Obituary of past president of German Medical Association omits details of Nazi past, medical historians say

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 16 August 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4468
  1. Annette Tuffs
  1. 1Heidelberg

    In an open letter 81 German medical historians and doctors have criticised the present and previous presidents of the German Medical Association, Jörg-Dietrich Hoppe and Carsten Vilmar, for omitting the Nazi history of another past president in a recent obituary they wrote.

    The obituary of Hans Joachim Sewering, who died in June, was published last month in the German equivalent to the BMJ, the Deutsches Ärzteblatt (2010;107:28-9)

    The letter, printed in the latest edition of the journal, said that Professor Sewering’s obituary “did not refer in any way to the role he played in the Nazi period” (Deutsches Ärzteblatt 2010;107:31-32). As the German medical community has made considerable efforts to come to terms with the Nazi past, this concealment is incomprehensible, says the letter, whose lead signatory is Gerrit Hohendorf, a medical historian at Munich Technical University Hospital.

    The letter says that the obituary’s concluding words are particularly hard to swallow: “Sewering has rendered outstanding services to the protection of ethical values in medical practice.”

    Professor Hoppe responded to the criticism by saying that we should not speak ill of the dead. The editor of the Deutsches Ärzteblatt, Gerd Stüwe, said that Professor Sewering’s involvement with the Nazis had been mentioned in a previous short article on his death. He added that the German Medical Association and the Deutsches Ärzteblatt have worked hard to throw light onto German medical history during the Nazi period, for instance by commissioning independent research projects and giving them ample space in the Deutsches Ärzteblatt.

    Historical studies have long proved that Professor Sewering was a member of the Nazi party and the SS, write Dr Hohendorf and his co-signatories. In 1942 Professor Sewering joined a lung hospital near Munich, where disabled children were looked after by nuns. Between June 1943 and February 1945 he ordered that at least nine of these children be transferred to another hospital widely known for its practice of euthanasia. Five children are known to have died there of malnutrition. A certificate from Dr Sewering said that one of the patients, Babette Fröwis, had to be transferred there because she was too agitated.

    After the war Professor Sewering became an official in the Bavarian and German Medical Associations, and from 1973 to 1978 he was president of the German Medical Association.

    Professor Sewering’s Nazi past was unveiled by the media in 1993 when he made a bid for the presidency of the World Medical Association. He denied that he had known anything about the practice of euthanasia in the hospital to which he had transferred the children and put the blame on the nuns who had looked after the disabled children. The World Medical Association denied him presidency. However, in Germany he continued as an honoured past president of the national association and received several distinctions.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4468

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