Category Archives: Germany
The Holocaust is one of the worst collective crimes in the history of humanity – and medical science was complicit in the horrors.
After World War II, evidence was given at the Nuremberg Trials of reprehensible research carried out on humans. This includes subjects being frozen, infected with tuberculosis, or having limbs amputated.
The prestige of German medicine
German pharmacology and chemistry enjoyed great international prestige from the second half of the 19th century.
This golden age ended with the Nazi Party’s rise to power in 1933 and was replaced with institutionalised criminal behaviour in public health and human research.
At the beginning of World War II, Nazi leadership saw medical and pharmaceutical research as a front-line tool to contribute to the war effort and reduce the impact of injury, disease and epidemics on troops.
Nazi leaders believed concentration camps were a source of “inferior beings” and “degenerates” who could (and should) be used as research subjects.
German pharmacology and medicine lost all dignity. As Louis Falstein pointed out:
the Nazis prostituted law, perverted education and corrupted the civil service, but they made killers out of physicians.
The rise of eugenics in central Europe at the beginning of the 20th century paved the way for the Nazi government to implement a disastrous policy of “racial hygiene”.
The Aktion T4 Programme
The Nazi ideology promoted the persecution of those who were considered “abnormal”, as part of the Aktion T4 program.
September 1, 1939 – the date of the start of World War II – marked the beginning of the mass extermination of patients with “deficiencies” or mental conditions, who were deemed to be “empty human shells”.
At first, the crimes were carried out via carbon monoxide poisoning.
In 1941, a second phase was launched: so-called “discrete euthanasia” via a lethal injection of drugs such as opiates and scopolamine (anti-neausea medication), or the use of low-doses of barbiturates to cause terminal pneumonia.
These techniques were combined with food rations and turning off the hospital heating during winter.
These euthanasia programmes led to what amounted to psychiatric genocide, with the murder of more than 250,000 patients. This is possibly the most heinous criminal act in the history of medicine.
Experimenting with healthy subjects
Medical experimentation became another tool of political power and social control, over both sick people from the T4 Program, as well as healthy people.
Those in good health were recruited in the concentration camps of ostracised ethnic or social groups such as Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and homosexuals.
A number of experiments were undertaken, including the study of:
- the effect of sulfonamides (antibiotics) on induced gas gangrene (Ravensbrück)
- the use of the toxic chemical formalin for female sterilisation (Auschwitz-Birkenau)
- the use of vaccines and other drugs to prevent or treat people intentionally infected with malaria (Dachau)
- the effects of methamphetamine in extreme exercise (Sachsenhausen)
- the anaesthetic properties of hexobarbital (a barbiturate derivative) and chloral hydrate (a sedative) in amputations (Buchenwald)
- the use of barbiturates and high doses of mescaline (a hallucinogenic drug) in “brainwashing” studies (Auschwitz and Dachau).
Faced with all this evidence, how it is possible that up to 45% of German doctors joined the Nazi party? No other profession reached these figures of political affiliation.
What were the reasons and circumstances that led to these perverse abuses?
The banality of evil in medicine
The answer is difficult. Many doctors argued that regulations were designed for the benefit of the nation and not the patient. They invoked such misleading concepts as “force majeure” or “sacred mission”.
Some believed everything was justified by science, even the inhumane experiments carried out in the camps, while others considered themselves patriots and their actions were justified by the needs of wartime.
Some were followers of the perverse Nazi ethos and others, the more ambitious, became involved in these activities as a means of promoting their professional and academic careers.
Lastly, avoiding association with the Nazi apparatus may have been difficult in a health sector where fear had become a system of social pressure and control.
Arturo Pérez-Reverte, in his book Purity of Blood, defines this type of motivation very well:
… although all men are capable of good and evil, the worst are always those who, when they administer evil, do so on the authority of others or on the pretext of carrying out orders.
However, as has happened in many moments of history, sometimes tragedies bring positive posthumous effects.
After the trial of the Nazi doctors, the first international code of ethics for research with human beings was enacted, the Nuremberg Code, under the Hippocratic precept “primun non nocere”. This code has had immense influence on human rights and bioethics.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
Most school kids can describe in detail the life cycle of butterflies: eggs hatch into caterpillars, caterpillars turn into cocoons and cocoons hatch. This seemingly basic bit of biology was once hotly debated. It was a pioneering naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian, whose meticulous observations conclusively linked caterpillars to butterflies, laying the groundwork for the fields of entomology, animal behaviour and ecology.
Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt at a time when the scientific study of life was in its infancy. Although she was trained as an artist, Merian is arguably one of the first true field ecologists. She studied the behaviour and interactions of living things at a time when taxonomy and systematics (naming and cataloguing) were the main pursuit of naturalists.
Like most modern entomologists, Merian’s passion for insects started early. At 13, she began collecting and raising caterpillars as subjects for her paintings. She often painted by candlelight, awaiting the moment when a caterpillar formed its cocoon or a newly formed butterfly later emerged from it.
Merian painted caterpillars feeding on their host plants and predatory animals feeding on their prey. She was intent on capturing not only the anatomy of her subjects, but also their life cycles and interactions with other living things. Rather than working from preserved specimens (as was the convention of the time), she captured the ecology of species, centuries before the term even existed.
The fact that Merian found the time to conduct her studies is a testament to the power of a curious mind. Unlike many male naturalists of her day, Merian did not have the freedom to devote all of her time to the study of insects.
In 1665, at the age of 18, Merian married her stepfather’s apprentice, painter Johann Andreas Graff. Her first daughter, Johanna, was born in 1668 and in 1670 the family moved to Nuremburg. Her second daughter, Dorothea, was born in 1678.
Merian’s marriage appears to have been an unhappy one. In 1685, she left Graff to live in a religious community, taking both daughters with her. In 1692, Graff formally divorced Merian.
As a mother of two, Merian was responsible for home-care and child-rearing. She secured her family’s finances by teaching painting to the daughters of wealthy families. In many ways, she was one of the first “science moms”, trying to balance the challenges of her research against a demanding family life.
All of this at a time when women were still being burned as witches – being a curious, intelligent woman was very hazardous indeed.
In Surinam with her daughter
Merian’s work on caterpillars was a key contribution to an ongoing debate of her day. On one side were those who believed that life arose from inanimate matter; flies, for example, arose from rotting meat; other insects formed from mud; raindrops produced frogs. On the other side were those who believed that life arose only from pre-existing life.
By breeding butterflies from egg to adult for several generations, Merian showed definitively that eggs hatched into caterpillars, which eventually turned into butterflies.
Merian’s books on caterpillars (published in 1679 and 1683) would have been enough on their own to earn her a place in science history.
But in 1699, at the age of 52 and with her youngest daughter (then aged 20) in tow, she embarked on one of the first purely scientific expeditions in history. Her goal was to illustrate new species of insects in Surinam, a South American country (now known as Suriname) only recently colonised by the Dutch. After two months of dangerous travel, the two women arrived in an entomologists’ paradise.
Surrounded by new species, Merian was itching to collect and paint everything she could get her hands on. She immediately ran into problems, however, as the Dutch planters of the island were unwilling to help two unaccompanied women collect insects from the forest, a mission they believed to be frivolous.
So Merian forged relationships with enslaved Africans and Indigenous people who agreed to bring her specimens and who shared with her the medicinal and culinary uses of many plants. For example, Merian writes that enslaved Amerindian women used the seeds from particular plants to abort fetuses in order to spare them from the cruelty of slavery. It is a stark reminder of the unmitigated horrors of 1600s colonialism.
Merian and her daughter worked in Surinam for two years before Merian’s failing health forced her to return home. The book that resulted from her time in Surinam, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, was well known in both artistic and scientific circles.
Merian’s eldest daughter, Joanna, eventually made the journey to Surinam and would send her mother new specimens and paintings until Merian’s death in 1717.
I am an insect ecologist and a field biologist; Merian’s work forms the very foundations of my discipline. Yet I am ashamed to confess that until relatively recently I was unaware of the magnitude of Merian’s contribution to biology. It has only been in the last few decades that recognition for her scientific contributions has had a resurgence.
How did such a scientific superhero all but disappear from science history?
Merian was well known in her time. Karl Linnaeus, famous for developing a system for classifying life, referred heavily to her illustrations in his species descriptions. The grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin, cites Merian’s work in his book The Botanic Garden.
But, after her death, inaccuracies began to creep into the hand-painted copies of Merian’s books. New plates with imaginary insects were added. Others were recoloured to be more aesthetically pleasing. The careful attention to detail that made Merian’s work so incredible was gradually eroded.
In the 1830s, naturalist Lansdowne Guilding – who had never visited Surinam – wrote a scathing critique of Merian’s work in a book entitled Observations on the work of Maria Sibylla Merian on the Insects, of Surinam. He uses words like “careless”, “worthless” and “vile and useless” to describe Merian’s engravings, which he felt were riddled with inaccuracies. Many of the errors Guilding attacks were added after Merian’s death and were not faithful to her original work.
There is also a strong undercurrent of sexism in Guilding’s critiques; in one place he accuses Merian of ignoring facts “every boy entomologist would know”. Guilding attacks Merian for relying too heavily on the knowledge of African slaves and Amerindians, people he regarded as unreliable.
The fact that Merian was an artist who had no formal scientific training also played a role in the efforts to discredit her. By the 1800s, biology was practised by university-trained academics and self-trained naturalists like Merian were now treated with an air of disdain. Never mind the fact that women of Merian’s day were barred from university educations.
It didn’t help that some of Merian’s observations sounded fantastical – she claimed that in Surinam there lived tarantulas that ate birds, and ants that formed bridges with their bodies. These claims seemed too odd to be true and so began to attract considerable scepticism.
Other authors began to see Merian’s observations as the flights of fancy of an old woman far outside her depth. And so Merian ceased to be remembered as a pioneering naturalist. She was instead dismissed as an old woman who painted beautiful – but entirely unscientific – pictures of butterflies. Although her work continued to inspire and influence generations of artists, her contributions as a scientist were largely forgotten.
Modern scientists have since confirmed the “bird-eating” tarantula’s habit of occasionally consuming small birds and we now know that army ants do indeed build bridges out of their living bodies.
Merian’s “flights of fancy” were not fanciful after all.
Correction: The original version of this story had two incorrect dates about when Maria Sibylla Merian’s first daughter was born, and when Maria embarked on a scientific expedition, which have both now been updated. Thank you to readers Christiane Meyer-Ebert and Carol Mac for alerting us to the errors.
This article is part of our series of explainers on key moments in the past 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact at the time, and its relevance to politics today.
Nearly 30 years ago, in the night of November 9-10, 1989, East German border police opened the gates at crossing points in the Berlin Wall, allowing masses of East Berliners to stream through them unhindered.
This started a night of unbridled celebrations as people crossed freely back and forth through the Cold War barrier, climbed on it, and even danced and partied on it.
The signal for the mass breach of the previously heavily guarded wall was a fumbled announcement in a press conference by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) Party chief of Berlin, Günter Schabowski.
His announcement that travel restrictions for East German citizens would be lifted led to the Wall’s transit points being mobbed by thousands of East Germans as they interpreted the announcement to mean immediate freedom of movement to the West.
The opening of the Berlin Wall triggered a series of events that led to an unexpectedly rapid unification of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG or West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) on October 3, 1990.
But to really understand this moment, we need to look at when and why the Berlin Wall was erected in the first place. Following Germany’s defeat in the second world war, the country was split between the victors – the Western Allies’ occupation zones became the Federal Republic in 1949, while the Soviet zone was reconstituted as the German Democratic Republic shortly thereafter.
Germany’s capital, Berlin, was also split down the middle. The wall was erected by the East German leadership in August 1961 to stop the flow of citizens from East to West, completing a sealed border that elsewhere ran along the frontier between the two German states.
The Wall’s opening was the product of two processes that had gathered momentum throughout the second half of 1989: the peaceful demonstrations and protest marches of a number of newly constituted East German civil rights organisations, and the growing number of East German citizens leaving from the GDR’s side doors.
The latter mostly happened through Hungary, which opened its border with Austria in May. Large numbers of East Germans on holidays in Hungary took advantage of the opportunity to migrate to West Germany. By November 1989, the trickle of East Germans leaving had become a flood, with thousands a day going to the West by the week the wall was opened.
Furthermore, the East German SED leadership had been increasingly on the back foot since peaceful demonstrations started, following manipulated local government elections in May 1989.
By the start of October, there were regular Monday night protest marches through Leipzig and other East German cities. Initially, there were fears that the SED leadership might suppress these protests with violence.
The Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent mass killings in Beijing in June 1989 were fresh in the minds of many. But after a large-scale Monday night demonstration in Leipzig was allowed to proceed without armed opposition from the police and security services on October 9, the opposition gained courage and momentum.
A few days before the opening of the Wall, an estimated half a million protesters gathered in East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, calling for democratic reform of East Germany.
There was, of course, a wider context for these events. By 1989, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, had become convinced of the need to carry out economic reform measures in the Soviet Union. He considered disarmament and a winding down of Cold War confrontation in Europe as necessary preconditions for such reforms.
Unlike previous Soviet leaders, Gorbachev signalled a tolerant attitude to reforms in the member states of the Warsaw Pact, including relaxation of censorship and central control of economic matters.
Indeed, Gorbachev even began to encourage the replacement of older generation communist hardliners with younger reformist leaders. When Gorbachev visited East Berlin for the official 40th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the GDR on October 7, 1989, he was rapturously welcomed by young demonstrators. They saw his visit as promising reforms that had hitherto been resisted by the ageing SED leadership under Erich Honecker.
On October 18, Honecker was obliged to step down in favour of his younger protégé Egon Krenz. However, in the following weeks, despite the almost inadvertent opening of the Berlin Wall, Krenz failed to keep up with escalating popular pressure for change.
The impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall
The new openness to reform in what was still known as the “Soviet bloc” had already seen contested elections in Poland in May 1989, and political and economic reforms in Hungary. These were catalysts for the changes in East Germany (especially events like Hungary’s opening of its western border).
In the weeks after the opening of the Berlin Wall, there was a peaceful transition to democratic government in Czechoslovakia, and less peaceful changes of régime in Romania and Bulgaria, as it became clear the Soviet Union was no longer prepared to support hard line Communist governments in Eastern Europe.
The lasting consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall were momentous.
Despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of Soviet army troops in the former Cold War front line state of East Germany, Gorbachev agreed in negotiations with the United States President George H. W. Bush and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to permit a swift unification of the two German states. This occurred almost entirely on West German terms.
The speedy collapse of the East German economy in mid-1990 left East German leaders, now democratically elected, with little leverage. Once the West German currency, the Deutsche Mark, was introduced into the East in a currency union in July 1990, East German firms, already exposed by the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, were drastically unequipped to compete.
For two centuries, modern European history had largely revolved around the “German Question”: what external borders would a German state have, and what political order would prevail in this pivotal Central European state? The peaceful and democratic unification of 1990 seemed to provide a definitive answer.
Providing real unity between West and East Germans required massive financial transfers from West to East. The transformation of the Eastern states in practise caused significant economic and social dislocation. As East Germans made enormous adjustments in their lives, their Western cousins were also paying slightly higher taxes to cover the costs of unification.
More globally, the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the symbolic end of the Cold War. Berlin had long been a cockpit of Cold War confrontation – now it was the victors’ trophy. One US policy analyst prematurely proclaimed the “end of history”, in so far as history was a clash between major political orders, and Western democracy and capitalism had won.
But since 1989, many disappointments have followed the initial euphoria. The “peace dividend” hoped for by millions, and Gorbachev’s sunny but characteristically vague formula of peaceful coexistence in a “common European home”, have not eventuated. Instead, a triumphant NATO has pitched its tents inside the borders of the old USSR, and a surly and resentful Russia has responded with brinkmanship and confrontation.
Following the end of the Cold War, neoconservative US administrations sought to put their stamp on the world, and the “blowback” has resulted in chaos in much of the Middle East and think tank predictions of a “clash between civilizations”.
Economically, turbocharged neoliberal capitalism has come under question, especially following the 2008 global financial crisis. But, what is significant to note is that since the collapse of state socialism, symbolised by the fall of the Wall, the contours of an alternative social order have become almost impossible to discern.
This article is part of our series of explainers on key moments in the past 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact at the time, and its relevance to politics today.
Warning: some of the following photos may be disturbing to readers.
The event traditionally defined as the Holocaust — by which I mean the systematic extermination of European Jewry between 1941 and 1945 — defies an overly simplified explanation.
With that being said, making sense of the who, what, where and when presents the somewhat easier task.
The Jews of Europe have been traditionally understood by historians as the principal targets of annihilation by the Nazis. Though Germans were perpetrators of this genocidal act, so too were other complicit Europeans, who either directly participated in murder or looked the other way.
Eastern Europe housed the sites of mass death (ghettos, labour camps, and concentration and death camps) built by the Nazis to “eliminate” Europe of Jews. Scholars generally point to 1941 – 1945 as constituting the woeful years in which approximately 6 million European Jews were killed by the Nazis.
The question of why the Nazis murdered the Jews of Europe remains somewhat thornier and far more controversial amongst scholars.
When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, the issue of how to handle the so-called “Jewish problem” ranked high on their agenda. The Germans held a racialised view of antisemitism, which defined Jews as not only biologically distinct from Germans, but also a critical threat to the health of the German nation.
Given their view of Jews as parasites, sapping the strength of the national body, the German Nazis experimented with a series of mechanisms to “eliminate” Jews from German life. The notion of murdering the Jews of Europe, we should note, had not yet surfaced.
Rather, in the early years of the regime, the Nazis saw emigration as an acceptable solution to the Jewish problem.
Legislation that disenfranchised Jews, stripped them of their financial assets, and denied them their livelihoods sought to clarify to Jews their new degraded position within Germany. The days of their security, stability, and equality under the law had come to an end. It was time to make a new life elsewhere. But these measures failed to bring about the results desired by the Nazis.
By 1939, slightly more than half of German Jews had decided to chart a new course abroad. Unfortunately, the outbreak of war the same year only served to exacerbate the dilemma of eliminating Germany of Jews within its domain.
As Germany quickly and violently occupied large swaths of territory in eastern and western Europe, the number of Jews in its territory exploded. Whereas the population of Jews in Germany in 1933 stood at roughly half a million, approximately nine million Jews resided in Europe as a whole.
Emigration no longer seemed like a viable option. Which nation would be the new home to all those Jews? As it stood, the half a million Jews of Germany struggled to find nations willing to house them.
And it was soon decided that new solutions needed to be found.
The impact of the Holocaust
Scholars debate why and when and even who arrived at the new solution of mass murder to solve Europe’s so-called “Jewish problem.”
We know that in 1939, when war broke out in the East and Germany occupied Poland, the Nazis turned to the creation of ghettos in Poland, which served to concentrate and isolate Jews from the greater Polish non-Jewish population. In these ghettos, often surrounded by high walls and gates, Jews engaged in forced labour and succumbed in great numbers to starvation and disease.
We also know that in 1941, when war broke out with the Soviet Union, the Nazis turned to rounding up Jews in the towns and villages of eastern Europe and murdered them by bullets. At least 1.6 million eastern European Jews died in this fashion. But why this turn from “passive murder” in the ghettos to “active murder” in the killing fields and later the concentration and death camps of eastern Europe? Who proposed this radical solution?
These questions defy scholarly consensus. It may be that the earlier policies of emigration, isolation and concentration of Europe’s Jews were eventually perceived as insufficient; it may be that the murder of Europe’s Jews by starvation and later bullets proved too slow and costly. And perhaps it was not Hitler who first arrived at the idea of mass murder, but Nazi bureaucrats and functionaries working on the ground in eastern Europe, who first conceived and experimented with this genocidal policy.
Regardless, by 1942, Jews across Europe were rounded up — from their homes, their hiding places, and Nazi run ghettos and labour camps to be deported to killing centres and concentration camps, where the vast majority lost their lives.
The legacy of the Holocaust has loomed large for more than 70 years, and continues to inform our culture and politics. It has come to be seen as arguably one of, if not the, defining events of the 20th century.
The Holocaust is commonly perceived as a truly rupturing occurrence in which a modern state used the mechanisms of modernity — technology, scientific knowledge and bureaucracy – not for the benefit of humanity but to inflict suffering and death.
We are now well aware that modernity does not necessarily result in progress and an improved standard of living, but that it comes with a dark underbelly that can lead to the violent purging of segments of society perceived as undesirable.
In its aftermath, the Holocaust became paradigmatic for defining genocide. The murder of European Jewry inspired the term “genocide”, which was coined by the jurist Raphael Lemkin in 1944. It later prompted the Genocide Convention agreed to by the United Nations in 1948.
The 1948 Genocide Convention, the memory of the Holocaust, and the phrase “never again” are thereby routinely invoked in the face of atrocity. And yet these words ring hollow in the face of genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, and the current genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
It happens again and again. Not to mention that the largest refugee crisis since the second world war is occurring this very moment as desperate Syrians undertake perilous journeys across the Aegean.
Approximately 80 years ago, Nazi persecution likewise culminated in an international refugee crisis. World leaders recognised the plight of Europe’s Jews during the 1930s and into the 1940s, even if they could not foretell their eventual genocidal fate.
International leaders even convened a conference (the Evian Conference) in which they debated how best to aid German Jews. Country after country expressed their sympathies with Jewish refugees but ultimately denied them refuge.
International news at the time closely followed the journey of the SS St Louis, as it sailed from port to port with 900 Jewish refugees unable to disembark because nations refused to grant asylum. We now know the future that befell many of these refugees.
These days, images of desperate Syrians undertaking perilous journeys across the Aegean, or the Rohingya fleeing their persecution in Myanmar, occupy our front pages. As we contemplate our responsibility towards these desperate individuals, the SS St Louis and the Evian Conference have been routinely invoked in our public discourse as a reminder of the devastating consequences of restrictive refugee and immigration policies.
We must remain haunted by our past failings. It is the legacy of the Holocaust that compels us to examine our responsibility to intervene and turn our attention to the plight of refugees. And we should consider whether that legacy has remained sufficient or whether we need a reminder of the dire consequences that comes with numbing ourselves to the suffering of others.