The Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan’s peaceful Battery Park is an unlikely place to explore some of the 20th century’s most horrific evils. “Deadly Medicine” — an exhibit on Nazi racial science, originally presented at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — is a sobering examination of the intertwined history of science and evil. Modern questions dog every part of the exhibit.
At the exhibit’s beginning stand Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, the founding thinkers of, respectively, evolution and genetics. Their understanding of heredity and descent sparked the early 20th-century eugenics movement — the model of progressive global science. Eugenics offered the promise of scientifically shaping individuals and populations. The chromed calipers on display speak to the movement’s fascination with measurements. The surgical instruments were tools for pruning humanity through sterilization.
Eugenics was far from exclusively a German, much less a Nazi, story. American scientists and organizations such as the American Public Health Association and the Carnegie Institute promoted eugenics even after the rise of Hitler. Forced and “voluntary” sterilization were pursued vigorously throughout the United States. In Germany, eugenics already was widespread in medicine, the biological sciences and anthropology when Hitler became the “physician of the nation.”
But the coming of Nazism provided the perfect environment for the blossoming of racial science. Hitler’s obsessions became those of all Germany. Nazi racism — the fusion of eugenics, anti-Semitism, and bizarre “volkisch” and occult ideas — became the patron and enabler of racial science, pursued in both theoretical and applied forms.
On the one hand, public health was a high priority: The Nazis launched the first campaigns against smoking and drinking alcohol during pregnancy. They celebrated exercise and, more ominously, the ideal “Aryan” physique. On the other hand, laws against marriages between “Aryans” and “non-Aryans,” as well as against homosexuality and abortion, were enforced with escalating ruthlessness. Once intended strictly for physicians and scientists, the exhibit’s charts of model heads of different “races” were now distributed for all Germans to internalize.
Unassailable political power brought the opportunity to prune German society of “suffering” on a mass scale. The 1934 Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring legitimized the sterilization of some 400,000 Germans. The mentally ill — including those with depression, “feeble-mindedness” and alcoholism, as well as blindness — were brought before “Hereditary Health Courts” for judgment.
“Deadly Medicine” cannily weaves visitors through a medicalized setting with white curtains, white tile walls and public health posters interspersed with photos of studious Nazi doctors. The austere design also signifies the shockingly simple transition to the next phase: mass euthanasia of more than 5,000 German infants and children and the gassing of some 70,000 institutionalized German adults. In this way, although the exhibit does not put it in these terms, “scientific” aspects of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” were effectively pioneered against fellow Germans.
Growing public awareness forced an end to the program of “mercy deaths” for the institutionalized in 1941, but by that time, useful work had been done on how to murder large numbers of people using gas. Extermination of the Jews, Aryanism’s direst enemy, by then was the obvious answer: how else to deal with the public health problem of “lice”? The exhibit does not shrink from the ghastly medical experiments conducted in the camps on twins, women and others by Josef Mengele and his ilk. But by the time these displays are reached, the visitor is (or should be) in a state of numbness. The final displays, relating how many of the most evil Nazi doctors were never prosecuted and became stalwarts of late 20th-century German medicine, seem almost predictable.
The progression from sterilization to euthanasia to mass murder was not a proverbial slippery slope but followed a precise scientific logic. Medicalized decisions regarding the fate of individuals led eventually to the slaughter of whole peoples. These issues remain with us today in debates over abortion, stem cell research, health care funding and utilitarian bioethics that weigh the costs and benefits of treatment and “quality of life” for certain types of patients.
While the implications of “Deadly Medicine” are far reaching, they are difficult to pin down. Is the problem the human propensity to grasp the inescapable fact of human difference as a rationale or motive for hatred? Is the problem “race” in all its various meanings? Or is it science in the cause of evil?
Nazi physicians and biologists saw themselves as serving both science and the nation, higher causes that trumped conventional moralities. Arguably, science itself — the Promethean effort to discern the universal pattern and control causality — may be the source of modernist evils like Nazi eugenics. Unrestrained by religion, convention or common sense, scientific efforts can teeter on the edge of amorality and monstrosity. The indictment in “Deadly Medicine” ultimately is of the human intellect itself, and that is the most frightening possibility of all.
This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.