[Paleopsych] NYT: Museum Review: The Tainted Science of Nazi Atrocities

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Jan 8 16:16:28 UTC 2005

Museum Review: The Tainted Science of Nazi Atrocities
New York Times, 5.1.8

The welcoming image could not be more inspiring. Or more
creepy. It is a "glass man" standing in an alcove, his red
veins lining his transparent shell, his multicolored organs
neatly stacked in his abdomen, his arms raised aloft like
his gaze, reaching toward the heavens, glorying in the
display of his inner self.

He was constructed in 1935 by the German Hygiene Museum in
Dresden for an exhibition about genetic health that
traveled to the United States. One of his clones was given
to the Buffalo Museum of Science. But about 50 years later,
with some belated embarrassment, the museum sent back the
glass man, queasy over the company he once kept and the
ideals he once represented. He even appears in a 1935 photo
in Dresden, gazed at by admiring Nazi officials.

Guilt by association, perhaps? Not unfair, given that this
powerful exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial
Museum in Washington, called "Deadly Medicine: Creating the
Master Race," shows how the Nazis took a widely respected
idea and step by step stripped off its admired flesh,
showing in one horror after another, the awful
possibilities latent within it. That idea was eugenics,
which once heralded better living through genetic
intervention. It is an idea that lost all respectability
from its Nazi associations, though not all its relevance,
as contemporary debates about abortion, euthanasia and the
genome project make clear.

That is one reason that this exhibition, which will be on
display through Oct. 16, should be a part of every
citizen's experience.

Its curator, Susan Bachrach, shaped an imposing collection
of objects and images into a narrative of imposing power:
the copy of "On the Origin of Species" given by Charles
Darwin to his cousin Sir Francis Galton, who coined the
term "eugenics" in 1883; a scarred wooden door from an
isolation cell used at the Eichberg Psychiatric Clinic in
Eltville, Germany; calipers and hair color samples used by
Dr. Ernst Rüdin to specify physical and racial traits in
his genetic research; posters urging Germans to screen
their lovers' families for genetic flaws.

There are instruments of sterilization like those forcibly
used on 400,000 men and women in the Nazi era - perhaps 1
percent of the German population of child-bearing age
deemed mentally or physically unfit ("It is better to
sterilize too many rather than too few," was the official
doctrine); and a photograph of blind German children being
taught to recognize different races by running their hands
over plaster busts.

And more horribly: samples of the sedatives Luminal and
Veronal like those dispensed by pediatricians to infants at
"pediatric wards," in order to execute 5,000 undesirable
children. Then, when it seems as if nothing more could
shock, one walks into a reproduction of the "shower stalls"
used at six facilities in Germany and Austria where the
Nazi program for what Hitler called "mercy deaths" expanded
its ambitions.

Using carbon monoxide gas, more than 70,000 adults were
poisoned, including schizophrenic artists, whose drawings
and paintings are mounted here on the walls, under the
shower heads. By 1945, 200,000 adults had been killed in
various Nazi "euthanasia" programs.

Ultimately, of course, the techniques perfected on the
feebleminded and deformed were turned against the country's
primary "typhus," as one poster puts it. "Sterilize the
Jew," reads a stamp that was pasted on envelopes,
advertising one idea; but that procedure was too
time-consuming. So the medical teams who had helped refine
Germany's gene pool were dispatched to death camps like
Sobibor and Treblinka in Poland to execute the Final

For all its gargantuan horror, this exhibit makes those
millions of deaths seem an outgrowth of what came before, a
more radical extension of genetics into the netherworld.

Much of this has been little known and little acknowledged,
even in Germany, where in the 1990's, psychiatric
institutions were still finding traces of this unsavory
past in files and in jars of preserved specimens, and where
many Nazi eugenicists enjoyed prosperous later careers.

But at the exhibition everything emerges with a kind of
tragic restraint, weighted with carefully outlined detail.
There is no resort to cliché or posturing. The opening
sections even cause a certain uneasiness, because they make
it clear that before the 1930's, eugenic ideas were
commonplace. Galton had written: "If the twentieth part of
the cost and pains were spent in measures for the
improvement of the human race that is spent on the
improvement of the breed of horses and cattle what a galaxy
of genius might we not create!"

Such enthusiasm was infectious. The ideas, as the historian
Daniel J. Kevles points out in the exhibition catalogue,
"could and did strike root almost everywhere." "Only
healthy seed must be sown," reads a British eugenics poster
from 1930. Swedes worried about the genetic effects of
Finnish blood. British worried about the Irish. In the
United States, such fears helped inspire the restrictive
1924 immigration laws. And in 1927, in the case Buck v.
Bell, eight Supreme Court justices agreed that a
feeble-minded woman should be sterilized; Justice Oliver
Wendell Holmes Jr. concluded after considering her genetic
history: "Three imbecile generations are enough." By the
late 1920's, eugenic sterilization was practiced in two
dozen states, with California accounting for more than half
of the 16,000 operations between 1907 and 1933.

So some ideas and procedures were widely accepted.
Moreover, the racial inquiries undertaken by the Germans
were also part of physical anthropology as it was then
practiced. The study of difference and the tracing of
genetic lineage was a legitimate subject of inquiry.

Is the Nazi case different because of degree rather than
kind? Was German medicine and science so dehumanizing that
they caused everything to go awry? Was the element of
anti-Semitism decisive, perhaps, leading the anthropologist
Josef Wastl to purchase skulls and death masks of Polish
Jews and steal 220 Jewish skeletons from a Viennese
cemetery for further study?

No, it seems that something else took place in Germany in
the years after Hitler consulted Fritz Lenz's 1921
treatise, "Foundations of Human Genetics and Racial
Hygiene" and invoked its ideas in "Mein Kampf." Eugenics
was not incidental to the construction of the Nazi state;
it was at its heart. As one slogan said: "National
Socialism is the political expression of our biological

The Nazi state rested on what Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess,
called "applied biology." One exhibited brochure creates an
analogy between societies and organisms; Hitler is the
brain guiding the state's biological "regeneration." Its
laws were often biological laws (like the "Law for the
Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring"), its
solutions biological solutions. By 1942, 10 million
registry cards had been collected documenting the genetic
trees of German families. Josef Goebbels, Hitler's minister
of propaganda, boasted in 1938: "Our starting point is not
the individual"; the goal is a "healthy people."

There was, of course, some acknowledgment that other things
mattered. There was an urge to justify and an urge to
conceal. In one chilling document, "euthanasia" gassings
are rationalized by meticulously calculating how much food
will be saved by the state over the course of a decade,
including 13,492,440 kilograms of meat and sausage.

And however open Nazi doctrines were about their ruthless
prosecution of their biological goals, the "euthanasia"
program, given the code name Operation T-4, was considered
so extreme in its killings of non-Jewish Germans, that it
was conducted in secrecy. Gradually, though, there were
slip-ups: two urns of ashes sent to puzzled relatives
rather than one; a woman's brooch found in a man's effects;
and the peculiar case of 2,000 people dying of natural
causes in 40 days at an asylum that had only 100 beds. The
gassings eventually stopped because of public pressure,
whereupon energies were fully turned to more fundamental
ambitions of biological elimination.

In these utilitarian justifications and secret
machinations, though, there may have also been some sense
that these acts were violating other kinds of principles,
suggesting that humanity does not live by genes alone. But
such hints are slight. And what, after all, could such
ethical principles be? The exhibition properly resists the
temptations that now seem to haunt all such exhibitions, to
create morals, to turn the museum into a therapeutic
agency, to generalize from the particular so pain is turned
into platitude. We are simply given the facts, shown the

As for the ethical principles governing eugenics, in
contemporary culture they still remain curiously unsettled.
There may be no other realm in which the absolute of Nazi
evil has come to seem so bendable. The philosopher Peter
Singer, for example, has attained academic respectability
while advocating euthanasia and arguing that the killing of
an infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person.
And if eugenics is unambiguously evil, then why do we
accept genetic screening of human fetuses for possible
abortion? If racial breeding is so offensive, why is the
prospect of designer genes considered so appealing? If
euthanasia shocks because it was forced, what about if it
is welcomed? The ethical issues are rarely presented as
starkly as they were in Nazi Germany. This exhibition
doesn't make the answers any simpler, but that is one of
its virtues.


More information about the paleopsych mailing list