Was Nazi science good science?

I’ve long had an interest in World War II history. Ever since I was around 11 or 12 years old, a major portion of my reading diet has consisted of books and articles about World War II. Back when I was young, my interest was, as you might expect, primarily the battles. The military history of World War II fascinated me, and I build many, many models of World War II fighter aircraft and warships when I was in my early teens. (No cracks about how the airplane glue obviously affected me, although it is true that back then it was real airplane glue, chock full of toluene and lots of other organic chemicals–none of this citrus-scented stuff they sell now!) As I became older, I started to become interested more in the history of Nazi Germany and how a man like Hitler could become absolute ruler of what everyone would have considered a civilized and ancient European nation and drive it into barbarism, ultimately destroying it. I also started getting into the politics of the war, and as I did so I learned that things weren’t as simple as we had been taught in school. Whether that was due to a growing maturity, knowledge, or both, I don’t know.

More recently, I’ve become interested in Nazi science and medicine. Everyone knows about the abominations that Nazis carried out in the name of their racist and Aryan supremacist beliefs, the use of Jews and prisoners as human guinea pigs for horrific experiments, for instance; the use of pelvic radiation to try to sterilize Jews quickly, with the resultant predictable complications of bowel obstructions and fistulae; the killing of prisoners with direct injections of phenol into the heart; the experiments on twins by Dr. Josef Mengele; and the depressurization experiments using human subjects, to name a few. We all know that the experiments were brutal and cruel, but were they good science, or even science at all?

Historian Richard Evans argues that they were science:

We all have an image in our minds of the role of scientists in Nazi Germany: sinister, lab-coated figures who spent half their time conducting gruesome – and largely pointless – experiments on concentration‑camp inmates to gratify their own cruel impulses, and the other half devising futuristic weapons of mass destruction for Hitler to hurl at the advancing Allies in a last attempt to stave off defeat.

Yet once you dig a little deeper, what is so disturbing is how prosaic the reality was, how similar in form, if not content, their work was to the research of today. As I discovered when researching a history of the Nazis at war, much of what scientists did under the Third Reich was regarded as “normal science”, subject to standard protocols of peer review in conferences and journals. The infamous Dr Josef Mengele regarded himself as a normal scientist, held seminars to discuss his experiments, got research funds from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, and reported regularly to his teacher, the eminent scientist Otmar von Verschuer, on his progress.

Richard Evans is one of my favorite historians of Nazi Germany. Indeed, his recent three volume history of the Nazi regime is probably the definitive history of Nazi Germany for this generation, just as Ian Kershaw’s two volume biography of Hitler is likely to be definitive for many years. I’ve read the first two volumes, but third volume unfortunately has not been released in the U.S. yet, although it is available in the U.K. He’s also written an excellent book, Lying About Hitler, that chronicles the libel trial David Irving brought against Deborah Lipstadt for referring to him as a Holocaust denier in one of her books.

However, as a scientist myself, I’m not sure why Evans would be so surprised at what he found, unless he bought into the stereotypes, too. However, as a historian he should know better. Before Hitler came to power, Germany was very strong in the sciences, having produced world-renowned scientists, especially in physics and chemistry. German medicine was similarly excellent. Consequently, there was a strong scientific tradition there, and an equally strong scientific establishment. That didn’t fall apart right away under Hitler. Indeed, if you read histories of Nazi Germany, what will amaze you is that the changes weren’t immediately apparent. Seemingly “normal” life went on for quite some time. Moreover, because there had been years of political violence between Communists and fascists before Hitler was made Chancellor to some it seemed that the new Nazi regime was an improvement over the chaos before. Although some changes were immediate (Swastikas everywhere, propaganda on the radio, the opening of Dachau, etc.), major changes that everyone noticed took months and years. Indeed, there were even Jews living in Germany right up to the end of the war, Victor Klemperor, for instance, who witnessed the Dresden bombing. Indeed, science went on intitially too.

Then, as Hitler’s hold tightened, academia came under his thumb. This control first took the form of a purge of Jewish scientists and faculty from the universities; later it involved the placement of committed Nazis in positions of authority. The effects were widespread and insidious. Many of the scientists who carried out atrocities in the name of their experiments during the war were trained in universities made ideologically pure in the 1930s. What was also not generally appreciated is that Nazi-ism was very attractive to physicians and scientists. Indeed, physicians found Nazi-ism particularly attractive, with its explicit appeal to make them the physicians for the volk rather than just individuals. Indeed, a frequent statement made by Nazi leaders is that Nazi-ism is “applied biology” designed to protect the health of the Aryan race. Consequently, it was easy for physicians and scientists to slip right back to seemingly normal endeavors and, as the war progressed, it became even easier for them to consider what they were doing science, as Dr. Mengele did:

Mengele’s research at Auschwitz, in particular, shows how the system worked. His experiments there were intended to be a contribution to his second doctorate, the Habilitation, which all German academics needed to qualify for a university professorship. Under Verschuer’s guidance, he selected twins from the trainloads of Jews who arrived and injected them with chemicals to see if they reacted differently from one another. He collected prisoners with physical abnormalities, such as heterochromia – having a different colour in each eye – to investigate if their condition was hereditary. He treated gipsy and other children for starvation-related diseases, using vitamins and sulphonamides, to see if there were hereditary differences in their response to the therapy.

Mengele’s work was pure research, without any obvious practical application. He gained his notoriety from his willingness to kill his subjects under certain circumstances – such as settling an argument about a diagnosis by executing patients and performing an autopsy. However, most survivors remembered him not for his experiments but for his ruthless and brutal behaviour on the selection ramp, or in the camp hospital, where he frequently consigned sick inmates to the gas chamber on the slightest of whims.

But was it science?

The answer is complicated. In some cases, it’s yes, even in experiments that inflicted atrocities. In other cases, it was clearly pseudoscience. However, some of Dr. Mengele’s would studied hypotheses that would not be so far removed from hypotheses studied today: For instance, what is the genetic contribution to response to therapy? However, the studies were carried out without any shred of ethics or humanity. The subjects, although human, were considered no better than experimental animals, to be used as the Nazis saw fit. This dehumanization was, not surprisingly, fed by the increasing brutality of both the war and the Holocaust. Indeed, many of the most brutal studies were conceived to study questions relevant to the war effort:

In a variety of camps, SS doctors used inmates to test treatments for injuries sustained in battle, cutting open their calves and sewing bits of glass or wood or gauze impregnated with bacteria into the wounds, sometimes even smashing the prisoners’ bones with hammers to create a more realistic effect; again, the results were presented to scientific conferences without anyone offering any criticism of the methods employed.

The reason no criticisms were offered was because the prisoners were viewed as no different than experimental animals. Of course, these days, we would not subject even experimental animals to such injuries without providing them analgesia. In any case, examined from a strictly scientific standpoint, if proper controls were used and experimental methods adhered to, even studies like the ones above could be considered “good” science. The reason is that science is amoral. It is a method, a tool, to discover answers about reality and to try to understand how nature works. As such it has no morality one way or the other. As a method or tool, it can be used for good or ill. The same scientific method whose fruits have produced antibiotics and vaccines; cured childhood leukemia; increased our lifespan enormously in the last 100 years; allowed us to launch space probes; and given us television, computers, and MP3 players has also been used to make ever more powerful weapons, including the nuclear bomb. How could it have come about in Germany that it was viewed as morally acceptable to use humans as experimental animals in horrific experiments, with no concern at all for their welfare? Ideological indoctrination:

How can we explain such obvious violations of basic medical ethics? How, indeed, did the doctors justify such work? The answer springs from the fact that medicine was both dominant in the world of science under the Third Reich, and closely allied to the Nazi project. By 1939, almost half of all students at German universities were studying medicine; the others were spread across the whole range of other subjects. The Nazis poured resources into medicine, increasing doctors’ pay, setting up new health care facilities for “Aryan” citizens, creating large numbers of new jobs in the rapidly expanding armed forces and opening new institutes for “racial hygiene” at many universities. By 1939, around two thirds of all German doctors had some connection or other with the Nazi Party.

Which encouraged:

What underpinned this behaviour was a widespread belief that some people were less than human, relegated to a lower plane of existence by their inherited degeneracy – or their race. For German doctors, a camp inmate was either a racially inferior subhuman, a vicious criminal, a traitor to the German cause, or more than one of the above. Such beings had no right to life or wellbeing – indeed, it was logical that they should be sacrificed in the interests of the survival and triumph of the German race, just as that race had to be strengthened by the elimination of the inferior, degenerate elements within it. After all, German medical science had uncovered the causes of several major diseases and contributed massively to improving the health of the population over the previous decades. Surely, therefore, it was justified in eliminating negative influences as well?

Professor Evans is talking about racial hygiene, which was closely aligned with eugenics, in which races were characterized as inferior and superior based on traits that scientists came to think of as indicating inferiority or superiority. Indeed, racial hygiene was very popular in Germany and many other European countries beginning decades before Hitler assumed power. Indeed, German eugenicist Alfred Ploetz first coined the phrase in 1895 to describe what is in essence race-based eugenics. Not surprisingly, the Nazis found racial hygiene to be very appealing and grafted it onto their ideology. These days, it is obvious that racial hygiene is pseudoscience, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was considered a perfectly reputable science, and indeed many universities had academic departments devoted to it, not just in Germany. Against this backdrop, with their nation engaged in total war and steeped in propaganda and ideology that proclaimed the Jews to be a “cancer” or an “infection” threatening the health of the volk, physicians and scientists really did come to believe that the enemies of the Nazi state were subhuman.

Oddly enough, despite their adherence to the dubious science of racial hygiene, Nazi medicine and science did produce some rather amazing advances. Indeed German physicists and engineers developed what was in essence the first Cruise missile (the V-1) and the precursor to the intercontinental missile (the V-2). German medical scientists identified the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer more than two decades before the Surgeon General’s warning and undertook public health programs to help people quit smoking. Indeed, in his book, The Nazi War On Cancer, Robert Proctor describes, well, a Nazi War On Cancer in which many of the public health measures taken were both progressive even by today’s standards and decades ahead of their time. (Indeed, I keep meaning to do a post on this topic, and I keep somehow never getting around to it.) At the same time, the Nazi regime, while producing advances in scientific medicine, also was enamored of “alternative” medicine such as naturopathy, which in which they glorified German folk medicine as being more “natural.” (Another topic for a post that I’ve been meaning to do for a long time.) Still, it is a mistake to conclude that science suffered under the Nazis. In many ways it thrived, at least the areas of interest to the regime, including medicine and any physical science related to weapons.

So was Nazi science good science? Yes, some of it was. Was it bad science? Also yes, quite a bit of it was. Was it pseudoscience? Yes again, a lot of it was. It may not be bad science to take two groups of people, carefully match them and inject them with a deadly microbe, and then to test whether a new drug or treatment can save people compared to a no treatment control, but it’s profoundly immoral science. Indeed, science under the Nazis was a paradox. A regime that could figure out the link between smoking and lung cancer long before anyone else also viewed its enemies as subhuman and perpetrated the most horrific atrocities on them in the name of science. That they could do this is, again, because science is completely amoral. However, contrary to what the enemies of science, such as Ben Stein, say, science does not inevitably lead to killing people. That’s because it’s the people who do science who can be good or evil, who can use science for good or evil. There’s nothing about science that makes its use for evil inevitable. That failing, unfortunately, lies within us. It is we who choose whether science serves good or evil by how we choose to use it.