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This Month in Holocaust History – Alfred Lerner Fellows – December 2023

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This Month in Holocaust History – December

The defendants in the dock (left) and their lawyers (right) at the Doctors Trial. Courtesy of USHMM: Photograph Number: 16788.
Karl Brandt. Courtesy of USHMM: Photo Number: 06231

The Doctors Trial

The American military convened a tribunal on December 9, 1946, in Nuremberg, Germany to determine the innocence or guilt of twenty German doctors and three SS officers. These officials were associated with the Nazi “euthanasia” program and experiments performed on Jewish, Polish, Russian and Roma/Sinti (Gypsy) concentration camp prisoners deported to Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Natzweiler, Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald.

The American prosecutors separated the defendants into three categories: eight were in the medical services of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), seven were in the medical service of the SS, and eight were in the Nazi hierarchy. The doctors who were charged ranged from Hitler’s personal physician and Reich Commissioner for Health and Sanitation, Karl Brandt, to Hermann Becker-Freyseng, a captain in the Medical Service of the German Air Force who was much younger and lower in the Nazi hierarchy.

Prior to experimentation on human subjects in the camps, the Nazis developed a “euthanasia” program (code name T4) to murder initially children–and then adults–with disabilities living in institutions and thereby ease the “burden” on German society caused by those undesirables. The murdered had physical or developmental disabilities or were diagnosed with epilepsy, schizophrenia, or other illnesses which caused them to be deemed inferior beings by the Nazis. Though the program began with the handicapped, it was continually expanded to include the elderly, civilians maimed in bombing raids, and foreign forced laborers. The Euthanasia Program used gas, drugs, and lethal injection to murder hundreds of thousands of people and became a prototype for the death camps.

Many of the experiments in the concentration camps were conducted by the SS for the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) with non-consenting human test subjects taken from the camps. These experiments were performed under the guise of research to improve conditions for soldiers on the front.  Coerced participants suffered permanent disfigurement, pain, mental anguish, and often death. At Sachsenhausen, Natzweiler, and other concentration camps, subjects were exposed to mustard or phosgene gas to investigate treatments of gas poisoning, or wounds were infected with bacteria and ground-up wood and glass; sulfanilamide was then tested for effectiveness on these wounds.

At Dachau concentration camp, SS doctors performed experiments specifically related to situations airmen might experience. They conducted high-altitude experiments in which test subjects were put in low-pressure chambers to simulate altitudes of up to 68,000 feet. Others were forced to endure freezing experiments in which they were compelled to remain in freezing water for up to three hours and then warmed by various methods. Another group was forced to eat nothing and drink only processed sea water.

At Buchenwald, prisoners ate poisoned food or were shot with poisoned bullets to see how quickly they would die. At Buchenwald and Natzweiler, healthy subjects were infected with typhoid and other diseases to test various drugs, while at Dachau they were subjected to malaria. Throughout the war, sterilization experiments using drugs, surgery, and x-rays were performed at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück.

Sixteen of the twenty-three defendants were found guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or membership in a criminal organization. Of the sixteen, seven were given death sentences and hanged on June 2, 1948, at Landsberg prison in Bavaria. The remaining nine were given sentences varying from ten years to life imprisonment. These sentences were later appealed. One man was released; the others had their prison terms reduced to ten, fifteen, or twenty years.

Due to the horrific nature of the experiments performed on non-consenting subjects, the Nuremberg Code was developed to guide medical experimentation. The code stated that human test subjects must give non-coerced consent to any experiment, which may be terminated at any time by the subject or medical professional. Experiments must be performed by qualified professionals in appropriate facilities. Human trials should be done only when deemed necessary and for the greater good of society based on the outcomes of study and humane animal experimentation. Test subjects should never be put under extreme duress.

The Doctors Trial serves as the precedent for how the history of the commission of crimes against humanity came to influence medical ethics. The actions of the doctors and officials who authorized and performed the heinous experiments and mass murders serve as an example of the dangers of science conducted without ethics. Students may consider the following questions: why is the act of consent important in a medical experiment; what guidelines should doctors follow for experimentation; how was the Hippocratic oath violated during the Holocaust; and, how did the doctors’ actions further dehumanize Jews, Poles, Russians, and Roma. Compare and contrast Nazi guidelines for animal versus human experimentation. Have students study the lasting impact the Nuremburg Code has had on modern medicine by looking at current medical experimentation.

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