Paul Weindling, history of medicine professor at Oxford Brookes University, describes his search for the lost victims of Nazi experiments
January 28, 2013
Nazi human experimentation is a hideous icon of the Holocaust. Many Nazi doctors selected victims for murderous experiments that took the subject to the point of death. This could involve testing new vaccines by, for example, infecting healthy people with deadly diseases. Details of this grim research were publicised at the Nuremberg Doctors Trial of 1946-47, but there has never been reliable statistics on the number of experiments and victims.
So who were the victims, and how many of them survived?
When I set out to find out, I discovered that accounts were inconsistent. Defendants at the Nuremberg trials minimised the victims to just a few hundred, while prosecutors speculated that there may have been hundreds of thousands of victims. One Allied scientific intelligence officer, John Thompson, started an inter-allied commission to uncover every one of these experiments. He pointed out that prosecuting just the few doctors that faced trial after the war would leave many crimes unaccounted for.
Nazi doctors on trial for "scientific death" experiments on prisoners at Nuremberg Trials in 1946
As I found while writing a biography of Thompson, his efforts were undermined by fears that the arrest of too many doctors would disrupt German healthcare, and that the public might lose confidence in medical research. But some clusters of victims have been uncovered. In 1987, the journalist Günther Schwarberg discovered 20 murdered children in 1987.
My idea was to do for all the victims what Schwarberg achieved for just a few. My small research team and I have been astonished to find such large collections of documents that had been overlooked by historians, mainly concerned with perpetrator research. The Nazis left a colossal amount of documentation on medical research and about the concentration camps.
Genocide under the Nazis
Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany persecuted and killed vast numbers of people who did not conform to its ideas of racial and biological "purity". Adolf Hitler did not take power with a defined plan for Jews, the disabled and other groups. Instead, his Nazi regime gradually introduced increasingly extreme "solutions", culminating in genocide and mass murder.
Some former concentration camp prisoners salvaged their own records, such as the hundreds of "malaria cards" retrieved by a prisoner from Dachau concentration camp. The cards show who the victims were, how they were infected, when malaria recurred, and the cocktails of drugs used - and it was the drugs that were often lethal.
Digitising records has also made it easier to trace victims. The US Holocaust Museum digitised its own vast storehouse of records of the International Tracing Service, meaning that the malaria cards (for example) can be copied and downloaded.
Another surprising source on victims was compensation records in Germany as well as France, Poland, Serbia and the Czech Republic. These records have allowed lives to be traced after the war, and show the continuing pain and injuries over many years. The numerous languages of modern records and many name changes make our task more complicated. The research shows a clear structure of the experiments and other types of coerced research.
We see four phases.
The first phase was linked to Nazi eugenics and forced sterilisation. The mixed race African-German, and Asian-German children were studied by anthropologists before being forcibly sterilised in 1935-1936. Doctors then studied sterilisation victims clinically.
The second phase coincided with the start of the war. Doctors began experimenting on patients in psychiatric hospitals. Sporadic experiments were made in concentration camps like Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, and anthropological observations at Dachau.
Before then, no medical experiments were made in concentration camps.
Anthropologists measured and made plaster casts from stateless Jewish people rounded up in the Prater sports stadium in Vienna, before they were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where most were killed.
The third phase began in 1942. The SS and German military took greater control of the experiments. Numbers of experiments rapidly increased, with large scale experiments on malaria and louse-borne typhus, involving thousands of victims.
A fourth phase in 1944-45 is when scientists knew the war was lost but they continued their experiments. We have identified 24,254 victims; the number still grows. The largest number - 7,034 people - were Polish. But many nationalities were involved. There were 23 British victims, some prisoners of war on Crete who were infected with hepatitis and at least three Swiss victims.
One Irish prisoner of war was forced to march on the experimental shoe track at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, to test new synthetic rubbers and human performance-enhancing drugs. There were also twice as many male victims as females.
Jewish victims were the largest religious category, but there were also about 100 Catholic priests, and other religions included Seventh Day Adventists. There were about 500 Sinti and Romany Gypsy victims, some being used for two or three different series of experiments. About 2,500 of these victims were killed for research purposes.
Find out more:
- Psychiatrist in the Shadow of the Holocaust by Paul Weindling, John W. Thompson, (Rochester, NY: Rochester University Press, 2010), Paperback edition 2013
- Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials: From Medical War Crimes to Informed Consent by Paul Weindling (Basingstoke, Palgrave-Macmillan: 2004). Paperback edition November 2006
Many prisoners resisted or even attempted to sabotage the experiments, and some prisoner protests did succeed in saving lives.
There is still much to do and the research is slow. We are not allowed to copy compensation files held at the German Federal Archives. In our small team, we manage to examine four files a day at most, frustrated in the knowledge that there are hundreds more biographies to study. We must also, of course, respect privacy restrictions. But in the case of murdered victims, we wonder why they are in place.
It is important that our database of victims be retained when the research is finally complete. We want other researchers - eventually (privacy obligations currently do not allow this) - to use this resource and for victims and their families to find out what happened more than 70 years ago.
Professor Weindling's research has been supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the Conference for Material Claims Against Germany, and the Wellcome Trust. His colleagues are Anna von Villiez, Aleksandra Loewenau, Nichola Hunt and Marius Turda.