Forced killings are “mercy deaths,” the condemned are “research material” and “disinfecting” describes sterilizations, killings and exile. “Deadly Medicine,” a new special exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, navigates the pseudo-science that underpinned the Holocaust.
How Germany, which had been a medical leader early in the 20th century, devolved into an epicenter of bad science is the exhibit’s central concern.
“We’re trying to help people understand how something like this could evolve,” said Arthur Berger, the museum’s director of communications.
The exhibit abounds with medical instruments, artifacts and records and explains how science, economics and politics acted as catalysts for the Holocaust.
Science to most would seem a benevolent instrument, but the exhibit shows how science can abet, if not spawn, gross-scale genocide.
The role of science in legitimizing large-scale forc! ed killings, sterilizations and deportations is a contributing factor to the uniqueness of the Holocaust, compared to other repressive and genocidal regimes, said exhibit curator Susan Bachrach.
The roots of the Nazis’ “science” date to the 19th century, when scientists worldwide wondered whether Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory could be applied to humans.
This application — eugenics — sought to improve the human genetic code via selective breeding. A confluence of events in Germany propelled the program from obscurity to a sadistic national movement.
An economic crisis created a pretext for the Nazis to pour resources into filtering the population of those “unfit” elements who were a financial burden, and physicians afforded the development credibility. Significantly, the Nazi party enjoyed a rate of membership among physicians higher than most other professions, including many Jews who continued to practice medicine in the Nazi state unti! l restrictions rained down.
“The underlying idea and ideology was t hat some people were less valuable than others,” Bachrach said.
German eugenics eventually cast Jews and others, including blacks and Gypsies, as an economic dredge whose very existence taxed the economy and their compatriots.
“Mercy deaths” first befell disabled infants and children but rapidly expanded to Jews and others deemed undesirable.
“Deadly Medicine” divides the history into three periods. “Science as Salvation” tracks the pre-Nazi period; “The Biological State” is concurrent with the rise of the Nazis; and “Final Solutions” covers the forced murders that began under the shadow of war.
The stark layout uses sharp graphics to evoke the Holocaust chronology.
The exhibit begins with bright lights, and then grows dim and opaque. Shades of green create the feel of a medical laboratory and patches of antiseptic white tiles suggest psychiatric wards. Late in the exhibit, the few splashes of color come from artistic works of condemned schizophrenics.!
A chair with raised ridges along the seat once forced photographic subjects into upright posture, a steel gynecological examination chair resembles a torture device and an acrylic cube displays two plaster-cast human heads used for medical education, one of Nordic descent, the other African.
A European map tracks the distribution of the races by colored dots, and its key ranks the races in descending order. Nordics top the list while Jews and Africans fall to the bottom.
Posters depict “undesirable” members of society as literally backbreaking. In one, a fit Aryan, the German racial ideal, bears a shoulder-straddling pole seating two sickly men. Others calculate the annual economic burden of such individuals in terms of tens of thousands of Reichsmarks and appeal to economic and nationalist sensitivities.
The exhibit concludes with a cast of a Jewish face once used for medical study.
The exhibit points out that other nations took similar measures, but! never at the level of a nationwide compulsory program.
In the Un ited States, laws that banned marriages between races and between the so-called normal- and feeble-minded were borne of the same ideals, but were not carried out on the same scale. The U.S. Supreme Court approved forced sterilizations, with the usually liberal Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes reasoning, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Unlike the smattering of American states and foreign nations that passed such laws and carried them out loosely, Germany dedicated a higher priority to such measures.
“This is a national health policy enforced with the power of the police,” Bachrach said.
The exhibit teaches that society should be wary of Machiavellian medical ethics, said Dr. Gilbert Meilaender, the Richard & Phyllis Duesenberg Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University in Indiana.
“It demonstrates that it’s precisely in aiming at health that we have to be careful because health is an undeniable good,” he said. “Curing illness and reli! eving suffering are important goods, but they are not the only goods.
But visitors should be careful to distinguish science as an accomplice to evil from science as a source of evil, said Dr. Ruth Faden, executive director of the Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute at the Johns Hopkins University and the daughter of Holocaust survivors.
“It’s unrealistic to think that science can be an island of rectitude in the wider ocean of culture,” she said. “You have to look at how in one country these pernicious theories found fertile political ground.”
The exhibit, open daily during museum hours, is open through October 2005. An online accompaniment captures the bulk of the content and can be found at the museum’s Web site, http://www.ushmm.org.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.