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Eugenicist Fischer
Professor Fischer at the University of Berlin

"The Role of Science in the Third Reich"

Book Essay on:
Benno Müller-Hill; Murderous Science:
Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others in Germany, 1933-1945

(Plainview, New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1997), translated by G.R. Frauser, 256 pages. UCSB: D804.G4 M7713.

by Taylor Mitchell
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$30 & searchable
at amazon

About Taylor Mitchell

I am a senior biology major, and my goal is to attend medical school after traveling and volunteering in South America for a year or two. In high school, I took a course on the Holocaust in which we studied the history and psychology of the Third Reich and heard survivors tell their stories. I developed a keen interest in the subject and decided to continue with my Holocaust education in college by taking History 133D. I chose to write about Müller-Hill’s book because it provides a link between my interest in medicine and the sciences and my interest in the Holocaust.

Abstract (back to top)

Murderous Science by Benno Müller-Hill chronicles the misuse of science in Nazi Germany and implicates the scientists who cooperated with the Nazis as being conspirators to the Final Solution because they gave genocide a scientific gloss. This disturbing book commences with a timeline of events that were important to the development and execution of Germany’s “racial cleansing”. Next, Murderous Science scrutinizes the historical function of science in the Holocaust—with very detailed and well-referenced specifics—by tapping into the ways that science bolstered Nazi principles, the motives of the scientists for willingly tainting the credibility of their fields, and the mutually enabling relationship between science and the murder of millions of innocent people. Müller-Hill’s work supports that the cooperation of the scientific community endowed the Nazi regime with legitimacy, the fuel that it needed to successfully implement its hateful and murderous acts.

Essay (back to top)


The Hippocratic Oath, a vow traditionally taken by doctors for the ethical deliverance of health care, pronounces, "I will use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgment; I will abstain from harming or wronging any man by it.” Doctors during Nazi Germany abandoned their oath, authorizing policies of Aryan racial purity that took precedence over such fundamental ethics as the delivery of quality healthcare. Benno Müller-Hill’s book, Murderous Science: Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others, Germany 1933-1945, chronicles the contributions of Nazi Germany’s perversion of medicine and science for the propagation and expansion of eugenics and racial hygiene policies. The main issues that the book addresses include the incentives, mentalities, and justifications that scientists had for contributing to the Nazi regime and the important roles that they played in legitimizing Nazi ideologies and actions. Sources that Müller-Hill employs to support his arguments include the published works of others in the field, old court records, conference notes, and interviews of scientists and their colleagues and relatives. His broad based research and perspectives make Murderous Science a very informative and thorough analysis of science’s service to the credos and methods of the Third Reich. According to Müller-Hill, scientists fueled Nazism in two ways: they lent legitimacy to Nazi racial ideology by producing studies purported to reveal biological differences between various groups, and also they devised more efficient means to conduct genocide.

The Book

Müller-Hill’s book commences with a timeline of events that were important to the development and execution of Germany’s “racial cleansing.” First cited is the rediscovery of the works of Mendel:

Those who regard the mental traits of Man (intelligence and so on) as being primarily inherited, believe that their hypothesis is scientifically proved by Mendelian genetics. …They see it as their duty to demand the prevention of procreation by ‘other inferior races’ and by ‘inferior individuals’ within their own race, in order to stave off the decline of European culture. (7)

This distortion of Mendel’s ideas gave rise to the idea that science can provide evidence for an inherent racial hierarchy. The bigotries of many Germans found a powerful ally in science, and the Nazi belief in a biological basis for racial superiority flourished. Finally an excuse existed to deprive certain groups of their civil and human rights, and ultimately of their lives. As such, sterilizations, concentration camps, and murders became justified via the belief that Aryan progeny was being protected and enhanced by the elimination of “hereditary deficiencies” from the gene pool. The Nazi interpretation of genetics maintained that discriminatory abuse was no longer a product solely of hate, but instead a mandate of public health. Next, Murderous Science scrutinizes the historical function of science in the Holocaust with very detailed and well-referenced specifics by tapping into the ways that science bolstered Nazi principles, and the reasons and ways that scientists willingly tainted the credibility of their fields.

The Use of Scientific Theories to Validate the Third Reich

The contributions of science were crucial in validating racism and hatred of the mentally ill. Science, due to its alleged objectivity, was able to decisively “prove” the ideologies and decrees of the Reich, making them seem reasonable and even beneficial in the eyes of the general German populace: “the study of human heredity became indispensable as a basis for important laws and regulations created by the new state” (61). Antisemitic propaganda, robbing Jews, and the technologies of murder all obtained an aura of scientific respectability and righteousness in Nazi Germany. Many different “scientific” theories were developed and explored by intellectual authorities in biology, anthropology, and psychology in attempt to find concrete evidence of genetic inferiority. Even though proof of such theories never came to fruition, the ideas were spread and planted in the thoughts and minds of the German people. One such theory, concocted by Professor Fischer from the University of Berlin in 1942, stated that “the morals and actions of the […] Jews bear witness to such a monstrous mentality that we can only speak of inferiority and of beings of another species” (46). His assertion supported that Jews were not on the same level as Aryan humans, and in so doing he subtly implied that their eradication would not be murderous and that scientific experimentation on such people as the Jews would be comparable to testing on lab rats. In effect, Fischer’s theory stripped the humanity from the Jewish people and replaced it with a propagandistically powerful and repugnant creature. Another popular way that Jewry was depicted was as a race of parasites whose contributions to the gene pool were slowly destroying Germany from within. In the 1936 edition of his book, The Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene, Professor Lenz, the department chief of the KWI of Anthropology, used the alleged parasitic quality of the Jewish race as evidence to justify their unequal treatment:

There is no doubt that the Jews can constitute a grave handicap for their host nation, and it is no accident that as long as there have been Jews there have been hostile feelings towards them, persecutions, and expulsions. A living creature develops better without parasites. (34)

The extraordinary fiscal crisis in Germany following WWI and the desire to upwardly mobilize, to escape the economic paralysis imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, likely inspired the need for a scapegoat. Historical and scientific references became valuable tools to qualify the blameworthiness of Jews for the troubles of the nation. Also, scientists in death camps like Auschwitz tried to prove the theory of heritable diversity using blood plasma samples from camp detainees to study “racially determined differences in serum following an infectious disease” (72). In hope of substantiating the Nazi principle of genetically based racial inferiority, more than 200 individuals were intentionally infected with lethal diseases. By believing that other races were parasitic vermin, scientists were able to experiment on these “lesser beings” since they could dismiss the ethicality of such atrociously inhumane exploits. Scientific theories such as these legitimized crimes and immorality in labs, in concentration camps, and in society as a whole.

Scientists’ Motives for Participation in the Nazi Regime

Why did scientists and medical doctors submit to the Nazi regime? These were individuals with degrees in medicine who had taken the Hippocratic Oath, people educated in physiology, anatomy, and biological processes, and yet they still found the will to lift Nazi ignorance into the realm of academic respectability and even to supervise the selections and exterminations in camps. Müller-Hill cites and outlines the motives of various historical scientists in order to account for some of their incentives. After World War I, science in Germany lost much of its pre-eminence. It no longer received adequate funding, nor did people endow it with the same amount of respect or credit. Many German scientists, along with much of Germany, became acutely resentful of the social demotion that they experienced under the Weimar government. When Hitler entered the political scene, many scientists saw hope for the rejuvenation of their fields, and were content to benefit from his regime, and benefit they did (88). Many profited scientifically by receiving either human subjects or large quantities of human body parts for study and experimentation, courtesy of the many dehumanized victims of eugenics. Included in this category is an experiment conducted by Professor Friedrich Deinhardt of the Institute of Hygiene of the University of Munich. For his research, Deinhardt gained authorization to infect children in mental institutions with the hepatitis virus in order to obtain more detailed data on the disease and its pathology (100). While scientific knowledge was gained from these tests, the infected children were forced to pay for the data with their lives. Also advantageous to the acquisition of scientific information was the supply of brains from murder victims that were available for study. As a result of the brain surplus, diagnoses of mental illness became more refined and accurate (93). One brain expert, Julius Hallervorden, head of the department of histopathology at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research, stated the following about children that his colleague, Carl Schneider had examined, prior to their murders, for learning disabilities, “You kill them anyway; at least take out the brains so the material can be used” for examining the post-mortem pathology. Another example is the research of Hirt: he studied the action of mustard gas, a toxic gas used in WWI, by exposing about 150 prisoners in the Natzweiler camp to the poison (52). The opportunity to research on human subjects was one alluring factor responsible for coaxing corruptible scientists to cooperate with Nazis and to endorse the regime. Another way that some scientists benefited from Nazism was psychologically: once again, they felt important to the practice and progression of science (82). Additionally, some scientists used opportunities presented by the applied science of eugenics to amass considerable wealth. The infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, for example, covertly robbed those people that he selected for extermination of everything they had, including gold teeth (74). Also, financial incentive sped the enactment of Nazi euthanasia laws: those physicians in charge of determining which people were to be euthanized were paid by the number of cases that they processed, but each evaluation only paid about as much as the cost of one cigarette (41). Therefore, physicians greedily rushed through their patients’ information, often deciding between life and death in a scant minute or two (History 133D, 2/14/2007). Scientists possessed very diverse and individualized reasons for joining the front line of the Nazis’ fight for racial purity.

Science Enables Mass Murder

Science benefited the Nazi movement for racial hygiene by depersonalizing the murder processes. One way that this was accomplished was by engineering sophisticated equipment to make the practice of mass murder as remote as possible. Technological advancements facilitated the detachment of the doctors, the S.S. officers, and their auxiliary staff from their homicidal tasks: “The more expensive and complicated the machines, the more the investigator distances himself from the person who is being investigated. This attitude reduces the person to a subservient depersonalized object,” (102). It would be very psychologically distressing to end the life of another in a situation where one must consciously point a gun at the human being gazing back, and then choose to pull the trigger. Flipping a switch or turning a gasket in a completely separate room made murder much less emotionally trying. The development of such things as gas chambers and crematoria kept the innumerable murders performed during the holocaust at both physical and psychical distances from the Nazis and their collaborating doctors. This enabled the fulfillment of mass slaughters with minimal remorse or reflection on the moral consequences of participation in such activities.

Ironies of the Mutualism Between Science and Nazism

Despite the valued stronghold that Nazism had in science, there were some definite contradictions and ironies in the relationship. For one, science claimed that Jews were an inherently diseased race, but the prevalence of disease among Jews only truly started once they had been deported to ghettos and concentration camps where conditions were unsanitary and food was scarce. Filth and poor nutrition led to epidemics, but since there was no adequate medical care provided to Jews, the solution to combat the epidemics was to send all infected people to the gas chambers (97). In this case, the abusive, neglectful treatment of Jews by Nazis enabled the “dirty Jew” stereotype to fit, and then murder became even more justifiable in the Nazi mind. Science played no role in providing supporting genetic evidence of the Jewish inferiority that Nazis held to be true. Science did not demonstrate the tendency of Jews to be carriers of disease until they were put into conditions where disease would be inevitable for anyone. The concept of a “diseased race” was given foundation on shaky, ex post facto ground and held no logical proof of any genetic pre-disposition. Another irony of Nazis’ dependency on science is the evidence that Hitler himself did not subscribe to the biological basis of race. In a political testament dictated in February and April of 1945 to his closest confidant, Bormann, Hitler stated the following:

The Jewish race is, more than anything else, a community of the spirit. In addition, they have a sort of relationship with destiny, as a result of the persecutions they have endured for centuries… And it is precisely this trait of not being able to assimilate, which defines the race and must be reluctantly accepted as proof of the superiority of the ‘spirit’ over the flesh. (86)

According to Müller-Hill, if this is an accurate reflection of Hitler’s thoughts, then he exploited scientists who thought along biological threads, making them accomplices to murder, although he did not believe in the scientific value of their research or work. Hitler’s distrust in the genetic determination of race totally undermines and contradicts the Nazi goal to cleanse and purify the German gene pool, thereby turning the execution of millions of innocent people into an even more meaningless tragedy. In cases such as these, the mutually beneficial relationship between science and Nazism is negated: in the first, science takes a blow for blatantly abandoning objectivity; in the second, Nazi ideology loses its credibility since even it’s leader does not believe in the science upon which its dogmatic roots first took hold.

Concluding Thoughts and Current Relevance

Nazi doctrine became a shrine to science and technology, and scientific professionals are largely responsible for having upheld this façade before the public eye. German physicians zealously gave legitimacy to policies of racial hygiene and eugenics in their eagerness to cooperate and collaborate with the Third Reich, which recognized and valued eugenicists. Thus, scientists conspired in the Final Solution to the Jewish question by giving genocide a scientific gloss. Currently, mankind is entering an age in which the human genome will be known. In the process of decoding our genetic constructs, intrinsic predispositions to certain conditions have been discovered, and there are certainly many more to be revealed. As scientific technologies advance and enable such breakthroughs, the value of individual life must be remembered. As the holocaust revealed, scientific competence is no protection from murderous immorality, and the sanctioned atrocities committed under the guise of "scientific reason" in Nazi Germany should serve as a constant reminder for the need of ethical and moral judgment. The sacrifice of innocent individuals is antithetical to medical science, and amoral traitors to the Hippocratic Oath should never again be hailed or enabled.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/21/08)

Book Reviews

  1. Brace, C Loring. "Murderous Science: Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others in Germany, 1933-1945 ." Human Biology. Feb, 2001. (link)
    This review states that Murderous Science is an “absolutely marvelous book” that boasts an unparalleled level of specificity and attention to detail.
  2. Yee, Danny. “Murderous Science: Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others in Germany, 1933-1945, Benno Müller-Hill”. Danny Yee’s Book Reviews. http://dannyreviews.com/h/Murderous_Science.html
    This review summarizes the main points of the book and describes it as a “valuable contribution” to history in the sense that it calls upon the scientific community to take responsibility for its role in the Holocaust.

Web Sites:

  1. Wikipedia. “Nazi Eugenics”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_eugenics
    This article outlines Germany’s race-based policies that attempted to rid the fatherland of “life unworthy of life”. It addresses Hitler’s views on eugenics and the eugenics program and its institutions.
  2. Hall, T.D.. “The Scientific Background of the Nazi “Race Purification” Program, US and German Eugenics, Ethnic Cleansing, Genocide, and Population Control”. 1995. http://www.trufax.org/avoid/nazi.html
    Hall provides reasons why scientists may have accepted the Nazi credo of racial superiority. He cites Darwinism, a widely accepted model of evolution that is based on “survival of the fittest,” as a major player in supporting Nazism. Through his analysis of Darwin’s principles, Hall shows that the Nazis’ twisted concept of natural selection led to the destruction that characterizes the Holocaust.

Books and Articles

  1. Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. (Basic Books, 2000). UCSB: HV2748.B5413.
    This book analyzes the horrifying phenomenon of doctors becoming instruments of mass murder. The book demonstrates the Nazi perversion of values that allowed mass killing to be seen as a means of healing of the body politic.
  2. Proctor, Robert. Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1988. UCSB: RA418.3.G3 P76.
    This book provides an explanation of the intricate interface between culture, politics, and science in the Third Reich. Proctors research shows that if one accepted Aryan supremacy as truth, that decisions of Nazi Germany, such as the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935, became highly logical.
  3. Aly, Gotz, P. Chroust, and C. Pross. Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. UCSB: R853.H8 A42.(amazon)
    The authors, all Germans, offer convincing evidence that the 350 doctors tried at Nuremberg were not exceptions in the German medical profession, but rather a small fraction of a much larger group of medical doctors, professors, scientists, and researchers that committed medical crimes in the Third Reich.  
  4. Bryant, Michael S.. Confronting the “Good Death”: Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005. UCSB: D804.H35 B79.
    Bryant’s work focuses on the respective judicial efforts of the U.S. government and West Germany to punish the euthanasia killers after the WWII. His work addresses the impact of politics on each of the courts' depictions of Nazi euthanasia practices, and shows how international relations played into the prosecutions.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/20/08; last updated:
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