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Nazis and Animal Research

On April 24, 1989, Drs. Daniel Johnson and Frederick Goodwin from the National Institutes of Health, argued on the McNeil-Lehrer television program that "The only people in modern society that have not used animals for research were the Nazis." They further contended that because the Nazis passed an anti-vivisection bill in 1933, they were led to experiment on human beings, and that there is therefore a relationship between animal rights and a loss of human rights. None of this is true.The "anti-vivisection law," which the Nazis purported to pass, like Hitler's vegetarianism, is filled with contradictions.

A study of the law the Nazis passed shows that this law had enough loopholes in it to assure the continuation of animal research; consequently, an enormous amount of animal experimentation continued to be carried out by Nazi doctors. The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, reviewed the Nazis law and warned anti-vivisectionists not to celebrate because the Nazis law was no different, in effect, from the British law that had been passed in 1875, which restricted some animal research, but hardly eliminated it.

Furthermore, a law passed by the Weimar government in 1931 required that all experiments on human beings be first conducted on animals. Such a requirement exists in the United States as in many countries that practice animal research. In other words, animal research is often a legal justification for experimentation on humans, as it functioned in Nazi Germany. The 1931 law in Germany was never abrogated. Nazis doctors dutifully submitted written statements when they requested "human material" for experiments which carried the legal notification that such experiments had been first conducted on animals. The first request for "test persons" was made by Dr. Sigmund Rascher to Himmler on May 15, 1941, "for two or three professional criminals" for "High-Altitude Research." It states that human beings were needed "because these experiments cannot be conducted with monkeys, as has been tried...."

Two books written about the experiments on human beings, The Death Doctors and Doctors of Infamy (Mitscherlich and Mielke) record many experiments on animals as part of the normal procedure of experiments on human beings. For example, Inspector of Air Force Medical Service, Hippke, wrote on March 6, 1943: "I instantly assented to these experiments because our own preliminary tests on large animals had been concluded and required supplementation (p. 33); and again, "Today I again face a problem calling for final solution, following numerous animal experiments and also tests on human volunteers." (p. 36)

The evidence of Nazis experiments on animals is overwhelming. John Vyvyan in The Dark Face of Science (Micah Publications), summed it up correctly: "The experiments made on prisoners were many and diverse, but they had one thing in common: all were in continuation of, or complementary to experiments on animals. In every instance, this antecedent scientific literature is mentioned in the evidence: at Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps, human and animal experiments were carried out simultaneously as parts of a single programme." (p. 159). These were the typhus experiments.

Much of that "antecedent literature" is recorded in a book by Eugene Kogon, The Theory and Practice of Hell (1950), in the chapter, "Scientific Experiments." Kogon had been a political prisoner in Buchenwald where he served as a medical clerk in a laboratory where human experiments were conducted. His reports contain lists that include serum preparation made from rabbit lungs, mouse and rabbit livers, and typhus strains injected into guinea pigs. The notorious sterilization program carried out on concentration camp inmates was first developed on animals.

Robert Proctor's book, The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton University Press, 1999), records Nazi animal experimentation, which should leave no one in doubt about where Nazi doctors and scientists stood on this issue. These animal experiments were often embedded in the continuum of animal research that had been ongoing for decades. By the 1920s the Germans had developed strains of mice that were "more or less receptive to the uptake of cancer tissue transplants....SS chief Heinrich Himmler was apparently intrigued by the prospect of breeding a race of cancer-prone rats; in a 1939 meeting with Sigmund Rascher, the notorious Dachau hypothermia experimenter, the SS Reichsführer proposed breeding such a race of rodents.... (p. 63) "by the end of the 1920s, there was a sizable scientific literature on radiation carcinogensis, including a large body of work based on animal experiments." (p. 83) By the mid 1930s the Nazis had formidable laboratory evidence of some the causes of cancer based on animal experiments: "Experiments were...performed that finally produced--for the first time anywhere--lung cancers in animals raised in the mines." By 1938, Nazi scientists could produce lung cancer in 25% of the mice raised in mine shafts. "This was the first conclusive animal experimental evidence that breathing air in the mines could cause lung cancer." (p.99). The Nazis conducted their "war on cancer" with animals as their weapon of choice. Indeed, in 1943, at the height of a world war, the Nazi government developed plans for a "'tumor farm' to raise animals for use in experiments." (p. 261).

As Proctor states, animal experiments were vital to the ideological stance of Nazisim: "Animal experimental evidence was extrapolatedto humans, bolstered by the ideological push to see all aspects of human behavior--including purported racial differences--as rooted in "blood," race, or genes." (p. 63)

Finally, animal experimentation in Nazi Germany led to and laid the legal foundation for human experimentation. Human experimentation is the reverse side of the coin of animal experimentation. They are part of the same historical process. This theme was developed by me in an article, "The Social and Medical Antecedents to the Nazis Experiments in the Concentration Camps," for a Holocaust Conference in 1988. The paper was subsequently included in an anthology of holocaust writings, Bearing Witness, and is included in Autobiography of a Revolutionary (Micah Publications).

Statements by journalists such as Charley Reese that "The 1930s version of animal-rights people gave the world the Holocaust," are outrageous. It confuses the experiments on human beings with the Holocaust per se, which was the hunting down of Jews with the purpose in mind of exterminating them. The medical experiments were tangential to Hitler's plans for genocide against the Jews, as Raul Hilberg, states in The Destruction of The European Jews. Japan conducted similar experiments on a similar number of people (about 3,000, many of them Chinese citizens and U.S. soldiers) where there was no Holocaust of Jews. The history of medical experiments in the United States, Germany, Japan, and elsewhere has nothing to do with antisemitism: it is the outcome of an independent history concerning the development of the experimental method in modern medicine, which formally began in the middle of the 19th century with the work of Claude Bernard.

The Nazis often did important scientific research, much of which has found its way into our own research. They developed the most extensive anti smoking legislation of any western countries; they did important research on the effects of industrial pollution on the environment, much of which found its way into Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring--which is not an indictment of Rachel Carson. When World War 11 first ended and news of the horrendous research on human beings was made public, Western scientists wanted to denounce Nazi science as "pseudo science" for fear of being tarnished by the public's loathing of Nazi science, but Nazi science finds its way into our science all the time, including findings gained from their experiments on human beings.

Many people think the Nuremburg laws put an end to the possibility of experimentation on human beings. This is not so. The Nuremburg laws constitute an ethical desideratum, not law, and do not have legal status in the United States. In 1987, the Supreme Court heard a case in which a U.S. soldier sued the government for having used him as a test case for LSD experiments, without his knowledge (Stanley vs. The United States). The court voted 5 to 4 against the victim. For a recent review of experiments conducted on human beings in the U.S., without their informed consent, see Clouds of Secrecy: The Army's Germ Warfare Tests over Populated Areas, by Leonard A. Cole, Subjected to Science, by Susan Lederer, Johns Hopkins Press (This books studies experimentation on human beings between the two world wars); and Stranger at The Bedside by David J. Rothman, which studies this problem in the period after the Second World War. There are many more books on this subject. Many of them can be found on the Internet, under "Human Experimentation," or at, under the same heading.

It is alleged that the Nazis revered or admired animals. Hitler's nickname, "Wolf" is adduced as evidence for this. The Nazi interest in animals was part of their adaptation of social Darwinism to racial policies: they were fond of powerful animals, not animals they perceived as weak. Hitler's nickname, "Wolf" is a good example. He didn't call himself "rabbit," or "deer." As Kenneth Clarke points out in The History of Animals in Art human behavior towards animals is extremely paradoxical. Human beings can be fond of animals and cruel towards them. Admiration for animals often accompanies cruelty towards them. A hunter loves his hunting dog. Lion hunters admire the lion. Some Medieval barons had bears inscribed on their escutcheons, yet hunted them and tortured them, sometimes blinding them for entertainment and bear fights.

The serious evaluation of Nazi science in the modern world is only beginning, half a century after the war. There is still much sorting to do, but we are not in doubt about the Nazis' experiments on animals and humans.