Atrocities on Trial: Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Prosecuting War Crimes

By Patricia Heberer; Jürgen Matthäus | Go to book overview

“The Scars of Ravensbrück”
Medical Experiments and
British War Crimes Policy, 1945–1950

ULF SCHMIDT

Although the sixtieth anniversary of the Nuremberg Doctors' Trial (1946–1947) sparked significant debate about medical ethics and the origins of the Nuremberg Code, historians have so far paid little, if any, attention to Allied war crimes policy on the investigation of German medical atrocities, of which the Ravensbrück trials formed part.1 British war crimes policy, in particular, was concerned with medical war crimes committed by German researchers at the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Much of the evidence against some key defendants at the Doctors' Trial, most notably Karl Gebhardt, Fritz Fischer, and Herta Oberheuser, was compiled by British war crimes experts and made available to the U.S. chief of counsel.2 Following the Belsen Trial in the autumn of 1945, British investigators were among the first to document comprehensively the criminal medical experiments that German doctors had carried out on prisoners at Ravensbrück.3 Most of the subjects were women. For the most part the doctors involved in these experiments were either associated with or employed by the Hohenlychen sanatorium, located in close proximity to the camp. These researchers thus became known as the “Hohenlychen group.” Although the British investigated this group as part of the first of the Ravensbrück trials, some of the defendants were later extradited to the American zone of occupation and tried with the Nuremberg doctors.

To date, little has been written about the broader political and legal context of the first Ravensbrück Trial, its origins, and its overall place in the context of Allied denazification policy. This essay examines the genesis of the Ravensbrück Trial and the extensive investigations and international discussions that preceded its opening. It looks at how members of the German public perceived the Ravensbrück Trial, and contextualizes the British response to criticism leveled against it at the dawn of the cold war. The article aims, in part, to reconstruct the wider historical context of postwar British policy on medical war crimes. It

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