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The Nazi War on Tobacco: Ideology, Evidence, and Possible Cancer Consequences

From: Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Volume 71, Number 3, Fall 1997
pp. 435-488 | 10.1353/bhm.1997.0139

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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 71.3 (1997) 435-488


Figures | Tables

So many excellent men have been lost to tobacco poisoning.

Adolf Hitler, 1942

Die "Tabakdämmerung" hat begonnen.

Wolfgang Klarner, 1940

Historians of science tend to treat the 1950s as a kind of Stunde Null of tobacco health research, especially when it comes to the question of when a lung cancer hazard was first recognized. In a recent review of Richard Kluger's Ashes to Ashes, for example, Daniel J. Kevles remarked that the perceived danger of smoking to health "rested on little more than anecdotal evidence coupled with moral censure until 1950, when studies appeared in the United States and England that strongly incriminated cigarettes as a cause of lung cancer." The most commonly cited studies are the retrospective epidemiological studies published in 1950, followed by Ernest L. Wynder's animal experimental work, and the large prospective studies by E. Cuyler Hammond of the American Cancer Society in the United States and by Richard Doll and A. Bradford Hill of Oxford and London.

Without taking anything from these pioneering efforts, it is also important to realize that similar studies -- albeit on a smaller scale and absent the prospective dimension -- were performed in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, leading many physicians to condemn tobacco as cause of cancer and many other human ills. German tobacco epidemiology in fact was, for a time, the most advanced in the world, as were many other aspects of the antitobacco effort. Support for tobacco health research was strong among Germany's Nazi-leaning medical elite; indeed, it is in Germany in the early 1940s that we first find a broad medical recognition of both the addictive nature of tobacco and the lung cancer hazard of smoking.

That recognition was fostered, I shall argue, by a national political climate stressing the virtues of racial hygiene and bodily purity. Tobacco in the Nazi view of the world was a genetic poison; a cause of infertility, cancer, and heart attacks; a drain on national resources and public health. The Nazi regime launched an aggressive antismoking campaign, involving extensive public education, bans on certain forms of advertising, and bans on smoking in many public spaces (Fig. 1). The steps taken in this direction were consistent with the regime's larger emphasis on physician-directed "health leadership" (Gesundheitsführung), embracing both preventive health and the primacy of the public good over individual liberties -- the so-called "duty to be healthy" (Gesundheitspflicht).

What may be most disturbing about the Nazi antitobacco campaign is the rather uncomfortable light it sheds on the relation between science and politics at this time. The story is not only one of the suppression of science or the unwilling conformity of science to political ideals; the relation between science and politics -- at least in the aspect I shall be treating -- was more symbiotic. Public health initiatives were launched in the name of national socialism; national socialist ideals informed the practice and popularization of science, guiding it, motivating it, and reorienting it in subtle and complex ways. The Nazi war on tobacco shows that what most people would concede to be "good" science can be pursued in the name of antidemocratic ideals. It is therefore not enough to speak only of the suppression or even survival of science; one has to see how dictatorial ideals worked to inspire and guide the science and policies of the time.

Early Opposition

Antitobacco sentiments were nothing new to the twentieth century. German opposition to smoking, chewing, and snorting the dried leaf of nicotiana dates from the early seventeenth century, when smoking was introduced into German-speaking territories by Dutch and English soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). One of the first recorded efforts to grow tobacco, by an Alsatian farmer in Strassburg in 1620, met with resistance from the city council, apparently worried that tobacco-growing would cut into the production of more worthy crops, like cereals. Cultivation was common in many parts of Germany by the end of the seventeenth century, though certain towns were not exactly tobacco-friendly.

In the late 1600s, smoking bans were enacted in Bavaria, Kursachsen, and certain...


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