UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay

“Improper Use of Cancer Research for Nazi Agenda”

Book Essay on: Robert Proctor, The Nazi War on Cancer:
( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 278pages.
UCSB: Sciences Engineering Library RC268 .P77 1999

by Muey Saelee
May 14, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at

About Muey Saelee

I am a senior Sociology major and an Asian American Studies minor. Within my coursework studies, I study the causes and effects of immigration patterns within the United States as well as immigration abroad. I chose to write my paper on Proctor’s book because I am interested in how science and medicine were affected by Nazism. More specially, I wanted to learn what types of medical experiments were carried out within the camps.

Abstract (back to top)

Proctor’s book reveals how advanced German technology and medicine were in compared to different parts of the world. As Germany became an industrialized country, different forms of cancer became a major issue for researchers. As Germany launched an aggressive campaign against cancer in order to find it causes and ways to prevent it, it opened ways to set standards for public health education. Although cancer research was beneficial to the German state, it was used as an offensive move on behalf of that Nazis. Cancer research was an underlying factor for the eradication of Jews. The Holocaust victims became human subjects for medical experiments within the concentration camps, especially at Auschwitz. The language of medical reports was twisted and reproduced to reflect that Jews were inferior to the German State. One can note the development of antisemitic values within the Nazis’ campaign against cancer.

Essay (back to top)

During the reign of Nazism, German scientists used various studies of cancer as the basis for their eradication of the Jewish nation. As Germany became a more industrialized nation, it was also becoming a nation with an alarming high rate of cancer in comparison to other regions of the world (20). With such high rates of cancer, it propelled German scientists into the field of cancer research in order to find the causes for the various cancers they encountered. Robert N. Proctor’s book, The Nazi War on Cancer, Proctor describes the essence of the campaign against cancer for the Nazis’ cause and its citizens. Although, Proctor neither commends nor pardons the Nazis for their action, he does however reveal a positive side of Fascism. Fascism propelled the emphasis of preventative medicine, anti-tobacco use, and implemented a healthier lifestyle by changing their food diet. The data they gathered from their scientific findings were used as a justification for the portrayal of Jews as “diseased” and “inferior” to the German state. The Nazis' vigorous campaign against cancer was decisively shaped by Nazi ideology through contrived medical reports in order to promote two main ideals: that of the "healthy German" and that of the "inferior Jew." Thus, this campaign furthered the Nazi cause especially with regard to disseminating antisemitic propaganda.

In the early 1930s, there was a major call for finding ways to protect an individual from acquiring cancer. Erwin Liek, a Danzig surgeon, promoted that “a natural way of life was the best protection: ‘the simpler and more natural one’s way of life, the rarer is cancer’” (24). In addition to protecting oneself, there was a huge push for prevention. As ideology of prevention emerges, it strongly urged citizens to visit their physicians for routine physical exams. Since Germany had a high cancer rate, the nation eventually moved from the thought of caring for one person to ensuring the health of the entire nation (25). Proctor states, “The ideology of prevention merged with the ideology of ‘one for all and all for one’ was yet another hallmark of Nazi thought” (26). The prevention of cancer played into another view of the Nazis that stressed the importance of “nature and natural modes of living” (26). The Nazis believed that good health could be restored if one avoided exposing oneself to harmful substances (27). Any aspect of cancer studies was twisted in order to conform to the Nazis’ agenda for racial purity. They highly promoted early detection for signs of cancer because it was best treated if found early. Propaganda was used to “encourage” women to consult their doctors for signs of breast cancer through various posters (29-31). The posters highlighted the importance of self-breast exams and analogies to car maintenance (29-31). One of the major slogans during this time was “Cancer can be cured, if detected early,” which listed early warning signs of cancer on the posters (28). Proctor states, “Aggressive measures in the field of public health would usher in a new era of healthy, happy Germans, united by race and common outlook, cleansed of alien environmental toxins, freed from the previous era’s plague of cancers, both literal and figurative” (34).

To racially purify the German state, the implementation of the Civil Service Law of April 7, 1933, removed all persons of “Jewish or related blood” from governmental research and teaching positions (35). The loss of Jewish researchers did not slow down the campaign against cancer. Instead German scientists began to establish cancer registries which kept detailed accounts of those who died from cancer and how often it was occurring (40-41). Numerous metaphors represented all that was undesirable through the changes in the language of cancer in order to serve the Nazification of Germany (46). Proctor explains, “Jews were often characterized as tumors within the German body,” (46) creating the image that Jews were an inferior class of citizens. The Nazi physicians took whatever pieces they wanted from medical reports in order to support their claim that Jews were physically and mentally disabled to support their personal agenda. Another important aspect of Nazi ideology is biological determinism, the belief that biology is destiny and that those who were “diseased” were so because of their genetic background (58). This idea became the basis for the prevention of marriages between a Jew and a German. Gerhard Wagner, Reich Physicians’ Fuhrer, “claimed that the mixing of Jewish and non-Jewish blood would spread the ‘diseased genes’ of the ‘bastardized’ Jewish race into the ‘relatively pure’ European stocks” (62). In order to maintain a pure German nation, sterilization of genetic defectives became mandatory because it was seen as the only way of preventing reproduction of the inferior.

In January of 1933, when Hitler assumed power he put an end to unemployment by emphasizing that work was a moral duty to oneself and a obligation to the German state (74). The mobilization of the workforce also gave rise to the number of accidents and injuries on the worksite (75). Nazi officials seek out the most productive and high performing workers because they were beneficial to the German state. Laws were established to protect those who were healthy. They received benefits such as restrictions on work hours and compensation for illness acquired from work (78). Another important aspect of having healthy Germans was emphasized in their food diet, which called for a return to foods that were “more natural,” such as fruits and vegetables. Nazi nutritionists implied that an improper diet could contribute to cancer. There were numerous campaigns, which reinforced the notion that people should not consume large amounts of meats, additives, and preservatives. The Germans looked up to the Nazi leaders when it came to following such a diet. Adolf Hitler was a prime example of the Nazi diet because he was a vegetarian and he stay away from alcohol.

Since the Germans’ main campaign was against cancer, they tried to implement ways for their citizens to protect themselves from cancer by making lifestyle changes in various ways. The Nazis were strongly against tobacco use because it “was [seen as] a genetic poison; a cause of infertility, cancer, and heart attacks; a drain on national resources and a threat to public health” (174). “The Nazi regime launched an ambitious antismoking campaign, involving extensive public health education, bands on certain forms of advertising, and restriction on smoking in many public spaces” (175). Pamphlets were published to warn the young about the dangers of smoking (198). Legal restrictions were advocated by antitobacco activists such as increased tobacco taxes and prohibited smoking while driving and in the workplace (201). The campaign revealed an interesting light about how politics can affect science by reproducing the goals of a political party. Once the connection between smoking and cancer was established, bans were created in order to preserve a healthy German nation. Tobacco use was stated to have hindered a German soldier full potential within the army (187). The University of Jena was the center of anti-tobacco activism. It implemented a strict ban on smoking on the campus and in the classrooms. Karl Astel, president of Jena University and director of Jena’s Institute for Tobacco Hazards, “promoted both medically informed propaganda and politically informed scientific research” (213). Astel also held antisemitic views and advocated euthanasia. Proctor states, “The 1941 conference celebrating the founding of Jena’s antitobacco institute blamed Jews for introducing tobacco into Germany, and Jews were charged with dominating the tobacco import centers of Amsterdam” (68).

As Germany became more advanced in cancer research, the data gathered from scientists were often used to fuel the political agendas of the Nazi regime. Cancer research was tainted in order to show full-blooded Germans that they were far superior to Jews. Repeatedly, medical reports created a way to establish a link between Jews and cancer. Proctor states, “Jews were not just disproportionately immune or susceptible to cancer; Jews were also accused of being one of its causes” (68). In order to purge Germany of Jews, the Nazis used propaganda to control the lives of the Germans and to insert the Nazi belief of superiority. The Nazis found every possible excuse that they could in order to blame the Jews for the mishaps in Germany.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 5/14/10)

Book Reviews

  • Jeff Zaleski and Paul Gediman, Publishers Weekly June 1999, Vol. 246 Issue 24, p62, 1/3p

    Although, Fascism is portrayed in a negative way during the years of the Holocaust,Zaleski states that Proctor was able to show the positive side through their medical advances in cancer research. The Nazis were able to construct various forms of public health standards from cancer research. Proctor is able to present his findings without personal biases; he neither accepts nor denies the morality of Nazi experiments.

  • Harry K. Ziel., Skeptic 1999, Vol. 7 Issue 4, p92-93

    German scientific research during Nazism were done through cruel human experiments which were used to spread antisemitic views. However, Ziel states that Proctor is able to shed a different view about German science. Proctor mentions how changes in medicine were beneficial to German citizens.

Books and Articles

  • Robert Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988

    Proctor reveals how German scientist’s participation was essential to the creation of racial purity. It shows that the use of medicine was a highly politicized debate. It also includes how the study of eugenics played a major part in the implementation for the eradication of the Jewish nation.

  • Benno Muller-Hill, Muderous Science: Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others in Germany, 1933-194 United States: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1998

    This book explains how the Nazis adopted the study of eugenics even though it lacked any validity. The study of eugenics claimed that human behavior were influence by the genes a person inherits. It reveals the outcome of mass murder of Jews through the collision of eugenics and racist politics through the implementation of the Final Solution

Relevant Websites

  • Robert Proctor, Nazi Medicine and Public Health Policy Dimensions, Vol 10, No 2, 1996

    According to Proctor, in order to understand Nazi science and medicine, two myths must be clarified: flawed science and abandoned ethics. For many Nazi scientists, the main goal was to find ways to “cleanse” Germany of “pollutants” that Nazi leaders deemed undesirable. In order to please the Nazi leaders, many abandoned their ethic morals about good and bad.

  • Unknown Author, Eugenics Accessed: March 19, 2010

    The theory of eugenics was created as a way to use science to justify the ways in which a human population could be controlled. Eugenics combined with Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” played perfectly into the Nazi agenda to do away with the Jews. Eugenics allowed the Nazis to spread word that Jews were inferior and harmful to the German State. This subjected the Jews to lowest class possible, therefore by making Germans the highest in social hierarchy

  • Robert Proctor, The anti-tobacco campaign of the Nazis: a little known aspect of public health in Germany, 1933-45 Published: March 2005. Accessed: March 02, 2010

    Although, Nazis had an aggressive campaign against cancer, Hitler was a big advocate against the use of tobacco. Cancer research is connected to anti-tobacco campaigns because it was portrayed as “hazardous to the German race.”

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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 Muey Saelee on 5/14/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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