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It is difficult for us today to comprehend how educated doctors, charged with the duty

of healing, might be driven instead to willingly kill and torture other human beings. The

experiments they conducted in Auschwitz were of such a horrid nature that

Governments at the time hadnǯt thought to write laws about them . Tests so brutal that:

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evaluate their actions it is imperative to look beyond the evil consequences of their

experiments. One must delve into the complex web of incentives and circumstantial

evidence that may have motivated the doctors to carry out these despicable acts who in

some cases were restrained from pursuing even more ambitious experiments.

In the first half of this essay I will address the historical context in pre-war Nazi

Germany and explore how emerging theories of social Darwinism gradually meshed

with the Nazi ideology and its medical imagery. In the second half, I will evaluate what I

consider to have been the most significant motivations within a framework of conscious

and sub-conscious or internal and external motives. I feel this to be an important

distinction: internal motives being the rationale that doctors may have us ed to justify
their actions: external motives being the combination of environmental and

psychological factors, which resulted in the German medical establishment freely

choosing to stray from its Hippocratic moral compass.

As a starting point, I believe it to be important to outline typical character traits of the

German physicians. Michael Kater argues that the doctors were predisposed in earlier

years toward intolerance of socialcultural minorities, especially Jews. ¬ This may have

been amplified by the overrepresentation of Jews within the medical profession. Kater

states that all were, or became, stern nationalists, who railed against the shameful

outcome of the war, subscribed to anti-Semitism and other novel racial-hygienic

theories.  I feel that this unfortunate first step was critical in the formation of the more

extreme dogmatic views asserted later. These prejudices were juxtaposed to the twisted

Nazi social Darwinian view of total control of the evolutionary process. It is conceivable

that this omnipotent vision of total control over human life appealed to the doctorsǯ

egos, causing some to affiliate with the Nazi party at an early stage.

Furthermore, scientific publications of the time stated with scientific authority that the

Nordic people were genetically superior to other races; notably the Jews who presented

a threat to Nordic racial purity. Alongside the eugenic rhetoric, Hitler himself was

lauded to as the Ǯǥx Ýc Ý ccÝ c 
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through peppering propaganda with medical imagery; personifying the Jewish race as a

disease. For example, in Ǯ

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this pseudo-medical prejudice not become entwined within the scientific community,

the German doctors would have lacked their scientific rationale which justified their


In evaluating the doctorsǯ internal motivations, I will categorise using the Nozikian

categories of moral Ǯ   and Ǯ . I assert that the Ǯ   motivation was propelled by

the self-interest of the relatively mediocre doctors, whereas the less common Ǯ 

motivation was their attempt to promote the good of their nation.

Moral push is embodied in the physiciansǯ careerism: the desire to please their

superiors, to gain surgical experience, to use their results to publish research and gain

recognition from peers, which lead to lucrative professorship titles. These are the selfish

opportunists, characterised by lack of talent and reckless ambition, thus more willing to

take ethical short cuts in return for recognition within the scientific community.  It

may even be possible to posit a negative correlation between competence and political

involvement. One prisoner recalled Dr. Mengele approaching a distinguished prisoner

doctor, giving him the ultimatum to either be killed or help prepare research for

publication under Mengeleǯs name. u I believe that these doctors were able to bury their

sense of guilt and freely succumb to their selfish impulses, rationalising that their

subjects were no more than subhuman parasites all of whom would die regardless. Dr.

Dering, an SS Doctor was asked his motivation by an inmate during one experiment, to

which he replied: DzrÝc !

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majority of this research was useless due to the corruption of the inductive method. An

example of one such pseudo-scientist was Dr. Hurt, a professor of anatomy, who wrote

that the goal was to Dz"  cÝ

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The second category: pull motives, were founded upon the dogmatic view that one

German soldierǯs life was infinitely more valuable relative to any camp inmates. This

rarer second category of doctors, motivated by the moral pull of their fellow

countrymen, believed that their experimentation was an unfortunate necessity to

provide research data, which would be of use to the German Military since animal

experimentation was known to be a poor substitute for tests on humans. Dr. Gerard

Rose, who was a distinguished scientist, exemplifies this category well: while initially

opposing performing lethal experiments being performed on camp inmates, he later

changed his mind and used human subjects to test a new typhus vaccine. 

Bridging both categories of push and pull was the impulse of scientific curiosity, which,

once the initial experiments had been carried out and ethical codes of conduct broken,

may have further spurred the doctors to conduct increasingly more extreme tests. One

prisoner is quoted to have said:

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I assert that this set of external conditions and subconscious

feelings was a cocktail of four factors: psychological detachment, habitual routine,

psychic doubling and the inmate Ǯvolunteersǯ lacking of economic or intrinsic value.

Firstly, I believe psychological detachment to be the most significant subconscious

factor. Normal human behaviour generally lies between the two extremes of being

involved versus being detached. However, the very nature of scientific study involves

striving for an objective point of view, untainted by subjective values. Additionally,

Parsons and Fox assert that the profession self-selects applicants who have a pre-

disposition for detached concern and that acquiring greater detachment is one of the

primary problems for the medical student during his first two years. u Repeatedly

when on trial, doctors emphasised the rationality of their actions. I would infer that this

suggests their extreme objective/detached viewpoint contributed to their lack of

empathy for the human subjects at the time and hence why none of those on trial

begged for forgiveness from the judges.u To aid the detachment process, all action and

language was saturated with technical jargon: for example, referring to the human

prisoners as Ǯ
 to be photographed and catalogued. uu

Secondly, the emphasis of the routine of selections and habituation of roles led t he

physicians to seek meaning from improving the efficiency of their daily tasks,

irrespective of the nature of those tasks.u One doctor said it was possible to keep the

routine going because:

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If a doctorǯs full focus was taken up by the whirlwind of routine and technicalities, less

time would be available for self-reflection and ethical concerns may have not been given

the full attention they warranted. Doctors would convince themselves that they were

making a difference through solving problems of overcrowding and finding meaning in

their efficiency of daily jobs, as opposed to seeing the bigger picture of the nature of

their task.

Thirdly, I concur with Robert Lifton, who theorises that the Nazi doctors subconsciously

created a second Ǯë  Ý%c, thus avoiding guilt in their former self using a ǮÝ 


. u He uses Dr. Mengele as an example, stating that his prior self could be

readily absorbed by his Auschwitz self, whereas a doctor such as Rose would appear

more divided because of the conflict between his inner selves. It is as if doctors were

faced with a choice on arriving in Auschwitz: either to create a tough and cruel self and

become functional and efficient in their work within the Auschwitz atmosphere; or to

remain involved and weak, losing all functionality within the system.

Finally, I believe that the lack of monetary value assigned to the abundant supply of

human guinea pigs to have been an important factor. As one survivor noted:

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are undervalued or free tend to be over-consumed. I speculate that the fact that they

came also at no cost to the doctors profoundly exacerbated the extent and sheer volume

of unnecessary experiments undertaken in Auschwitz. If the doctors had had to pay

even a small fee to perform their research, I believe this would have dramatically

reduced the scale of their experimentation.

While it may be possible to understand the doctors motivations and attribute elements

to their being victims of a the Nazi doctrine, this in no way morally excuses the doctors

actions of killing in cold blood and treating other humans purely as a means to a

scientific end. This frightening chapter of medical history serves as a lingering reminder

of the dangers of pure utilitarian rationale and the paramount importance of strong

ethical codes within medical science.


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Bloom, Samuel W., $ c2 cc7
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, (The Journal of
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Hirschman, E. C., Hill, R. P.,cÿ 

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cÝ c6
Ý crÝÝ, (Osiris, 2nd Series, Vol. 20,
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York 1986)

Kohler, Eric D.,c)(c 

cÝ c&%c* , (Central European History, Vol. 24, No. 3
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, (Cambridge University Press 1993)

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