Lectures on Inhumanity: Teaching Medical Ethics in German Medical Schools Under Nazism

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Abstract

Nazi medicine and its atrocities have been explored in depth over the past few decades, but scholars have started to examine medical ethics under Nazism only in recent years. Given the medical crimes and immoral conduct of physicians during the Third Reich, it is often assumed that Nazi medical authorities spurned ethics. However, in 1939, Germany introduced mandatory lectures on ethics as part of the medical curriculum. Course catalogs and archival sources show that lectures on ethics were an integral part of the medical curriculum in Germany between 1939 and 1945. Nazi officials established lecturer positions for the new subject area, named Medical Law and Professional Studies, at every medical school. The appointed lecturers were mostly early members of the Nazi Party and imparted Nazi political and moral values in their teaching. These values included the unequal worth of human beings, the moral imperative of preserving a pure Aryan people, the authoritarian role of the physician, the individual's obligation to stay healthy, and the priority of public health over individual-patient care. This article shows that there existed not only a Nazi version of medical ethics but also a systematic teaching of such ethics to students in Nazi Germany. The findings illustrate that, from a historical point of view, the notion of “eternal values” that are inherent to the medical profession is questionable. Rather, the prevailing medical ethos can be strongly determined by politics and the zeitgeist and therefore has to be repeatedly negotiated.

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