curriculum; more than 150 hastily issued pamphlets, for example, replaced previous textbook accounts of English history and institutions with hostile propaganda branding Britain as a Jewish-run country that had committed countless atrocities in its murky past. Textbooks became increasingly difficult to obtain, and school buildings in many towns and cities were either requisitioned for use as military hospitals or, especially from 1942 onwards, destroyed in bombing raids.186 Teachers went off to the front and were not replaced, so much so that by February 1943 the National Socialist Teachers’ League was closed down for lack of activity and funds. Older pupils were forced to spend more and more time helping with air-raid work, collecting clothes, rags, bones, paper and metal for the war economy, or, in the summer, going to the countryside to help with the harvest for as long as four months at a stretch. From February 1943 classes in Berlin schools took place only in the mornings as all the children spent the afternoons either in military drill and education or going off to man anti-aircraft batteries if they were fifteen or older. The last school examinations were held in 1943, and in the last months of the war most schools ceased teaching altogether.187

Nazi elite schools were just as badly affected. The Order Castle at Vogelsang, for example, lost almost all its students and teachers to military service as soon as the war began, and its premises were used for billeting troops and then providing indoctrination courses for recuperating war-wounded.188 The National Political Educational Institutions, or Napolas, another form of elite school, suffered similarly. The fanatically Nazi students saw the war as an opportunity for showing their commitment, demonstrating their bravery, and winning medals. By March 1944 some 143 Napola students or graduates had been decorated for bravery; 1,226 had been killed. Student numbers thus fell sharply, and by the end of 1944, the Napolas were being used for training officer cadets and members of the Military SS. Nevertheless, some teaching continued, and on one occasion at the Oranienstein school, towards the end of the war, students incongruously found themselves taking yachting lessons as American bombers flew overhead, ‘a totally crazy scene in a totally crazy world’, as one student later recalled.189

In this situation, it was not surprising that educational standards at universities suffered as well. But they had their own problems too. All German universities were closed down on 1 September 1939, and when they reopened ten days later, they registered a dramatic fall in student numbers, from 41,000 to 29,000, reflecting the enlistment of many male students in the armed forces. Numbers slowly began to recover thereafter - to 38,000 in 1942, and 52,000 in 1943; in higher education institutions of all kinds, there was an increase from 52,000 in 1940 to 65,000 in 1944. The students who made up these numbers now included war-wounded soldiers, men certified as unfit for service for one reason or another, soldiers on leave (many of whom had forfeited their places at university on enlisting), foreign students, medical students required by their army units to continue their studies, and, increasingly, women - 14 per cent of the student body in all institutions of higher education in 1939, 30 per cent in 1941, and 48 per cent in 1943. As before the war, medicine was in a position of absolute dominance in Germany’s universities. 62 per cent of all students were enrolled in Medical Faculties in 1940; all of them had to serve six months at the front as ordinary soldiers to prepare for service as army medics when they qualified. Thus a perception amongst some (typically anti-intellectual) Nazi activists that those who went to university during the war were ‘slackers’ trying to avoid military service was incorrect; almost all male students, in fact, were members of the armed forces in one capacity or another.190

Educational standards at university did not just fall during the war as a consequence of the decline of educational standards in the schools. Students were obliged to spend increasing amounts of their time on work duties, helping with the harvest or working during the vacations in factories. The Ministry of Education did recognize in 1941 that the three-semester year, in combination with labour service during the vacations, was imposing an impossible strain on students, and restored the traditional two-semester year.191 But there were widespread complaints from professors that students were either too tired to work or too lazy and apathetic. The Nazi Party’s open contempt for learning, hammered into them in their formative years, lowered their respect for their teachers. After the war, there would be a huge demand for lawyers and doctors, they thought, so why bother to work anyway? As the Security Service of the SS reported on 5 October 1942:

It is unanimously reported from every university town in the Reich that the performance level of the students is continually falling. Their written work, their participation in classes and seminars, as well as their examination results, have reached a real low point . . . Many students don’t even possess the simplest, most elementary knowledge. Orthographic, grammatical and stylistic mistakes are encountered ever more frequently in written work.192

Knowledge of foreign languages, the report added, was so poor that students were unable to follow lectures that used Latin words to denote different parts of the human body. Professors were asked by students to avoid using foreign words, and began to lower standards, making examinations easier to pass, and reducing the demands on their own time by marking student work less rigorously.193

The student body, already disparaged by many active Nazis as politically apathetic before the war, did not find any new commitment to National Socialism when the war began. If it committed itself to the conflict, it was as much on behalf of Germany as it was in the cause of National Socialism. The National Socialist German Students’ League went into decline, though it did score one success by persuading the remaining traditional fraternity members in its ranks to abandon the practice of duelling on the grounds that it was no longer necessary to demonstrate one’s manly courage by standing unflinchingly still as an opponent gouged a scar in one’s cheek with a sabre: one could now prove one’s valour by fighting in a real battle.194 The war, however, increasingly came home to the universities themselves, especially to those located in the larger towns and cities. By July 1944, twenty-five out of sixty-one higher education institutions in the Greater German Reich had been damaged in bombing raids. The disruption to teaching was considerable, as it took time to find new classrooms and lecture theatres, and these too were then often damaged by bombing. Frequent false alarms caused further disruption. By the end of the war, in 1945, bombing had effectively put an end to higher learning almost everywhere in Germany: only Erlangen, G̈ttingen, Halle, Heidelberg, Marburg and T̈bingen were undamaged. Many other universities had been totally destroyed. Long before this, study had been made more difficult by the understandable decision of many university libraries to move their precious collections out to coalmines or similar sites for safe-keeping. Bookshops fell victim to the bombing raids as well, so that journals and textbooks became increasingly difficult to find.195

When Goebbels was appointed Reich Plenipotentiary for the Total War Effort in 1944, university education effectively came to an end. 16,000 students were drafted to the front, and 31,000 were conscripted for service in war industries. Goebbels had wanted to close all the universities down, but he had been prevented from doing this by Himmler on the grounds that some, at least, of their activities were of direct benefit to the war effort. Thus the only students allowed to continue their studies were either those about to take their final examinations or those enrolled in courses on subjects like physics, maths, ballistics and electronics. There were still 38,000 German students in university at the end of 1944, though this was many fewer than the number of students who had been there a year before. But they could no longer study to any effect, even had they wanted to. Disillusion with the regime was widespread. The use of the ‘Hitler greeting’ was said to have virtually ceased many months before this. Yet open opposition to Nazism was still rare. Dull apathy was far more common.196


In these circumstances, continuing with research and publication was extremely difficult for university teachers. The longer teaching year in 1939 and 1940 indeed made it virtually impossible for many. Only if research could be shown to be of direct benefit to the war effort, or to projects associated with it, would it be given any kind of priority. Publication in the arts and humanities was reduced to little more than propaganda. For most professors, conservative nationalists as they were, the war presented a spiritual call to arms to fight for Germany, however much they may have disliked Nazism and its ideas. A case in point was the Freiburg historian Gerhard Ritter, whose writings, public and private, of the war years were torn between his moral revulsion for Nazism and his patriotic commitment to the German cause. Like many others in his situation, he was enthused by the victories of 1939 and 1940, but increasingly disillusioned by the military setbacks and disasters of the following years. His behaviour was strongly coloured by the death of his own son on the Eastern Front. In his public lectures and publications he did his best to bolster morale both at home and in the forces; he went on tours of France and other occupied countries and lectured to the armed forces as well as continuing to teach in his own university. Increasingly, however, he larded his lectures and articles with appeals for moderation and implicit criticisms of what he saw as Nazi extremism. Introducing a reissue of his biography of Martin Luther in 1943, for instance, he insisted on the importance of retaining a pure conscience and a strong legal order. Ritter was bitterly opposed to the attempts of the German Christians to Nazify German Protestantism, and began to write private memoranda about the need to re-establish a moral order after the war was over. In November 1944 he was finally arrested by the Gestapo, but he was not badly treated in prison; he survived the war and became a prominent member of the West German historical establishment in the 1950s. His complex and often contradictory position during the Third Reich typified that of many other academics in the humanities, and he was not the only one whose views evolved gradually from a positive though always conditional support of the regime towards a deepening opposition based on the Christian, conservative and patriotic values that he thought it was violating.197

Other historians and social scientists, however, and especially younger ones, were only too keen to participate in the war in the interests not so much of Germany as of Nazi ideology. Specialists in the history of East-Central Europe like the young Theodor Schieder and his colleague Werner Conze declared large parts of the region to be historically German and urged the clearing-out of the Jewish population in order to make room for German settlers. In a memorandum presented to Himmler, Schieder advocated the deportation of the Jews overseas, and the removal of part of the Polish population further east. Other, more senior historians including Hermann Aubin and Albert Brackmann offered their services in the identification of historically ‘German’ parts of the region, as a prelude to the expulsion of the rest of the population. Statisticians calculated the proportion of Jews in the region, demographers worked out the details of possible future population growth following Germanization, economists engaged in cost-benefit analyses of deportation and murder, geographers mapped out the territories to be resettled and redeveloped. All of this ultimately fed into the General Plan for the East, with its almost limitless ambition for racial reordering and extermination.198 These various enthusiastic contributions reflected the eagerness of a variety of scholars and institutions to exert an influence on, or at least play a part in, the reconstruction of Eastern Europe under Nazi rule. Beyond this, they rushed to take part in the grand schemes developed by the Nazi leadership for the reshaping of the whole economic, social and racial structure of Europe. ‘Scholarship cannot simply wait until it is called upon,’ wrote Aubin to Brackmann on 18 September 1939. ‘It must make itself heard.’199

Some of these scholars and scientists were still based in universities during the war, but even more than had been the case in the peacetime years, research activity, particularly in the natural and physical sciences, was concentrated in non-university institutes funded by major national bodies, notably the German Research Community and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. These survived, with their very substantial budgets, in the first part of the war not least because nobody in power paid very much attention to them. German military victories generated a widespread sense of complacency. The victories in the west in 1940 and the rapid advances across the Soviet Union the following year demonstrated not only the superiority of German arms but also the world-beating stature of German science and technology. Only when things began to go badly did Nazi leaders turn to scientists for help. Albert Speer in particular was keen on co-ordinating scientific research and focusing it on war-relevant projects. In the summer of 1943 a Reich Research Council was established to co-ordinate and focus scientific efforts across the wide variety of research institutes and funding bodies that were competing with one another in the effort to deliver new weapons and new technologies. But this still left a number of rival institutions, as the air force and the army insisted on running their own research centres and the decentralization and dissipation of military-related research defied all attempts of the Reich Research Council to develop a coherent research strategy that would avoid the same areas being covered by parallel groups of researchers.200

Scientific research during the war ranged across the whole spectrum of Nazi plans and ambitions. Scientists at a specially created institute in Athens carried out research into improving crop yields and food supplies for future use by German settlers in the east, while an SS botanical unit collected plant specimens behind the Eastern Front to see if any of them were of nutritional value.201 Such work involved a two-way bargain: scientists were not just being co-opted by the regime, but also willingly used the research opportunities it provided to build their own research careers and further their own scientific work. So intensive was the collaboration indeed that some even spoke ironically of ‘war in the service of science’.202 In 1942, the creation of a Reich Institute for Psychological Research and Psychotherapy set the seal on the efforts of Matthias G̈ring (a cousin of the Reich Marshal, whose name was of considerable help to him in his campaign) to gain recognition for a profession long associated by the Nazis with Jewish doctors such as Sigmund Freud. The Institute investigated war-relevant matters such as the reasons for neuroses and breakdowns among the troops; but it is also, as we have seen, researched homosexuality, which the army and the SS regarded as a genuine threat to the German soldier’s fighting prowess.203

Racial-biological research was carried out not only by Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institutes but also by Himmler’s Ancestral Heritage organization, the research arm of the SS.204 Himmler’s men ranged far and wide both before and during the war in search of proof for his often wild racial and anthropological theories. The organization mounted expeditions to Scandinavia, Greece, Libya and Iraq looking for prehistoric remains, and two scholars worked their way through a variety of sites in the Middle East, sending back reports to German intelligence as they went. Most remarkably of all, Ancestral Heritage staffers Ernst Scḧfer and Bruno Beger led an SS expedition to remote Tibet, where they photographed some 2,000 of the inhabitants, measured 376 individuals and took plastic casts of seventeen Tibetan faces. Heinrich Harrer, already well known for his conquest of the Eiger mountain, achieved greater fame on another expedition sent by Himmler to the Himalayas. Arrested by the British on the outbreak of war, he escaped and spent seven years in Tibet, later writing a best-selling account of his experiences.

Encountering problems in identifying who was Jewish and who was not in the ethnically and culturally mixed regions of the Crimea and the Caucasus when they were overrun by German forces, Himmler dispatched Scḧfer and Beger to the area to try to sort things out so that the Jews could be separated out and killed. Before long, Beger was engrossed in a large-scale study of supposedly Jewish racial characteristics. Unable to continue his work because of the advance of the Red Army in 1943, he relocated to Auschwitz, where he selected and measured Jewish prisoners and took casts of their faces, in full knowledge of their impending fate. Then he moved on to the concentration camp at Natzweiler. Here he was assisted by the ghoulish anatomist August Hirt, whose features had been severely disfigured by a wound to his upper and lower jaw during the First World War. At Natzweiler the two men started a collection of Jewish skulls, first taking x-rays of selected inmates, then, after having them gassed, macerating their flesh in a chemical solution before adding the skeletal remains to the Ancestral Heritage archive at Mittersill castle. These macabre activities were only brought to an end by the arrival of the advancing Allied armies.205


Medical science also came into the service of waging war. Military and civil planners urgently needed medical answers to a wide range of questions. Some of these were of direct relevance to the war: how to combat typhus more effectively, how to stop wounds from becoming infected, how to improve the chances of survival for seamen drifting in lifeboats after their vessel had been sunk. Such problems faced all combatant nations during the war. In Germany, medical science felt able to use experimentation on concentration camp inmates in the search for answers to these problems. Nobody forced medical scientists to do this work; on the contrary, they took part in it willingly or even asked to do so. That this was so should not be surprising: for some years, doctors had been among the most committed supporters of the Nazi cause.206 From their point of view, the inmates of concentration camps were all either racially inferior subhumans or vicious criminals or traitors to the German cause or more than one of these at the same time. Whatever they were, they seemed to Nazi doctors - two-thirds of the medical profession in the Third Reich - to have no right to life or well-being, and were thus obvious subjects for medical experimentation that could, indeed in many cases quite clearly would, cause pain, suffering, illness and death.

The first use of camp inmates for medical experimentation was at Dachau, where the leading figure was an ambitious young SS doctor, Sigmund Rascher. Born in 1909, Rascher had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and by the outbreak of war was working for Himmler’s Ancestral Heritage research organization. Rascher’s partner Karoline Diehl, a former singer sixteen years older than himself, was an old personal friend of Himmler’s, and the SS leader therefore reacted positively when the doctor presented him with a project for the early diagnosis of cancer. Rascher held out the prospect of creating an infectious form of cancer that could be used as a rat poison. In order to carry out the research, he obtained Himmler’s permission to take regular blood tests from long-term inmates at the Dachau concentration camp. In 1941, Rascher, who in the meantime had been appointed as a medical officer in the air force reserve, further persuaded the SS leader to let him carry out experiments on prisoners in Dachau designed to test the human body’s reactions to rapid decompression and lack of oxygen at high altitudes, with the aim of working out how to keep a pilot alive when he was forced to parachute out of a pressurized aircraft cabin at heights of 18 or 21 kilometres. Up to 300 experiments were carried out on ten or fifteen criminal prisoners in a mobile decompression chamber in Dachau from February to May 1942. The suffering inflicted on the prisoners was considerable, and at least three are known to have died during the experiments. When the senior colleague seconded by the air force was absent, Rascher carried out further, as he called them, ‘terminal experiments’, in which the subject’s death was planned from the start: these consisted of seeing how long someone could stay alive when the air supply was gradually thinned out. Some of the subjects, described by Rascher as ‘race-defiling, professionally criminal Jews’, were made unconscious in a simulated parachute jump without oxygen at the equivalent of 14 kilometres above ground, and were then killed by drowning before they recovered. Rascher reported on these experiments directly to Himmler, who visited Dachau in order to observe them. The experiments were also filmed, and the results shown to a gathering of air force medical personnel in the Air Ministry on 11 September 1942. Between seventy and eighty prisoners were killed in the course of this project.207

So pleased was Himmler with Rascher’s work that he set up an Institute for Applied Research in Defence Science in the summer of 1942, as part of the Ancestral Heritage division of the SS, with the express purpose of carrying out medical research in the concentration camps. Rascher’s operation in Dachau became part of this organization. Already in June Himmler, prompted by the air force, had commissioned Rascher to carry out experiments on prisoners to determine how best to promote the survival of pilots who came down in the icy waters of the North Sea. As they floated in large tanks filled with water at various (but always low) temperatures, dressed in air force uniforms and life-jackets, prisoners’ bodies were closely monitored while a variety of simulated rescue attempts was undertaken. By October 1942 between fifteen and eighteen out of the fifty or sixty inmates subjected to this treatment had died. The average time before death was seventy minutes. Removal and plunging into a warm bath did not cause a shock to the system, as Rascher had expected, but brought about an immediate improvement. He presented the results to a large conference of ninety-five medical scientists in Nuremberg on 26 and 27 October 1942; none of them raised any objections to the use of camp inmates as subjects, or to the fact that many of them had been killed by the experiments. 208

This marked perhaps the high point of Rascher’s career. Its progress had depended almost exclusively on the favour shown him by Himmler. When the SS chief had initially objected to his marriage to Karoline Diehl on the grounds that she was too old to bear children, the couple had proved him wrong by announcing that she was pregnant. When Rascher informed Himmler that his fiance’e had given birth to two sons, the marriage was approved, and Himmler even sent the couple a bouquet of flowers with his fulsome congratulations. However, the SS leader was being deceived, and when Karoline Rascher announced that she had given birth to another infant early in 1944, even Himmler smelt a rat: surely at fifty-two a woman was too old to bear children? An investigation revealed that she had stolen the infant from its mother on Munich’s main railway station, and that she had acquired her other children in much the same way. Himmler, furious at being made to look a fool, had her arrested, confined to Ravensbr̈ck and then executed. Rascher himself was dismissed from all his posts and imprisoned in Buchenwald; at the end of the war he was transferred back to Dachau and shot there three days before the camp’s liberation.209

Rascher’s disgrace by no means ended medical experimentation of this kind, however. The German air force and navy were also concerned about the survival of airmen and sailors who had succeeded in getting into a dinghy or life-raft but had no water to drink. Air crew in particular faced this problem since water supplies in any quantity were too heavy to carry on board their planes. A number of experiments with converting seawater for drinking purposes proved fruitless because they involved subjects whose health could not be compromised because they were genuine volunteers, Professor Oskar Schr̈der, a leading air force doctor, asked Himmler on 7 June 1944 for forty healthy subjects from concentration camps. The young men were selected from 1,000 Gypsies transferred from Auschwitz to Buchenwald and told that if they volunteered for special duties in Dachau they would be well fed and that the experiments would not be hazardous: the doctor in charge of the experiments, Wilhelm Beiglb̈ck, told them he himself had drunk seawater without any ill effects. After being fed air-force rations for a week, the subjects were put on a diet of seawater that had been treated in a variety of different ways, or in some cases not treated at all. Soon they were all suffering from unbearable thirst. If they refused to take any more seawater it was force-fed to them. One man was driven mad with desperation and had to be put in a straitjacket, while another was tied to his bed. Others lay around apathetically, or screamed with pain. When the floor was cleaned, the men threw themselves on to it to lap up the traces of liquid left by the mop. While nobody actually died from these experiments, the pain and suffering they inflicted was as considerable as the results were meagre.210

Further experiments were conducted by medical scientists interested in the treatment of wounds received in battle. Following the death of Reinhard Heydrich from septicaemia, Himmler, acting on Hitler’s instructions, ordered experiments to be carried out under the supervision of the Reich Physician SS, Ernst-Robert Grawitz, to see whether and under what conditions a variety of sulphonamides might be effective against an infection of this kind. These were antibacterial drugs, the forerunners of antibiotics, and they had already been developed by the Bayer pharmaceutical company with some success; the medical scientist Gerhard Domagk had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his role in developing a commercial variety known as Prontasil in 1939, though Hitler had forbidden him to accept the prize. In July 1942 Karl Gebhardt, Himmler’s personal SS physician, began experimenting in the Ravensbr̈ck camp on fifteen male inmates and forty-two young female prisoners from Poland, most of them students. Gebhardt’s reputation, severely dented by the failure of his sulphonamides to save Heydrich’s life, depended on the success of this work. He went at it with enthusiasm and commitment. First, he simulated war wounds by cutting open the subjects’ calves, crushing the muscles, and sewing infectious material into the wounds, along, in some cases, with splinters of glass and wood or pieces of gauze impregnated with a variety of bacterial cultures. Gebhardt treated the patients with sulphonamides then reopened the wounds after four days to gauge their effect. They had had no effect at all. Similar experiments were carried out at the same time in Dachau, where ten people died of the gangrene brought about by the artificially induced infections. Grawitz was not satisfied that the Ravensbr̈ck experiments had been thorough, however, since the wounds had only been light, so Gebhardt took another twenty-four women and injected gangrenous tissue into them; three died, but the rest survived, most probably because of the sulphonamide treatment. Gebhardt conducted further experiments in the camp, even smashing the women’s bones with a hammer to simulate war wounds. The sulphonamide treatment was sufficiently effective for Himmler to rehabilitate Gebhardt and allow him to resume his career. At Dachau, SS doctors carried out similar work, inj ecting forty mostly Polish Catholic priests with pus and treating some but not others, not only recording the effects but also photographing them. Twelve died, and all of them suffered terribly. Many of the sulphonamide experiments left their subjects with serious health problems or physical disabilities for the rest of their lives.211 In May 1943 the results of the experiments were presented to a medical conference at which no attempt was made to conceal the fact that the subjects had not given their consent to the work carried out on them.212

Not only wounds but also diseases were the subject of medical experimentation in the camps. Foremost among these was typhus, which research carried out shortly before the First World War had shown to be transmitted by the human body louse. Apart from killing the louse, there was no means of defence against the disease until Polish researchers developed a vaccine in the early 1930s; but its production was difficult, costly and time-consuming. The German army began making it, but was unable to produce the quantities needed. The danger that German soldiers would become lousy through contact with the military and civilian populations of the east led to an intensification of German research, including at the laboratories of I. G. Farben. A variety of vaccines was produced, but the dosage they required remained uncertain, and their effectiveness in doubt. Human experimentation seemed to German medical scientists the obvious method of answering these questions. After being approved on 29 December 1941 at a meeting of representatives of various interested parties, including the Army Sanitary Inspectorate, the Military SS, the Reich Health Leader and the Robert Koch Institute (the leading centre for bacteriological research), experiments were set in motion at the Buchenwald concentration camp. In the initial experiment, 145 inmates were first given a course of injections of the vaccine, or (if they belonged to a control group) not, and were then, a fortnight or so after the final dose, injected again, this time with the blood of a patient infected with the most virulent form of typhus. The experiment was repeated a further eight times with different vaccines. For 127 out of the 537 camp inmates subjected to these procedures the results were fatal.213

The Battle of Stalingrad, where German troops had died of malnutrition in their thousands, had suggested to Hitler that new ways had to be found of feeding the soldiers. Hitler’s doctor Karl Brandt, the SS chief Heinrich Himmler and a variety of nutrition experts discussed what might be done. Eventually, a sort of artificial pˆt’ called ‘Eastern Nutrition’ (̈stliche Kostform), made of cellulose remnants, was developed and fed to 450 apparently healthy prisoners at Mauthausen in 1943. The prospect of being able to use it for the entire population of concentration camp inmates was particularly enticing. The prisoners found the paste revolting but had no choice. In a second experiment at Mauthausen, 150 prisoners were made to live on the paste for six months. 116 died, although given the conditions under which they were held, it was not possible to say how far their diet had contributed to their demise.214 Almost as serious at Stalingrad had been the high rate of infection from epidemic jaundice, or hepatitis, which affected up to 6 million soldiers on the Eastern Front between June 1941 and the end of 1942, according to one army estimate. Kurt Gutzeit, a medical professor at Breslau and adviser to the army who was an expert in the disease, wanted to show that it was infectious, and obtained permission from the SS to carry out experiments on camp inmates. In June 1943, with the backing of Karl Brandt and Heinrich Himmler, Gutzeit’s assistant Arnold Dohmen went to Auschwitz, where he selected a group of young Jews on the arrival ramp. On 10 August he took eleven of them, dressed in civilian clothes and travelling by scheduled passenger trains, to Berlin and thence to Sachsenhausen. After taking time off to get married and go on his honeymoon, Dohmen arrived at the camp in October, but he began to have doubts about the ethics of the experiment, and it was not until a year later when, having been subjected to heavy pressure by his superiors, he injected the subjects with hepatitis and performed liver punctures on two of them to see whether they had caught the disease. None is known to have suffered any long-term physical effects, but then infectious hepatitis does not usually cause these. The distress from which they suffered, particularly from being separated from their parents, about whose fate they were kept in the dark, was considerable.215

Experiments were also carried out to try to find a way of treating phosphorous burns caused by incendiary bombs. With Himmler’s approval, Ernst Grawitz got an SS doctor to smear phosphorous on the arms of five inmates of the Buchenwald camp in November 1943 then set it alight. The pain, according to survivors, was excruciating. The ointment then put on the wounds seems to have had little effect, and some of the subjects died.216 At Sachsenhausen and Natzweiler, mustard gas, which had caused such suffering in the First World War, and which, it was feared, might be used in Allied bombing raids, was injected into some inmates, while others were made to drink it in liquid form, or forced to inhale it. Some had wounds inflicted on them and infected with the gas. Three inmates had died in the experiments by early 1943, but the scientists, working for the SS Ancestral Heritage organization, reported some success with treatment. In subsequent experiments involving phosgene gas, four Russian prisoners were killed, and there were further prisoner deaths in December 1944 in mustard gas experiments conducted at the Neuengamme camp. Carried out under the auspices of Karl Brandt and the SS, in many cases with the knowledge of Hitler himself, these dangerous, often painful, and sometimes fatal experiments were inflicted on people who had no choice about undergoing them. None of this research ever brought any benefit to the German soldiers, sailors and airmen it was intended to help.217


Camp inmates were also used for pure research without any obvious or immediate practical implications. The leading figure here was Dr Josef Mengele, camp doctor in Auschwitz. Mengele was a scientific assistant to the prominent racial hygienist Otmar Baron von Verschuer at the University of Frankfurt am Main. Mengele had published scientific articles arguing for racial differences in the structure of the lower jaw, cleft palate and a deformity of the ear known as fistulae auris. He was a member of the Nazi Party and the SS, and joined the Military SS in 1940, where he served as a medical officer on the Eastern Front. Here he won the Iron Cross, First Class, and was wounded in action. In May 1943 he was transferred to the Economy and Administration Head Office of the SS and at the end of the month posted to Auschwitz, where he made an immediate impression on the inmates with his youthful, handsome appearance, his well-tailored uniform and highly polished boots, his politeness and his elegance. All of this set him apart in the most dramatic possible way from the mass of the ill-kempt and undernourished inmates. He saw in Auschwitz the chance to resume his career as a scientific researcher after his break at the front. One of his research projects focused on noma, a disease in which severe malnutrition caused the lining of the cheek to atrophy and a gangrenous hole to open up, exposing the teeth and the jaw. In the search for supposed hereditary elements in the disease, which he thought might affect Gypsies more than other groups, Mengele treated a large number of children suffering from this disease at Auschwitz, giving them vitamins and sulphonamide and effecting a considerable improvement in their condition.218

For Mengele, however, such treatment was a means to a scientific end, not an end in itself. As soon as it had brought about an improvement sufficient to provide convincing evidence of its effectiveness, he stopped it, and the children returned to their former condition and fell victim to the disease again. For him they were experimental subjects, not medical patients. Energetic and workaholic, Mengele developed many further research projects, some of which were supported by the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology in Berlin, where his teacher Verschuer received regular reports on his work in the camp.219 He considered his most important project to be the one that built on Verschuer’s proposal that hereditary influences could best be studied by research on twins. Auschwitz offered Mengele a unique opportunity for collecting subjects for this research. He could often be found inspecting new arrivals on the selection ramp even when he was off duty, looking for fresh sets of twins. Plunging into the mass of arriving Jews, shouting ‘twins out!’, he would pluck twins of any age out of the mˆl’e of frightened families and take them off to one of the three offices he used for the project. Here he would have each of them tattooed with a special prisoner number, and put into living quarters separated from the rest of the camp. They were allowed to keep their own clothes and did not have to have their heads shaved. If they were very young, their mother was saved from the gas chamber in order to look after them.

Mengele did not allow the twins to be beaten or maltreated in case this interfered with his experiments. He would have them measured in minute detail before injecting them, sometimes in the spine, with a variety of chemicals to see if they reacted differently, or applying chemicals to the skin to observe their effect. Such experiments caused deafness, collapse or even, if the children were very young, death. On occasion, if twins fell ill and there was a disputed diagnosis, Mengele would give them a fatal injection and carry out an autopsy to determine the nature of their ailment. On the whole, however, he kept the twins alive. The older ones were evacuated from Auschwitz in January 1945 and their fate is uncertain. One estimate puts the proportion of those who died as a result of experimentation at around 15 per cent. Although Mengele intended his research to form the basis for his ‘Habilitation’, the second doctorate required in Germany to qualify for an academic career, its value was dubious in scientific terms. He was, for example, unable to determine whether the twins he collected were identical or not, and indeed some siblings who were close in age and appearance to one another managed to save themselves from the gas chamber by passing themselves off as twins even though they were not.220

Mengele acquired his notoriety among camp survivors not so much from his experiments as from his role in selecting prisoners for extermination. Standing on the ramp, often alone, immaculate in his appearance, and carrying a riding-crop, he would cast his glance briefly at each arrival before pronouncing ‘left’ or ‘right’ according to what he perceived to be their physical state and usefulness (or otherwise) for the camp’s labour programmes. So frequently was he there that many inmates assumed, quite wrongly, that he was the only camp doctor to carry out this duty. Some thought he looked like a Hollywood movie star. Only if he encountered resistance would he break his elegant pose, beating people with his riding-crop if they refused to be separated from their family, or on one occasion drawing his gun and shooting a mother who physically attacked an SS man trying to separate her from her daughter. Mengele shot the daughter as well and then, as a punishment, sent all the people from the transport to the gas chamber, shouting: ‘Away with this shit!’ Touring the wards in the camp hospital, with a spotless white coat over his SS uniform, smelling of eau de Cologne and whistling snatches of Wagner, he would indicate with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down which patients were to be selected for the gas chamber. Often he would select them on merely aesthetic grounds, consigning them to their death if they had an ugly scar or a rash on their body. On one occasion he drew a horizontal line on the wall of the children’s block and sent all those whose heads could not reach the line to the gas chamber. Sometimes he would not wait, but would inject people with a deadly solution of phenol himself. What struck inmates was the evident sense of enjoyment with which Mengele approached his work. Here was a man completely at ease with the power he was wielding over life and death.221

Mengele did not confine his hereditarian researches to work on twins. He also collected people with physical abnormalities, hunchbacks, transsexuals, and the like, some of whom he had shot so that he could anatomize their bodies on the dissecting table. He was particularly enthusiastic in his search for dwarfs, whom he kept in the twins’ quarters for experimentation in his search for hereditary causes of their condition. Mengele also used his position to supply eyes from dead inmates to a research project at his institute in Berlin, where scientists were studying the phenomenon of heterochromia (the two eyes of one person having different colours). If Mengele discovered any inmates with this condition, he ordered them to be killed. On one occasion, when his prisoner assistant put the eyes of all eight members of a Gypsy family together after their death, for shipment to Berlin, the clerk in charge of the shipment discovered that it only contained seven pairs of eyes; the assistant, terrified of what Mengele might do if he found out, scoured the morgue for Gypsy corpses, excised one blue eye from one and one black eye from another, and had them packed up with the rest. Here too, therefore, the scientific work was less than wholly reliable. Characteristically, Mengele took his work a step further, and tried to create perfect Aryan specimens from children he found with blond hair and brown eyes by injecting their eyes with methylene blue. The procedure, of course, failed to bring about any permanent change of eye-colour; but it did cause considerable pain, in some cases damage to the children’s eyesight, and in at least one recorded instance, death. In all of these projects, Mengele regarded himself as a normal scientist, even holding a regular research seminar with his assistants, who included medically qualified camp prisoners. Mengele would chair the meeting and ask the prisoner-doctors to discuss particular cases. Freedom of debate was naturally restricted, however, by the fact that, as one of them later remarked, they were reluctant to disagree with Mengele because he could have any of them killed at any moment and on the slightest whim.222

Josef Mengele has come to stand in the decades since the Third Reich as a symbol for the perversion of medical science. Yet his experiments were only a few among a much greater number carried out by a variety of doctors on the inmates of the camps. These included research conducted by Dr Kurt Heissmeyer in the concentration camp at Neuengamme, in which twenty Jewish children between the ages of five and twelve, taken from Auschwitz, were infected with virulent tuberculosis and treated in a variety of ways, including the surgical removal of swollen glands. At the end of the war, in order to try to destroy the evidence of these experiments, the surviving children were taken on 20 April 1945 by one of the doctors to a sub-camp at Bullenhuser Damm and injected with morphine, after which an SS man accompanying them hanged the sleeping children from a hook one by one, pulling on their bodies to make sure they would die. Other medical experiments were carried out at the direct behest of Himmler, for policy rather than scientific purposes. At Auschwitz, for example, doctors working for Himmler experimented on female inmates with injections and x-ray treatment in the search for a quick and cheap means of mass sterilization, resulting in many cases in the loss of their hair and teeth, the complete disappearance of sexual feeling, or in the most serious cases the onset of cancer. Men were bombarded with x-rays aimed at their testicles, often leading to impotence or causing serious physical damage that made it difficult for them to urinate. Senior SS officers fantasized about such methods being applied to 10 million racially inferior people, or to Jewish men needed for labour, but they never got beyond the experimental stage.223 Medical scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes also carried out research on the brains of hundreds of patients killed in the ‘euthanasia’ action, to see whether they exhibited any consistent signs of degeneracy.224 And in November 1942 complaints by the anatomical institutes of German universities that they did not have enough cadavers for dissection in teaching and research led to a ruling of the Ministry of Justice that they could have the remains of offenders executed in German prisons without having to obtain the permission of their relatives, a ruling that less than a year later was leading to further complaints by the institutes, this time that ‘the massive deliveries of corpses of executed offenders during the last months has led to a complete overcrowding of our storage facilities’.225

Were any of the medical experiments carried out in the camps of any medical or scientific value? Some, like Mengele’s, were clearly scientifically flawed. Others obviously had no defensible medical application. So it was, for example, with the experiments at the SS hospital in Hohlenlynchen, where a way of injecting people with live tuberculosis bacilli was developed that would kill them quickly and allow physicians to record tuberculosis as the cause of death; this was required because the usual method of killing people by injecting them with phenol or gasoline caused the corpse to emanate a suspicious smell. Sigmund Rascher’s invention of small cyanide capsules for suicides was to have wide application at the end of the war, but could hardly be called scientifically or medically useful. However, other experiments carried out on concentration camp inmates in Germany were regarded in Germany as normal science, their results presented at conferences and published in reputable medical journals. Standard experimental protocols were employed in evaluating the experiments carried out, for example, by the Bayer Pharmaceutical Company on women inmates of Auschwitz whom it had purchased for this purpose from the SS at a premium of 700 Reichsmarks each. When Karl Gebhardt and Fritz Fischer had women prisoners injected with gas bacilli, staphylococcus or malignant oedema at Ravensbr̈ck and then tested new drugs on them, the results were discussed at a subsequent conference and with leading physicians such as the famous surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch. Yet to suggest that such work was in accordance with the normal scientific protocols of the day in no way legitimizes the methods it employed. Medical research in these cases was unethical because it caused pain and often death in people who had no choice but to participate in it: indeed, it would still have been unethical had the subjects participated in it of their own free will, given the fundamental moral commitment of medicine to preserve life and not to end it.226

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