Koch Institute was extensively involved in “violent policies” of Nazi government, study finds

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 03 November 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2398
  1. Ned Stafford
  1. 1Hamburg

    Four studies of the dark side of Germany’s medical profession during the Nazi era have been selected as winners in a research competition cosponsored by the German Medical Association and the German Health Ministry.

    One of the winning studies focuses on the Robert Koch Institute, whose role in Germany today is similar to that of the Centers for Disease Control in the United States. As recently as the early 1990s the institute had downplayed its role in Nazi crimes, saying that only a handful of Koch staff members participated.

    The paper, by Annette Hinz-Wessels of the Institute for the History of Medicine at Berlin’s Charité medical school, showed that the Robert Koch Institute, as a central agency for health matters, was extensively involved in the “violent policies” of the Nazi government, including vaccination research that used concentration camp prisoners.

    The paper was part of a larger study sponsored by the Robert Koch Institute, which was overseen by an international committee that included the UK medical historians Paul Weindling and J Andrew Mendelsohn. The full study was presented at an event in Berlin on 1 October.

    In an interview with the BMJ the Robert Koch Institute’s president Jörg Hacker said: “It is necessary to learn from history, from failures, to make sure they do not happen again.” He acknowledged that another reason why the institute approved funding for the research was to try to question earlier claims of minimal involvement on the part of its staff members in Nazi research.

    “We would have been glad to find cases of resistance,” he said. “Unfortunately it was not true. Documents tell us that the Robert Koch Institute was heavily involved in illegal Nazi medicine. Almost everyone participated or remained silent.”

    The institute will now strive to ensure that German doctors never again take part in medical crimes or remain silent, Dr Hacker said. He added that the institute will construct an onsite memorial for Nazi victims and will “transfer knowledge” about the failings of previous staff members to young doctors.

    The competition was open to papers written in German and completed in 2005 or later, said Roland Ilzhöfer of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians, the third cosponsor. A similar competition was held in 2006.

    Two other papers besides that on the Robert Koch Institute won a €3000 (£2400; $4000) award: a biography by Barbara Huber that looked at the career of the SS dentist Willy Frank after 1945, showing that doctors who participated in Nazi crimes were able to successfully resume careers after the second world war; and a study by Gerrit Hohendorf, Petra Fuchs, Maike Rotzoll, Ulrich Müller, and Paul Richter that put faces to some of the victims of Nazi euthanasia by describing their personal lives.

    A special prize of €1000 was awarded for a paper describing the Nazi crimes of some doctors who were honoured by having hospital wards at the University of Freiburg in Breisgau named after them.

    Heinz Schott, a member of the five person competition jury and director of the Medicine History Institute of the University of Bonn, said that such collaboration by former members of prestigious medical institutions in Germany was not uncommon. Speaking of the University of Bonn, he said, “We have the same problem.”

    The winning papers were of exceptionally high quality, he said. “When you look into the details, you see new findings, new insights.”

    The paper on individual victims of euthanasia was particularly moving, he said. “It’s important that we don’t look just at figures and numbers but also at the human side.”


    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2398


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