The Holocaust has been regarded as one of the most horrific mass murders of the 20th century. Unfathomable atrocities were committed against humanity in the name of science. The medical experimentations used against victims of the Nazi Regime have been documented as violations of basic human rights. Much of the documented research committed against marginalized communities under Nazi control resulted in the mutilation or death of the subjects. The use of science against individuals that were demonized by Nazi propaganda tactics warranted criminal persecution and international reform. This site will uncover the scientific foundation for the execution of human experimentation during the Holocaust, an examination of the ethical questions surrounding scientific research committed under these circumstances, and the cultural shift of medical practice guidelines that resulted from the fall of the Nazi Party.
The psychology involved in the development of individuals that were willing to authorize the mass murder of millions of civilians developed from political, cultural, economic, and scientific developments throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Scientifically, the publication of Charles Darwin’s 1859 thesis, The Origin of Species, is considered the basis for the systemic racism associated with the Holocaust. Within this text, Darwin concisely proved that the lineage of animals over time stemmed from a common ancestor and developed a concept of gene heredity. This scientific conclusion coincided with periods of industrialization and imperialism for European countries and the United States. From this crossover, a multiplicity of idealogical systems were born in the collective Social Darwinist movement. The most influential ideologies for Nazi Germany normalized and even endorsed racist notions of supremacy through scientific evaluation. Herbert Spencer published a paper of significance in 1873 connecting Darwin ideas of biological evolution to human society and “the survival of the fittest”. Karl Person (1901) and Benjamin Kidd (1902) extrapolated a European prerogative from Spencer to colonize races that were deemed inferior by Western culture . These ideologies became widely accepted in both Europe and America and fueled the hierarchical stratification of race and genetic disposition.
Between 1933-1939, German mass propaganda during the early portion of the Nazi regime blamed the loss of the prior World War and the current socio-economic turmoil to lower races, primarily the Jewish population. This resulted in extreme cultural discrimination, eventually culminating in an official mandate to the medical community lead by Dr. Karl Brandt to survey and enlist millions into programs of euthanasia. This program, initially described as sterilization, developed into mass euthanasia through the T4 Program in 1939. After initially using pseudo-medical procedures, such as lethal injection and electrocution to exterminate individuals, the medical community moved toward asphyxiation tactics with either engine exhaust or carbon monoxide . The gas chamber facilities developed for the T4 program in Hartheim, Sonnenstein, Grafeneck, Bernburg, Hadamar, and Brandenburg would become models for those implemented in concentration camps, hosting the mass murder of millions. The T4 Program was officially terminated in 1941 after the legal execution of over 70,000 individuals .
Over the course of the Nazi regime, twenty-two concentration camps would be erected with six operating specifically for the purpose of large scale extermination . Design features meant to psychologically dismantle inmates include narrow corridors and constant congregation which served to gather prisoners in compromising conditions which could be easily overwatched. Also, the narrow corridors made order acutely difficult to establish. This design feature allowed for the dissolution of inmates personal prerogative. Within the camps rigidly divided areas, the placement of taboo solitary camps within larger camps served to isolate and inspire fear within the inmate population. The lack of knowledge for inmates when traveling between corridors lead to doubt and paranoia, which dissolved inmates ability to resist and reason. In the words of psychoanalyst Raffaele Mantegazza these camps, “destroy space as a domain for acting and living”. For Wolfgang Softsfy, a psychoanalyst and Holocaust investigator, “The absolute power transforms natural spaces into a space of social coercion, barricading all exits, marking out the area for control” .
Within these spaces, gruesome experimentation and torture was permitted and conducted by medical professionals, researchers, and soldiers. These experiments included inquiry into viral diseases, exposure to harmful settings, and testing the limits of the human body. Alfred Pasternak, M.D., an expert on Nazi experimentation, categorized the experiments by three main distinctions: either addressing a problem for the military, proving Aryan superiority, or addressing the curiosities of powerful individuals. A sample of procedures prescribed to inmates includes infection by incision, contagious lice, or in vivo injection of infected blood, exposure to explosion, removal of oxygen, and clinical starvation. Witnessing German commanders agree that test subjects were often not considered human, but merely referred to as objects of significant scientific value. These experiments commonly ended in the complete purging of all participants and involved tens of thousands of inmates . The research and conclusions gleaned from these experiments are widely considered unethical and its use in further research is still an ongoing debate.
These spaces of absolute control and massacre affected major psychological trauma in those who experienced them. Holocaust survivors are some of the most psychologically analyzed individuals in the world with over five hundred published studies and many more articles and personal testimonies. In an attempt to summarize the knowledge gained from the study of these individuals, Ira Brannor developed the “three elements of massive mental trauma in Holocaust survivors.” This collection culminated the knowledge gained from over 1000 interviews and 40 years of research. The first element is catanoid reaction; the psychological process of being consumed by a robot-like state where one is consumed by a psychological death prior to actual death. People who experience a catanoid reaction are characterized by desensitization and identification with the dead. The next element is stimulus barrier which results from the over stimulus of major emotional trauma manifesting itself in the dissociation of senses including sight, hearing, touch, and taste. This element is commonly clinically diagnosed as dissociative identity disorder, as those who are afflicted will not actively repress their sense but will simply not be aware of its presence. The final element associated with massive mental trauma is disturbed memory which is manifested in four major ways: a fixation on the past, consistent shift of belief and disbelief in occurrence of events, split identify, and the splitting of self between victim and perpetrator. Furthermore, the coping mechanisms utilized by Holocaust survivors illustrated the themes of manic defense and omnipotent fantasy. These mechanisms result in dreams survivors have where they defeat particular oppressor figures or the active denial of events . The trauma displayed by both victims and survivors of the Nazi Party’s experimentation tactics initiated an analysis of the ethical repercussions that they enlisted upon humanity.
When considering the immense repercussions of the Holocaust and the Nazi’s reign of terror, it impossible not to wonder about the ethical questions that arise surrounding Hitler’s dictatorship and the ever-relevant modern consequences. The millions of hostages that were held in concentration camps and many of those lives that were lost has called for an extensive review Hitler’s unethical methodology. Many scholars believe that modern ethics are greatly impacted by historical tragedies such as the Holocaust, which is due to how morals were substantially challenged during this time period. However, to realize the changes of ethics that resulted from the Holocaust, it is necessary to first look at the challenges that occurred throughout Hitler’s time as dictator.
The ethical effects of the Holocaust are critically around the bioethics associated with the medical experimentation on human subjects that took place at concentration camps during Nazi Germany. While they were conducted 74 years ago, these experiments are still incredibly relevant to debates surrounding biomedical ethics today, especially regarding the use of data from these experiments as well as other unethically operated experiments. During the Nazi regime, there were at least seventy medical research projects involving cruel and often lethal methods of experimentation that were conducted on the prisoners of various concentration camps . Some of the most recognizable were Mengele’s experiment on twins, freezing experiments, malaria experiments at Daschau and Auschwitz, mustard gas experiments and experiments involving poison and phosphorus burn experiments that took place at Buchenwald . This is just a small sampling of the many virulent research experiments taking place in concentration camps all over Nazi Germany. Many of the experiments focused on protecting the health of military personnel while some focused on breeding a superior race . The Nazi’s mindset during these experiments were of total utilitarian moral principles therefore rejecting the need for the informed consent of the subjects and viewing them as less than human for the good of the regime.
During the beginning of the twentieth century, women throughout Europe and North America demanded voting rights which further highlighted the hot topic still debated of gender inequality. The Holocaust was no exception as to the degradation of women as a whole and their roles within society. For example, Hitler’s Germany instituted sterilization as an accepted practice. Sterilization policies were driven by eugenics and the desire to improve the population by bettering the German gene pool. However, it was women who most affected by Hitler’s Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring. These treatments forced women to remain in hospitals for a week from the process of getting their fallopian tubes tied. Nazi leadership saw women’s stays in the hospital as a waste of valuable time and resources, resulting in an even larger ethical dilemma. Rather than surgery, women were now injected with super-cooled carbon dioxide which lead to a scarification of their fallopian tubes. Not only did these experiments raise ethical questions surrounding the rights of the women being sterilized, but also to the elimination of the rights of potential offspring that could have been born without these methods .
The review of these experiments raised questions to consider in the ethical debate surrounding unethically obtained data. What qualifies an experiment as ethical? Should we separate data from the way it is obtained? Or does the unethical method of retrieval make the use of the gathered results unethical within itself. The findings from these experiments were not kept secret and in fact published frequently in scientific publications, giving the public and medical professions of the future access to an abundance of data found from human experimentation . A main component of an ethical study is the consent of the participants. As these human subjects were prisoners of the Nazi regime they did not have the opportunity to grant or withdraw their consent to participate. Concern of using the Nazi collected data is voiced throughout the science world as scientists are worried the complainant use of such unethically obtained data without guidelines will open the door to future scientific abuses such as these experiments. A conference held in 1989 attempted to create these guidelines. The result was inconclusive and ended with some scientists believing this data should be taboo and others believing not using this data that could potentially help advance science would be just as unethical . This issue was not only debated by scholars but by people affected by these atrocities such as the victims of these experiments. A survivor of the Mengele twin experiments, Eva Kor, wrote that the data should be given back the victims and not used for scientific advancement as “a lesson to the world that human dignity and human life are more important than any advance in science or medicine” .
In addition to the ethical complications surrounding the medical experiments practiced during the Holocaust, there are still resounding influences on morals today within the families and communities affected by Hitler’s reign as dictator. One man reflecting on his father’s participation in Hitler’s army confesses, “As a child, one tends to see the parents in a positive light. It is the drive for self-preservation. And then to find out that this person had some really terrible convictions, expressed some terrible views, and held onto them… how can one grasp it? How can you take him for a father?” . This man’s words highlight that not only were the people who suffered through the concentration camps forever affected, but also the families of those who helped the horrific events during the Holocaust take place. Although thinking about tragic events such as Hitler’s Holocaust raises existential questions, it is essential to learn from the past in order to make the future a more hospitable place for successive generations. As more time passes, personal attachment to these events has faded and the reality of the era becomes harder and harder to present without distorting facts . For example, many of the survivors and their families became desensitized to the torture they endured and are unable to accurately recall everything that occured. As a result, the criminal proceedings following the end of World War II depended on publicized documentation of medical experimentation committed by the Nazi Party.
The Holocaust affected the culture surrounding Hippocratic practice and teachings within research experimentation. The horrific crimes committed by the Nazi Party against marginalized communities of Western Europe called for a swift revision of experimentation practices. The true horror of these crimes is the subjugation of individuals to subhuman treatment. Once the Nazi Party was taken over by Allied Forces, these crimes were prosecuted within international court jurisdiction.
Experimentation against Jewish and other persecuted societal groups was well documented under the leaders of the Third Reich. These experiments were used for testing in the name of winning World War II for the German forces. The victims of these war crimes were tested in conditions of hypothermia, altitude sickness, the viability of seawater as drinking water, and other extreme conditions.
In addition, doctors and nurses of the Nazi Party were condemned for their participation in harmful experiments against physically and mentally handicapped prisoners. Trials against these individuals were documented under the Doctor’s Trial of 1947.
These were the first trials conducted under the American military indictment of the Nazi Party’s War Crimes. The prosecution of wrongful experimentation procedures created a need for international guidelines towards further humane research. This led to the requirement of informed consent within research studies and experiment trials. In addition, there was controversy surrounding the use of data collected by German doctors during the Holocaust . Consequently, the Nuremberg Code was created to serve as a foundation for the advancement of scientific research.
The Nuremberg Trials of 1947 introduced the Nuremberg Code . This code of conduct was written by the winners of World War II, the Allied Forces, in order to protect against further misconduct within research practices. The main purpose of this code of conduct was to instill the value of informed consent . Informed consent is predicated upon the adherence to patient education of the research they are participating in and the harmful effects that could result from their participation within a study. The nature of these trials implemented a new standard and culture surrounding research treatment on a global scale.
This code symbolized a change in power structure amongst the intersection of global and scientific fields. American officials took control of international regulation of human experimentation, illustrating a shift in the culture of scientific research. The integration of global politics and human research exemplified a new sphere for the domination of American culture. Furthermore, the world used the Nuremberg Code to solidify a new frontier for research that enhanced cooperation amongst nations. This code of ethical research has had profound effects on the guidelines used for the International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research Involving Human Subjects . While it was never adapted into any national law, the Nuremberg Code serves as the foundation of ethical requirements for the funding and publication of research projects of the last 70 years .
The analysis of the scientific, ethical, and cultural ramifications of the human experiments conducted during the Holocaust forces humanity to examine the true impacts of the subhuman treatment of individuals in the pursuit of scientific discovery. Through the use of psychological strategy, the Nazi Party was able to rationalize these acts of evil and we are now forced to evaluate the detrimental capacity of human nature. The lack of ethics used in the torture of marginalized groups in the name of science has allowed for the revaluation of basic guidelines for further scientific research. The publication of these unethical experiments has called into question the validity of their publication and review. An examination of the cultural implications of international code of ethics concerning scientific research has revealed the underlying effect of global politics within medical research.
Mass Murders and Murderers, Pod 3: Madison Bencini, Alex Kopp, Kristen Lennon, and Kyndal Robbins
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