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  • Karl Brandt: The Nazi Doctor. Medicine and Power in the Third Reich
  • Batsheva Ben-Amos
Karl Brandt: The Nazi Doctor. Medicine and Power in the Third Reich, Ulf Schmidt (London and New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), xvi + 400 pp., illus., $29.95.

Karl Brandt (1904–1948), one of Hitler's attending physicians, was co-director of the "euthanasia" program and general commissioner for health and sanitation. After an American military tribunal in Nuremberg sentenced him to death for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and membership in a criminal organization, many of his German contemporaries still considered him a "decent Nazi." Brandt himself attempted to foster this image in his prison diary. In his biography of Brandt, Ulf Schmidt shows that Brandt was by no means such a "decent" person, critically analyzing Brandt's career and at the same time the regime's communications and decision-making processes. In Karl Brandt: The Nazi Doctor, Schmidt has made use of newly edited trial transcripts, a selection of Brandt's personal papers, a notebook that was given to him by Brandt's only son, and a recently discovered collection of photographs by Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler's official photographer. The book covers Brandt's childhood and student years, his ascent and fall from power, and his trial. [End Page 313]

Brandt completed his medical studies in 1928, specializing in surgery. In the late 1920s he and his wife became part of Hitler's inner circle in the Berghof. In 1934 Brandt joined the SS and shortly after became Hitler's escort physician. His free access to Hitler—more than any of his official roles in the administration—was the source of Brandt's power. Brandt enlarged his influence to areas unrelated to his role as Hitler's physician. In 1939 he and Philipp Bouhler, the head of Hitler's chancellery, were appointed to organize and implement the "euthanasia" program. There were actually two separate programs: one dated back in conception to spring 1939 and dealt with infants and toddlers up to three who had physical deformities; a second program included mentally disabled children and adults. Brandt had a hand in both. On October 6, 1939, Hitler ordered Brandt to "relieve through death" those mentally ill individuals who could not "take any conscious part in life." Hitler's signature was backdated to September 1, 1939, to emphasize the order's connection to the war; the convoluted logic was that balance would be restored when, for every dead soldier, the life of a person deemed "unworthy of life" was taken. While the child "euthanasia" program murdered its victims through lethal overdoses of medication, adult patients were removed from their home institutions and transferred to special killing centers where they were murdered in specially designed gas chambers. By the end of January 1941 about 70,000 mentally ill adult patients had been gassed. Objections to the program persisted until Hitler "suspended" it in August 1941. In the summer of 1942, the effort resumed in a more decentralized format, murdering both children and adult patients through means of lethal overdose and starvation.

In addition to his involvement with T-4, there is evidence that connects Brandt to killing operations in the camps. Some of his workers in the T-4 program were sent to Riga and Lublin to help in the construction of gas vans, as well as to occupied Poland (in 1942) to assist Odilo Globocnik establish the Aktion Reinhard death camps of Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka. In 1941 T-4 physicians transferred fifteen to twenty thousand concentration camp prisoners from several camps to killing centers, where they were gassed in Aktion 14f13.

Under the guise of evacuating patients in order to free hospital beds for military casualties, thousands of patients were killed and tens of thousands transferred. These operations were initiated through veiled hints and euphemisms, which later made it possible for the authorities to deny responsibility. The euthanization of patients was part of a broader coordination of local and regional disaster planning with the euthanasia program that became known as "Aktion Brandt." Correspondence between Brandt, Himmler, and Oswald Pohl, head of the SS Economic-Administrative Office (WVHA), clearly demonstrates that Brandt...