The Doctors' Trial

Separate war crimes trials were held for twenty-three SS physicians and scientists from December 1946 to August 1947, this time before a U.S. military tribunal. During these trials, the world learned the true extent of the Nazis' cruelty, with charges ranging from mass “euthanasia” of the mentally and physically unfit during the early years of the Nazi era to heinous medical experiments conducted at Nazi concentration and death camps.

The emphasis was placed on those doctors and scientists who worked for the SS, but physicians who were part of the German medical establishment were also involved. Most prominent among them was Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician and Reich commissioner for health and sanitation. Brandt worked his way into Hitler's inner circle by endorsing and encouraging the Führer's scheme of eugenic murder as a way of cleansing and strengthening the Aryan race. However, the Nazis realized that their work would not sit well with the world at large, and so they worked in secret and spoke in euphemisms. Noted one document introduced into evidence at the trials: “Thirty thousand attended to. Another hundred thousand to one hundred and twenty thousand waiting. Keep the circle of those in the know as small as possible.”

That particular document concerned the Generation Foundation for Welfare and Institutional Care, which carried out Hitler's directive to cleanse the Aryan race by killing everyone with physical or mental defects or carrying an inheritable disease. The program, administered by the Reich Committee for Scientific Research of Hereditary and Severe Constitutional Diseases, required all doctors and midwives to report the birth of all children afflicted with a congenital malformation. An estimated 5,000 mentally or physically disabled children were killed from 1939 to 1944, and a total of 70,000 people are believed to have been killed through the program.

Family members of these “imperfect” individuals were usually told that the victims had died of pneumonia or some disease and that the body had been cremated to prevent the spread of illness.

Mentally handicapped adults were removed from institutions and taken by trucks to killing centers, where they were murdered with poisonous gas. The SS was placed in charge of this duty and carried it out with ruthless efficiency — more than 80,000 people were eliminated over the course of the Nazi racial purification program. Again, next of kin were sent a simple form letter telling them of their loved one's passing. If any explanation was offered, it was a lie.

Medical Experiments on Humans

Over the course of the war, Nazi physicians and scientists performed a host of horrifying medical experiments on death camp and concentration camp prisoners. These men and women were treated worse than guinea pigs and were subjected to excruciatingly painful, degrading, and often deadly procedures, all in the name of “science.” For example, some were placed in a pressure chamber and subjected to extended oxygen deprivation to see the effects of high-altitude flight on aviators. Other prisoners were placed in freezing water for long periods to study hypothermia.

Anton Pacholegg was a prisoner at Dachau who worked as a clerk at the experimental station where other prisoners were tortured in the name of Nazi science. He offered the following testimony during the war crimes trials:

The Luftwaffe delivered a cabinet constructed of wood and metal measuring one meter square and two meters high. It was possible in this cabinet to either decrease or increase the air pressure. . . . Some experiments gave men such pressure in their heads that they would go mad and pull out their hair in an effort to relieve the pressure. . . . They would tear their heads and face with their fingers and nails. They would beat the walls with their hands and head and scream. These cases generally ended in the death of the subject.

After a group had been killed, the skin from their bodies would be removed from their thighs and buttocks. Rascher (the head scientist) would pass on them before they were tanned. I saw the finished leather later made into a handbag that Mrs. Rascher was carrying. Most of it was for driving gloves for the SS officers of the camp.

Four of the defendants at the Doctors' Trial were acquitted, and seven were sentenced to death. Among the condemned was Karl Brandt, who was hanged in June 1948. Dr. Karl Clauberg, who performed some of the most notorious and repulsive medical experiments in Experimental Block 10 at Auschwitz, died in 1955 before standing trial; he had been held by the Soviets in the years immediately after the war. Clauberg was a monster who killed countless women while trying to develop a new high-speed form of sterilization. Most of his experiments involved injecting caustic chemicals into the uteri of his subjects; the lucky ones died.

The Angel of Death

Most infamous of the Nazi doctors was Josef Mengele, who became known among the inmates of Auschwitz as the Angel of Death. Mengele held a doctorate in both medicine and anthropology and was assigned to Auschwitz in May 1943 after being wounded on the eastern front, where he was a medical officer.

The Japanese also conducted heinous medical experiments, many of them on prisoners of war. Some of the most horrifying involved injecting patients with bacterial agents and observing how they suffered.

Mengele was a vicious anti-Semite who saw the Jews as little more than lab animals. In one notorious incident, a mother refused to be separated from her teenage daughter and attacked the SS guard who was trying to keep them apart. Enraged, Mengele pulled out his revolver and shot both mother and daughter on the spot, then ordered the other men and women he had culled for experimentation to be executed immediately.

Figure 16-2 Josef Mengele, “The Angel of Death.”

Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Stringer

Mengele was particularly intrigued by twins and saved them for special experiments to determine if twins really had any kind of special physical or mental bond. In one incident, he ordered twin boys killed just so he could perform autopsies to settle a disagreement he had with another SS physician.

Knowing he faced certain death if captured by Allied forces, Mengele left Auschwitz shortly before it was liberated. He lived in West Germany for several years, then escaped to South America, where he was protected by Nazi sympathizers. Over the years, the legend of Josef Mengele grew, and “Mengele sightings,” most of them bogus, became commonplace.

Despite the efforts of Israel's best Nazi hunters, Mengele remained free. He is believed to have moved from Paraguay to Brazil in 1960 and drowned while swimming at a beach in 1979. His death was controversial, but a team of pathologists who examined his remains were able to confirm his identity.

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