Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of publisherMedicine, Ethics, and the Third Reich: Historical and Contemporary Issues
John J. Michalczyk
Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1994

Reviewed by:
Douglas Pelton

DeRuyter Central School
DeRuyter, New York


Medicine, Ethics, and the Third Reich: Historical and Contemporary Issues is a collection of essays that examines the moral and ethical questions associated with the Nazi racial hygiene movement from 1933 – 1945.  After decades of indifference and the blatant refusal of the German medical community to acknowledge their complicity in promoting Nazi ideology via the human experiments they conducted in the name of the Volk and Reich, this volume raises several bioethical questions.  It examines both what happened and what the future implications are and continue to be.

During the reign of the Third Reich, the health of the state took precedence over the health of the individual.  The medical professions supported the effort to cleanse, make healthy, and create the new world dominated by the master Aryan race.  What happened had small and almost unnoticeable beginnings.  Basic attitudes of physicians shifted significantly with the acceptance of the belief that there could be lives not worthy of living.  Since the initial focus was on the severely and chronically ill, followers easily fell into this way of thinking as the after- shocks of WW I, the 1923 hyperinflation, and the Great Depression, resulted in economic hardship and deprivation.  The realm of the unworthy expanded to include the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted, and eventually all non-Germans. 

The groundwork was laid according to Athur Caplan (The Relevance of the Holocaust to Bioethics Today) by the fields of medicine and science, which played major roles in the Nazi racial hygiene movement and the Holocaust.  Racism was at the heart of what happened but in this case, the racism was verified and legitimized by biomedicine.  Doctors and healers ignored their moral obligations to support a state that promised them a better life and world.  When one looks at the shadow of Nazism upon biomedical ethics, Peter Steinfels (Biomedical Ethics and the Shadow of Nazism) points out that several other major European cultures, including that of the United States, were involved in this historical nightmare.  Not only are we faced with the question of complicity, but we are also forced to address the fact that many of our modern day advances had some of their origins and scientific foundations laid by Nazi physicians who were deemed criminals at their Nuremberg Trial in 1946 – 47. As Nat Hentoff (Contested Terrain: The Nazi Analogy in Bioethics) points out, it all started out with the very best intentions.  But once medical decisions began to be made based on state policy and economic imperatives, German physicians found themselves on a very slippery slope.  Ironically, it is a similar slope that health care providers find themselves navigating today as they make decisions about when to treat or withhold treatment for patients, particularly the elderly or the chronically ill.

Peter J. Hass (The Healing-Killing Paradox) points out that for the Nazis the “Nazification” of the medical profession was accomplished very quickly after the National Socialists assumed power in 1933.  After “cleansing” the profession, most German doctors rallied to the Nazi cause or they exploited the Nazi state for their own purposes.  Careers were made at the expense of racial victims found within the laboratories of the concentration camp system.  With the declaration of a racial war against the enemy races of the state, physicians offered the science that legitimized the life-saving actions taken in the name of “national health and salvation.”  Since many believed traits were genetically transmitted, inter-racial breeding would weaken the race and its national ability.  This Darwinian struggle between the races generated the “moral imperative” to “purify the race” by preventing mixed breeding and to “cleanse the race” by eliminating the weak and sickly elements.  With the Nazi occupation of the east, they had the perfect “laboratory” within which to conduct their grand social experiment without restrictions or inhibitions.

The second section of the book deals with the progression from theory (racial hygiene) to action (euthanasia and sterilization).  Benno Müller-Hill (Human Genetics in Nazi Germany) offers a look at how German scientists in the 1920s took human genetics and developed it into the eugenics or racial hygiene movement.  As a result of their efforts, racism and anti-Semitism exploded in a Germany beset with problems that an ineffective Weimar government was unable to address.  While sitting in jail after the failed Beerhall Putsch, Hitler read a textbook on genetics sent to him by Julius Lehmann.  Parts of this textbook can be found in Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, and thus found their way into Nazi racial ideology.  German human geneticists believed that the genetically inferior were breeding faster than the genetically superior, which was having a degenerative effect on German culture.  To stem this cultural decline, sterilization was advocated and it continued to win a larger circle of supporter both within and outside of Germany.  Once in power in 1933, the Nazis used this science to justify their effort to “redeem” or “save” Germany.  They promoted what “needed to be done” with their aggressive propaganda programs, which appealed to the “gut feelings” of the people who either openly supported the movement or they became indifferent.  The end result was the sterilization of nearly 400,000 Germans with little or no resistance being mounted.  Reduced to its essence, the Nazis reduced human genetics to a blend of science and ideology.  Fueled by their early successes and buoyed by state support, German scientists and physicians entered “uncharted” and “unrestricted” waters as they “boldly went where no man (or government) had gone before.”

The above passages were excerpted from a complete review of Michalczyk's work.

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