July 18, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Exorcising Nazi Ghosts Continues

With so many books and documentaries on the Nazi era and World War II, one would think the subject has been worked over to death by historians, and nothing else needs to be said.  Surprisingly, new documents keep coming to light.  Some new ones reported by Science magazine are especially disturbing: they show a willing symbiosis between Nazi executions and anatomy colleges who needed cadavers for dissections.  In fact, some of the detailed anatomical drawings in a leading anatomy textbook have been discovered to be from the bodies of executed political prisoners.  Surely science has learned its lessons from the grotesque and gruesome involvement with moral atrocities of the 1930s – hasn’t it?  Isn’t it time to move on? (09/07/2004, bullet 1).
    Heather Pringle opened her article in the News Focus section of Science1 stating that the lessons are still being debated:

A University of Vienna investigation determined in 1998 that Eduard Pernkopf’s anatomy department used bodies of executed prisoners from the Gestapo and from Vienna’s assize court to produce the illustrations in his Topographical Anatomy of Man.  What should anatomists in 2010 do with an atlas that is both scientifically valuable and morally tainted?  Researchers remain deeply divided.

Pernkopf worked on his atlas for two decades, Pringle reported.  Its illustrations remain unsurpassed even today, she said.  Moreover, the New England Journal of Medicine in 1990 called the work “an outstanding book of great value to anatomists and surgeons.”  But, she continued, “Pernkopf and several of his artists were avid Nazis.”  Should a researcher’s political associations render his work, produced at “a time when medicine crossed an ethical line,” unfit for use by today’s anatomists?  Like she said, they remain deeply divided.  It must be haunting, though, for anyone who looks at these illustrations, to ponder the circumstances under which they were produced.
    Pringle wrote a second article in the same issue of Science entitled, “Confronting Anatomy’s Nazi Past.”2  What’s new for 2010 in this article are recent revelations about the depth of symbiosis of anatomists with the Nazi regime.  “Although other aspects of Nazi science have been explored previously, such as the role of psychiatrists in selecting mentally ill patients for euthanasia, anatomists’ broad complicity in Nazi injustices has emerged mostly in papers published in the past year or so.”  The picture gets pretty chilling:

These studies document the grim symbiosis that arose between anatomists who wanted human bodies for teaching and research and a criminal regime that wanted to dispose quietly of the corpses of large numbers of executed prisoners.  Medical schools were assigned particular prisons from which to receive corpses and accepted extra bodies for incineration.  One leading Berlin anatomist manipulated the timing of executions and used the terror that female prisoners experienced as they waited to die as a scientific variable in a study, according to research published in Clinical Anatomy last year.  “The picture is one of a very gradual slippage in moral values among anatomists,” says Christoph Redies, a professor of anatomy at the Jena University Hospital in Germany, “to clear outrages and injustices.”

Imagine, if you can, a scientist informing a woman the time of her execution, recording her reaction, and then dispassionately taking her eggs after her death to study the affects of mental trauma on reproduction.  Such clinical horrors actually happened.  We’re not talking about Jews at death camps, where incineration by the millions constituted the well-known Holocaust, but civilians within the urban centers, where merely telling a joke could be a death sentence.  Nazis needed to dispose of the bodies of 16,000 executed civilians, and the anatomy centers were only too happy to get the goods.  Pringle writes, “anatomists became an integral part of the system of capital punishment.  Each anatomical institute was assigned to a prison facility that possessed an execution chamber, and anatomists received advance notice of executions.”  The institute would send a van over to pick up the corpses; “it was all very legal,” said Sabine Hildebrandt of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who has been researching documents for a decade.  Some students’ sensibilities must have been traumatized at having to dissect cadavers that were missing a head, but “There was no way that [the students] couldn’t have seen where the bodies came from.” Hildebrandt said.  One anatomist got so grossed out by seeing the cadaver of someone he knew personally, he decided to leave his practice.
    Just last year, the misdeeds of Hermann Stieve, director of the Berlin Institute of Anatomy from 1935 to 1952, were published.  Before the Nazis came to power, he used to study the effects of stress on chickens when exposed to a caged fox.  Then, he had something even better: “Stieve examined the effects of stress on the timing of human ovulation.  He collected data on 200 female prisoners who were stressed by learning the date of their execution, and he dissected them after their deaths.”  Pringle goes into detail showing his complicity with the Nazi executioners.  “Stieve suspended his personal feelings to such a degree, says Winkelmann, that he saw little difference between designing a study on caged chickens and women on death row.”
    What may be most shocking is that some scientists today continue to cite Stieve’s work favorably.  In the analysis by William Seidelman, who studied this for ten years, “What the best and brightest did was see the imprisonment and beheading of human beings as opportunities.”  Only in this decade did the German Medical Council decide to extricate all bones, samples and material of Nazi victims from their collections and give the remains a decent burial.  “But Hildebrandt and other researchers believe that this is only a first step in righting a major historical wrong,” Pringle ended.  “They would like to see researchers identify the Nazi victims used by anatomists so that a modern generation can honor their memory today.”
    Dealing with the Nazi past, therefore, continues today.  This fall the German Anatomical Society will hold a symposium called “Anatomy in the Third Reich” to wrestle with the issues raised by their field’s willing collaboration with one of the most cold-blooded murderous regimes in history.  A Berlin anatomist said, “We hope that this will contribute to a global debate on ethical standards for the use of human cadavers in research and teaching.”


1.  Heather Pringle: “Anatomy: The Dilemma of Pernkopf’s Atlas,” Science, 16 July 2010: Vol. 329. no. 5989, pp. 274-275, DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5989.274-b.
2.  Heather Pringle: “Confronting Anatomy’s Nazi Past,” Science 16 July 2010: Vol. 329. no. 5989, pp. 274-275, DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5989.274-a.

From whence springs the moral outrage at the stories above?  Why the chill at hearing about those who suspended their feelings to such degrees as to treat human beings like lab chickens?  Why should there be concern about the slow, gradual slippage in moral values of German anatomists 70 years ago, and why should there be calls for more stringent ethical standards today?  Animals have no such qualms.  Opportunism is common in nature: hyenas, vultures and many animals rush in to benefit from what they did not kill.  Why shouldn’t humans do any differently?  The prisoners were going to die anyway; shouldn’t the remains be used for something positive, like science?  If those drawings are useful today, who cares how they were obtained?  Isn’t it silly to give a decent burial to dead tissues?  Why all this hand-wringing by scientists today who took no part in what the Germans did?
    The association of Nazism with Darwinism has been explored before (10/18/2004, 04/22/2004; and search on “Weikart” in the search bar).  It’s the Judeo-Christian world view that puts a premium on the sanctity of human life.  Nazism is one of the most atrocious examples of cold-blooded inhumanity (although communism actually exceeded it in body count); does that attitude exist today?  Could it be resurrected?  Never assume that the depth of evil in the human heart was fully plumbed by Nazism and communism.  We live on a precipice of a moral darkness so hideous it can scarcely be imagined.  With genetic engineering and nanotechnology, the capability to use, abuse, and kill human beings with finesse is not difficult to imagine, if it were empowered by the appropriate ideology and totalitarian power.  Darwinian thinking is still very much a driving engine for such a regime.  Communist ideology is alive and well in radical groups reaching into high branches of government.
    Consider the leading edges of abuse being discussed today: use of aborted fetuses for research; collection of human eggs and embryos for research; human cloning; human-animal chimeras; medical rationing.  Even when such morally-tainted practices are justified by the health or economic benefits they might bring to the masses, are they not conceivably the beginnings of a cheapening of human life, that “slow, gradual slippage in moral values” that knows no end?  Who are the Allies that would oppose the next axis of evil, if that axis is a global government?
    Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for collaboration with the persecutors of the prophets.  He pointed to the claims by Pharisees that they never would have stoned and killed the prophets like their fathers did; look – they honored them by building their tombs.  In a remark sometimes difficult for the modern ethic to understand, Jesus said in Matthew 23:29-35 that their actions proved their complicity with the murderers:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’  Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.  Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt.  Serpents, brood of vipers!  How can you escape the condemnation of hell?  Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.”

Jesus was not merely asserting that they were genealogical descendents of the murderers of the prophets, but that they had the same human fallen nature.  Unrepentant, it would cause them to follow in the murderers’ footsteps.  By refusing to believe the prophets and repent and be saved, their hearts were still instruments of Satan, just like the hearts of their fathers.  It would result in them committing the same kinds of atrocities their fathers committed given the opportunity and motivation to do so.  No amount of self-righteous asserting that they would never have done such things could stop that same, murderous tendency, innate in their fallen human nature.  And sure enough, just as Jesus warned, despite numerous prophecies and signs given to them, within months they had crucified Jesus and persecuted the apostles after Christ’s Resurrection with all the zeal of an Ahab or Manasseh, if not more.
    The lesson is clear in our day, too.  As much as it is admirable for scientists to be concerned about ethics and morality as new revelations of Nazi-era lapses come to light, the self-flagellation and affirmations of morality now are shallow and easily swept away by the lure of opportunity.  Like the Pharisees who maintained the same self-righteousness and refusal to listen that their forefathers had, today’s scientists adhere to the same Darwinian ideology that rationalized the atrocities of the 20th century.  They still see salvation in human progress and visions of their own utopias, without regard to the word of God.  Without a change of heart, new and worse holocausts may not just be conceivable; they may be inevitable.  The Spirit of God and the salt and light of the redeemed are the only things that stand in the way.

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