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The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremburg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation, and: Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene (review)
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Reviewed by
George J. Annas and Michael A. Grodin, eds. The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. xiii + 371 pp. Ill. $29.95.
Götz Aly, Peter Chroust, and Christian Pross. Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene. Translated by Belinda Cooper. Foreword by Michael H. Kater. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. xvi + 295 pp. Ill. $48.50 (cloth); $16.95 (paperbound).

Both of the books under review fall into the expanding genre of studies of Nazi medical atrocities. Both are collaborative efforts. Both concur with the opinion of the Allied Chief of Counsel, Brigadier General Telford Taylor, that these activities summed to a “macabre science, thanatology, the science of producing death” (Annas and Grodin, p. 70).

Brutal and murderous though these undertakings were, they were, sadly, not unique. As one of the editors of The Nazi Doctors, George Annas, J.D., M.P.H., admits, the same American government authorities who drafted the Nuremberg Medical Code looked the other way when it came to applying those dicta to Japanese medical malefactors half a world away (Annas and Grodin, p. 202). For Annas and Grodin—both bioethicists, one a lawyer and the other a physician—the ten-point Nuremberg Code that came out of the “Doctors’ Trial” of 1946–47 “was an attempt to formulate a universal natural law standard for human experimentation” (p. 3). They see little irony in the fact that from the outset the “universal” prohibitions contained in the American-developed Nuremberg Code extended no further than the boundaries of the wartime Third Reich.

Since then, as Father Robert Drinan notes, application of that medical code has not been especially successful (Annas and Grodin, p. 176). More, as George Annas points out, the Nuremberg Code has never been “used in a criminal case” (p. 201), and rarely has it been cited in a civil one (and even then, generally in dissent). Nonetheless, as law professor Leonard Glantz suggests, the Nuremberg Code does lie at the base of certain research guidelines adopted by the National Institutes of Health during the mid-1950s. At best though, these were “ethical principles,” not “legal requirements”; the latter came only in 1962, and they had far less to do with the Nuremberg Code than with the effects of thalidomide on the babies of the pregnant women who took it (p. 186).

Occidental medicine had, of course, been operating for several millennia before the Americans’ promulgation of the Nuremberg Code. Historically physicians had been restrained by the Hippocratic Oath, and the question naturally arises as to what drove some German physicians into violating their promise “to do no harm.” Here too there has been an expanding literature. In one of the essays in The Nazi Doctors, Robert Proctor places Nazi medical malfeasance into a historical context. Nazi medicine did not spring sui generis from the minds of its supporters: it had roots in a German medical science enamored of eugenics and filled with physicians who eagerly violated medical ethics when it came to sterilizing the “racially unfit.” As Proctor puts it so well, the Nazis may have “distorted science,” but “medical scientists . . . invented racial hygiene in the first place” (p. 19). [End Page 150]

It is the achievement of Cleansing the Fatherland to add to our knowledge of some primary Nazi medical malefactors, several of whom not only got away with their crimes, but also went on to distinguished medical careers in the postwar era. Of these by far the most interesting was the anatomist Hermann Voss, whose diary from before and after his days as the founding Professor of Anatomy at the Reich University of Posen is reprinted in faithful translation. Relegated to academic irrelevance during the Weimar period, Voss did no better during most of the Third Reich. Indeed, the Reich University of Posen to which he was appointed in April 1941 was “the least prestigious place he could have landed” (Aly, Chroust, and Pross, p. 104). There, to his diary, he could vent his myriad hatreds. There he could also do a lively business in the body parts of executed Poles and dead Jews from...