Editorials

War crimes and medical science

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.313.7070.1413 (Published 07 December 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1413
  1. Jennifer Leaning

    Not unique to one place or time; they could happen here

    Fifty years ago in Nuremberg, Germany, 23 physicians and scientists stood trial for war crimes committed before and during the second world war. The medical trial, and its more famous predecessor, the international military tribunal,1 have left us with defining statements of ethical principle. But, as several articles in this anniversary issue of the BMJ make clear, the records of these trials have also left us with a legacy we still shrink from confronting.

    The decision to hold the trials in Nuremberg was made for practical and symbolic reasons. Germany was in ruins, and, although the city had received substantial shelling, Hitler's Palace of Justice had survived largely unscathed. Imposing and capacious, it included large courtrooms and an adjoining prison. The city's symbolic value derived from its prominence as Hitler's administrative and judicial offices and as the site for his more stupendous mass rallies.

    The international military tribunal convened on 20 November 1945. With allied judges presiding, it brought accusations of war crimes against 24 defendants, including Goring, von Ribbentrop, Hess, and Speer. Twelve were found guilty and sentenced to death, seven were found guilty and sentenced to variable terms of imprisonment, and three were acquitted. Two others, Krupp and Ley, did not go through the trial: Krupp sustained injuries in a car accident just before the proceedings, and Ley committed suicide before the trial began.

    The medical trial followed on immediately, running from 25 October 1946 to 20 August 1947. Twenty three German physicians and scientists were accused of inflicting a range of vile and lethal procedures on vulnerable populations and inmates of concentration camps between 1933 and 1945. Witnesses from hospitals and camps throughout Germany and eastern Europe were brought to Nuremberg or deposed at other sites. The accused were given both German and American lawyers. American …

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