Saturday 18 December 2010

A new exhibition touring the United States is highlighting lessons to be learned from the Nazi Doctors

Most when remembering the holocaust will think of six million Jews but apparently this was only the final chapter in the story. What ended in the 1940s in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Belsen and Treblinka had much more humble beginnings in the 1930s in nursing homes, geriatric hospitals and psychiatric institutions all over Germany.

I have previously written about lessons we can learn from the grisly history of the Nazi doctors.

Dr Leo Alexander, a psychiatrist who worked for the Office of the Chief of Counsel for war Crimes at Nuremberg, described the process whereby doctors were instrumental in the euthanasia programme as follows:

'The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians. It started with the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans.'

With the advantage of hindsight we are understandably amazed that the German people and especially the German medical profession were fooled into accepting it. The judgement of the War Crimes Tribunal in 1949 as to how they were fooled was as follows.

'Had the profession taken a strong stand against the mass killing of sick Germans before the war, it is conceivable that the entire idea and technique of death factories for genocide would not have materialized...but far from opposing the Nazi state militantly, part of the medical profession co-operated consciously and even willingly, while the remainder acquiesced in silence. Therefore our regretful but inevitable judgement must be that the responsibility for the inhumane perpetrations of Dr Brandt (pictured above)...and others, rests in large measure upon the bulk of the medical profession; because the profession without vigorous protest, permitted itself to be ruled by such men.' (War Crimes Tribunal. 'Doctors of Infamy'. 1948)

I am therefore grateful to John Smeaton of SPUC for drawing my attention to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s new exhibition on medicalised killings under the Nazis which is currently travelling to different American cities.

John similarly argues that the Exhibition shows us why we can never be complacent about the threat of medicalised killing.

A report on the exhibition by American Medical News says:

“‘The misguided scientific ideas of physicians and scientists were integral to Nazis' crimes against humanity and should serve as a reminder to doctors to put patients before political ideology ... As evil as these actions appear in retrospect, they arose out of a highly sophisticated German medical culture, said Matthew K. Wynia, MD, MPH ... More than half of the Nobel Prizes that were awarded in science through the 1930s went to Germans ... 'If we divorce ourselves from them or view them as entirely alien, then our ability to understand these medical crimes is thwarted, as well as is our ability to prevent other medical crimes,' Dr. Wynia said. 'These doctors became killers, not despite their training but in the name of their science and training' ... t is so important for doctors to maintain their professionalism in the face of political and other pressures ... 'This is not just Jewish history,' Dr. Wynia said. 'All doctors and medical professionals need to know and understand this material.'"

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