Human Experimentation at Ravensbrück Concentration Camp



By Kate Docking

A report on the fourth post-war Ravensbrück Concentration Camp trial, written by Deputy Judge Advocate Halse in 1948, stated that medical experiments were performed at the camp ‘in the most brutal manner by doctors who were apparently stationed there for the purpose of experimenting on human guinea pigs.’ These human experiments occurred at Ravensbrück from August 1942 onwards. In total, 74 women were subject to sulphonamide drug and bone transplantation experiments, which took place without their consent. Lily Undun, who was an inmate at Ravensbrück, recalled that if the women refused to be experimented on, they were ‘shut into bunkers, and later the operations were performed by force.’ The initial order for the experiments to be conducted came from Himmler, who was head of the SS. National Socialist medical personnel stipulated that the experiments were performed in order to discover whether sulphonamide was an effective treatment for battle wounds. Foreign bodies such as wood or glass were thus inserted into artificial injuries in order to induce infection, and sulphonamide was used to treat the wounds. However, there was no real scientific reason behind the operations. The experiments were performed by some local doctors, who were known as the ‘Hohenlychen group’ as they came from a local hospital named Hohenlychen, which was located near Ravensbrück. Dr Herta Oberheuser was part of this group, and she was responsible for the post-operative care of those who had undergone experimental operations.

Sources from the seven different Ravensbrück trials and the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial reveal that Oberheuser treated patients extremely callously. As Keith Mant of the Royal Medical Army Corps noted, her post-operative care was ‘little more than sadistic.’ This is evidenced in the witness testimonies from the victims of the medical experiments. For example, Stefania Lotocka recalled that Oberheuser refused to give victims water. Stanislawa Mlodkowska Bielawska also added that when water was given, it was mixed with vinegar. This was clearly an unnecessary and cruel action performed by Oberheuser. Further, Oberheuser did not take sufficient care of the wounds that were induced by the experiments. Izabela Rek stipulated that ‘Oberheuser at first promised to dress my wounds, and, smiling, went out of the ward and we saw no more of her that day.’ Although Jadwiga Dzido described the care of Oberheuser as ‘not bad’, this sort of testimony is not typical. For instance, another victim stated that ‘Oberheuser told us herself that she could give nothing to alleviate our pains…’ The doctor deliberately refused to give the patients morphine, despite their screams of pain. Five of the women died as a result of the experiments, and six were later executed.

After the war, Oberheuser was tried at Nuremberg with ‘special responsibility and participation’ in the medical crimes at Ravensbrück. She was sentenced to twenty years in prison, but allowances were made for the time she already had served whilst in custody, and her sentence was reduced to ten years. However, she was in fact released in 1952. She then practised as a medical doctor in Germany. This led to outrage from the British Medical Association; they believed that her return to the medical profession was an affront to the ‘honour, morals and high ideals of the medical practice.’ Her medical licence was, however, later revoked by the Court of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany. Oberheuser died in a nursing home in Germany in 1978.

The thirty-five women who survived the medical experiments and the terrible conditions at Ravensbrück suffered life-long pain and disabilities. In spite of medical treatment in America, Jadwiga Dzido was permanently disabled. In addition to the bone and sulphonamide experiments, sterilisation experiments were also carried out at Ravensbrück. It is important that more details are known about the perpetrators and processes of these human experiments, in order to do justice to the victims who suffered extensively.

Kate Docking graduated from the University of Kent in 2016. She is currently studying for an MPhil in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge. Her current research project examines the representation of Nazi female perpetrators in British post-war trials and newspapers. She hopes to complete a PhD at the University of Kent on female doctors and nurses during the Third Reich.

Photo: Defendant Herta Oberheuser stands up to receive her sentencing at the Doctor’s Trial, Nuremberg 20th August 1947. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photograph #41017, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.

“Testing in the East”: An Episode in Cold War Bioethics


By Jonathan D. Moreno and Ulf Schmidt

In 2013 the influential German magazine Der Spiegel published an expose about clinical trials conducted by Western drug companies in East Germany during the Cold War. The magazine reported that at least 50,000 people had been test subjects for around 900 studies done by manufacturers that included leading companies from Switzerland, the United States, and West Germany. Fifty hospitals were sites of the research, including the prestigious Charite in East Berlin. The principle motivationfor the East Germans was money: they desperately needed hard currency for their failing medical system. For their part the companies appreciated the far greater efficiency of recruitment in the East, and paid the East Germans up to 800,000 West German marks per study.

The agency responsible for setting up these contracts? The notorious Stasi, the East German secret police force that included hundreds of thousands of paid agents and hundreds of thousands of more informants.

Der Spiegel’s series about the drug trials contained language and themes familiar to many landmark bioethics cases. The revelations were described as a scandal that used the oppressed East Germans as human guinea pigs, including deaths and injuries that had not been properly reported, the indiscriminate use of low-birthweight infants and depressed patients, inadequate informed consent, powerful drug companies and physicians largely eager to cooperate in spite of the occasional protest. Complete with interviews with former test subjects and regretful doctors, the study had all the elements of a classical bioethics case study that could take its place along with the U.S. Public Health Service’s Tuskegee syphilis study; the Guatemala sexually transmissible disease experiments; and some of the well-documented human radiation, biological, and chemical warfare experiments in the U.S. and the U.K. The magazine’s series concluded on a hopeful note that justice would be served when the distinguished German medical historian, Volker Hess, reviews the study archives.

Hess and two co-authors recently concluded their exhaustive review, published in German as Testen im Osten or “Testing in the East.” They concluded that, far from the scandal that the press anticipated, the East German trials were conducted largely within acceptable standards of medical ethics, especially by the conventions of the day. The authors do allow that consent procedures might not have been as thorough as in the West and in some cases there are serious questions about placebo controls and the adequacy of comparative treatment arms, but the practices were not dramatically different from those in West Germany at the time, they say.

Several other groups of historians and ethicists in Germany have also examined the material and published their results. Yet this dramatic episode has received virtually no attention in the bioethics literature, in spite of the fact that it raises compelling questions about the functioning of medical ethics standards and practices in an authoritarian system. With the glaring and extreme exceptions of the Nazi concentration camp experiments and the abuses of Soviet psychiatry, these are questions that are largely absent from the literature. Medical ethics in Central and Eastern Europe during the socialist period is a matter of near total ignorance among scholars.

In the years ahead other scholars will want to weigh in on the conclusions of Hess and others. But one lesson that can already be drawn is that expectations about medical ethics in authoritarian regimes should be critically received. More investigation needs to be conducted about these seemingly contrarian results. Usual explanations don’t seem to be available. For example, although East Germany was not a member of the World Medical Association and therefore not philosophically committed to its Declaration of Helsinki, they do not appear to have violated that international agreement. And although Western firms had good reason to want to conduct trials that were in line with Helsinki requirements in order to ensure that their intellectual property would be protected, they often seem to have breached those requirements in other parts of the world. And yet in East Germany they seem to have complied with those requirements. Why was this the case?

Understanding the unique conditions of medical ethics in East Germany and the other socialist states in that period will require incorporating expertise from cultural history, law, and the social sciences, as well as dogged archival work. Challenging though it is, this often troubled region presents an exceptional opportunity to assess the development, interpretation, and application of ethical theories, standards, and practices under circumstances that were quite different from those anywhere else in the world, and to obtain an illuminating comparison with our own place and time.

Jonathan D. Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Hastings Center Fellow. Ulf Schmidt is a Professor of Modern History at the University of Kent. The authors gratefully acknowledge that some of the work described in this piece was supported by a seed award from the Wellcome Trust. This article has been reposted from The Hastings Centre blog with permission. 

Photo: East Berlin customs police stopping a car on the Charlottenburger Chaussee with a tire-puncturing heavy barbed chain, 1962.