Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe, 1890-1945

Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe, 1890-1945

Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe, 1890-1945

Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe, 1890-1945

Synopsis

During the First World War, delousing became routine for soldiers and civilians following the recent discovery that the louse carried typhus germs. But how did typhus come to be viewed as a "Jewish disease" and what was the connection between the anti-typhus measures during the First World War and the Nazi gas chambers in the Second World War? In this powerful book, Professor Weindling draws upon wide-ranging archival research throughout East and Central Europe to the United States,to provide valuable new insight into the history of German medicine from its response to the perceived threat of typhus epidemics from its Eastern borders. He examines how German experts in tropical medicine took an increasingly racialised approach to bacteriology, regarding supposedly racially inferior peoples as carriers of the disease.So they came to view typhus as a "Jewish" disease. By the Second World War as migrants and deportees had become conditioned to expect the ordeal of delousing at border crossings, ports, railway junctions and on entry to camps, so sanitary policing became entwined with racialisation as the Germans sought to eradicate typhus by eradicating the perceived carriers. Typhus had come to assume a new and terrifying genocidal significance, as the medical authorities sealed the German frontiers against diseased undesirables from the east, and gassing became a favoured means of disease eradication.

Excerpt

Delousing became routine during the First World War, based on the recent discovery that lice spread typhus. By the time of the Second World War migrants and deportees had become conditioned to expect the ordeal of delousing at border crossings, ports, railway junctions, and on entry to camps. The Nazis stigmatized ethnic undesirables as human vermin and as poisoning the Aryan race. As racial therapy became intertwined with the control of epidemics from the east, the preventive strategies of sanitary experts merit scrutiny. The cruel fiction that the crematoria of Auschwitz were for delousing raises the question as to how the medical eradication of parasites was linked to genocide.

In confronting typhus we see twin processes of sanitary policing, and its racialization with typhus characterized as a Judenfieber. Preventing epidemics involved a battery of sanitary technologies to cleanse, disinfect, fumigate, and cremate. The campaigns against lice dragooned civilians into compliance with draconian sanitary regimes, and ethnic minorities became vulnerable to extortion, destruction of personal property, and racial violence. The campaigns were predicated on a metaphorical divide between the advanced sanitary conditions of Western Europe, and a pathogenic and primitive east. The Second World War saw megalomaniac racial engineering of the genocidal Generalplan Ost, involving plans for ‘clearance’ and transplanting of reinvigorated ethnic German stocks in the occupied eastern territories. This had as its corollary what amounted to an anti-epidemic Seuchenplan Ost, first to segregate and then to eradicate the human carriers of epidemic infections. Medical experts and subordinate troops of disinfectors targeted ethnic foes as the sources of infections, menacing the health of German ‘colonists’ in the east, the German heartlands, and the predatory forces of the army and SS.

A brief historiographical review, and some explanation of the gestation of this work will—I hope—be helpful. My intial concerns were with the sanitary and symbolic significance of borders, transport, and sanitary policing. Two groups merited special attention: the migrants crossing Germany from eastern Europe on their way to the United States, and the ethnic German ‘colonists’ in Russia. The Treaty of Versailles was traumatic for the German sanitary experts, while the Allies recognized that the central European successor states required national hygiene installations. The new hygiene institutes and delousing stations could provide a virtual iron curtain (or what the Germans called ‘an epidemic protection wall’) to prevent typhus as a devastating new ‘Black Death’ from the east. Graphic reports by League of Nations Epidemic Commissioners, depicting the Russian famine and typhus epidemic of 1921 as a ‘Holocaust’ poised to engulf the new Europe, prompted my first reflections on the genocidal significance of the disease. The Commissioners’ reports alluded to tensions between measures sponsored by the Allies and those of a German epidemic relief expedition in Russia. I set out to examine how the . . .

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