January 11, 2005


The Tainted Science of Nazi Atrocities (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, 1/08/05, NY Times)

The welcoming image could not be more inspiring. Or more creepy. It is a "glass man" standing in an alcove, his red veins lining his transparent shell, his multicolored organs neatly stacked in his abdomen, his arms raised aloft like his gaze, reaching toward the heavens, glorying in the display of his inner self.

He was constructed in 1935 by the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden for an exhibition about genetic health that traveled to the United States. One of his clones was given to the Buffalo Museum of Science. But about 50 years later, with some belated embarrassment, the museum sent back the glass man, queasy over the company he once kept and the ideals he once represented. He even appears in a 1935 photo in Dresden, gazed at by admiring Nazi officials.

Guilt by association, perhaps? Not unfair, given that this powerful exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, called "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," shows how the Nazis took a widely respected idea and step by step stripped off its admired flesh, showing in one horror after another, the awful possibilities latent within it. That idea was eugenics, which once heralded better living through genetic intervention. It is an idea that lost all respectability from its Nazi associations, though not all its relevance, as contemporary debates about abortion, euthanasia and the genome project make clear.

That is one reason that this exhibition, which will be on display through Oct. 16, should be a part of every citizen's experience.

Its curator, Susan Bachrach, shaped an imposing collection of objects and images into a narrative of imposing power: the copy of "On the Origin of Species" given by Charles Darwin to his cousin Sir Francis Galton, who coined the term "eugenics" in 1883; a scarred wooden door from an isolation cell used at the Eichberg Psychiatric Clinic in Eltville, Germany; calipers and hair color samples used by Dr. Ernst RĂ¼din to specify physical and racial traits in his genetic research; posters urging Germans to screen their lovers' families for genetic flaws.

There are instruments of sterilization like those forcibly used on 400,000 men and women in the Nazi era - perhaps 1 percent of the German population of child-bearing age deemed mentally or physically unfit ("It is better to sterilize too many rather than too few," was the official doctrine); and a photograph of blind German children being taught to recognize different races by running their hands over plaster busts.

And more horribly: samples of the sedatives Luminal and Veronal like those dispensed by pediatricians to infants at "pediatric wards," in order to execute 5,000 undesirable children. Then, when it seems as if nothing more could shock, one walks into a reproduction of the "shower stalls" used at six facilities in Germany and Austria where the Nazi program for what Hitler called "mercy deaths" expanded its ambitions.

Using carbon monoxide gas, more than 70,000 adults were poisoned, including schizophrenic artists, whose drawings and paintings are mounted here on the walls, under the shower heads. By 1945, 200,000 adults had been killed in various Nazi "euthanasia" programs.

Ultimately, of course, the techniques perfected on the feebleminded and deformed were turned against the country's primary "typhus," as one poster puts it. "Sterilize the Jew," reads a stamp that was pasted on envelopes, advertising one idea; but that procedure was too time-consuming. So the medical teams who had helped refine Germany's gene pool were dispatched to death camps like Sobibor and Treblinka in Poland to execute the Final Solution.

For all its gargantuan horror, this exhibit makes those millions of deaths seem an outgrowth of what came before, a more radical extension of genetics into the netherworld.


Posted by Orrin Judd at January 11, 2005 5:59 PM

Remember, kids, Margaret Sanger was a ferverent eugenecist. Her philosophical descendants are still running Planned Parenthood in accord with the founder's wishes.

Posted by: Mike Morley at January 11, 2005 6:22 PM

Tenochtitlan, Treblinka, Planned Parenthood.

Ghan-buri-Ghan had it rightly, "Drive away bad air and darkness with bright iron."

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 11, 2005 6:24 PM