Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of publisherRacial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis
Robert Proctor
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988

Reviewed by:
Douglas Pelton

DeRuyter Central School
DeRuyter, New York


When we talk of human genetics today, we tend to think of a very complex field of study that holds much promise and numerous possibilities.  The potential for improvement of the human race in terms of understanding the source of diseases, having the ability to correct debilitating physical characteristic in utero, the possibility of breeding desirable traits, or selecting the sex of a child are all part of the promises and the world found within the field of human genetics.  Major universities around the world have attempted to lead the way in this area by developing and opening numerous courses within the fields of genetics and molecular biology.  In building this “better” man, we hope to build a “better” world with the medical profession leading the way.  What many seem to have forgotten is that the legitimate science of today had many of its origins in the science, scientists, and physicians found in Germany between the late 1800s and 1945.  In this time, the German medical profession sold its soul to the Nazi Party and to Hitler in an effort to reclaim what it perceived as lost prestige and to experience the freedom to practice and expand the cutting edge science of the time.  The end result was to be the saving of Germany and German culture and the purification of the German race.  This purification would result in Germans assuming their “rightful place as the masters of Europe and the world.”

The German medical profession was virtually silent about the role it played in Hitler’s Germany after the war.  Even though several doctors were tried for the crimes they committed in the name of racial health and the preservation of Germany, most doctors who were equally complicit in the crimes committed went unpunished and they went on to freely continue their practices.  Experimentation, mercy killings, selective breeding, and special treatment were all part of the medical field during Hitler’s reign.  Upon close inspection, what really happened was anything but the noble efforts embedded in the Hippocratic Oath.  The experimentation was often unauthorized and sadistic efforts to “advance scientific knowledge.”  The mercy killings were euthanasia carried out solely for economic or political ends.  “Selective breeding” and “special treatment’ were euphemisms for the forced sterilization of the mentally and physically handicapped, and the extermination of undesirables, particularly Jews, respectively.  Who did what and why is examined in the book Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis.  The author, Robert N. Proctor, attempts to explore the role of the medical and health care fields in creating and sustaining “The Thousand Year Reich.”

 Proctor starts his study by examining the origins of racial hygiene.  One key pioneer in this area was Arthur Comte de Gobineau.  His 1853 – 55 treatise, Essay on the Inequality of the Human Race, offered the premise that race was the primary force moving all of history.  From his perspective, racial vitality resulted in the rise and fall of all great civilizations or races.  As such, he took the position that this racial history was actually a science.

An important issue that Proctor seeks to address next is whether there was any resistance to the Nazi plan by the medical and health care professionals in Germany. Communist groups provided the most systematic and sustained resistance (252).  These groups provided Jews with forged passports and certificates of Aryan identity.  Published forms of resistance were generally religious in origin.  Other protests came from those who decried the loss of scholarship that occurred with the exclusion of the Jews from German academic and professional life.  But, economic conditions after WW I threw the medical community solidly into the Nazi camp.  Hyperinflation, hunger, poverty, civil war, and a crisis in health and health care caused the medical community to split along political and economic lines.  As a result physician associations such as the Sozialistische Arzt were formed aligning physicians between the worlds of capitalism and socialism.  The socialist doctors tried to rally themselves against the Nazis but to no avail.

In his final chapter, Proctor looks at the politics of knowledge.  In many ways, the Nazis replaced German intellectual life with a life of manual labor.  So, how could it happen?  To start with, the Nazi racial and medical polices were legal and public since they were elected to power.  Key professions and professionals cooperated with Nazi policy.  They were rewarded and in return they offered the Nazis legitimacy and a scientific basis.  The eugenics movement was not exclusively a German movement; it was an international movement.  There was also international support for the claim of heredity over environment and that biology was the key to solving social problems.  Since the problems of the day (race, gender, crime, poverty) were medical/biological problems, the Nazi program appealed to physicians.  Even when physicians felt that their colleagues were “out of line” their professional ethos compelled them to defend their peers no matter what.  With the profession’s political shift to the right from 1928 – 1932, the new, young professionals found opportunities where they initially saw none.  These new, young doctors had unheard-of power and authority.  Believing themselves to be above politics, they “made decisions” on what they construed to be sound science.  Since the physicians did not see politics as part of the equation, they clothed themselves in legitimacy.  As doctors, whatever they did they believed that it was fairly done and done in the best interest of Germany and the German people.

From December 9, 1946 to July 19, 1947, the Nuremberg Nazi Doctor Trials were held.  Several key figures were tried and executed, while many more went unpunished.  It cannot be denied that the German medical profession provided ideas and techniques, which lead to and justified the slaughter undertaken in the name of racial purity and the salvation of the German Volk and State.  Physicians eagerly and actively cooperated with the Nazis and embraced the ideas of racial hygiene.  Protests were isolated and pathetic (280).  One of Proctor’s final scathing condemnations of the medical and health care professions summed up their role as follows: “Physicians, and the body of intellectuals associated with them, did not follow blindly, but actually helped cast the light and clear the path (289).”  As doctors, their patients trusted them.  As doctors, they were valued members of their society.  As doctors, they had a sacred duty to heal and protect.  As Nazi doctors, they failed on all counts.


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

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