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The Holocaust: 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
  1. Introduction - Medical Professions and Nazism's Programs
  2. Doctors and Medical Atrocities
  3. Reporting on the Role of Universities
  4. Conclusion

Introduction - Medical Professions and Nazism's Programs

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 Planck) Society.

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.

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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 Hospital.

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

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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 domain.16-17

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' collections.

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 formal self-examination.

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 under consideration.

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 editions.

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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 Lancet 1:1214.

8 Burleigh, M. Death and Deliverance: 'Euthanasia' in Germany 1900-1045. Cambridge, 1994.

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 Personal Files.

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. 4.

- For the signature of Karl Entresser with "SS" symbol see:

III Band: Tafel 9 Abb. 14, and Tafel 10 Abb. 15.

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. 15.

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: Baltimore-Munich; 1989.

- 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 18, 1995.

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 (English translation).

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 25.01.1994.

42 Confidential report to Ambassador Dr. Bartold Witte, Foreign Office, Federal Republic of Germany from W. Seidelman. April 29, 1991. Author's Personal Files.

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. 

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Source: Dimensions: A Journal of Holocaust Studies, Volume 13, Number 1. Copyright Anti-Defamation League (ADL). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.