Nazi human experimentation

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A lunatic Chaplin imitator
and his greatest fans

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First as tragedy
Then as farce

Nazi human experimentation refers to the variety of scientific or pseudo-scientific experiments carried out by the German Nazi government and its employees during World War II. Many of these experiments were conducted in concentration camps and other prisons using Jews, Roma, Sinti, Slavs, political prisoners, and other people who were viewed as expendable or undesirable by the Nazi authorities.

Some experiments were conducted (albeit with appalling cruelty) to investigate questions with obvious military applications, such as experiments in human endurance, in medical treatment, and in chemical weapons. However others appear to have been performed on little more than a sadistic whim with no pretence of scientific procedure.[1] The scientific value of many of the experiments was minimal, although a few of them did produce interesting results, including on the effects of exposure and icy water, and of phosgene gas. This leads to incredibly serious ethical dilemmas over whether scientists should use data obtained in such appalling ways even if there are strong benefits.[2]


Josef Mengele[edit]


Perhaps the most infamous experimenter, although certainly not the best scientist in Nazi Germany, was Josef Mengele. He was a physician with doctorates in anthropology and medicine, who was a member of the Nazi party and SS. Early in the war he worked as a doctor with the German armed forces, serving on the eastern front and in 1942 was awarded the Iron Cross First Class for rescuing two German soldiers from a burning tank. However, soon after he was seriously injured and invalided out of the military.

The medical experimentation block in Auschwitz I

At a loose end, he applied for work as a concentration camp doctor with the desire to carry out genetic experiments on the inmates. In 1943, he was posted to the Romani family camp at Birkenau, a part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex of camps. He and the other German SS doctors did not treat prisoners, but supervised medical treatment provided by inmate doctors imprisoned in the camps. He also selected prisoners for experimentation, being particularly interested in twins who offered obvious prospects for genetic experiments, as well as performing many experiments on people with physical abnormalities.

In January 1945, with the Red Army approaching, he was moved to Gross-Rosen concentration camp, but soon fled west. With the Allies occupying Germany, he tried to hide by working as a farmhand in Bavaria, before leaving the country in 1949. He lived in Argentina under his real name for several years, but following research by Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal and the capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, also in Argentina, the chances that he would be captured began to increase and he went undercover, living in South America using various names and in various places. Mengele died in 1979 and was buried under a false name. The body was exhumed in 1985 and both forensic tests and the testimony of his son Rolf Mengele indicated that the corpse was indeed Mengele's. His remains are now stored in the Institute for Forensic Medicine in São Paulo, Brazil.[3]

Kurt Heissmeyer[edit]

Heissmeyer was a physician interested in tuberculosis who believed that injecting people with live tuberculosis bacteria might act as a vaccine. He was also interested in racialist theories that the "lower races", such as Jews and Slavs, were more susceptible to tuberculosis. He infected 20 Jewish children at Neuengamme concentration camp, and subsequently killed them all and four adult caretakers. He escaped after the war and worked as a doctor, but in 1966 was finally convicted; he died the following year.[4]

Hubertus Strughold[edit]

Known as a pioneer of space medicine for his post-war work, Strughold moved to the USA after the war and held important positions with the US Air Force and NASA. Before the war he obtained a medical degree and specialised in aviation medicine, investigating the effects of high altitude and supersonic speed; he was a civilian but often employed by the Luftwaffe (German air force). Along with several other physicians, he was involved in experiments at Dachau including feeding inmates only salt water, experiments with air pressure chambers to simulate the effects of high altitudes, and surgery without anaesthesia.[5]

Hans Eppinger[edit]

Eppinger was an Austrian physician who before the war was an expert in liver disorders and treated both Queen Marie of Romania and Josef Stalin. He carried out experiments at Dachau concentration camp on seawater and dehydration. He committed suicide in 1946. Because of his reputation as a doctor before the war, he received a number of posthumous honours including a lunar crater and prize for liver research named after him, before people found out about his actions in Dachau.[6]

Sigmund Rascher[edit]

Rascher was another SS doctor who carried out experiments for the Luftwaffe. These included experiments on high altitudes using a pressure chamber. He conducted experiments on the effects of cold temperatures, with 300 people used as subjects either by exposure to cold temperatures or in cold water. To investigate ways of saving German pilots forced to bail out in cold water, he also experimented with methods of warming people afterwards. One experiment on Romani women involved cooling until hypothermia set in, then testing if naked human bodies could warm in a different way than artificial heat.

Rascher seems to have fallen into an abyss of immorality. He was arrested in 1944 under Himmler's orders and charged with offences including: helping his wife kidnap three babies; murdering a former research assistant; financial irregularities; and scientific fraud. He was executed at Dachau in April 1945, three days before its liberation by American armed forces. It has been suggested that Rascher served as a front, and most of the research was conducted by Luftwaffe chief surgeon Erich Hippke.[7]

Claus Schilling[edit]

Schilling was a respected medical researcher before he came out of retirement at the end of a long and distinguished career in the service of Germany (through its colonial empire) before World War I in its colonial empire. Highly distinguished while employed as the head of parasitology, he retired and served the Italian government in its researches on tropical diseases that might harm Italian troops in its occupation of East Africa. There he did experimentation upon psychiatric patients who had no reasonable means of saying no.

Convinced to continue his studies on a larger number of helpless people, prisoners of the Nazis in concentration camps, he took his researching techniques to Dachau with the SS providing plenty of "test patients". Despite negative assessments from colleagues, Schilling would remain in charge of the malaria station for the duration of the war.[8]

Although in the 1930s Schilling had stressed the point that malaria research on human subjects could be performed in an entirely harmless fashion, the Dachau subjects included prisoners who were injected with synthetic drugs at doses ranging from high to lethal. They had been exposed to malaria mosquitos in cages strapped to their hands or arms so as to ensure infection with the parasite. Of the more than 1,000 prisoners used in the malaria experiments at Dachau during the war, between 300 and 400 died as a result; among survivors, a substantial number remained permanently injured. A number of priests imprisoned by the Nazis were killed during the experiments.[8]

In the course of the Dachau Trials following the liberation of the camp at the close of the war, Schilling was tried by a U.S. General Military Court, appointed at 2 November 1945, in the case of The United States versus Martin Gottfried Weiss, Wilhelm Rupert, et al. The defendants, 40 doctors and staff, were charged and convicted of offenses of the violations of laws and usages of war in that they acted in pursuance of a common design, did encourage, aid, abet, and participate in the subjection of Allied nationals and prisoners of war to cruelties and mistreatment at Dachau Concentration Camp and its subcamps.[9] According to the testimony of August H. Vieweg, the patients used in the malaria experiments were Poles, Russians, and Yugoslavs.[9] At that time there was no formal code of ethics in medical research to which the judges could hold the accused Nazi doctors accountable. The "scientific experiments" exposed during the trials led to the Nuremberg Code, developed in 1949 as a ten-point code of human experimentation ethics.[10]

The tribunal sentenced Schilling to death by hanging on 13 December 1945. His execution took place at Landsberg Prison on 28 May 1946 at the age of 74. The execution was filmed by military personnel, who recorded Schilling's ascending the gallows and his hanging,[11] along with a coffin marked "Dr Schilling, Claus."[12]

Notable experiments[edit]


Mengele performed many experiments on identical twins. Perhaps the most gruesome, if such a comparison is possible, involved sewing two twins together to constitute conjoined twins.[3]


The Luftwaffe conducted experiments into hypothermia, with up to 300 people used as experimental subjects. Many experiments were performed on captured Russian troops, to ascertain if they had a genetically higher resistance to cold than Germans.[2]

Sigmund Rascher tested the effects on cold water at Dachau, with the main goal being to investigate how long downed pilots could survive in the sea.[13]


Patients at Dachau were deliberately infected with malaria.[2]

Vaccines and antibiotics[edit]

As well as malaria research, they performed other experiments on diseases and their treatment. These included experiments with deliberately-inflicted wounds to test antibiotics on infection.[13] Kurt Heissmeyer carried out research on tuberculosis.

Chemical weapons[edit]

Chemical weapons including mustard gas and phosgene were used on prisoners to test their effectiveness and evaluate treatments.[2]

Sea water[edit]

Hans Eppinger at Dachau experimented with giving inmates only sea water to drink, supposedly to investigate how people could survive without a source of fresh water.[2]


Carl Clauberg under the direction of Himmler carried out experiments on artificial insemination and sterilization, in attempts to find cheap and effective methods of sterilization for undesirable sections of the population. These experiments included genital mutilation and other unnecessary surgery.[1]


Ethical questions[edit]

Since the war, there has been a major ethical question of whether Nazi research could be used by later medical researchers as any kind of a guide. On the one hand, the Nazi research might be useful for providing results in conditions more extreme than any which could be ethically recreated in a lab. On the other hand, the experiments were often badly conducted by doctors of questionable scientific skills on people who were already seriously ill, and research notes and data were often destroyed or covered up, so even if it was ethical to use the results it is unclear how useful they would be.[1]

It is generally accepted that most of the Nazis' experiments produced little in the way of valuable data.[13] However this is not entirely the case in certain fields. Baruch Cohen found that Nazi research had been cited multiple times in more recent medical literature, often with no recognition of how it had been obtained.[1] Cohen compared the research with earlier morally repellent science, such as when Cleopatra performed experiments on handmaidens condemned to death. He produced guidelines, which required that only if no other source of information was possible, then researchers could use Nazi data, providing that the researchers stated clearly how the data was obtained and explicitly condemned the Nazis' crimes. He saw this as a way of achieving the dual aims of saving lives and educating people about Nazi crimes.[1]

Practical uses[edit]

One instance where Nazi data have been useful draws on experiments on the effects of cold water and low temperatures conducted in concentration camps by Rascher and others. Since the war, researchers such as Robert Pozos (Director of the Hypothermia Laboratory at the University of Minnesota) and John Hayward (Victoria University in Vancouver) have turned to Nazi research for guidance. Pozos and Hayward used the data respectively for how to treat patients with hypothermia, and for the development of survival suits for use in cold water. There has been considerable controversy over how to treat people with hypothermia, with uncertainty over whether and to what extent people should be externally warmed; and it is very difficult to conduct any kind of ethical experiment in the area. The results were compromised by the fact that they were carried out on inmates who were already weak and malnourished, and therefore less likely to survive than healthy people. Pozos and Hayward have both argued for the use of Nazi data in such circumstances where lives can be saved and there is no other way to carry out research.[1] The Nazi experiments on cold have been cited in many scientific papers.[13]

An example when data was not used was when the Environmental Protection Agency considered how to formulate guidelines on levels of phosgene,Wikipedia a highly poisonous gas used as a chemical weapon in World War I; research was important both in an industrial context and for defending American troops against chemical weapons, with Saddam Hussein suspected of stockpiling the gas during the first Gulf War. The Nazis had performed experiments on phosgene, concerned with its use as a chemical weapon. However the EPA chose to rely on the results of animal experiments rather than to use Nazi data: they justified this by saying that, as with cold water experiments, the reliability of Nazi data was weakened by not being performed on healthy individuals. This would have led to more stringent restrictions on industrial emissions than might otherwise be the case, and they did not wish to be unduly conservative.[1][14]

The main legacy was perhaps a greater recognition of the importance of medical ethics and particularly the issue of informed consent in scientific experiments.[13] Likewise, the Nazis' other crimes led to a recognition of genocide as a terrible evil, and helped formulate a series of international agreements on war and human rights; but since in an ideal world these rules would not be necessary, it is hard to see this as any positive legacy at all.

See also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Nazi Medical Experimentation: The Ethics Of Using Medical Data From Nazi Experiments, Jewish Virtual Library
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 See the Wikipedia article on Nazi human experimentation.
  3. 3.0 3.1 See the Wikipedia article on Josef Mengele.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Kurt Heissmeyer.
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Hubertus Strughold.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Hans Eppinger.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Sigmund Rascher.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Hulverscheidt 221-236
  9. 9.0 9.1 Spitz, Vivien. Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans. Boulder, Colorado: Sentient Publications, 2005. Template:ISBN, Template:ISBN, p. 104-112.
  10. Grady, Christine (1995). The Search for an AIDS Vaccine: Ethical Issues in the Development and Testing of a Preventive HIV Vaccine. Indiana University Press. p. 35. ISBN 9780253112729. 
  11. MUNICH. [No. 191, HANGINGS AT LANSBERG, GERMANY]. Series: Moving Images Relating to Military Activities, 1860 - 1985. National Archives Video Collection. 28 May 1946. Retrieved 15 September 2019.  (Approx. minutes 2:20 to 3:15)
  12. MUNICH. [No. 191, HANGINGS AT LANSBERG, GERMANY. Series: Moving Images Relating to Military Activities, 1860 - 1985. National Archives Video Collection. 28 May 1946. Retrieved 15 September 2019.  (Approx. minutes 5:30 to 5:45)
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 Mein Data, Brian Palmer, Slate, 2010
  14. Head of E.P.A. Bars Nazi Data In Study on Gas, New York Times, 23 March, 1988