Nazi Medical Experiments: Murder or Research?

By Lauren Howell
Jacksonville, Florida



The horror and suffering imposed on targeted minority groups, particularly Jews, by the Nazi Third Reich has been increasingly well documented since the Death Camps were liberated in 1945. Yet, as with most aspects of the Holocaust phenomenon, one facet of the singling out process begs more discussion: the Nazi medical experiments, which took place in the Death Camps.(1)

Nazi Germans and the doctors involved rationalized their actions as the best thing for humanity, "specifically the Aryan race." But the world has judged their actions to be sadistic and murderous. Out of "a warped sense of loyalty" for their country, many doctors associated with Death Camps volunteered for the German army early in the conflict. They were selected to carry out Hitler's racial policies, including, among others, elimination of Jews, to protect the supposedly superior Germanic race.

Striving for German supremacy contributed to desensitizing the doctors. Numerous Nazi doctors received military training early in the war, including participating on battlefields. The doctors' military experience was a first step in preparing them to do what was necessary as loyal Nazis.

Executions and medical experiments combined Nazi Doctrine with the doctors' scientific curiosity. This makes what they did even more frightening. Their actions were clear, direct violations of both the Hippocratic Oath, as well as the public's belief that doctors always look after their patients' well-being.

Nazi mass killings removed a barrier and crossed a boundary in the doctors' perception of using medical experiments for research. This boundary separated violent, periodic killing of victims for experiments, from systematic genocide in Auschwitz and elsewhere. The image of killing-in-the-name-of-healing was crucial to that terrible first step in reconciling their actions with their conscience. At the heart of Nazi actions, then, is the destroying of the boundary

between heating and killing, permitting the use of experimentation on human beings instead of mice or rabbits.

Many victims too weak, frail looking, or injured and of no use at the concentration camps were sent for experimental torture by Nazi doctors. The strong camp workers sometimes became "healthy subjects" for specific experiments. Brutal soldiers who disliked certain inmates' attitudes decided prisoners' fates and inflicted their punishment. Stanislaw Urbanczyk, a professor imprisoned in one concentration camp, commented, "Those who transgressed even

the most minor camp rule were tortured, such as being beaten with a stick."(2) Doctors were sometimes hung over from a night of drinking while "selecting" who lived or died. In some instances, there was no rhyme or reason to their choices.

The German leadership dictated that the life of the nation took precedence over conscience, and any who opposed this belief were subject to retaliation. Nazi doctors had been brainwashed by beliefs and ideology of German leaders. Germany established the "heredity" health law, which blessed using sterilization for advancement of the German race. Gerhard Wagner identified the task of his Public Health Office: as "promotion and perfection of the health of the German people .... to ensure that the people realize the full potential of their racial and

genetic endowment. "(3) However, all of the blame cannot be put on them. Most doctors used humans for experiments to further their own medical reputations. "Medicalized Killing" addresses these motivations and principles, and permits understanding Auschwitz's victimizers- notably Nazi doctors. (4)

There was a method to advancing biomedical ideology in the Nazi movement from coercive sterilization to direct medical killing in the death camps. The unifying principle was that of a deadly racial disease, a sickness of the Aryan race, and the cure was killing all Jews. Fritz Klein, a Nazi doctor, stated "I am a doctor and I want to preserve life. And of out of respect for human life, I would remove gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind." (5) In the doctors' eyes, Jews were viewed as a Syndrome, characteristic of a greater, specific disease, rather than as individual human beings.

Nazis sought to change God and Nature's natural selection in planning their own "selections", their own version of human evolution. Medical operations performed by doctors served as a unique kind of killing program. Doctors thought these people were going to die anyway, so they justified using them to advance the Aryan race. (6) Nazi Germany combined extreme genetic experimentation with a totalistic political structure to carry out a national program of compulsory sterilization "larger in scope than any" previously attempted.(7)

Nazification of the medical profession- a key aspect of the transition from sterilization to direct medical killing- was achieved by combining ideological enthusiasm with systematic terror. Thus, sterilization was the medical support for the Nazi biocracy. (8)

The goal of Nazi doctors was keeping their world pure, and death could be accepted in the process. Dr. Johann S., a leading organizer and high-level participant in Nazi medical programs, stressed the conviction that physicians alone possess the necessary theory, knowledge and direct human experience to serve as the ultimate biological evangelists: "Every practitioner has much more knowledge about biology than a philosopher, because he has seen it." (9)

Joachim Mrugowsky, a high ranking SS doctor and head of the Hygienic Institute, focused on the doctor's function as "the priest as the holy flame of life," and on the "art of healing" as the doctor's "divine mission." (10)

Nazis based their reasoning for direct medical experiments and killing on the simple concept of "life unworthy of life." (11) Nazis stressed a biomedical vision of a natural cure for the "Jewish problem." German doctors inherited longstanding anti-Semitism for Germany's extraordinary anxiety about a perceived threat of the Jewish way of life to German society, race and state. According to Nazi ideology, Jews were agents of "racial pollution" and "racial tuberculosis," as well as parasites and bacteria causing sickness, deterioration, and death in the host peoples they infested. (12)

Expectations of "racial leadership" led Hitler to particularly stress "cleansing of the medical profession." (13) Devotion of the New Germany stressed the task of universal civilization and sponsored high intellectual achievement. Adding to purges of Jews and the politically unacceptable, medical facilities de-emphasized basic research, shortened the time of medical study to produce more doctors for the state, and modified the classical curriculum to give greater stress to military medicine, population politics, and racial biology. This led to doctors with inadequate training and experience.

The Germans also reconciled the work of the doctors as a part of world war and the belief that they could do anything, as long as it preserved their own survival. Wanting to know what would happen to a pilot inside a pressurized cabin if it burst open, they used Jewish prisoners inside a pressure chamber to simulate these conditions. The pressure was so intense at times, it caused the victims of the experiment to rip out their own hair in an attempt to relieve the pressure; they went mad.

Other experiments were done to find out how humans would respond to extreme freezing temperatures, in order to better protect their own troops, "who often faced exposure to bitterly cold environments." They tried different methods involving hot baths, sun lamps or internal irrigation to see how people would respond to near-death freezing temperatures. These people, "tragically remaining unnamed," died a terrible, tortuous death, as the doctors determined how much pain the test subjects could endure, before death. They also did genetic experiments and tests on twins to better understand how they might improve their own race. Inmates who tried to escape from the camp could expect to be roasted over giant frying pans upon recapture. (14) These human experiments were done, they reasoned, to make mankind a better race of peoples. However, these twisted experiments were nothing more than methods of torture and death for their victims and not beneficial to mankind. (15)

Nazi medical experiments were nothing other than murder. It is wrong to

experiment on unconsenting human subjects regardless of any beneficial findings.

The trust of a physician is sacred and the rights of the patient inviolable. This is

why medicine practiced by the doctors of the Third Reich is striking, outrageous,

and shocking. Nazi doctors violated trust placed in them by humanity. There is no

excuse to justify the actions that were brought upon the innocent and blameless

victims of the Holocaust. The world today must learn from those disturbed individuals who took the fife of so many, and be reassured that it must never happen again.


1. The Jewish Diaspora, academia, certain governments, and even popular culture, continue to publicize and personalize the collective experiences of Holocaust survivors. But often individual accounts most effectively animate these experiences as a whole. It is important, in an age of increasing depersonalization, to consider how individuals were targeted by Hitler's regime. One familiar image of the singling out process is the yellow Star of David which Jews were forced to wear for identification. Stories of the organization of Ghettos have also come to recent attention. The selection process in the camps has been the publicized aspect.

2. Laurence Rees, The Nazis, A Warning from History (New York: The New Press, 1997) 13 0.

3. Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors (New York: Basic Books, A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1986) 30.

4. Ibid, 15.

5. Ibid, 16.

6. The Nazi doctors must have been aware of and considered the EinsatzKommandos, or mobile killing squads, which were rounding up victims even prior to the wide-spread establishment of organized, systematic Death Camps. Therefor, it seems plausible that the doctors might have reasoned that since the death of any Nazi target was inevitable, then passing on the opportunity to use those targets as human test subjects was a waste. The morals and ethics are obviously flawed in this instance, but the logic is consistent with the absurd, distorted nature of Nazi ideology, overall.

7. Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors (New York: Basic Books, A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1986) 24.

8. Ibid, 27. Sterilization legitimized the doctors' work and set precedent for the subsequent, unrelated experiments.

9. Ibid, 3 1. It seems this "hands on" attitude allowed Nazi doctors to see traditional medical ethics as a naive product of isolated members of an insulated "ivory tower", cut off from the brutal measures needed during a time of war or pseudo-holy crusade.

10. Ibid, 32.

11. This appears to be a kind of anti-thesis to Hitler's incorporation of philosopher Freidrich Nietche's "superman" concept or even a Nazi-warped adaptation of Darwinian Theory.

12. Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors (New York: Basic Books, A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1986) 16.

13. Ibid, 36.

14. Laurence Rees, The Nazis, A Warning from History (New York: The New Press, 1997) 207.

15. Some of these experiments did yield medical advances but at a tremendous spiritual cost to mankind.


1. Liflon, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors, Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York. Basic Books, A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1986.

2. Rees, Laurence. The Nazis, A Warning from History. New York. New Press, 1997.

3. Medical Experiments of the Holocaust and Nazi Medicine.

http: //remember. org/educate/medexp.html.

4. Nazi Medical Experiments.

http: //home. ipoline. com/-leons/97intro. htm.

5. The Holocaust-

6. A prisoner is subjected to freezing experiments in Dachau.

7. High-Altitude medical experiments in Dachau.

8. Children subjected to medical experiments in Auschwitz.

9. Scenes of horror at Nazi concentration camps



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