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The Shame of The Nazi Doctors
on 4 January 2016
In 1946, Vivien Spitz travelled to Nuremberg, Germany, to report verbatim proceedings at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. She reported on the medical case of 20 Nazi doctors and three medical assistants. This book tells of medical experiments conducted in Nazi Germany and considers the Holocaust, medical ethics, human rights and the barbaric depths to which human beings can descend. This was particularly apposite in Europe which had long adhered to the Hippocratic oath which demanded that medicine was practiced for the benefit of the sick. Spitz put all her memories of the horror of the Nazi doctors' trial to the back of her mind until the late 1980's a teacher in Denver referred to the Holohoax. The teacher, who claimed she was teaching critical thinking, was demoted while Spitz 'hauled out transcripts, material and original press photographs (she) brought from Nuremberg' , began to give lectures about the Holocaust and became actively involved in promoting Holocaust Awareness.
Unwisely, Spitz, asked Elie Wiesel to provide the foreword. Unwisely because Wiesel is an unabashed Zionist for whom the Holocaust is a unique example of genocide which has resulted in him denying other examples such as that of the Armenians in 1915. Neither, according to Wiesel, can Israel do any wrong. This is not to deny the reality of his life in a Nazi concentration camp, nor to invalidate his observations that many of those who committed atrocities were highly intelligent and qualified persons. He is naive is assuming that anyone in Nazi Germany could simply have slipped away or said no to the scientific experiments. He claimed 'the killers could have decided not to kill' but professional training is only one element in a human being's psyche.
A second foreword by Frederick Adams points out, 'it was the doctors that upheld the ethics of medicine that were ostracised'. No science can be divorced from its human context. It was in the United States that eugenics theory was vigorously implemented. US doctors practiced the worst forms of tyranny as a result and provided the model on which Nazi Germany based its sterilisation laws. The difference was Nazis took the American model to its logical conclusion and, having disregarded liberal theory, expanded those eligible for sterilisation to include those with 'congenital mental defects, schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, hereditary epilepsy and severe alcoholism'. Adams lists a number of non-consensual experiments carried out in post-Nuremberg America. Other examples of medicine having been betrayed are given and one wonders whether physician-assisted suicide is different in kind or degree.
Spitz arrived in Nuremberg shortly after the main Nazi leaders had been hanged for their crimes. Court reporters sat for fifteen minutes, recorded what they heard, with assistance from a German monitor, wrote up their reports which was then compared with the court's electronic recording. She admits it was hard to remain dispassionate emotionally as the various forms of experimentation were read out and examined. This is clear from her description of Karl Brandt, 'Adolf Hitler's personal physician and chief architect of the programme that turned doctors into torturers and murderers despite their Hippocratic Oath to heal and cure'. Brandt and six others were sentenced to death, five received life sentences, four varying terms of imprisonment and seven found not guilty.
In 1939 the Nazis applied Aryan racial theories which included illegal euthanasia which, by 1940, was no longer a secret to the extent that Himmler ordered its discontinuation. Other programmes included high-altitude experiments at Dachau for which eight defendants were charged and of which Rudolph Brandt and Wolfram Sievers were found guilty and sentenced to death. Freezing experiments were conducted for the benefit of the German Air Force whose pilots crashed into the sea. Malaria experiments were carried out between February 1942 and April 1945. Dr Karl Schilling argued in a separated trial that his work was for the benefit of science and he should be allowed to continue with it. He failed to appreciate that it was against medical ethics to kill and was hanged.
The Nazis tried to justify their experiments on the grounds the results could be used to treat military casualties. Sulfanilamide experiments were carried out at the women's concentration camp in Ravensbrueck. Amongst those convicted was Herta Oberheuser, the only female amongst the defendants, who was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment, later reduced to ten, for her role in killing healthy children and removing their limbs. After her release she served as a family doctor until she was recognised and lost her licence to practice. Rather like Myra Hindley the idea that a woman could be involved in killing children made it worse in the eyes of the public. Similarly, the actions of Nazi doctors generally in conducting inhuman experiments on the basis of racial ideology gives the impression that Harold Shipman was a well balanced individual. Evidence of the use of gas chambers was given by Waffen SS member Kurt Gerstein. Gernstein was a covert anti-Nazi sympathiser whose account of the gassing of Jews has been confirmed, although his exact role and the strange manner of his death have never been fully explained. His account of the fanaticism of those involved in killing Jews is haunting.
Such fanaticism affected Spitz who was living at the Grand Hotel when it was bombed by Nazi sympathisers. During her time in Nuremberg she did not develop relationships with Germans, not even the housekeeper at the flat where she stayed initially. She went to Nuremberg because she was proud of her German heritage but did so completely ignorant of anti-Semitism which became clear only during the trial. She had no knowledge of Hitler's Final Solution but, given her youth, this is not surprising as a parallel study of the life of Hitler's private secretary, Traudl Junge, who was equally naive about the politics of the period demonstrates. Though useful as a source the book is generally disappointing being a mish-mash of narrative and documentation. Three stars.