German Nazism is commonly known as the most extreme and atrocious example of racist ideology barely constrained with any ethical considerations put in motion. Teachings of Hitler and Himmler called for the physical perfection of the Arian race and the extermination or exploitation of the “inferior” racial and ethnic groups. Thus, improving the health of the German population, regardless of the preferences of individual Germans, was one staple of Nazi policies. Preventing the supposedly “lesser” races from multiplying and occupying the living space that could be used by the Germans was another. Both tasks required a scientific approach, and some medical professionals engaged in putting Hitler’s vision to realization. The application of medical science in Nazi interests condemned the undesirables to abortions, sterilization, euthanasia, and experimentation while promoting health and birthrate among the Arian population and developing selective medical ethics to justify it.
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Medical professionals are responsible for helping the population to maintain and improve their health under any political regime, but Nazi Germany had very specific views on this matter. One of the crucial obligations toward society and the race that the ideology imposed upon the Germans was remaining healthy and whole. The state required its citizens to protect their health from any condition that could impair it – especially those related to procreation, such as venereal diseases (Bachrach and Kuntz 72). In this respect, German medical professionals were expected to provide their utmost support and care. However, it only extended to the representatives of the “Aryan” race, and those belonging to “inferior” races could not hope for identical treatment (Bruns and Chelouche 593). Apart from that, Nazi ideology held that the interests of the race as a whole transcended the preferences of individuals taken separately. In other words, those of “Aryan” descent had to be healthy regardless of whether they wanted it or not (Bruns and Chelouche 592). Thus, Nazi German healthcare emphasized communal well-being as superior to individual aspirations and extended it only to desirable demographic groups.
Another explicit issue for Nazi medical professionals was increasing the numbers of the “Aryan” population. The declining birthrate was an ever-present concern for the Nazi ideologists, politicians, and, by extension, medical professionals. Rudolf Ramm, a high-ranking Nazi functionary and the author of the educational course on medical ethics, identified it as one of the utmost problems facing German society. According to him, it was caused by a “disregard for the laws of nature” that caused Germans to intermingle with the supposedly inferior races and ethnicities or refrain from procreation altogether (Bruns and Chelouche 593). On the political level, it meant stipends, allowances, and government rewards for large families with many children – of course, only the “Aryan” ones (Bachrach and Kuntz 82). In a medical sense, it imposed the obligation to preserve the population’s reproductive health – once again, regardless of the individual preferences of those composing this population. Medical professionals of Nazi Germany were expected to contribute to the demographic growth of the “Aryan” race and safeguard it from any possible threats.
Another side to the demographic politics of the Third Reich was preventing the undesirable elements from leaving the impact on the “purity” of the German race or even procreating in general. A prominent way of controlling the birthrate among the non-German population was abortion. While, since 1943, it was illegal to perform it on “Aryan” women, hundreds of thousands of forced laborers, mostly from Eastern Europe, were subjected to it throughout the World War (Bachrach and Kuntz 85). As for German women, the legal restrictions against abortion proved hard to enforce and did not have any notable effect on the birthrate (Bachrach and Kuntz 85). Thus, rather than a vehicle for independent decisions about one’s reproductive health or a way to safeguard a mother’s life in case of complications, abortion became another punitive practice in the Nazi arsenal.
Another practice intended to undermine the demography of presumably inferior races was forceful sterilization. Unlike the teachings of the late nineteenth – early twentieth century, Nazi ideology viewed race not as a collection of purely physical anthropological traits but in terms of heredity (Bachrach and Kuntz 100). As such, Nazi eugenics demanded preventing any traits deemed undesirable from being replicated in the future generations, which made sterilization a logical option for the regime. The Eugenic Sterilization Law was passed as early as 1933, almost immediately after the Nazis’ rise to power, which signifies its importance to the political agenda (Bruns and Chelouche 593). Medical professionals were required to report patients with hereditary diseases for forceful sterilization (Bruns and Chelouche 593). In a similar vein, it could also be used as a punitive measure to prevent certain ethnic or racial groups from reproducing.
Finally, when it came to eliminating the groups designated as undesirable, Nazis never shied away from the most straightforward solution – that is, outright killing. On the one hand, Nazi medicine explicitly argued for involuntary euthanasia for incapacitated patients. Drawing upon the communal ethics, Nazis described them as a burden for the society that required “mercy killing” for their sake as well as that was others (Bruns and Chelouche 593). Yet those euthanized were arguably the lucky ones, as a considerable number of war prisoners and civilians, predominantly Jews and Gypsies, were used as involuntary test subjects in often lethal experiments (Bachrach and Kuntz 110). This approach was most notably epitomized by the SS physician Josef Mengele, yet civilian scientists also actively engaged in studying the materials obtained from human experimentation in the concentration camps.
To provide an ideological justification for their practices, Nazis introduced their own version of medical ethics – in fact, they introduced it as an obligatory course in medical education. Developed by the above-mentioned Ramm, this code explicitly stated that a Nazi medical professional was ethically responsible for ridding the society of the disabled, the racially “inferior,” and any other group deemed undesirable (Bruns and Chelouche 593). It also stressed the paternalistic role of a medical practitioner, who was supposed to exercise power over the patient rather than help the latter to pursue individual health goals (Bruns and Chelouche 593). Finally, Nazi medical ethics was notoriously selective, as any ethical reservations only applied to “Aryan” patients and were blatantly ignored when dealing with anyone else (Bruns and Chelouche 593). Thus, contrary to popular opinion, Nazi physicians did not neglect medical ethics – rather, they developed and followed their own perverted version of it that justified what they did.
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To summarize, medical professionals collaborated with the Nazi regime and contributed to its ideology and practices in several ways. First of all, they were required to promote health hand birthrate among the “Aryan” population. Apart from that, they were also responsible for preventing the “undesirable” groups from contributing to the gene pool, whether through abortions, sterilization, involuntary euthanasia, or lethal medical experiments. Fully in line with the ideology, Nazi physicians meant to be authoritative paternalistic figures who exercised their power to improve the society as a whole rather than individual patients. This approach culminated in the creation of Nazi medical ethics, which stressed communal well-being over individual preferences and justified outright extermination of certain population groups.
Bachrach, Susan D., and Dieter Kuntz. Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2004.
Bruns, Florian, and Tessa Chelouche. “Lectures on Inhumanity: Teaching Medical Ethics in German Medical Schools Under Nazism.” Annals of Internal Medicine, vol. 166, no. 8, 2017, pp. 591-595.