Nazis, the Holocaust, and government testing

From PBS Nova – Holocaust On Trial (link):

The Experiments

At the Nuremberg “doctor’s trial,” which brought 23 German doctors to trial immediately after the war (WW2), prosecutors found 15 defendants guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity; seven were hung.

Here are some of the most notorious experiments:

High Altitude

In 1942, Sigmund Rascher and others conducted high-altitude experiments on prisoners at Dachau. Eager to find out how best to save German pilots forced to eject at high altitude, they placed inmates into low-pressure chambers that simulated altitudes as high as 68,000 feet and monitored their physiological response as they succumbed and died. Rascher was said to dissect victims’ brains while they were still alive to show that high-altitude sickness resulted from the formation of tiny air bubbles in the blood vessels of a certain part of the brain. Of 200 people subjected to these experiments, 80 died outright and the remainder were executed.


To determine the most effective means for treating German pilots who had become severely chilled from ejecting into the ocean, or German soldiers who suffered extreme exposure on the Russian front, Rascher and others conducted freezing experiments at Dachau. For up to five hours at a time, they placed victims into vats of icy water, either in aviator suits or naked; they took others outside in the freezing cold and strapped them down naked. As the victims writhed in pain, foamed at the mouth, and lost consciousness, the doctors measured changes in the patients’ heart rate, body temperature, muscle reflexes, and other factors. When a prisoner’s internal body temperature fell to 79.7°F, the doctors tried rewarming him using hot sleeping bags, scalding baths, even naked women forced to copulate with the victim. Some 80 to 100 patients perished during these experiments.


Pic taken from Wikipedia


For the benefit of the German Army, whose frontline soldiers suffered greatly from gas gangrene, a type of progressive gangrene, doctors at the Ravensbruck concentration camp performed studies to test the effectiveness of sulfanilamide and other drugs in curbing such infections. They inflicted battlefield-like wounds in victims, then infected the wounds with bacteria such as streptococcus, tetanus, and gas gangrene. The doctors aggravated the resulting infection by rubbing ground glass and wood shavings into the wound, and they tied off blood vessels on either side of the injury to simulate what would happen to an actual war wound. Victims suffered intense agony and serious injury, and some of them died as a result.


In an effort to find ways to more effectively multiply the German race, Dr. Josef Mengele performed experiments on twins at Auschwitz in hopes of plumbing the secrets of multiple births. After taking all the body measurements and other living data he could from selected twins, Mengele and his collaborators dispatched them with a single injection of chloroform to the heart. Of about 1,000 pairs of twins experimented upon, only about 200 pairs survived.


Researchers at Buchenwald concentration camp developed a method of individual execution by injecting Russian prisoners with phenol and cyanide. Experimenters also tested various poisons on the human body by secreting noxious chemicals in prisoners’ food or shooting inmates with poison bullets. Victims who did not die during these experiments were killed to allow the experimenters to perform autopsies.


To determine if people had any natural immunities to tuberculosis, and to develop a vaccine against the disease, Dr. Kurt Heissmeyer injected live tubercle bacilli (bacteria that are a major cause of TB) into the lungs of inmates at the Neuengamme concentration camp. About 200 adult subjects died, and Heissmeyer had 20 children from Auschwitz hung in an effort to hide evidence of the experiments from approaching Allied forces.


In an attempt to find an antidote to phosgene, a toxic gas used as a weapon during World War I, Nazi doctors exposed 52 concentration-camp prisoners to the gas at Fort Ney near Strasbourg, France. Phosgene gas causes extreme irritation to the lungs. Many of the prisoners, who according to German records were already weak and malnourished, suffered pulmonary edema after exposure, and four of them died from the experiments.

Bone, Muscle, and Joint Transplantation

To learn if a limb or joint from one person could be successfully attached to another who had lost that limb or joint, experimenters at Ravensbruck amputated legs and shoulders from inmates in useless attempts to transplant them onto other victims. They also removed sections of bones, muscles, and nerves from prisoners to study regeneration of these body parts. Victims suffered excruciating pain, mutilation, and permanent disability as a result.


To come up with an effective means of sterilizing millions of people with a minimum of time and effort, doctors at Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, and elsewhere conducted experiments on both men and women. They radiated the genitals of young men, then castrated them to study the resulting changes in their testes. A woman had caustic substances forced into her cervix or uterus, which caused horrible pain, bleeding, and bursting spasms in the stomach. The thousands who were sterilized suffered untold mental and physical anguish.

Artificial Insemination

After hearing that Dr. Carl Clauberg had successfully treated a high-level SS officer’s infertile wife, Heinrich Himmler ordered Clauberg to conduct artificial insemination experiments. Some 300 women at Auschwitz subsequently underwent artificial insemination at the hands of Clauberg, who reportedly taunted victims strapped down before him by informing them that he had just inseminated them with animal sperm and that monsters were now growing in their wombs.


Dr. Hans Eppinger and others at Dachau conducted experiments on how to make seawater drinkable. The doctors forced roughly 90 Gypsies to drink only seawater while also depriving them of food. The Gypsies became so dehydrated that they reportedly licked floors after they had been mopped just to get a drop of fresh water. The experiments caused enormous pain and suffering and resulted in serious bodily injury.

Of course this stuff is abhorrent, and is what you’d expect from the Nazis, given their reputation. To put it in context though, make sure to look at this Wikipedia article about unethical human experiments carried out by the US Government on its own population – a lot of it done after the war, in the 50’s and 60’s.

An interesting one (possibly not mentioned in that Wikipedia article) was Operation Sea-Spray, where balloons containing a supposedly harmless bacteria was released into the air in San Francisco, resulting in a bunch of people getting pneumonia and urinary tract infections.

Awful, awful stuff.