- Vermessen und Vernichten: Der NS-“Zigeunerforscher” Robert Ritter by Tobias Schmidt-Degenhard
How modernist and “scientific” was the Nazi regime? Were disciplines such as biopolitics, racial science, and racial hygiene merely “pseudo-sciences” without scientific foundation, or rather science adapted to the purpose of legitimizing a racist ideology? [End Page 512] Further, a key question remains concerning the Nazi scientists: Were they ruthless careerists who would continue their research under any circumstances, and even welcome the unleashing of science, or were they true believers in Nazi ideology who wanted to apply Nazi racism in practice? The picture is varied, and the answer is not easy to discern. Munich psychiatrist Ernst Rüdin, for instance, was the leading expert in racial hygiene for the Nazi government, yet remained influential in the field of psychiatric genetics after World War II. Another example is Robert Ritter, the infamous Nazi “Zigeunerforscher” (Gypsy researcher) who contributed substantially to the stigmatization, deportation, and annihilation of the German Sinti and Roma.
While there have been other studies of the persecution of Sinti and Roma in Nazi Germany, Tobias Schmidt-Degenhard’s is narrower in scope than most; he focuses his attention on Ritter, a perpetrator and scientist who collaborated with Nazi totalitarianism. Schmidt-Degenhard’s biography covers his personal and political socialization, outlining his work as pediatrician and physician and especially his research at the University of Tübingen followed by his position as a “Gypsy specialist” at the Institute for Criminal Biology of the Sicherheitspolizei in Berlin. After the war, Ritter was able to continue his medical career in Frankfurt with just a few interruptions.
Ritter may have started on his path to becoming a “Gypsy researcher” and ardent Nazi even during his time at school as a recruit of the famous Berliner Kadettenanstalt, an elite military institution for the education and indoctrination of German imperial army officers. The son of a naval officer, Ritter was taught in Berlin to be prepared to die for the nation and the emperor. In 1918, he and many other former cadets too young to be sent into combat found themselves without a raison d’être with the end of war and empire. Ritter landed in the right-extremist Freikorps, fighting the Bolsheviks in Latvia and experiencing the extreme violence of the civil war in that region. The so called “Balitkumer” and other radicalized veterans of the Freikorps later made up a significant percentage of officers of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Main Office) and the Waffen-SS. Upon returning to Germany, Ritter joined the right-wing extremists resisting French occupation forces in the western part of the country. In 1921, Ritter began his studies of pedagogy, philosophy, and medicine. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Munich in 1927, and a further Ph.D. in medicine from the University of Heidelberg in 1930. From 1931 to 1932 Ritter served as an assistant physician at the Swiss psychiatric clinic Burghölzli. His experience at this institution, with its strong racial hygiene orientation, set the path for his later engagement in eugenics. In 1932, Ritter took up his first position in Germany, in the juvenile psychiatric ward at the clinic of the University of Tübingen. This position combined his backgrounds as a pediatrician and a eugenicist.
The year 1933 saw the implementation of the Nazi “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring” (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses) or [End Page 513] “Sterilization Law” and the installation of special courts (Erbgerichte) to rule on questions of forced sterilization. In 1934, Ritter became the supervisor of the eugenics counseling office established by the local branch of the German Society for Racial Hygiene (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene); in this capacity he served as eugenics expert to the court in Tübingen. Significantly, this career step could be interpreted as evidence of Ritter’s direct support for Nazi racial hygiene policy and the Nazi system itself. Regrettably, Schmidt-Degenhard does not pursue...