Medicine and Murder in the Third Reich
William E. Seidelman
|William E. Seidelman, M.D., is a professor in the
department of family and community medicine at the University of
Toronto. Dr. Seidelman, together with Dr. Howard Israel (of Columbia
University) and Yad Vashem, was responsible for the efforts that
resulted in the recent investigations by the University of Vienna into
anatomical practices in Vienna during the Nazi era
- Introduction - Medical Professions and Nazism's Programs
- Doctors and Medical Atrocities
- Reporting on the Role of Universities
Introduction - Medical Professions and Nazism's
The past few months have seen a number of revelations concerning
hitherto-hidden secrets of the Holocaust: gold plundered from corpses; the
corporate theft of life savings placed for safekeeping in Swiss banks; looted
art displayed in distinguished galleries; and the expropriation by insurance
companies of the unclaimed insurance policies of Holocaust victims. The
beneficiaries -- prestigious banks, elite galleries, wealthy insurance
companies -- are not the sort of institutions one ordinarily associates in any
way with genocide.
There is another perturbing category of eminent exploiters. It includes
illustrious universities, research institutes and, in one documented instance,
an eminent museum -- whose quarry were the cadavers of Jewish and non-Jewish
victims of Nazi terror. These macabre spoils of Nazi slaughter remained in
these institutions' collections (anatomical, pathological and anthropological)
for decades after the end of the war. More of this kind of grim booty is
probably yet to be found in collections in Germany, Austria and other
countries that were once part of the Third Reich. The specimens are tangible
evidence of the role played by medicine and medical science in the crimes of
the Nazi regime.
The medical professions of Germany and Austria, including academic
medicine, played a critical role in the evolution of Nazism's programs of
human destruction, programs that culminated in genocide and the exploitation
of the dead. Nazi medical science, through the application of egregious
eugenics (the study of heredity) and racial hygiene, created classes of
inferior human beings. Individuals consigned to these classes were selected
for enforced sterilization, medical killing (in the so-called euthanasia
operations), and destruction in the death camps. Indeed, killing by gas
chamber evolved from medicine.1-6 Academic medicine not only
provided the "scientific" rationale that legitimized eugenic and
racial selection, it also exploited human victims for inhuman research. By
defining some human beings as "subhuman," Nazi medical science
placed them in the category of "scientific specimens," without
protection from German law (which defended animals such as dogs and cats
against the same fate7). Medical science also plundered the remains
of murdered individuals in order to acquire specimens for university
institutes of anatomy and pathology and neuropathology, as well as for
prestigious research institutes such as the Kaiser-Wilhelm (now the Max
Every captive of the Nazi state was considered to be a potential subject
for inhuman research. Helpless victims, the inmates of psychiatric hospitals
and concentration camps, were available for exploitation while alive. Leading
scientists and professors took an active part in this ruthless abuse. Every
university anatomical institute in Germany -- and probably Austria -- was the
recipient of the cadavers of victims of Nazi terror, in particular, political
victims executed by the Gestapo.
Doctors and Medical Atrocities
In the Third Reich, medical depravity was ubiquitous. The following are
some representative examples of those involved in medical atrocities:
Professor Dr. Carl Schneider (1891-1946), Professor and Chairman of the
Department of Psychiatry of the University of Heidelberg, used the Nazis'
euthanasia program for his own depraved research. Schneider conducted
psychological assessments of children he knew were doomed to die, and had
their brains collected and dissected after they were murdered.8
Schneider committed suicide after the war.
Professor Dr. Hermann Stieve (1886-1952) was a leading anatomist at the
University of Berlin and the Berlin Charité Hospital who exploited the
killing programs of the Third Reich to conduct studies on the female
reproductive system. When a woman of reproductive age was to be executed by
the Gestapo, Stieve was informed, a date of execution was decided upon, and
the prisoner told the scheduled date of her death. Stieve then studied the
effects of the psychic trauma on the doomed woman's menstrual pattern. Upon
the woman's execution, her pelvic organs were removed for histological
(tissue) examination. Stieve published reports based on those studies without
hesitation or apology.9
After the war, Stieve lectured medical students on studies he had conducted
on the migration of human sperm, studies performed on women raped before their
deaths in Gestapo execution chambers. Stieve discussed this research before an
audience of appalled but silent medical students in East Berlin. (Russian
scientists reportedly sought out Stieve's research after the war.10)
Stieve served as dean of the Faculty of Medicine of Humbolt University, the
East Berlin successor to the University of Berlin. A lecture room and a
sculpture of his bust were dedicated in his honor at the Berlin Charité
The neuropathologist Dr. Julius Hallervorden (1882-1965), who directed the
famed Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute of Brain Research (KWIBR) in Berlin-Buch,
seized the opportunity afforded by the murder of psychiatric patients at
Brandenburg to acquire hundreds of brain specimens for what was probably the
foremost neuropathological collection in the world. Renamed the Max Planck
Institute for Brain Research (MPIBR), the institute and its neuropathological
collection were relocated from Berlin-Buch to Frankfurt. Hallervorden, who was
actually present at the "euthanasia" killing center in Brandenburg,
had a congenital neurological condition conamed for him: Hallervorden-Spatz
Disease. His laudatory biography is included in a 1990 anthology of the
founders of child neurology.11-13
Reporting on the Role of Universities
The execution chambers of jails throughout the Third Reich were virtual
slaughterhouses, and the remains were delivered to every university institute
of anatomy in Germany (and probably Austria). Many of the victims were Polish
and Russian slave laborers executed for such acts as socializing with German
women.14 In 1942, the Reich Ministry of Justice declared that the
corpses of executed Poles and Jews would (contrary to existing German law)
". . . not be released for burial by the relatives."15
Their destination would be a university anatomical institute.
Thus far only the universities of Tübingen and Vienna have held formal
investigations into anatomical practices at their respective institutions
during the Nazi era. Both universities issued reports that are in the public
In 1988, it was revealed that the Tübingen anatomical institute still had
in its collections the remains of victims of Nazi terror. Despite the
assertions of the then director of the anatomical institute that only two
microscopic slides may have been derived from "possible" victims of
the Nazis,18 inquiries revealed that the Institute of Anatomy had
received the cadavers of over 400 victims. The names of all the foreign
workers executed by the Nazis whose bodies were sent to the anatomy institute
are listed in the records of the institute. All suspect specimens or specimens
of uncertain origin were buried in a special section of the Tübingen cemetery
reserved for the remains of subjects used for the teaching of anatomy. On July
8, 1990, a commemorative ceremony was held.19
The Institute of Anatomy of the University of Vienna was headed by the
noted anatomist -- and Austro-Fascist -- Professor Dr. Eduard Pernkopf.
Pernkopf, who was appointed dean of medicine at the university after the
Anschluss,20-21 was the founding editor of a major text on human
anatomy, a text that is still considered a "masterpiece" and the
"standard by which all other illustrated anatomic works are
measured."22 The book continues to be published under the
imprint of the original publisher, Urban and Schwarzenberg. In the book's
illustrations, artists graphically expressed their Nazi sympathies: The
artists Franz Batke, Eric Lepier and Karl Entresser incorporated Nazi
iconography (swastikas or SS symbols) into their signatures.23-24
More disconcerting are questions concerning the subjects in those paintings.
The age, appearance and crude haircut of one of the subjects raises questions
as to whether the real-life model may have been a prisoner.25-27
The 1964 two-volume English-language edition included original unaltered
signatures, complete with Nazi symbols.28 Current editions of Pernkopf's
Anatomy include paintings from the original editions, but Nazi iconography
has been airbrushed out -- with two exceptions. In March 1995 the Holocaust
Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority of Israel, Yad Vashem, formally
requested that the Universities of Vienna and Innsbruck undertake an
independent inquiry, with outside experts, into the backgrounds of the
subjects in Pernkopf's Anatomy.30-31 The request was made of
the University of Innsbruck because it was believed that many of the original
Pernkopf specimens were still in the university's anatomical institute.32
The initial request from Yad Vashem was denied.33-37 However, in
February 1997, the Rector of the University of Vienna, Professor Alfred
Ebenbauer, formally announced a university commission of investigation;38
a report was issued on October 1, 1998.39 The investigation
revealed that the Institute of Anatomy received almost 1,400 cadavers from the
Gestapo execution chamber in the Vienna Regional Court (Landesgerichte).
While the anatomical institute and its collection were destroyed by a bomb
near the end of the war, the investigation did identify approximately 200
institute specimens from the Nazi era that were still in other universities'
The University of Innsbruck has refused to undertake any investigation.
Following the 1988 revelations that anatomical and pathological specimens
from the Nazi era were still to be found in institutions in West Germany, the
government of Israel made a formal complaint to the West German government on
this matter. In response to the Israeli complaint, inquiries were made through
the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Culture and Education of the Länder.
The initial inquiries focused on institutions in West Germany.40 A
subsequent report covered institutions in East Germany.41 No German
institution at that time, except for the University of Tübingen, conducted a
Since then, there have been two attempts to initiate formal investigations
into the collections of two German universities: the University of Heidelberg
and the Ludwig-Maximillian University of Munich. The University of Heidelberg
was asked to undertake an inquiry into the matter of the Schneider collection
of the brains of murdered children. The Ludwig-Maximillian University of
Munich was asked to conduct an inquiry into allegations that the university's
Institute of Anatomy contained cadavers of circumcised males identified as
"prisoners from wartime." Both institutions demurred.42-44
In addition to the universities, investigations are required of other
scientific institutions, such as the Max Planck Society. While the Max Planck
organization did remove specimens from the Max Planck Institute for Brain
Research in Frankfurt and the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Munich,
no formal investigation of its collections and wartime conduct has ever been
conducted by that organization.
There has been no investigation by Humbolt University or the Berlin Charité
Hospital into the research, or the anatomical collection, of Professor Hermann
Stieve. Stieve's experiments represent some of the worst examples of evil
perpetrated on women in the name of science.
In addition to investigations into prestigious academic and research
institutions, there should be public inquiries into the two medical schools
instituted by the Nazi regime at Strasbourg in Alsace and Pozen in Poland.
Given the designation Reichsuniversität, their goals were to implement
Nazi ideals and policies. The Strasbourg institution was part of the SS
research organization known as the Ahnenerbe.
The anatomy department of Strasbourg's medical school was headed by the
renowned Professor Dr. August Hirt. Hirt, who was the coinventor of the
fluorescent microscope, intended, at Strasbourg, to acquire a "collection
of skulls of all races and peoples." Nazi authorities, cooperating with
Hirt, gassed approximately 86 Jewish prisoners from Poland at the Natzweiler
concentration camp in German-occupied France, and transferred the bodies to
Hirt's institute. After the war, unsuspecting French medical students
dissected some of these remains. Hirt, who was also involved in horrific
experiments with mustard gas and phosgene, committed suicide in 1945.45-46
The dean of the medical department of the Reichsuniversität of
Pozen was the German anatomist Professor Dr. Hermann Voss (1894-1987). Voss
derived great personal satisfaction from the death of Poles who were either
cremated in the oven of his anatomical institute or dissected in his anatomy
lab. Voss used the bodies of the executed prisoners for the preparation of
skeletal remains that he then sold for profit. Voss's institution also
prepared death masks and busts from the bodies of Jews sent from a nearby
concentration camp. These were sold to the Vienna Museum of Natural History,
along with the skulls of Jews and non-Jewish Poles. The specimens were ordered
by Dr. Josef Wastel, the head of the anthropology department of the Vienna
museum. The skulls, masks and busts were displayed in the museum's Race
Gallery. In 1991, most of these items were turned over to the Austrian Jewish
community. The skulls were buried. In 1997, the Vienna Jewish Museum displayed
the masks in an exhibit entitled "Masks: An Attempt About the Shoah."47
The skulls of the non-Jewish Polish victims and the gypsum death busts of
two Jews remain in the collection of the Vienna museum. The museum also
possesses extensive documentation on its specimen collection (including the
account books and inventory), as well as on the role played by the museum in
the Nazi regime's racial programs.
A formal investigation of the Vienna Museum of Natural History is presently
Professor Hermann Voss continued his anatomy career after the war. He had
appointments in Halle (1948-1952), Jena (1952-1962) and subsequently, as
professor emeritus at the Greifswald anatomical institute. Voss also
coauthored a textbook of anatomy, Taschenbuch der Anatomie; it was
probably the most popular anatomical textbook ever published in Germany. The
book appeared in 17 German-language editions, as well as in Spanish and Polish
Over a century ago the universities, museums, clinics and research
institutes of Germany and Austria gave birth to modern medicine and medical
science. These achievements were rooted in the rigorous application of
academic and scientific principles of research, documentation and publication.
Six decades ago many of those institutions participated in some of the
greatest crimes in the history of humanity. These institutions now have a
moral obligation to explore their own past, and to do so by applying the same
scholarly principles they continue to espouse. Moreover, given the current
evidence, investigations into the use of the remains of victims of Nazi terror
must be implemented in those countries and territories that were once
controlled by Nazi Germany. Justice and simple decency demand nothing less.
1 Mitscherlich, A., Mielke F. Doctors of Infamy: The Story of the Nazi
Medical Crimes. Henry Schuman, 1949.
2 Lifton, R.J. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of
Genocide. Basic Books, 1986.
3 Kater, M. Doctors Under Hitler. University of N. Carolina, 1989.
4 Proctor, R. Racial Hygiene. Harvard, 1988.
5 Friedlander, H. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the
Final Solution. U. of N. Carolina, 1995.
6 Müller-Hill, B. Murderous Science: Elimination by Scientific
Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others in Germany, 1933-1945. Cold Spring
Harbor Laboratory Press, 1998.
7 Seidelman, W.E., 1996. "Animal Experiments in Nazi Germany." The
8 Burleigh, M. Death and Deliverance: 'Euthanasia' in Germany 1900-1045.
9 Aly, G. "The Posen Diaries of the Anatomist Hermann Voss," in:
Aly, G., Chroust, P., and Pross, C. (eds.). Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi
Medicine and Racial Hygiene. Johns Hopkins, 1994.
10 Letter from Prof. Friedrich Vogel of Heidelberg to Prof. Jürgen Peiffer
of Tübingen dated Sept. 12, 1997 quoted (with the stated permission of Prof.
Vogel) in a letter from Prof. Peiffer to William Seidelman dated Dec. 3, 1997.
Author's Personal Files.
11 Alexander, L. "Neuropathology and neurophysiology, including
electroencephalography, in wartime Germany." Combined Intelligence
Objectives Sub-Committee G-2 Division SHAEF (rear) APO 413. National Archives.
Washington D.C. Document No. 1-170 cont'd. July 20, 1945.
12 Richardson, E., "Julius Hallervorden," in Ashwal, S. (ed.), The
Founders of Child Neurology. Norman Publishing,: 1990.
13 Shevell, M., "Racial hygiene, active euthanasia, and Julius
Hallervorden." Neurology, 1992:42:2214-2219.
14 Peiffer, J., "Neuropathology in the Third Reich: Memorial to those
Victims of National-Socialist Atrocities in Germany who were Used by Medical
Science." Brain Pathology, 1:125-131 (1991).
15 Evans, R.J. Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany
1600-1987. Oxford, 1996.
16 Berichte, Berichte: der Kommission zur Überprüfung der Präparatesammlungen
in den medizinischen Einrichtungen der Universität Tübingen im Hinblick auf
Opfer des Nationalsozialismus. Herausgegeben vom Präsidenten der
Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen Abdruck - auch auszugweise - nur mit
Genehmigung des Herausgebers. 1990.
17 Senatsprojekt der Universität Wien, Untersuchungen Zur Anatomischen
Wissenschaft in Wien: 1938-1945. Wien, 1998.
18 Letter from Professor Arnold, Der Direktor, Anatomisches Institut,
Universität Tübingen, to William Seidelman. October 5, 1989. Author's
19 See Peiffer (1991).
20 Weissmann, G., They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus: Tales of
Medicine and the Art of Discovery. Times Books: 1987.
21 Ernst, E. "A Leading Medical School Seriously Damaged: Vienna
1938." Ann. Int. Med. 1995:122:789-92.
22 Williams, D.J. "The History of Eduard Pernkopf's Topographische
Anatomie des Menschen." J. Biomed Commun, Spring 1988l 2-12.
23 Pernkopf, E. Topographische Anatomie des Menschen: Lehrbuch und Atlas
der regionär-stratigraphischen Präparation. Urban & Schwarzenberg:
Berlin und Wien: 1943.
- For the signature of Erich Lepier with swastika see:
II Band: Erst Hälfte: Tafel 2 Abb. 13, Tafel 33 Abb.
14, Tafel 14 Abb. 25, Tafel 15, Abb. 26, Tafel
16 Abb. 27, Tafel 17 Abb. 28, Tafel 18, Abb.
29, Tafel 32 Abb. 43, Page 351 Abb. 108, and Tafel 65 Abb.
- For the signature of Karl Entresser with "SS" symbol see:
III Band: Tafel 9 Abb. 14, and Tafel 10 Abb.
24 Pernkopf, E. Topographische Anatomie des Menschen: Lehrbuch und Atlas
der regionär-stratigraphischen Präparation. Urban & Schwarzenberg:
Wien und Innsbruck: 1952.
- For the signature of Franz Bratke with "SS" symbol see:
III Band: Tafel 9 Abb. 14, and Tafel 10 Abb.
25 Pernkopf, E. Topographische Anatomie des Menschen: Lehrbuch und Atlas
der regionär-stratigraphischen Präparation. Urban & Schwarzenberg:
Wien und Inssbruck: 1952. Tafel 44 Abb. 50.
26 Israel H., Seidelman, W. "Nazi Origins of an Anatomy Text: The
Pernkopf Atlas." JAMA 1997 276(20) 1633.
27 Israel, H. "The Nazi Origins of Eduard Pernkopf's Topographische
Anatomie des Menschen: The Biomedical Ethical Issues." The
Reference Librarian 61/62, 1998, 131-146.
28 Pernkopf, E. Atlas of Topographical and Applied Human Anatomy in
2 volumes. Ferner, H., editor. Philadelphia: Saunders, 1964.
29 Platzer, W. (ed.), Pernkopf Anatomy: Atlas of Topographic and Applied
Human Anatomy. Volumes I & II. Urban & Schwarzenberg:
- For the signatures of Karl Entresser with "SS" symbol see
Volume 2: Figure 336, Page 338, Figure 337, Page 339.
30 Letter from Amb. R. Dafni, Vice-Chairman of Yad Vashem to Univ. Prof.
Dr. Alfred Ebenbauer: Rector, University of Vienna. March 23, 1995.
31 Letter from Amb. R. Dafni, Vice-Chairman of Yad Vashem to Univ. Prof.
Dr. Hans Moser: Rector, University of Innsbruck. March 23, 1995.
32 See Williams, D.J. (1988).
33 Prof. W. Platzer. Report to Univ. Prof. Dr. Hans Moser; Rector de
Leopold-Franzens-Universität Innsbruck. Date: April 3, 1995.
34 Prof. Dr. A. Gisel. Report to Univ. Prof. Dr. Ebenbauer; Rector,
University of Vienna. April 26, 1995.
35 Prof. Dr. W. Firbas of the Anatomical Institute of the University of
Vienna. Report to Univ. Prof. Dr. Ebenbauer; Rector, University of Vienna.
March 30, 1995.
36 Dr. K. Muehlberger, Director of the Archives of the University of
Vienna. Report to Univ. Prof. Dr. Ebenbauer; Rector, University of Vienna. May
37 Prof. Dr. med. W. Krause. Report to Univ. Prof. Dr. Ebenbauer; Rector,
University of Vienna. April 13, 1995.
38 Presse-Konferenz der Universität Wien zu den Rechcerchen über den
Anatomieatlas Topographische Anatomie des Menschen von Eduard Pernkopf (1937,
1989) und das dazu eingeleitete Forschungsproject, Untersuchungungen zur
Anatomischen Wissenschaft an der Universität Wien 1938-1945." Vienna,
February 12, 1997.
39 See Senatsprojekt der Universität Wien (1998).
40 Report of the Secretary-General of the Standing Conference of Ministers
of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of
Germany. Bonn, 19, July 1989, and supplemental report of February, 1991
41 Secretariat der Ständigen Konferenz der Kultusminister der Länder in
der Bundesrepublic Deutschlandl IIIA - 4630/2. Abschlussbericht. "Präparate
von Opfern des Nationalsocialismus in anatomischen und pathologischen
Sammlungen deutscher Ausbildungs - under Forschungseinrichtungen. Bonn, den
42 Confidential report to Ambassador Dr. Bartold Witte, Foreign Office,
Federal Republic of Germany from W. Seidelman. April 29, 1991. Author's
43 Correspondence between W. Seidelman, Amb. Bartold Witte (Der Leiter der
Kulturabteilung Auswärtiges Amt, FRG) Dr. Wiprecht von Treskow (successor to
Amb. Witte) and Prof. Dr. Peter Ulmer, Rektor; Ruprecht-Karls Universität
Heidelberg. 1991-1992. Author's Personal Files.
44 Correspondence between W. Seidelman, Amb. Dr. Barthold Witte (Der Leiter
der Kulturalbteilung Auswärtiges Amt, FRG) Dr. Wiprecht von Treskow
(successor to Amb. Witte), Dr. Vincenz C. Frank-Steiner (Basel Switzerland)
and Professor Reinhard Putz (Anatomische Anstalt; Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität
München). 1991-1993. Author's Personal Files.
45 Kasten, F. "Unethical Nazi Medicine in Annexed Alsace-Lorraine: The
Strange Case of Nazi Anatomist Professor Dr. August Hirt" in Kent G.O.
(ed.), Historians and Archivists: Essays in Modern German History and
Archival Policy. George Mason University Press, 1991.
46 Lachman, E. Anatomist of Infamy: August Hirt. Bull. Hist. Med.
51(4) 594-602. 1977.
47 Elon, A. "Death for Sale." The New York Review of Books.
Nov. 22, 1997.
Source: Dimensions: A Journal of Holocaust Studies, Volume 13, Number 1. Copyright Anti-Defamation League
(ADL). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.