Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800-1996

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

12

FROM RACIAL HYGIENE TO AUSCHWITZ 1

In the past few years, biotechnology, gene manipulation, in vitro fertilization, foetal tissue transplants and other, similar developments have given rise to an increasingly impassioned debate on the politics and morality of controlling human reproduction. Participants in the debate frequently raise the spectre of the racial, biological and medical policies carried out by the Nazis in the 1930s and during the Second World War. Hitler’s Third Reich forcibly sterilized some 360,000 inhabitants of Germany thought to be suffering from hereditary complaints (often as vaguely described as feeble-mindedness’ or ‘alcoholism’). A programme was launched to kill off ‘incurable’ patients in mental hospitals. Five thousand children, many suffering from Down’s syndrome, were selected for extermination by an official medical tribunal. X-ray units run by the SS toured occupied Poland and Russia and shot 100,000 of the inhabitants who were discovered to be tubercular. A medical statistician advocated a ‘final solution’ for the 1.6 million ‘antisocials’ he believed to be living in Germany.

Although Hitler was known for his personal susceptibility to quackery and alternative medicine, the medical killings and sterilizations of his Third Reich were carried out by mainstream scientists firmly anchored in the medical, biological and university establishments. Even Josef Mengele (1911-84), who became notorious for the human experimentation which he carried out while camp doctor at Auschwitz, had previously won international recognition for his work on the aetiology of cleft palates and harelips. Moreover, senior scientific figures such as Otmar von Verschuer (1886-1969), who had given powerful support to camp research and enthused about Mengele’s work on eye-colour anomalies (for which the eyes of gypsies imprisoned in Auschwitz had apparently been used), were reinstated in university posts in West Germany during the 1950s, while the surviving victims of sterilization and experimentation went uncompensated and unrecognized.

The story of medicine and biology under Nazism has been told by a number of authors in recent years, including Robert Jay Lifton, Michael Kater, Gisela Bock, Ernst Klee, Götz Aly, Karl-Heinz Roth and others. What concerns Paul Weindling in this major new study (1989), however, is less

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