Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

The Holocaust as a Moral Choice
Part XII

By Alex Grobman


“Losing their Moral Bearings” 

Another group of perpetrators consisted of professionals and experts, who were not involved in politics. This included physicians. “Why did some[doctors] know how to bring honor to humankind, while others renounced humankind with hatred”? asked Elie Wiesel.[1] Half of the German physicians were members of the Nazi Party, and 26 percent were stormtroopers with more than seven percent in the SS—a much higher percentage than those in any other academic profession, according to historian Michael H. Kater.[2]  

“Licensed Killer and Public Employed Torturer” 

After the Nazis seized power in 1933, the Germans had the opportunity to finally implement the theory of racial hygiene. The quest for “truth in medicine turned into destruction when medicine abandoned both the Hippocratic nil nocere [“first, do no harm”] and its true purpose of healing the sick individual….” German physicians exploited the chance to use the huge amount of accessible “human guinea pigs” branded as subhuman and inferior for their own scientific research.[3]  

Christian Pross, a German medical director, said that for decades the German medical profession, the 90,000 medical doctors in Greater Germany, sought to deny their involvement in medical crimes, through “a system of silence, lies, half-truths, excuses, angry denials,” by claiming that only “350 black sheep” were involved. Among those directly or indirectly implicated  were “the cream of German medicine—university professors and outstanding scientists and researchers.”[4]  

Richard Toellner, a medical historian at the University of Munster, stated, that “the whole spectrum of normal representatives of the medical profession was involved and they all knew what they were doing …. A medical profession, which accepts mass murder of sick people as normal, and to a large degree explicitly approves of it as a necessary, justified act for the sake of the community, has failed and betrayed its mission. Such a medical profession as a whole has become morally guilty, no matter how many members of the profession directly or indirectly participated in the killing of sick people in a legal sense.”[5]  

The “dehumanization inherent in Nazi medicine was wilful,” [sic] asserted Holocaust survivor Ezra BenGershôm, who headed the Clinical Chemistry Division of the Academic Children’s Hospital in Rotterdam. By design, it stripped individuals of their “personhood and reduced them to simple objects—or even worse: to demons in human guise—subjected to the power of the physician.” Nazi medicine played a fundamental role in implementing the “racial policy of a powerful, modern state and it enjoyed approval by wide parts of the whole nation.”[6]  

Jewish Physicians 

During the last few decades prior to World War I, Jewish doctors in the Wilhelmine Empire (between 1890 and 1918), were despised by their non-Jewish colleagues for their “earning power, their medical skills and their successes in treating patients,” according to Michael Kater. In addition to financial envy, they were blamed for the glut of physicians. In keeping with the anti-Semitism that pervaded Germany, Jewish doctors were fiercely attacked for poisoning the blood of Gentiles through “an infusion of their own,” and “predation against non-Jewish female patients.”[7]  

Abuses Exposed 

Christian Pross, a German medical director, lamented that the disclosures about the medical abuses occurred only in May 1980, many years after most of the physicians had either retired or died. Justice for the victims and punishment of the murderers was no longer possible.[8] From January 1940 to August 1941, approximately 80,000 patients from Austrian and German psychiatric institutions in the killing centers were murdered according to historian Henry Friedlander.[9]  

German Doctors at Killing Centers 

German doctors were at the killing centers on Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibór, and Treblinka. At Birkenau, doctors “were responsible for separating men and women who were still able to work from those consigned to the gas chambers….Their unethical anthropological and medical research was only a private sideline.”[10]  

Consent to Murder 

Götz Aly believes the willingness of many families to consent to the murder of their closest relatives without dissent, [in the Euthanasia Program] and “even with approval…created the psychological conditions for the genocidal policies carried out in the years to come.” After all, “If people did not protest even when their own relatives were murdered, they could hardly be expected to object to the murder of Jews, Gypsies (Roma), Russians and Poles.”[11]  

“A Paralysis of Conscience” 

Elie Weisel noted that none of the physicians performed under duress—”neither those who presided over the nocturnal division of new arrivals, nor those who killed the prisoners in their laboratories. They could have slipped away,” or refused to become involved. Until the bitter end, they viewed themselves as public servants as “patriots, devoted researchers….Maybe even societal benefactors. Martyrs.”[12]  

With rare exceptions, he said, they calmly went back to their homes and resumed their medical practices and their ordinary daily lives. They were not disturbed or menaced by anyone.[13] They were even protected by colleagues who concealed their criminal activity with false medical diagnoses so they could evade going to trial, while they were reluctant to concede the severe illness of Nazi victims, for whom they were required to provide expert testimony in compensation trials.[14] 

They were even able to obtain respected academic and clinical positions in postwar Germany and abroad, including the U.S. After 1945, German medical schools were using medical articles and handbooks based on criminal research.[15] 

Kurt Ploetner, an SS doctor at Dachau, was recruited by the CIA because his experiments provided them with important information from their “mind control experiments with cannabis, mescalin, and LSD in the fifties and sixties.” At the same time, former Gestapo and SS intelligence officers became experts for American and British intelligence operations in the East.[16]  

“Am I naïve in believing that medicine is still a noble profession upholding the highest ethical principles?” Wiesel asked. “For the ill, doctors still stand for life. And for us all hope.”[17]  

This group of professionals and experts later increased to incorporate engineers, architects, social scientists,[18] economists, lawyers, theologians,[19] accountants, and an assorted group of academics including historians.[20]   


[1] Forward by Elie Wiesel in Vivian Spitz, Doctors From Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans ‎(Bolder Colorado: Sentient Publications, 2005), xxii. 

[2] Götz Aly, Peter Chroust, and Christian Pross, Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), x. 

[3] Ibid., 2. 

[4] Ibid., 5; E. BenGershôm, “From Haeckel to Hackethal lessons from Nazi Medicine for students and practitioners of Medicine,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies Volume 5 Number 1 (1990): 75. 

[5] Christian Pross, “Breaking through the postwar coverup of Nazi doctors in Germany,” Journal of Medical Ethics, (1991): 15. 

[6] E. BenGershôm, op. cit., 77. 

[7] Aly, op. cit., x. 

[8] Pross ,op. cit., 15. 

[9] Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 151. 

[10] Ibid., 301. 

[11] Aly, op. cit., 93. 

[12] Forward by Elie Wiesel, op. cit., xx. 

[13] Ibid., xx-xxi. 

[14] Pross, op. cit., 14. 

[15] E. BenGershôm, op. cit., 75. 

[16] Pross. op .cit., 13; Gerald Steinacher, Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Michael H. Kater, Doctors Under Hitler  (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Alex Grobman Ph.D. “Assassins in White Coats,” The Jewish Press (June 26, 2022); Daan de Leeuw, “In the Name of Humanity”: Nazi Doctors and Human Experiments in German Concentration Camps,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 34, Issue 2, (Fall 2020): 225–252; Omar S. Haque, Julian De Freitas, Ivana Viani, Bradley Niederschulte, Harold J. Bursztajn, “Why did so many German doctors join the Nazi Party early?” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry Volume 35 (2012) 473–479; Robert N. Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988); George J. Annas and Michael A. Grodin Eds., The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation (New York: Oxford University Press,1992); Miklos Nyiszli, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account (New York: Arcade, 1993); Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books,1986).  

[17] Forward by Elie Wiesel, op. cit., xxii. 

[18] Götz Aly and Susanne Heim, Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003). 

[19] Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008). 

[20]  Christopher R. Browning, “Revisiting the Holocaust Perpetrators. Why Did They Kill?” The Raul Hilberg Memorial Lecture University of Vermont (October 17, 2011); Max Weinreich, Hitler’s Professors: The Part of Scholarship in Germany’s Crimes Against the Jewish People (New York: Yiddish Scientific Institute-YIVO, 19460; Benno Müller-Hill, Murderous Science: Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others, Germany 1933-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). 

Source: Courtesy of Alex Grobman.

Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and Ph.D. in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.