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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43.3 (2000) 335-346

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Nazi Science and Nazi Medical Ethics: Some Myths and Misconceptions

Robert N. Proctor *

Symposium: Medical Research Ethics at the Millennium: What Have We Learned?

We often hear that the Nazis destroyed science and abandoned ethics. That was the view of Telford Taylor in his opening statement at the Nuremberg "Doctor's Trial" of 1946-1947, where he stated that the Nazi doctors had turned Germany "into an infernal combination of a lunatic asylum and a charnel house" where "neither science, nor industry, nor the arts could flourish in such a foul medium" [1]. Similar views were expressed by Franz Neumann, author of the 1942 treatise Behemoth, the first major analysis of how the Nazis came to power [2]. Neumann predicted "a most profound conflict" between the "magic character" of Nazi propaganda and the "rational" processes of German industry, a conflict the emigré political theorist believed would culminate in an uprising on the part of engineers to combat the irrationalist regime. Such an uprising, needless to say, never materialized.

It would be comforting to believe, of course, that good science tends to travel with good ethics, but the sad truth seems to be that cruelty can coexist fairly easily with "good science." There is a convenience of sorts in the myth: it makes it easy to argue that "Nazi science" was not really science at all, and therefore there is no ethical dilemma. One needn't talk about the ethics of Nazi medicine, since there was no legitimate medicine to speak of. Nazi science in one swift blow is reduced to an oxymoron, a medical non-problem. 1 [End Page 335]

Myth-Making and Exculpation

Different groups have participated in this process of myth-making; let me mention four.

First, for Germans who stayed in Germany, the myth of suppressed science served as a way for post-war scientists to distance themselves from their Nazi past, to block historical investigators from dredging up potentially embarrassing collaborations. If there was no such thing as Nazi science, what is there to investigate? As an epidemiologist at Germany's National Cancer Center in Heidelberg once confessed: "1945 was a scientific Stunde Null, we don't look at what came before." This allowed scientists to argue that the very act of scientific research under Nazi rule was a form of resistance. It was often advertised as such, after the war.

Second, for Jewish scholars forced from Germany, there was also the unwillingness to believe that the system that had treated them so shoddily had continued to produce good science. This view was reinforced by the fact that fields in which Jews had been prominent (biochemistry and quantum mechanics, for example, but also medical specialties like dermatology) tended to be the fields most heavily gutted by Nazi policies. Fields with lesser Jewish representation--like veterinary medicine or surgery--generally speaking suffered less and therefore have drawn less critical historical attention because there were fewer emigrés in these fields [4].

Third, for American military authorities, the myth of flawed science also served to disguise the fact that even as U.S. officials were denouncing Nazi science, they were also busily trying to recruit Nazi talent for use in U.S. military projects. At least 1,600 German scientists came to the United States under the rubric of "Operation Paperclip"--including not just SS officers like Werner von Braun, but also a number of medical professionals, some of whom had been implicated in abusive human experimentation [5].

Finally, this myth, as I have identified it, served to reassure the American public that abuses like those of the Nazi era could never occur in a liberal democracy. Nazi science was pseudo-science, science out-of-control; American science was genuine science, secure within democratic institutions, obedient to the rule of law. Post-war ethical codes of conduct could even be dismissed as unnecessary--after all, weren't they designed to prevent abuses that could only occur in a totalitarian society? That, apparently, was the thinking...


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