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Additional Information on the Medical Experiments Performed in Ravensbrück

From Women in European History

Medical practices and professions have been formulated on the commitment to benefit the patient, an ethical norm restrained and regulated by ability and judgment. German physicians with high professional qualifications severely manipulated and destroyed such a promise by daring to use living people as guinea pigs in the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women during World War II. Starting in the August of 1942 and ending in the September of 1943, Nazi medical doctors in the Ravensbrück camp conducted a series of injurious tests and experimental operations on Polish political prisoners, although Nazi experimentation on humans became characteristic to a number of other concentration camps as well.[1] The number of Polish women operated on in the camp totaled seventy-four, five of whom died as a result of the experimentation while six others were executed following the procedures.[2] These women, robbed of their own freedom and rights, became mere objects of experimentation to their perpetrators rather than the living and breathing humans they were.

A leg of one of the seventy-four Polish victims subjected to medical experiments in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.[3]

With the continuance of the war, the SS medical physicians were driven to perform this severe annihilation of human rights due to the growing military demand for wounded soldiers to return to the front to fight. Although the recognized and accepted ethical norm involved the primary experimentation to be conducted on animals, the German physicians as well as the SS administration were determined to accelerate the results, prompting their use of human beings. The Ravensbrück concentration camp became an ideal supply source for “human guinea pigs” considering it imprisoned individuals found troublesome to the Nazi regime, including the Polish political prisoners who were seen to be especially disruptive with their radical adherence and nationalism. Outside the Ravensbrück concentration camp, the most extreme cases of experimentation, in which humans were the initial ones experimented on, would only occur under strict regulation and with the free will and given consent of the person operated on. Violations of the set rules and regulations were considered crimes against humanity and therefore punishable by law. The SS racial and wartime political policies, which deemed prisoners as subhuman, disregarded all such regulation and ethical righteousness. Instead, the experimentation completed at Ravensbrück became a meticulously preplanned act that not only included the involvement of the German physicians performing the surgeries, but also encompassed the approval and knowledge of high ranking leaders and authoritative figures in the Nazi Party, leaving very few individuals entirely blameless in the completion of the cruelty and inhumanity found in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

The surgical room in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.[4]

The degree of cruelty, the loss of ethical roots, and the extreme nature of these experiments can only be grasped when the particular procedures and methods used on the female victims are explained. The selected women for the experiments were notified to appear at the camp’s hospital with no prior knowledge to why they were being summoned. In addition to having no choice and control over their own bodies, the prisoners were continually kept unaware of the procedures completed on them, as their wounds were kept covered in bandages for weeks at a time. The medical experiments performed fell into two categories, both of which involved intense pain and permanent injuries as the patients were ironically given little if any relief and medical assistance. The first group of experiments involved testing the efficiency of sulphonamide drugs.[5] In order to test the drugs, the selected patients were deliberately given wounds on the outer side of the calf and then injected with various strains of bacteria. In order to better replicate the injuries and conditions on the front-line, both glass and wood fragments were placed in the wound. The second set of experiments focused on discovering processes of regeneration for bones, muscles, and nerves in addition to attempting bone transplants. German physicians would therefore purposefully damage, break, and remove bones, muscles, and nerves from the thigh and calf. These experiments were performed to further development and progress in the area of plastic surgery, which is often labeled as the unnecessary and superficial medicine.

At the Nuremberg "Doctors' Trial," a doctor presents the scars on the leg of a Polish survivor who endured sulfanilamide experiments at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.[6]

To the German physicians and SS administration involved, the experiments performed brought in no human loss but rather a possibility for medical progress and benefits. The results of the experiments were presented and discussed in great detail by SS medical officers and other doctors in an organized conference in Berlin on May 24th to the 26th, 1943.[7] Although the deaths of several patients were reviewed at the conference, these deaths were brought forth purely on the basis of medical interest. Any form of protest against the criminal cruelty of the experiments was non-existent during the meeting. The true implications of the criminal cruelty and immorality encompassed in the human experimentation were not addressed till the Nuremberg Trials, specifically titled as the Doctors’ Trials for the cases involving Nazi human experimentation. Following the victory of World War II, the United States along with other Allied forces found it imperative to address the crimes against humanity administered by the prominent members of the defeated Nazi Germany in order to prevent any such happenings from reoccurring in the future. The indictment, filed on October 25, 1946, was composed of the following four charges:

1. Conspiracy to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity as described in counts 2 and 3;

2. War crimes: performing medical experiments, without the subjects' consent, on prisoners of war and civilians of occupied countries, in the course of which experiments the defendants committed murders, brutalities, cruelties, tortures, atrocities, and other inhuman acts. Also planning and performing the mass murder of prisoners of war and civilians of occupied countries, stigmatized as aged, insane, incurably ill, deformed, and so on, by gas, lethal injections, and diverse other means in nursing homes, hospitals, and asylums during the Euthanasia Program and participating in the mass murder of concentration camp inmates.

3. Crimes against humanity: committing crimes described under count 2 also on German nationals.

4. Membership in a criminal organization, the SS.[8]

Based on these charges, the majority of the accused SS medical doctors were either sentenced to death or imprisoned, and seven of the twenty-three defendants were acquitted on the charges. The fight for human rights and freedoms was not only limited to the Nuremberg Trials but rather expanded on a worldwide level with the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Arising from the events of World War II, the declaration represents the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are entitled[9] (the complete text of the UN Declaration can be found HERE). Article five of the declaration, which states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, directly acknowledges the happenings that occurred in such concentration camps as Ravensbrück.[10]

Works Cited

  1. Morrison, Jack G. Ravensbrück: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp 1939-45. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2000, 245.
  2. Machlejd, Wanda, ed. Experimental Operations on Prisoners of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Warsaw: Zachodnia Agencja Prasowa, 1960, 11.
  3. http://individual.utoronto.ca/jarekg/Ravensbruck/Experiments.html
  4. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Ravensbruck.html
  5. Machlejd, Wanda, ed. Experimental Operations on Prisoners of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Warsaw: Zachodnia Agencja Prasowa, 1960, 13.
  6. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Ravensbruck.html
  7. Machlejd, Wanda, ed. Experimental Operations on Prisoners of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Warsaw: Zachodnia Agencja Prasowa, 1960, 15.
  8. Weindling, Paul. “Human Guinea Pigs And The Ethics Of Experimentation: The BMJ's Correspondent At The Nuremberg Medical Trial.” BMJ: British Medical Journal 313 (Dec. 7, 1996): pp. 1467-1470.
  9. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations Web site. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ (accessed May 25, 2010).
  10. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations Web site. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ (accessed May 25, 2010).

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