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Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis.

Thousands of books and articles have been written about World War II, Adolph Hitler, National Socialism, and the Holocaust, but fewer than ten (only one in German prior to 1980) have been written about the role of medicine and science in the years prior to and during the Nazi Reich.

The paucity of analysis is not an academic oddity. In Racial Hygiene Proctor makes abundantly clear through meticulous, albeit sometimes tedious use of original archival materials from Germany and the United States, what doctors and scientists on both sides of the Atlantic have been unwilling to recognize for more than fifty years: medicine and science played leading roles in the evolution of Nazism.

Proctor provides a long-overdue corrective to the received wisdom that those in the universities adamantly opposed the rise of the Nazis, as any educated and enlightened person would have, and once the handwriting was on the wall silently rode out the storm gritting their collective moral teeth the whole time. Yes, the Nazis did drive many Jewish doctors and scientists out of Germany. But German science was of a caliber that plenty of distinguished physicians and biomedical scientists remained. And those who did remain were often those who had led the effort to expel the Jews from their midst. They needed no help or instruction from party thugs.

Yes, many German physicians, biologists, and social scientists were outraged at the philosophy espoused by the Nazis. But many more, some giants in their fields, were not.

Indeed, as Proctor argues, it would have been surprising if most biomedical scientists had opposed the onset of the Nazi regime, since German physicians and biologists had created the theory of racial hygiene that was a lynch pin of Nazi ideology. German physicians were so enamored of the importance of genetic health and racial purity that they founded dozens Of Societies for Racial Hygiene all over Germany during the 1910s and '20s. The administrators of Auschwitz,

Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. By Robert Proctor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. 496 pp. $34.95, cloth.

Buchenwald, and Dachau got their early training in these eugenics clubs.

In fact once one bothers to look, which almost no historian seems willing to have done for more than fifty years, one finds doctors, biologists, geneticists, and all manner of scientists not only in the Nazi party but holding leadership roles in the party. The Nazis had their quirks regarding medicine and biology, but they took eugenics very seriously. Insofar as biology, medicine, and public health could contribute to attaining the goals of the party, they were embraced by the party's leadership.

The Third Reich was awash in calls for improvements in the public health of the nation. These ranged from attempts to discourage smoking and drinking to a massive effort to wean the public away from its new-found taste for white bread back to whole grain varieties. Public health officials have never had it as good as they did during the glory years of Nazism.

Genetics and anthropology flourished in the Third Reich. Journals in these areas published without skipping a beat during the war. As soon as the Nazis took control, institutes on racial hygiene, eugenics, criminal biology, and comparative anthropology were created at every German university of note. There were plenty of eminent German scientists ready to serve the Volk through the ascendancy to one of the newly established chairs of anthropology or race hygiene. And why not? These were men-Rudin, Lenz, Fischer, Verschuer, Ramm, Blome, Gross, Wagner-who were eager to put their racial theories into practice.

Scientific racism was not confined to German medicine and science. American exponents of race hygiene were active in enacting sterilization statutes and restrictive immigration laws at the turn of the century which were, as Proctor notes, near and dear to the hearts of the Nazis. Early biomedical adherents of Nazism warned with some fervor that the Americans had gotten a leg up on Germany in the battle for genetic supremacy with enlightened state laws banning interracial manage and requiring sterilization of the mentally retarded.

Proctor's book identifies science in general and biomedical science in particular as Prime forces leading to the Holocaust. Doctors and biologists were not duped into support for the regime by rhetorical ruffles and flourishes. Nor was their support secured by force. The overwhelming majority of Germany's biomedical community supported the Nazi party because they agreed with it. In some cases the support was for beliefs that had their origins in the biomedical community itself

If Proctor's book did nothing more than get the historical record straight regarding a key factor in the rise of Nazism it would be enough. But the legacy of the Nazi Reich is such that far more hinges on his achievement than historical accuracy.

The horrors of the Third Reich are constantly invoked by participants in contemporary disputes regarding biomedicine. Anti-abortion advocates including former Surgeon General Koop, Jerry Falwell, Archbishop John O'Connor, and former President Reagan constantly refer to the million and a half abortions performed each year as a "Holocaust." Those who doubt the wisdom of allowing patients to voluntarily discontinue life prolonging medical technologies invoke the slippery slope of the Nazi euthanasia program. Jeremy Rifkin and other back-to-nature campers babble on incessantly about Nazi preoccupations with eugenics as reason enough to ban all forms of genetic engineering and the patenting of animals and microorganisms.

I would be willing to bet that not one of the disputants in any of these controversies has anything more than a dim view of what the Nazis really believed, why they believed it, and what they actually did in moving from the realm of belief to action. A couple of hours with Proctor's book would provide the requisite enlightenment.

How many of those who are so quick to invoke the imagery of the Holocaust in contemporary arguments against abortion realize that the Nazis were absolutely committed to a prolife view for those with the fight racial credentials? How many critics of the withdrawal of respirators or artificial feeding realize that the Nazis denied these options to Jews, Poles, or gypsies? They argued that a quick, painless death was only appropriate for those of sufficient racial purity. And how many of those quick to fire off the charge of proto-Nazism regarding genetic engineering of animals realize that the Nazis had for all practical purposes banned experimentation on animals on die grounds that such activity broke the natural bond between man and nature?

Most importantly, all of us should realize that science and medicine flourished under the auspices of die Nazis. It is not true (as the Soviet space program keeps reminding us too) that science and medicine can only funcdon in an environment of liberal democracy. It is also not true that those trained in the sciences and the healing arts are any less capable of crude, vulgar racism and beastly acts of torture and murder. In our search for heroes, we often fantasize that doctors and scientists are less vulnerable and flawed than other men and women. The lesson of Proctor's book is that they are not. Those within and outside biomedicine must not forget this.
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Author:Caplan, Arthur L.
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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