restricted access The Nuremberg Doctors' Trial in Historical Context
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The Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial in Historical Context

In this paper I follow a course that I often warn my students against: I criticize the proceedings of the Doctors’ Trial more for what did not happen, than for what did. I want to argue that the Doctors’ Trial—the first of the “subsequent Nuremberg proceedings,” the twelve trials held under U.S. auspices in the wake of the International Military Tribunal (IMT)—missed an important opportunity to define the principal crimes of German physicians during the Third Reich, to identify the major perpetrators, to put them in a wider intellectual and institutional context, and to sketch an explanation of their crimes. A suggestion drawn from this observation is that the focus of the trial contributed to the evasion of medical responsibility noted by so many commentators in recent years. My justification for this approach, fraught as it is with the temptations of anachronism, is that those responsible for the trial themselves defined the standards by which the proceedings can be assessed.

These standards, it should be said, were admirably high and were solemnly declared. One thinks first, perhaps, of U.S. Chief Prosecutor Justice Robert Jackson’s opening address at the Trial of the Major German War Criminals, insisting on the gravity of Nazi wrongdoing: “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.” 1 “The groundwork of our case,” Jackson told President Harry Truman, [End Page 106]

must be factually authentic and constitute a well-documented history of what we are convinced was a grand, concerted pattern to incite and commit the aggressions and barbarities which have shocked the world. Unless we write the record of this movement with clarity and precision, we cannot blame the future if in days of peace it finds incredible the accusatory generalities uttered during the war. 2

Jackson, of course, was not alone in his reference to the historical record. The British chief prosecutor, Sir Hartley Shawcross, made a related point in his own opening statement to the Nuremberg court: “This Tribunal will provide a contemporary touchstone and an authoritative and impartial record to which future historians may turn for truth and future politicians for warning.” 3

Famous for its graphic presentation of at least some of the most heinous medical atrocities of the Third Reich, the Doctors’ Trial revealed the depths to which some physicians sank, and the wide-ranging nature of their criminality—“the whole complex of stomach-churning ‘medical’ and ‘scientific’ experiments,” as historian Michael Burleigh notes. 4 In that sense (and at the end of the day, this may perhaps be the most important achievement of the prosecution), the trial succeeded. My quarrel is rather with the proceedings’ inattentiveness to historical context, something that Brigadier General Telford Taylor, the American Chief Counsel, declared as his objective at the beginning of the Doctors’ Trial: “It is our deep obligation to all peoples of the world to show why and how these things happened. It is incumbent upon us to set forth with conspicuous clarity the ideas and motives which moved these defendants to treat their fellow men as less than beasts.” 5 The Doctors’ Trial was supposed to set the record straight—“to promote the interest of historical truth,” as Taylor summed it up in his report to the Secretary of the Army in 1948. 6 Like the other dignitaries associated with the trial, Taylor set his sights high—in terms of motivation, ideology, and historical [End Page 107] explanation. With respect, and also with appreciation for what actually was accomplished, I want to indicate some ways in which the Doctors’ Trial fell short.

Assembled in December 1946, in the courtroom recently vacated by the International Military Tribunal, United States Military Tribunal I began to hear evidence against twenty-three somewhat bedraggled defendants—all but three of them physicians, and some of them distinguished researchers—“charged with murders, tortures, and other atrocities committed in the name of medical science,” as Telford Taylor said. 7 According to the prosecution, the victims of these crimes numbered...