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Victims of human experiments and coercive research under National Socialism

December 15, 2010

By Paul J Weindling

A dead body being carried from Belsen concentration camp, post-liberation. RAMC Muniment Collection, in care of the Wellcome Library

This project aims to provide a biographical analysis of the individuals who were experimented on, or otherwise abused for medical research in National Socialist Germany and in territories under German occupation from 1938 to 1945.

The basic tasks are to identify how many victims and perpetrators there were and to develop biographical profiles, through a comprehensive study of war crimes, Holocaust and compensation archives. Another aim is to establish a structural history of the unethical experiments in terms of when and why these occurred. The project thus covers all experiments and other coercive medical abuses for research in camps and prisons, and other situations where subjects were not at liberty. The analysis extends to extracting body fluids, and using body parts as anatomical specimens. The project also keeps a running documentation of victims of related atrocities, such as forced blood transfusion.

The project, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is co-directed by Marius Turda and me; the postdoctoral post has been a job share between Anna von Villiez and Tudor Georgescu, and the PhD studentships are held by Nichola Hunt and Aleksandra Loewenau.

As the worst of the Nazi researchers took their victims to the point of death, the question naturally arises as to how many victims are known not to have survived the experiments, or died afterwards as a consequence of these experiments. The project will answer such questions by means of a sophisticated relational database. Interesting discoveries to date include hitherto-unknown series of experiments, and persons used repeatedly for experiments, a practice possibly occurring in a number of camps.

To date, accounts have been perpetrator-oriented, focusing on such notorious Nazi doctors as Mengele and Karl Brandt, and not examining the vast evidence regarding their victims. Large collections of records have been overlooked by German historians of the period. In part this is because one has to work internationally. The project has located major collections of hundreds, and often many thousands, of victims’ files in Belgrade, Berlin, Geneva, Koblenz, Paris, Prague, Budapest, Athens, Warsaw and Washington, DC. Fortunately, the International Tracing Service records from Bad Arolsen have become increasingly available. Negotiating access has involved a series of privacy agreements, so making the research all the more labour-intensive and time-consuming. Concentration camp memorial collections have been helpful, when our project has provided previously unknown documentation and the memorials have assisted with victims’ identification.

The victims’ views come through in unpublished depositions, and we have found both published and unpublished autobiographies. Victims’ descriptions vary greatly from those of perpetrators, not least in terms of the personnel and procedures involved. The extent of resistance and sabotage emerges: water temperature was altered, vaccines attenuated and sterilisations disrupted. Here the victims found support from prisoner assistants involved in the administration of the experiments.

To this end, the project has to undertake an immense amount of record linkage. This is because there are collections relating to the time of the actual atrocity and to the different stages of postwar compensation, itself a story of considerable complexity. Some of this research is time-consuming, and a named victim source is crucial, so as to avoid double-counting. We can analyse – for example – neurological experiments in a published wartime work when patients’ names are partly anonymised, and then check records on ‘euthanasia’ killings at a clinic to which patients were transferred.

Documenting the entirety of victims was proposed in 1946 by the psychiatrist John Thompson, but the scheme was undermined with the onset of the Cold War. This project follows from the edition of the Nuremberg Medical Trial by Angelika Ebbinghaus and Karl-Heinz Roth. When our project was initially proposed, it met with the negative response that it was nothing more than commemoration. The very taxing research involving considerable record linkage encountered scepticism. But determination saw the project funded, and will secure completion. Working through many thousands of victims’ narratives means that, inevitably, one finds sources that merit fuller analysis. Some of these issues were pursued at a summer workshop on Nazi medical atrocities at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in August 2010. I am also engaged on related projects with the Foundation for Memory, Responsibility and the Future (on recent compensation for victims of experiments), and with the German Association for Psychiatry (on psychiatrists under National Socialism).

Ultimately, this project (see will be pioneering in terms of providing a full reconstruction of a victim population, as other groups of Nazi victims have never been fully reconstructed. Moreover, the implications of the project findings for medicine under National Socialism as well as bioethics will be profound.

Professor Paul J Weindling is Director of the Centre for Health, Medicine and Society: Past and Present, Oxford Brookes University.

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