The medical experiments of the Holocaust

Identifying and commemorating the victims of the medical experiments
12 May 2020

Interview with 

Paul Weindling, Oxford Brookes University


A grayscale photo of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin


A lot of science was carried out during World War Two, and a lot of it was groundbreaking. But a lot of terrible things were done in the name of science as well. Especially the experiments conducted on unwilling people in the concentration camps. What went on there, and who were the people subjected to that? Adam Murphy spoke to Paul Weindling, Professor of the History of Medicine at Oxford Brookes University...

Paul - Himmler regarded the concentration camps as a, really a resource for human experiments and it was a resource which he developed throughout the Second World War. And really went right until the end of the war, and one type of experiments were infectious disease experiments, and they were really to try and find preventive immunisation. Other types of research work was for military purposes, and again in the concentration camp of Dachau, there were experiments on aviation, on low pressure, so that fighter pilots who had to do manoeuvres for rapid descent and so that they shouldn't black out. The question was what the reasons for blacking out was. So low pressure experiments were done on prisoners, and these prisoners were taken right to the point of death. And so the processes of death were grimly studied in these pressure chambers, and then the bodies were dissected. Brains were taken for research by German brain researchers at that time, Others were cold water experiments, hypothermia, what would happen if a fighter pilot bailed out into the Channel into freezing water.

These experiments were not only on concentration camp prisoners, they were on psychiatric patients, who were children. For example, child psychiatric patients were also put in pressure chambers, or they were subjected to immunisation experiments. There would be deaths caused by the experiments. Then the bodies would be dissected. We can see with the Mengele twins, these were twins who were collected from the end of 1943, Mengele experimented on a number of Sinti and Roma twins, some he even killed because of their different coloured eyes. And so it's been important to work out these different groups, who the persons were and how many survived, in order to get a more precise figure, in order to be able to identify each person as a named person and see what they then wrote about their experiences, and what the experience was like for the experimental research subjects.

Adam - How do you do that? Put names to experiments carried out on people more than 75 years ago. It's a monumental task.

Paul - So for some experiments there are the actual research records, so that for malaria experiments in Dachau, although the SS at the end of the war ordered all the experimental records to be destroyed. In fact, some of the prisoners kept the research records, as many as they could. They hid them and kept them because they were convinced firstly, that each person should be identifiable. And secondly, there could well be a trial of the key perpetrator so that they needed evidence. We have diaries with the research results being done from Buchenwald concentration camp. And two of the diaries which were meant to have been destroyed were in fact found. And the other great source is the compensation. Very often the compensation application was unsuccessful. The Mengele twins were always turned down until the mid 1980s. The federal German finance ministry always said, "Oh, that wasn't a human experiment. You were just being measured." But still the testimony of the person from the twin block is an important testimony. So we have a named person and we can collate the named testimonies to see how many there were. And so there is a very, very large number of testimonies and records of these experiments, which simply, and have to be, should be collated. And that's one of the things I've been trying to do. I work with roughly 30,000 testimonies from the time, to try and reconstruct them in terms of what's known about the experiment. So you have to put the testimony into an experiment, which one can document. And so you try and turn anonymous numbers of victims into named persons

Adam - And a task like this isn't easy. There are bound to be roadblocks.

Paul - One difficulty is the idea of patient confidentiality, because some archivists think, Oh it's medical, therefore you cannot divulge the name of the person. I think that's a mistake, because the victim was perfectly healthy before the experiment and the experiment, it's a form of violence, gratuitous violence that was done, and one shouldn't treat it as serious medicine, one needs to treat it as an injury inflicted for ideological purposes, just as if somebody is being beaten, so that Holocaust victims, it's regarded as perfectly acceptable that they're named. And my view is that the victim needs to have primacy, and it is really irrelevant who their descendants may or may not be. They should be named. The experiences which they underwent should be documented, particularly if they were killed. It's important that the documentation is there, that's the least that can be done to commemorate them as named persons, that they should have the dignity of being a person rather than a research object.

So the great roadblock is ironically confidentiality, and I actually think that protects the perpetrators more than the victims. Last August I was sent a list of brain specimens in the Frankfurt University Neurological Institute and I noticed, "Oh, two of these specimens have got the same number as the specimens that were sent from Warsaw in 1940." And I could actually find the brain autopsy reports in the German military archives, and trace these brains all the way through to the Frankfurt Neurological Institute. So that the brains were taken out of circulation for scientific purposes. They were in what was called the show collection and that's not the only incident where we found body specimens of persons killed in the war, kept in museums or scientific collections. And it's really important, these body parts, they offer really a window back into the person who was killed and their life and their, the identity of, it's very important on the one hand to look, to reconstruct the identity of the person:

Who were they? How come they came to have their brains kept by the German military and the occupation on the one hand. And on the other hand, what happened to the body part scientifically, why was it that the Germans during the war and in the postwar period, were perfectly content to hang on to these specimens in large numbers and to say "Oh well, the killing and the retention of the specimen has got nothing to do with the Nazi aims, which is why the person died. And I think that's very questionable. And then there will be the issue of appropriate commemoration of the person, that they shouldn't just be thrown away as surplus scientific material, but the specimen should be given a dignified burial, with identification. And I think it's the identification, which is above all really important.

Adam - One thing you often hear when reading about this topic is "that a lot of terrible things were done, but at least some useful science came out of it. There was some good done in the midst of all that evil." Would that be an accurate assessment?

Paul - This isn't normal science in any way. This is science being done under extreme circumstances for ideological reasons, and this is also unethical science. So we have first issue is can this actually be correct science? Can it be good science, when you might have persons being killed, but there are prisoner research assistants who are often sabotaging the sort of research that was went on. So that's one issue is sabotage. The second issue is the stress on the actual victims. The third issue is there is a faking of results in order to please the Nazi high-ups like Heinrich Himmler and so on. Fake graphs, and fake statistics would be constructed. On the whole, it tells one a lot about Nazi atrocities, and the exploitation and persecution. It doesn't really tell you very much about science and it really is a lesson in how not to do science.


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