From Publishers Weekly
The adoption of eugenics as a guiding principle by German scientists and doctors was an important step on the way to the Holocaust, though the victims of eugenics were not necessarily Jews, since physically or mentally disabled Aryans were viewed as genetically "undesirable" to the "master race" as well. This well-edited and useful volume traces the progression from the reformist impulse underlying the original eugenics theory (which proposed to improve the human race) to the formation of theories about racial superiority and to the later justification of genocide. With chapters contributed by leading scholars such as science historian Daniel Kevles (author of In the Name of Eugenics), who provides an international context for German eugenics, and womens historian Gisela Bock, on "Nazi sterilization and reproductive policies," this companion to an exhibit of the same title at the Holocaust Memorial Museum explains how the adoption of a false science ended in catastrophe. (The exhibit will show from April 21, 2004 through Oct. 16, 2005.) The editors add a useful chronology covering nearly a century, from 1859 to 1947, extensive period illustrations and a substantial list of further reading, making this an excellent starting place for anyone who wants to understand a key factor that contributed to the Holocaust.
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From The New England Journal of Medicine
Myths often serve a protective role by providing comfort so that deeply held convictions are not challenged. With respect to medicine in the Third Reich, two such myths are the beliefs that only marginal physicians in extreme situations participated in crimes against humanity and that the practice of German mainstream medicine was not corrupted by the surrounding maelstrom. Scholarly, comprehensive works by Robert Lifton, Robert N. Proctor, Michael H. Kater, and Henry Friedlander, among others, have done much to lay to rest these myths. (Figure) Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race is based on the current exhibit of the same name at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is distinguished from earlier works on this difficult topic by its content and format. Seven essays by distinguished scholars in the field provide a contextual framework for the display of extensive reproductions of original archival materials from a vast array of primary sources. Nazi propaganda, medical documents, scientific instruments, transport lists, and photographs of sites, perpetrators, and victims are displayed. Most vivid and most important are the photos of the victims and documentary material from their lives (e.g., artwork, personal letters, and artifacts) that render the horrors they suffered very real and very tangible. It is this lavish illustration, beautifully (if one is permitted to use such an adjective in such a context) reproduced, that distinguishes this particular work. The essays themselves serve as an overview of the topic and consistently highlight several important themes essential to an understanding of the relationship between Nazi political philosophy and medical science. Race was at the core of Nazi social thought, with its vision of a racially pure, cohesive, and resurgent society through which racial degeneration would be reversed by the application of biologic principles. Heredity was granted a central role, with the notion of "biology as destiny" taken to its extreme. An innate inequality of individuals and, by extension, of racial groups was ascribed on the basis of an objectification of both intrinsic variables (physical, cultural, and genetic) and economic value to the collective. A natural extension of the assignment of unequal values to individual persons was their possession of unequal worth and rights before the state. A political philosophy that derived its origin from biology turned to biology both for an explanation of social ills and for possible solutions through the application of eugenic principles to population management. Sterilization and involuntary euthanasia, applied on a wholesale basis, provided a mechanism to reverse degeneration and counterselection. Essential to this applied biology were the physicians with the requisite training and authority to influence, formulate, and implement policy. What evolved was a medicalization of mass murder, facilitated by technological innovations that first occurred in health care institutions directed at the biologic threat posed by the unproductive and vulnerable members of society. Beyond being merely a training ground for personnel and techniques, these medical efforts would demonstrate the willingness of "ordinary" people to participate and the feasibility of widespread bureaucratic cooperation that would render the Final Solution of the death camps a harsh, and unfortunately inevitable, historical reality. Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race amply illustrates the truths that should replace our myths regarding medicine in the Third Reich. It is left to the reader to determine whether such truths are unique to a particular historical era or can serve as a template to assist our informed medical choices now and into the future. Michael Shevell, M.D.
Copyright © 2005 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.