- Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials: From Medical War Crimes to Informed Consent
Scholars and the general public alike have shown a constant interest in the Nuremberg Trials. Yet recently, with the emergence of new scholarship on Nazi medicine, eugenics, and racial policies, there has been an increased [End Page 236] awareness of the importance of the Nuremberg Medical Trial among the trials that followed the defeat of Nazi Germany. Among several books published in 2004 about the so-called "Doctors' Trial," Weindling's book, Nazi Medicine, distinguishes itself with a multifaceted account of the trial, one that combines a number of theoretical perspectives and is receptive to both the historical context and the personal narrative of those involved. The book is cogently argued and presents a thoroughly informed analysis of the relationship between German medicine, on the one hand, and Nazi racial and social policies during the Second World War, on the other.
In 1945, few had anticipated the extent of Nazi atrocities. Liberated concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, revealed the almost unbelievable maltreatments perpetrated by Nazi medicine, and prompted Allied scientific intelligence officers to investigate German medical research during the war. The results of these investigations were presented during the Nuremberg Medical Trial (from December 1946 to August 1947). According to Weindling, two contrasting views clashed during the trial. The first, supported by the prosecution, encompassed three main arguments: a) the portrayal of the Nazi state as totalitarian; b) the socialization of medical services; and c) the influence of industrial and commercial interests in shaping Nazi warfare. The opposing view, advocated by the defendants, insisted that German medical science was largely a victim of Nazi racial ideology, and that those few German doctors who openly embraced Nazi ideology represented the marginal fringe of the medical profession. In order to find out how these arguments and tactical legal maneuvering intersected with political considerations and eventually shaped the decisions reached by the tribunal, Weindling embarks on a veritable tour de force of discussions on German medical ethics, Nazi racial thinking, eugenics, anti-Semitism, and medical experiments conducted on those deemed "racially undesirable."
Weindling's book is divided into three parts. The first, "Exhuming Nazi Medicine," focuses on Nazi medicine and its role in implementing the "Final Solution" through medical experiments undertaken in concentration camps. The discussion opens with an account of the "Rabbits' protest" at Ravensbrück, as the victims of experiments referred to their condition there. In 1943, amid vicious and regular experimentation employing surgical methods and transplantation, the prisoners publicly protested against the treatment through the Polish underground press. Unfortunately, the International Committee of the Red Cross did not rise to the challenge; instead, it dealt with the medical abuses in concentrations camps more in accordance with the German view, namely, that the experiments were conducted on convicted criminals only.
Yet similar conduct also characterized some of the first attempts to deal with the perpetrators of forced experiments and medical atrocities after the [End Page 237] war. According to Weindling, "There was no intention of holding a trial, no systematic collecting and dissemination of evidence to ensure that those responsible would be on wanted lists, and no concept of a 'medical war crime'" (p. 33). This is not to say that substantial evidence to support the prosecution's case was lacking, as ample documentation on sterilization, euthanasia, and medical experiments was collected during the war. What was missing, however, was the legal and institutional framework for assessing medical crimes. Not surprisingly, when it was agreed to establish the International Military Tribunal, the intention was to expose war crimes and atrocities against civilians, and there was no mention of German medical personnel.
Weindling further explains how the Allies' judicial indecision eventually helped Germans involved in medical experiments in their attempts to eliminate evidence of their complicity or direct participation. In the months following Germany's unconditional surrender, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, for instance, destroyed papers relating to racial research at Auschwitz. Gradually, however, the Allies coordinated their actions in...