Medizin im Nationalsozialismus: Kulturen, Strukturen, Lebensgeschichten

Medizin im Nationalsozialismus: Kulturen, Strukturen, Lebensgeschichten

Paul Weindling, Brookes University, Oxford; Leopoldina-Zentrum für Wissenschaftsforschung, Halle (Saale)
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
13.06.2022 - 14.06.2022
Mona Baie, Medical Humanities, Universität Freiburg (Schweiz)

The conference, chaired by Paul Weindling, Heiner Fangerau, and Alfons Labisch, marked the end of, and celebrated, the last years’ efforts and achievements in victim research at the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina since 20151. The two days saw presentations by an international group of researchers, most of them former or current project partners of Weindling, on topics as diverse as medical crimes, emigrant biographies, and culture(s) of remembrance. Common to them was the impulse to contribute to a shift in the focus of historiography of Nazi medicine from perpetrators to victims, thereby opening up new avenues for research as well as commemoration.

In his opening lecture, PAUL WEINDLING (Oxford) addressed the importance of identifying and, more specifically, naming the victims of NS crimes. Drawing on several examples of contemporary remembrance culture, such as artworks and memorial stones as well as academic publications, he demonstrated that it has not yet become common to indicate victims’ (full) names, even if these are known. Moreover, if a name is given, it is rarely supplemented with additional biographical data. In Weindling’s view, this practice is both ethically reprehensible as it undervalues the person’s individuality and hinders scientific investigations, and he strongly argued for a liberalisation of victim research in the sense of maximum disclosure of individuals’ names and biographies.

CHRISTIAN BONAH (Strasbourg) followed with findings from the historical commission that investigated the medical faculty at the Reichsuniversität Strassburg and its involvements with the concentration camp in Natzweiler. Demonstrating the multiplicity of interactions between the faculty and the camp – from exchanges of goods and medical services to coerced scientific experiments conducted with camp inmates –, he convincingly argued that the academic community, including those not actively participating, was fully aware of the happenings in Natzweiler. He stressed the commission’s (ongoing) efforts to identify as many victims of the medical experiments undertaken in Natzweiler as possible.

Opening the first session, which focused on emigration, RAKEFET ZALASHIK (Tel Aviv) presented on the gaps of historical knowledge about medical migration during World War 2. Based on a meta-analysis of available publications, she showed that the existing research focuses on (mostly Jewish) physicians and scientists from certain specialist groups (especially psychiatry and neuroscience) and certain countries of destination (especially England). She therefore advocated further inquiries into medical refugee movements during that time, covering underrepresented specialist groups and routes as well as yet unexplored topics such as migration’s gendered aspects.

ESTHER CUERDA GALINDO (Berlin) had a look at medical doctors in Spain’s concentration camp Miranda de Ebro. As part of her research, she had reconstructed the names and, as far as possible, biographies of 151 physicians imprisoned at the camp during and after the Nazi era. Her findings illustrated the practices in Miranda de Ebro as varied depending on the stage of war and the prisoner’s social and political status: while some physicians (especially prisoners of war, on both Spain’s and Germany’s side) were confined for years, others were able to negotiate early releases, and some even used the camp as a platform to escape Nazi persecution.

The second session, on medicine in the camps and victims of medical crimes, was opened by MARIA CIESIELSKA (Warsaw). Based on archival material and memoirs such as “I was only a doctor” by Zofia Szymańska, she demonstrated the increasing difficulties and moral dilemmas faced by Jewish physicians in the Warsaw Ghetto: from everyday struggles such as shortages of medical products and the impossibility to deliver adequate care in the Ghetto’s hospital, to having to hand out “tickets to life” that saved individuals from deportation, thereby deciding who would and who would not live.

ALEKSANDRA LOEWENAU (Calgary) followed with a presentation on Polish victims of Nazi medical experiments. Comparing the life histories of six Polish men who after the liberation emigrated to Canada – three Catholic priests subjected to malaria research and three Jewish men subjected to sterilization experiments – she illustrated the importance of social and religious status during the immigration process to a country with strict migration policies and antisemitic tendencies, as well as the long-term effects of Nazi medical crimes on individual lives.

The succeeding two papers focused on (ethical) issues of public commemoration. BENIGNA SCHÖNHAGEN (Tübingen) presented an ongoing project that seeks to identify the remains on the Gräberfeld X in Tübingen, a part of the city’s cemetery where those dead were buried who had served research purposes at the university’s Institute of Anatomy. During the Third Reich, bodies of victims of Nazi crimes (e.g. executed political prisoners) were used by the Institute without consent and were later anonymously disposed of at the Gräberfeld. Alongside the research on the remains, Schönhagen’s talk centred on the ethics of (anonymous) burials and the importance of naming as a first step to commemoration.

In a fitting addition, JAN ERIK SCHULTE (Bochum) spoke about the legal and ethical challenges of publicly displaying victims’ names. Using the example of the memorial book in the Hadamar Museum, he illustrated that the issue of what constitutes a dignified representation and commemoration of an individual life is by no means resolved through the decision to indicate a name alone: further questions regarding the name’s layout, its in-text relation to the names of other victims, and whether and how it should be presented within an accompanying explanatory paragraph, are to be considered.

MARTINA KING (Fribourg) offered a perspective from literary studies by presenting on NS medical fiction and its function within the propaganda state. With exemplary excerpts from doctor’s novels such as Karl Unselt’s “Der Arzt aus Leidenschaft” and Hellmuth Unger’s “Sendung und Gewissen” she demonstrated that the texts served – albeit in a subtle, never concrete way – to obfuscate and embellish biomedical totalitarianism. In addition, she uncovered startling continuities in the post-1945 book market, where some NS novels were resold in large numbers.

In the session on medical crimes related to “race research”, HANS-JOACHIM LANG (Tübingen), connected via Zoom, reflected on his decade-long biographical research on 86 Jewish individuals murdered in Natzweiler to be displayed in an anthropological skeleton collection. His talk focused on giving the audience a sense of some of the victims’ life trajectories, such as that of Frank Sachnowitz, whose family history illustrates the persecution of Jewish communities across generations and nations2.

MARGIT BERNER (Vienna) followed with a paper on archival material held by the Natural History Museum in Vienna that documents the “race study” of Jewish families in Tarnów in 1942. By juxtaposing the “cold” portraits that were taken of the Jewish individuals as part of the investigations – along with other anthropological data such as height, weight, and fingerprints – with private photos from family albums, she demonstrated the potential of photographs as both historical sources and memorial objects.

Health administration in Eastern Europe under occupation was the topic of ALEXANDER VON LÜNEN’s (Huddersfield) presentation. Based on reports and correspondences of the Wehrmachtsärzte and other Nazi medical officials, he showed how from early on a disposition for various infectious diseases, especially typhus, was attributed to Jewish people. This was presented as a danger to German troops and was used to advance ghettoization. A focus of von Lünen’s research lied on Walter Schnell, commissioner for public health in Litzmannstadt, whose post-war career testifies to the failings of denazification.

MATHIAS SCHÜTZ (München) brought in a perspective from medical ethics, discussing the reckoning with NS medical crimes in relation to the emergence of bioethics as an academic discipline. He argued that NS doctor’s crimes were not initially regarded areas of interest for bioethics by key thinkers such as Henry Beecher, as they were seen as arising from an extreme, incomparable situation. In contrast, today, references to Nazi crimes are used by some theorists as a form of “discursive empowerment” for bioethical argumentation. While stating that such approaches can be legitimate, Schütz stressed bioethicists’ responsibility to avoid simplistic analogies with NS practices by all means.

The fourth session saw three papers on medical specialist societies during and after the NS regime with overall similar findings. RALF FORSBACH and HANS-GEORG HOFER (Münster), presenting on the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Innere Medizin, DOMINIK GROSS (Aachen), on Deutsche Gesellschaft für Pathologie, and MATTHIS KRISCHEL (Düsseldorf), on Deutsche Gesellschaft für Zahn-, Mund- und Kieferheilkunde, all illustrated the respective societies as compliant with NS politics and ideology: most representatives were members of the NSDAP, Jewish members were systematically excluded and disenfranchised, and eugenic and other ideological ideas were evident in the societies’ medical and scientific practices. Similarly, the decades after 1945 were characterized by many continuities. Former NSDAP members, some involved in major crimes, continued to be elected as representatives. Efforts to review the societies’ Nazi-past and compensate disenfranchised members were slow in coming and manifested themselves in mostly immaterial (and posthumous) tributes such as the awarding of honorary memberships and stumbling stones.

In the last session, on clinical practices, AISLING SHALVEY (Halle) spoke about the pediatric unit at the university clinic in Strasbourg in German-annexed Alsace. She showed that the delivery of healthcare became an important instrument to enforce Germanization on the population: treatment was markedly better for patients who spoke German, were compliant with occupation, and were willing to adhere to Nazi norms such as being part of the Hitler Youth; markedly worse for patients from Eastern Europe, from lower social classes, or those who protested or resisted occupation.

MICHAL PALACZ and PAUL WEINDLING (Oxford) concluded with findings from an ongoing project that seeks to identify brain specimens from Warsaw typhus victims, and further investigate the network and criminal actions of German military pathologists. Of 188 “typhus specimens” that were transferred from Warsaw hospitals to the Military Medical Academy in Berlin for research purposes between 1939 and 1941, Palacz and Weindling reported to have so far been able to link 149 (i.e. 79,2 percent) to a name and autopsy report. Rather than dwelling on these results, however, their presentation emphasized the amount of “military brains” still lacking identification. These include those belonging to the estate of the Kriegsarzt and brain researcher Julius Hallervorden.

In the final plenary discussion, several points were addressed that circled back to the conference’s core themes: the challenges and prospects of victim research and commemoration. Naming was a central issue. While there was general consensus that victims’ full names should be given in publications and memorials whenever possible, as such a practice honors the individual and provides a sense of the human loss caused by Nazi atrocities, several nuances were discussed enthusiastically and controversially. For example: in the case of no prior contact with the relatives, is it ethically correct to assume their consent to having their family members exposed as victims? What happens if relatives (beforehand or retrospectively) oppose a name’s publication? Apart from individuals’ names, other archival materials such as photographs and family trees were examined in the same context. Lastly, the discussion revolved around (digital) databases as a form of research output, touching on ethical issues regarding the structuring of large amounts of individual data as well as administrative affairs.

Taken together, the two days made tangible both the reached milestones of Paul Weindling’s and others’ last years of work as well as the need for continued scientific and public efforts to reconstruct and commemorate NS (medical) crimes and their victims.

Conference overview:

Welcome: Alfons Labisch (Düsseldorf)


Paul J. Weindling (Oxford): Beyond the Anneliese Maier Prize – Researching victims in the History of Medicine under National Socialism

Christian Bonah (Strasbourg): Medicine under German occupation: KZ Natzweiler, the Medical Faculty of the Reichsuniversität Strassburg and Alsatian society

Session 1: Emigration

Rakefet Zalashik (Tel Aviv): The migration and absorption of medical professionals minorities during WWII – comparative and global perspectives

Esther Cuerda Galindo (Berlin): Medical doctors on the run: Spain's Miranda de Ebro Campo de concentracion as threat and refuge during and after the Nazi era

Session 2: Lager-Medizin und NS-Opfer als medizinische Forschungsobjekte

Maria Ciesielska (Warsaw): The „Non-Aryan Doctors” of the Warsaw Ghetto. Who were they?

Aleksandra Loewenau (Calgary): Post-war life histories of Polish victims of Nazi medical experiments in Canada

Benigna Schönhagen (Tübingen): „Ich möchte höflich anfragen, wo mein Mann beerdigt worden ist, wo sich sein Grab befindet.“ Zur Identifizierung der Anatomie-Toten auf dem Gräberfeld X in Tübingen

Jan Erik Schulte (Bochum): Die Nennung der Namen von „Euthanasie“-Ermordeten. Rückblick, aktueller Stand und Herausforderungen unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Erfahrungen in der Gedenkstätte Hadamar


Martina King (Fribourg): Helden, Heilige, Menschenzüchter: nationalsozialistischer Arztroman und biopolitische Diktatur

Session 3: SS-Medizin und Rassenforschung

Hans-Joachim Lang (Tübingen): Ausgelöscht. Über 86 Leben vor den Morden für eine jüdische Skelettsammlung – eine Zwischenbilanz nach 25 Jahren biografischer Forschungen

Margit Berner (Wien): Die „rassenkundliche“ Untersuchung jüdischer Familien im Ghetto Tarnów 1942

Alexander von Lünen (Huddersfield): Seuchen im Osten: Die Rolle der Wehrmachtsärzte im Holocaust

Mathias Schütz (München): Leere Gedanken, blinde Anschauungen? Medizin-ethische Narrative nationalsozialistischer Medizin

Session 4: Medizinische Fachrichtungen und ihre NS-Vergangenheit

Ralf Forsbach / Hans-Georg Hofer (Münster): Unterstützung, Ehrung, Reintegration: Die Deutsche Gesellschaft für Innere Medizin und ihr Umgang mit nationalsozialistisch belasteten Mitgliedern

Dominik Groß (Aachen): Pathologie im Nationalsozialismus – ein Fach und seine Vertreter

Matthis Krischel (Düsseldorf): Zahnärzte im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland: Biografien und Erinnerungskulturen

Session 5: Kliniken und Patient:innen

Aisling Shalvey (Halle/Saale): Paediatrics in German-annexed Alsace

Michal Palacz / Paul Weindling (Oxford): The brains from Warsaw: German military pathologists and the transfer of brains to Berlin-Buch


1 For more information, see the project website: (3.7.2022). Among other publications, the project resulted in the database “Victims of Biomedical Research under NS” which currently covers more than 28,000 individuals. It will be publicly available as an online resource starting in 2024.
2 For more information, see Hans-Joachim Lang, Die Namen der Nummern (Eintrag Frank Sachnowitz): (03.07.2022).