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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 78.1 (2004) 250-252

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Angelika Ebbinghaus and Klaus Dörner, eds. Vernichten und Heilen: Der NürnbergerÄrzteprozeß und seine Folgen. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 2001. 675 pp. Ill. €34.00; Sw. Fr. 60.00 (3-351-02514-9).

Interest in the Nuremberg Doctors' Trial (1946-47) has grown in recent years; this is partly from the growth of interest in the history of medical ethics more generally, but also from the recognition that the trial itself was deeply enmeshed in Cold War politics, with punishing the guilty being only one among several agendas. Not everyone who was guilty was caught—and some of those caught were freed in exchange for agreements to work for Allied military authorities. [End Page 250]

The present volume documents both the nature of the crimes prosecuted at Nuremberg and the political impact of the trial in Germany. Paul Weindling stresses the Cold War context of preparations for the trial; Rolf Winau traces the history of pre-Nuremberg codes of medical conduct, especially the Prussian code of 1891 and the Weimar code of 1931, both proposed in response to specific experimental abuses. Karl-Heinz Roth's chapter on Nazi aviation medicine is one of the longest in the volume: he focuses on the notorious experiments in German concentration camps, where prisoners were put in low-pressure chambers to simulate high-altitude bailouts (Dachau) and were slowly frozen in ice-water vats to calculate the life expectancies of pilots downed in the North Atlantic (Buchenwald). Roth documents the postwar American interest in the methods used and data obtained; he also points out that the U.S. military's official two-volume report on German Aviation Medicine in World War II (1950) made no mention of the Nuremberg trial or the deaths suffered in the course of these inquiries—yet an estimated seventy to eighty people died from the Dachau experiments, and another eighty to ninety from the Buchenwald studies.

This is more than a chronicle of medical horrors: Michael Kater retraces some of the socioeconomic reasons why doctors were so eager to join the Nazi party, and Loretta Walz presents a series of moving interviews with Polish women who survived the disfiguring surgical experiments at Ravensbrück. Hans-Walter Schmuhl reviews recent research on the "euthanasia" operation (which he aptly rechristens Patientenmorde), and Klaus Dörner talks about the dehumanizing rhetoric used by the defendants, as in their replacement of the word Menschen by "human life" or "life-carriers" (Lebensträgern). Angelika Ebbinghaus surveys the exculpatory arguments of the defense—including efforts to "relativize" medical ethics or to argue that the Hippocratic oath should not apply to researchers. Ulf Schmidt adds some fascinating details from his biography of Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician, who supervised the murder of the physically and mentally disabled while imagining himself a faithful follower of Albert Schweitzer.

Dörner and several other contributors stress the Nuremberg Code's emphasis on informed consent. I was reminded upon reading this book, though, that abusive experimentation is only one of many potential hazards of modern medicine, and one whose importance could easily be exaggerated. I suspect that in countries such as the United States, most people are far more worried about too little access to modern medicine—or access at too high a financial price. There is perhaps even a certain irony in the fact that as restrictions on experimental practice grow ever tighter, there seems to be progressively less attention (in bioethics, at least) to the problem of how to help the large segments of our populations that have virtually no access whatsoever to medical care. The use of Nazism as a source of lessons for modern medical morals clearly has its limits.

There are many reasons to reflect on the horrors of Nazi medicine, but we also have to recall that different times have different needs, and that protections designed for one era's abuses may fall short of the mark for other eras. The editors of the present volume have...


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