Intended for healthcare professionals

Reviews TV

Science and the Swastika

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 24 March 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:742
  1. Paul Weindling, Wellcome Trust research professor in the history of medicine
  1. Oxford Brookes University

    Channel 4, Mondays at 9 pm, 19 March to 2 April

    Nazi Germany spent vast resources on medical and biological research. Doctors were prominent in Auschwitz and in other killing centres. These films claim that the “Final Solution” was driven by a Nazi “biological revolution.” This leaves us with the unresolved questions of whether the Nazis slavishly followed the laws of genetics as then understood and practised, or—as Sir Richard Doll's recollections of cancer cells depicted as Jews suggest—that Nazism perverted and debased science. German medicine was experimentally oriented, and research consumed ever increasing resources. Yet after the war allied doctors concluded that its record of clinical innovation was poor and that release of the full story of Nazi human experiments would shake public confidence in clinical research.

    These programmes present testimonies of victims who speak with dignity and compassion about their ordeals. In the first programme, about Nazi sterilisation and euthanasia, a civil servant describes how, as a boy, his case was referred to the tribunal for compulsory sterilisation. A sister of a child euthanasia victim remembers how she parted from her brother, who, although not mentally ill, was sent to a psychiatric hospital where he was given a fatal injection for having stolen to feed children who were being deliberately starved to death.

    In the second programme, on human experiments, survivors of Josef Mengele's experiments on twins in Auschwitz explain how many of their number were mercilessly mutilated and killed. One, in an artificial voice, describes how Mengele destroyed his capacity to speak, and another tells how his brother died in his arms. Ella Lingens, a courageous Austrian doctor sent to Auschwitz for assisting Jews, explains how Mengele showed her falsified research protocols.

    The programmes do not explain that some doctors refused to take part in sterilisation, euthanasia, or human experiments. The Nazi medical voice comes across as unscrupulous, racist, and unrepentant. A Leipzig children's doctor asserts that Jews had dominated his clinic. Yet—and it's a recurrent failure of the films not to draw on fresh historical research to endorse or refute oral testimony—it has been established that only one of a large staff in the Leipzig children's clinic was classified as a Jew in the professional register.

    We are presented with a crudely uniform view of German doctors hungry for promotion and research funds. These motives are used to explain rapid implementation of sterilisation (one of the historical “talking heads” understates the numbers of victims by at least 50 000). We are told repeatedly that doctors formed the largest occupational group among SS members and that doctors ruthlessly exploited the concentration camps. We are left with a caricature of the German doctor as a power crazed, human vivisector.


    A German genetecist conducts research on twins, 1933

    Part of the problem is that the interviews are clumsily put together. Also, the footage is dreadfully muddled: thus a picture relating to “Madaus/Koch” herbal extracts, tested for experiments on mass sterilisation, banally appears in a section about experiments on sulphonamide wound treatment. Shots of trains on bridges, maidens exercising, and pharmaceutical production have no apparent meaning. The numbers who died from the sulphonamide experiments is understated. The year of the so called Nuremberg physicians' trial (the programme fails to point out that some on trial were SS administrators) is incorrectly captioned as 1948.

    Such errors are symptomatic of a deeper malaise in these programmes. Bland assertions are made about medical concerns with the master race. But issues of health care, rising maternal and child mortality, and increasing rates of infectious diseases are nowhere mentioned. Instead, the viewer is subjected to ill informed bombast about “the first European gas chambers” (sorry, but gas chambers were widely used for delousing in the first world war, and carbon monoxide euthanasia gassings and Zyklon gassings in Auschwitz have different historical pedigrees). The film sidesteps the controversies about the role of German pharmaceutical companies profiting from human experiments (try typhus vaccines and malaria treatment).

    Part three (not viewed) is on allied exploitation of Nazi medical research. Must we brace ourselves for more garbled presentation of intrinsically important medical events and testimonies?

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