Judgement at Nuremberg: The Medical Trial

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Paul Weindling is an expert on medicine in Nazi Germany and is author of Health, Race and German Politics, Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe, and Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials.

According to Weindling, there were four main phases in the atrocities performed during Nazi Germany. The first phase (1939-41) is called the neurological which was linked to the euthanasia program, but it was actually a testing ground for killing techniques. He estimates that more than 70,000 adult patients were killed in mental institutions.

The second phase (1939-1944) was a large scale experiment on sterilization and human reproduction were 400,000 people with inherited disorders were presumably sterilized without their consent under the Nazi regime.

The third phase was of military experimentation, which included studies of people’s reactions to high altitudes, freezing temperatures, exposure to incendiary bombs, mustard gas, poisons, and other highly disturbing practices. Prisoners were also exposed to infections of typhus, malaria, and epidemic jaundice in order to develop vaccines and other treatments.

The fourth phase was experiments on children, such as studies on the inheritance of racial characteristics.

Weindling also writes about the Nuremberg medical trial which took place after the international military trial, where the concept of medical war crime was first introduced.

During the medical trial there were ethical pronouncements which resulted in the Nuremberg Code on the conduct of human experiments and its principle of informed consent of participants in experimentation. But partly due to the beginning of the cold war, Weindling informs us that,

“The Medical Trial did not pave way for further Allied prosecutions of medical atrocities on any large scale.”

Prosecution for war crimes was undesirable for an emergence of a coalition against communism. Weindling further notes that,

“Rumours continue to circulate that military medical research establishments in Britain and the USA hold concentration camp data on topics like hypothermia and poison gas. It remains unclear whether research on pressure and cold exposure, and on poison and nerve gases found to be criminal at the Medical Trial, was specifically utilized by the Americans and British.”

Of course, now a days we have our own version of medical war crimes and non-war versions as well, which unfortunately remain unaccounted for.

The medical trial and the 1933 Sterilization Law, administered through the genetic health courts, reminded me of Judgment at Nuremberg, a thought provocative film with excellent dialogue and performance where 4 judges conducted Nazi sterilization and cleansing polices on defenseless people. Here are some relevant quotes of the movie:

Ernst Janning: Judge Haywood… the reason I asked you to come: Those people, those millions of people… I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it, You must believe it!

Judge Dan Haywood: Herr Janning, it “came to that” the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.

Ernst Janning: There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that – can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: ‘Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’ It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb. What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded… sooner or later. The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. Forward is the great password. And history tells how well we succeeded, your honor. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The very elements of hate and power about Hitler that mesmerized Germany, mesmerized the world! We found ourselves with sudden powerful allies. Things that had been denied to us as a democracy were open to us now. The world said ‘go ahead, take it, take it! Take Sudetenland, take the Rhineland – remilitarize it – take all of Austria, take it! And then one day we looked around and found that we were in an even more terrible danger. The ritual began in this courtroom swept over the land like a raging, roaring disease. What was going to be a passing phase had become the way of life. Your honor, I was content to sit silent during this trial. I was content to tend my roses. I was even content to let counsel try to save my name, until I realized that in order to save it, he would have to raise the specter again. You have seen him do it – he has done it here in this courtroom. He has suggested that the Third Reich worked for the benefit of people. He has suggested that we sterilized men for the welfare of the country. He has suggested that perhaps the old Jew did sleep with the sixteen year old girl, after all. Once more it is being done for love of country. It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it… whatever the pain and humiliation.

Judge Dan Haywood: Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and death of millions by the government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial. If he and the other defendants were all depraved perverts – if the leaders of the Third Reich were sadistic monsters and maniacs – these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake or other natural catastrophes. But this trial has shown that under the stress of a national crisis, men – even able and extraordinary men – can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination. No one who has sat through this trial can ever forget. The sterilization of men because of their political beliefs… The murder of children… How easily that can happen! There are those in our country today, too, who speak of the “protection” of the country. Of “survival”. The answer to that is: survival as what? A country isn’t a rock. And it isn’t an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for, when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world – let it now be noted in our decision here that this is what we stand for: justice, truth… and the value of a single human being!

Furthermore, this movie reminded me of a paper I read some time ago, “Oh Those Crazy Cards Again”: A History of the Debate on the Nazi Rorschachs. The paper is fascinating and it brings up all kinds of controversies. Here are some interesting quotes:

“The Authoritarian Personality, too, created a conceptual breakthrough in the understanding of Nazism and the Holocaust. …its major hypothesis was “that the political, economic, and social convictions of an individual often form a broad and coherent pattern . . . and that this pattern is an expression of deep-lying trends in his personality” (Adorno et al., 1950, p. 1). In order to provide Nazism with psychological underpinnings, The Authoritarian Personality emphasized intrapsychic constellations such as ego weakness, and mental dispositions such as a rigid conventionalism, stereotyping, and an exaggerated concern with sexuality that were supposed to characterize potential Nazis (Adorno et al., 1950, pp. 222–242).”

“Only two people were allowed to talk freely with the Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg prison: Douglas Kelley, a clinical psychiatrist from the University of California Medical School and chief of psychiatry for the European Theatre of Operations during the war, and Gustave Gilbert, a psychologist from Columbia University, who served as an intelligence officer interrogating prisoners of war.”

“Kelley declared that Rudolf Hess’ record “indicated his basic hysterical and paranoid deviations,” whereas Streicher’s protocol “demonstrated his fundamental paranoid personality.” At the same time, he argued that none of the defendants showed any evidence of an overt psychosis and therefore “must be considered legally sane” (Kelley, 1946, p. 46). Not only did he repeatedly assert that all of the Nazi leaders were “essentially sane . . . not unique or insane,” he also argued that they could be duplicated in any country of the world today. We must also realize that such personalities exist in this country [the U.S.] and that there are undoubtedly certain individuals who would willingly climb over the corpses of one half of the people of the United States, if by so doing, they could thereby be given control over the other half. (Kelley, 1946, p. 47)”

“Nazism was a socio-cultural disease which, while it had been epidemic only among our enemies, was endemic in all parts of the world. I shared the fear that sometime in the future it might become epidemic in my own nation. Medical men know that when they isolate the germ or virus that causes disease among men, they can prepare a vaccine or serum that will protect us against it. I had at Nuremberg the purest known Nazi-virus cultures—22 clay flasks as it were—to study, and with but a short time in which to work. (Kelley, 1947, p. 12)”

“He argued that a totalitarian regime was possible in the United States, because there was no special feature that distinguished the Nazi leaders from other politicians; the personality patterns of the former, even if undesirable, were as rampant in the United States as they had been in Nazi Germany: “Strong, dominant, aggressive, egocentric personalities like Göring, differing from the normal chiefly in their lack of conscience, are not rare. They can be found anywhere in the country—behind big desks deciding big affairs as businessmen, politicians, racketeers” (Kelley, 1947, p. 238; emphasis added).”

“According to Gilbert, for many of the Nazi elite, “the fascist ideology provided outlets for pathological tendencies that had already been deeply rooted in their personality development” (Gilbert, 1950, p. 274). He differentiated three personality types, all of which he placed under the general category of “psychopathic personality,” but none of which he regarded as legally insane. As Gilbert explained, for him, the psychopathic personality was “not a clinical entity” but rather “a socially descriptive generic term, grouping all those who display persistently nonconforming or antisocial behavior” (Gilbert, 1950, p. 281). In these terms, stressing that he referred to a moral, cultural, and social pathology rather than a clinical phenomenon, Gilbert diagnosed Hitler, Hess, and Streicher as having paranoid tendencies (Gilbert, 1950, pp. 270–273). In contrast, Himmler, Hoess—the commander of Auschwitz—and the SS in general were deemed schizoids. Gilbert elaborated on the schizoid type in a later publication, after the Eichmann trial, where he appeared as an expert witness for the prosecution:

I found that Nazi Germany had produced a new inhuman personality type that I can only designate as “the murderous robots of the SS.” This personality type is the unfeeling, mechanical executioner of orders for destruction no matter how horrible, who goes on and on with his ghastly work as though he were a mere machine made of electrical wiring and iron instead of a heart and a mind, with no qualms of conscience or sympathy to restrain him once someone has pressed the button to put him into action with a command. (Gilbert, 1963, p. 36) Göring formed Gilbert’s paradigmatic example of a third personality type: the aggressively narcissistic psychopath (Gilbert, 1950, p. 284).”

“The term “psychopath” generally refers to people who engage in antisocial activity with apparent absence of guilt, and who seem capable of no real feeling for, or loyalty to, other human beings, and no real commitment to principles or ideals. Actually, it is not that they are totally lacking in feelings or ideals; it is rather that these qualities operate at an extremely primitive level, so that feelings are highly egocentric, loyalties are to highly idealized hero figures, and ideals are ones like power and the outward appearance of success. While the most extreme and easily identifiable psychopaths are criminals, impostors, confidence men, and such, psychopathy is sometimes a dominant characteristic in people whose outer adaptation bespeaks conformity and social responsibility. (Miale & Selzer, 1975, p. 278)”

“The traits Miale and Selzer mentioned as exemplary of the Nazi personalities, and of psychopaths in general, were precisely those that Kelley had highlighted as typical of many leader figures. Furthermore, even Miale and Selzer acknowledged that the psychopathic traits they discerned in the Nazi leaders were not unique to them. Thus, even though Miale and Selzer labeled the Nazi leaders as psychopaths, they maintained that the personality traits they were referring to could be found among political leaders in general. As they put it, “it is probable that these traits are to be found in large numbers of any group of ‘power seekers’—whether in politics, commerce, the arts, or elsewhere—but the proportion here seems extraordinary” (Miale&Selzer, 1975, p. 280).”

“The label of psychopathy lends itself well to the intellectual tug-of-war on the question of whether members of the Nazi elite were mad or bad. As Waltraud Ernst has pointed out in her critical study of the concept, psychopaths are “distinguished by the absence of what is otherwise considered to be the core phenomenon of mental illness: mental derangement” (Ernst, 1995, p. 646; emphasis in original). Because it is supposed to be one of the characteristics of psychopaths that they are able to hide their pathology by means of what Cleckley has termed “a convincing mask of sanity,” their classification as sick people necessarily remains precarious.”

“After the publication of The Nuremberg Mind, Molly Harrower—a clinical psychologist and renowned Rorschach expert, who, like Kelley, Gilbert, and Miale, belonged to the generation that had lived through the war— tried to get a number of acknowledged authorities in Rorschach interpretation to comment on the records of the Nuremberg defendants (Harrower, 1976a, p. 343). […] Harrower concluded:

Over the years I have come to believe that our reason for not commenting on the test results was that they did not show what we expected to see, and what the pressure of public opinion demanded that we see—that these men were demented creatures, as different from normal people as a scorpion is from a puppy. What we saw was a wide range of personalities, from severely disturbed neurotics to the superbly well- adjusted. But only Douglas Kelley, the Nuremberg psychiatrist who interviewed the Nazis, said aloud in 1946 “that such personalities are not unique or insane [and] could be duplicated in any country of the world today.” (Harrower, 1976b, p. 76; see also Zillmer et al., 1995, p. 67)”

“In 1991 Mark Resnick and Vincent Nunno published their computerized re-analysis of the Nuremberg data under the telling title “The Nuremberg Mind Redeemed.” […]They portrayed the personality characteristics of the Nazi criminals as follows: These men . . . tended toward a predisposition to believe that the world was a dangerous and evil place . . . were prone to be influenced by their feelings in most decisions, thinking, and behaviors and were less able to modulate their emotional displays than most adults . . . they exhibited a greater tendency to inhibit affect, which resulted in emotional irritation. . . these individuals were less introspective than most other people and were less likely to cope with their affective urges through self-examination. (Resnick & Nunno, 1991, p. 27)”

“Although this description has affinities with the view of the Nazis as psychopaths that was advanced by Gilbert, Miale and Selzer, and Ritzler, in the spirit of convergence, Resnick and Nunno presented their position as derived from the various previous contributions to the research on the Nazi Rorschach protocols. Throughout their article, they also quoted Kelley and Harrower in an attempt to show that the various authorities in the field agree on two points: (a) that the Nazi leaders shared a particular personality structure that made them especially dangerous, and (b) that this personality structure was not unique to them, but rather is typical of people who occupy positions of leadership in a variety of hierarchical institutions. Accepting these two propositions, Resnick and Nunno concluded by warning that “such personalities are not rare. They can be found, not only in totalitarian regimes, but commonly in the upper echelons of most closed systems that make their own rules—such as the civil service, government, intelligence agencies, the military, and large public and private corporations” (Resnick & Nunno, 1991, p. 28).”

“It is all too tempting and reassuring to portray the Nazis as madmen. One argues that because of their high degree of psychological disturbance, as well as certain unique characteristics that made such group behavior possible, the Nazi phenomenon is unlikely to happen again. Thus if it takes a clique of madmen in power to launch a Holocaust, the danger of another historic horror of this magnitude recedes. (Zillmer et al., 1995, p. 13)”

“Borofsky and Brand (1980) maintained that much of the acrimony surrounding the debate as to whether the Nuremberg War Criminals were emotionally disturbed has to do with the anxiety and conflict generated by threats to our individual world views and our inability to adequately comprehend the behavior of the Nuremberg War Criminals. In such an affect-laden situation we are extremely vulnerable to invoking dogmatism in order to temporarily quiet our anxieties. (p. 399)”

To understand the phenomenon of how so few pathological people can influence entire nations, read Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes by Andrew Lobaczewski.

Further reading:

Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes by Andrew Lobaczewski.

Boleslav L Lichterman, British Medical Journal 2005,331(7513):408 (13 August), doi:10.1136/bmj.331.7513.408.

“Oh Those Crazy Cards Again”: A History of the Debate on the Nazi Rorschachs, 1946–2001. José Brunner. Political Psychology, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2001, 233-261.

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  1. Pam  November 23, 2015

    And then we have Operation Paperclip. Our histories are never what they seem.

    • Gabriela Segura, MD  November 24, 2015

      True and due to current state of affairs, it seems that very dark times are ahead. It will be wise for all of us to regain our health so we are better prepared for what lies ahead.


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