20th century WWII

NS-Medicine and its end 75 years ago

A cold water experiment at the KZ Dachau

NS-medicine is an example for the special condition war and/or a totalitarian regime offers to medical personnel and even more that medical research has its dark sides, which make the consideration of ethics so essential.

The 8th May 1945

The End of WWII in Europe was a multi-step process from late April to early May 1945 and included the following steps:

  • Allied forces took large numbers of Axis prisoners (late 1944 – May 1945)
  • Liberation of Nazi concentration camps and refugees (July 1944-May 1945)
  • German forces leaving Finland (25th April 1945)
  • Mussolini´s capture, execution and surrender of Italian forces (27th-29th April 1945)
  • Hitler´s suicide (30th April 1945)
  • German forces surrender in Italy (29th April – 2nd May 1945), Berlin (2nd May 1945), North West Germany and Denmark (4th May 1945)
  • German U-boats surrender and the surrender of German forces in the Netherlands and Bavaria (5th May 1945)
  • Hermann Göring’s surrender and German forces surrender in Breslau (6th May 1945)
  • Jodl and Keitel surrender all German armed forces unconditionally: (7th-8th May 1945)
  • German forces surrender on the Channel Islands: (8th May 1945)
  • VE-Day (8th May for US, GB and F but on 9th for Soviet Union and Israel): just a military surrender!!! Technically the end of WWII in Europe
  • German units cease fire (8th May – 4th September 1945)
  • “Declaration regarding the defeat of Germany” (5th June 1945): full surrender of NS-Germany

NS-medicine and its specifics

The NS-medicine started with Hitler´s rise to power in Germany on 30.01.1933 and with the annexation of Austria on the 12th March 1938.

The medical NS-crimes were manifold: forcing Jewish doctors, professors and students into emigration; the cruel experiments on KZ inmates; official forced sterilization; and the extermination of all “worthless” lives, which termed »euthanasia« which means “beautiful” or “merciful death” in Greek.

“Elimination of unworthy lives”

NS-medicine was based on the social-Darwinian Rassenhygiene (“eugenics”): It treated life on “a cost-value” perspective and decided who was “worth” living and who was not. It needs to be mentioned that eugenics was a global trend in research in the 1920s and 1930s, e. g. in the US it was supported by Harriman and Rockefeller, but no other country went as far as Germany under Hitler´s rule.

The NSDAP wanted to support their theory of “racial inferiority” with “scientific” proof and many doctors were willing to offer it in order to save the “superiority” of the German race, “Volkskörper”: Jews and people with disabilities and with mental illnesses were seen as “inferior” and needed to get rid off based on “Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor”. Their “minor” value lead to a loose of all or most of their civil rights and made them “research material” for human experiments: In concentration camps altitude tests in vacuum chambers, supercooling tests, experiments with typhus, malaria, sulphonamide, antibiotics, homoeopatics, poisons (including gas) and sea water. Furthermore, head injuries; bone, muscle and nerve transplantation; blood coagulation, the exposure to incendiary bombs and electroshocks were tested. Mengele´s experiments on twins were the most radical within genetic-research. Mostly lead to the death of victims but those who survived suffered from severe irreversible physical demage and psychological trauma.

Doctors did the selection within the KZs: They decided who could work and who was killed right after the arrival in the camps or when an inmate became sick.

In- and outside the concentration camps forced sterilisations were performed on about 400,000 people, with about 5,000, mostly women, dying. In Dachau female inmates were forced to engage in sexual intercourse to keep them warm outdoor.
Experiments were also performed in asylums, and hospitals in the occupied territories.

No freedom – not even in death

Prisoners had to pry out the gold teeth of the dead before the bodies were burned in large open pits or in the crematoriums.
To hide crimes, fake causes of deaths were entered in death certificates.

Some corps were prepared for further research at universities: E.g. Tissue samples were sent to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics in Berlin. 86 Jewish inmates (29 women and 57 men) from Auschwitz were chosen by SS anthropologists, sent to the gas chambers in Natzweiler-Struthof and prepared for the Reich University of Strasbourg to study the Jewish “race”. These 86 corps are called the “Jewish skeleton collection”.

Here you can read the biographies of the 86 victims of the Jewish skeleton collection

Tip: Roelcke, Volker (2004): Nazi medicine and research on human beings. In: The Lancet. Vol. 364, Special Issue 6-7.  DOI:

The German doctors and their support for the NS-regime

45% all doctors entered into the NSDAP from 1933 onwards and many medical professors signed the “Vow of allegiance of the Professors of the German Universities and High-Schools to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialistic State” in 1933.

Promised support on Hitler by professors of Universities (1933)

T4, the killing of people with disability and mental illnesses, was a “preparation” for the methods used in the Holocaust. Due to protests in society and the church and Hitler´s preference in the “final solution of the Jews” and the fight against the Soviet Union T4 ended in August 1941 -at least officially. By then more than 70,000 patients had been killed.
Doctors continued to overdose patients or starve them in the so-called “wilden Euthanasie” (“wild euthanasia”).

German doctors were rewarded for their support: They lost their Jewish competition and had a better chance of a higher civil service rank and more pay.
The highest rewards were offered for the human experiments in the KZs: They could do their “research” there and publish its results in prestigious journals, sent home specimens that could be used by their mentors, or completed a thesis that would enable them to teach at a university.

Educated in the NS-system – the young physians

Race ideology and eugenics were taught at German Universities. Studying medicine was very popular as medical students did not need to fight at the front as soldiers. Due to the lack of doctors medical studies had been shortened to 4 years: So poorly educated young doctors had to treat wounded soldiers.

Forced migration of Jewish professors, doctors and students

When Hitler took power around 8,000 Jewish doctors lived in Germany. Propaganda questioned their abilities and morals and highlighted their aiming for financial gain.

In April 1933 the repressions started: They lost their jobs, were dismissed and forced into emigration. These actions were set step b step to avoid a shortage of doctors, which was unavoidable and effected Berlin in particular. In November 1938 only 3,000 Jewish doctors lived in Germany. One forth of all Jewish doctors were killed in the Holocaust, 10% committed suicide and by 1933 more than 50% had emigrated mostly to the US and Palatine.
Just 5% returned to Germany after the war.

In 1938 3,500 doctors were Jewish in Vienna. Austrian-Jewish doctors faced particular challenges: They lost everything within months after the “Anschluss”, while the same process took over years (1933-1938) in Germany.

Emigration to the US

The US and especially New York was the destination for most Jewish doctors to emigrate to. In 1933 organization that supported doctors were founded like the “Emergency Committe in Aid of Displaced Physicians”. But still as foreign doctors they faced many challenges: In 10 States they needed to graduate from an American Medical School and in 13 States they had to do an internship in a hospital.

Downplay of the archievments of Jewish doctors

Many milestones in medicine within the German medicine were reached by Jewish doctors at the end of the 19th century.

Their achievements were downplayed by the NS-regime: E. g. the Noble prize winner Paul Ehrlich (1854 –1915), who played an essential role in combating diphtheria. During the regime the street named after him in Frankfurt-Sachsenhausen was renamed and his achievements were ignored while those of his colleague Emil Adolf von Behring were exaggerated.

Everything for a healthy “Volkskörper”

Due to the NS-ideology public health of “Germans” was essential and it was the doctor´s role to ensure this essential task, including purges.

Sport and a healthy diet (as much as the shortages due to the war allowed it) were recommended. Furthermore, the regime set a focus on fighting cancer with the world’s first public (but antisemitic and racist) anti-tobacco campaign, by supporting research on smocking related health effects and the recommendation to do self-examinations of breasts.

These government actions made the 1930s Germany an admired world leader in innovative public health and medical research.

Treating sick KZ inmates

For the inmates the KZs were hell: Their lives were in permanent danger due to poor nutrition, hard work with no PPEs and the dramatic hygienic conditions. These circumstances fostered injuries and the spread of infectious diseases.

The SS was only fighting the uncontrolled spread of diseases but did limit individual health treatments to a minimum. Only a few priviledged inmates received medical treatments in the so-called “Krankenrevier” (“sickbays”).

Their best chances were inmates that had a medical training or were doctors themselves: The French surgeon, Emil Coudert, offered resistance to the Nazis and was imprisoned therefore in the KZ Sachsenhausen, where he operated many.


Open resistance in general and by doctors and medical student was rare, but after the war many claimed that they had disagreed with the NS-regime.

One example is the student organized “Weiße Rose”.

“Weiße Rose”

Memorial of the “Weiße Rose” at the Ludwig-Maximilian-University

Hans Scholl (1918-1943) and Alexander Schmorell (1917-1943) studied medicine at the Ludwig-Maximilian-University in Munich and co-founded the student´s resistance group “Weiße Rose” (“White Rose”).

The spread of leaflets on the 18th February 1943 at the Ludwig-Maximilian-University lead to the exposure of the group and the execution of Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, a biology and philosophy student at the very same university, and their friends Christoph Probst, who also studied medicine.

Their leaflets were also spread by the medical student Albert Suhr (1920-1996) and his group in Hamburg.

No to T4 and the support for Jewish colleagues

The neurologist of Göttingen, Gottfried Ewald, did not want to take part in the T4-action and nothing happened to him.

Karl Bonhoeffer, the director of neurology at the Charité, was one of the few German physician, who supported his Jewish colleagues: He tried to continue their contracts and if that was not possible then he helped them to find a work place abroad. At least 2 doctors and their families were saved by him and his actions.

Spoiler Alert: NS-medicine II

  • consequences for involved doctors: including the “Doctor´s Trail”
  • NS-medicine and its achievements: including the NS-Eponym of the Asperger´s syndrome
  • How victims and murderer are remembered?
  • What can be learnt from NS-medicine?

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