December 15, 2009


Nazi Medicine and Public Health Policy: It is poor scholarship and perhaps even dangerous to caricature the Nazis as irrational or anti-science. What we have to look at more carefully is the relationship between science and ideology at this time. (Robert N. Proctor, Dimensions)

The complicity of German physicians in the Nazis' crimes against humanity is a well-established historical fact. Explaining that fact is far more difficult. Why were German doctors such avid fans of fascism? Why did nearly half of all German physicians join the Nazi party?

I don't think it was the tirades of Julius Streicher in Der Stürmer that attracted their interest, but rather the promises of Nazi leaders to solve Germany's problems medically, surgically. The Nazi state was supposed to be a hygienic state; Nazism was supposed to be "applied biology" (Fritz Lenz coined this phrase in 1931). Hitler was celebrated as the "great doctor" of German society and as the "Robert Koch of politics" (Koch was a nineteenth century pioneer in studying the bacterial origin of diseases). The seductive power of National Socialism for many physicians lay in its promise to cleanse German society of its corrupting elements -- not just communism and Jews, but also metallic lead and addictive tobacco, along with homosexuality and the "burdensome" mentally ill.

The relation of science and politics in Nazi Germany was therefore more complex than most people like to think. Part of the misunderstanding, I would suggest, lies in the widely accepted belief that when science is politicized, "real" science inevitably suffers: the freedom of scientists is abrogated, distorting biases are introduced into research, minds are closed, avenues of inquiry are blocked. In many areas of science, of course, that is indeed what happened in Nazi Germany; one thinks of the fate of Einstein's relativity theory, for example. But in other areas -- e.g., many areas of public health -- that was not the case at all.

Biology was another field that thrived. Ute Deichmann in her book, Biologists Under Hitler (Harvard University Press, 1996), shows that the majority of biologists in the Thirties and early Forties joined the Nazi party; but it was still quite possible for non-Nazi biologists to obtain grants from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Germany's leading scientific grant agency. Not only possible but easy: Deichmann discovered that there was no correlation at all between a researcher receiving a grant and whether that researcher belonged to the Nazi party. I would argue that biology prospered under the Nazis because it was so integral to their worldview. Apart from the reasons I have already discussed, there is the fact that Nazism placed a much higher value on nature than on nurture in the development of human talents and disabilities.

I am not sure I would agree with Deichmann that scientists in the Third Reich were more independent of the regime than we usually think. Independent research flourished in many fields but it was, after all, also in the Nazi state's interest to cultivate a strong scientific community, at least in certain disciplines. What is clearly wrong about the autonomy thesis, applied to science and medicine as a whole, is that many professionals did not retreat into the purely technical. It took a lot of medical enthusiasm to forcibly sterilize 350,000 Germans, to "euthanize" 70,000 people with physical or mental handicaps in gas chambers. (The latter figure is only for the period from January 1940 to August 1941; even more than that were killed in the informal euthanasia program launched after this time.) And there were the medical crimes committed in the concentration and death camps. Among doctors, there were far more volunteers than victims, more partisans than pawns.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 15, 2009 6:14 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus