by John Carlos Cantu
U-M Taubman Health Sciences Library exhibit presents a chilling look at Nazi ideology.
The 1938 words of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda,
stand above the display panels of what is undoubtedly the most somber
exhibit Ann Arbor has seen at the University of Michigan Taubman Health
Sciences Library. Goebbel’s quote runs as follows: “Our
starting point is not the individual, and we do not subscribe to the
view that one should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, or
clothe the naked…. Our objectives are entirely different: We must have a
healthy people in order to prevail in the world.”
These words are chilling and they’re more
than an adequate rationale for this heart-rending investigation into a
politics that sought to implement one of the most perverse policies in
As Mary Beth Reilly, writer for the U-M’s Center for the History of Medicine,
says in the display’s gallery statement, “The Nazi regime was founded
upon the conviction that ‘inferior races’ and individuals had to be
eliminated from German society so that the fittest ‘Aryans’ could
“By the end of World War II, six million
Jews and millions of others—among them Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), people
with disabilities, homosexuals, and others belonging to ethnic groups
deemed inferior—had been persecuted and murdered.” And
as Alexandra Minna Stern, Zina Pitcher Collegiate Professor of the
History of Medicine and Associate Director of the Center for the History
of Medicine at the U-M Medical School, adds, “The exhibition is a
visually powerful experience for viewers that shows how the doctrine of
racial hygiene was taken to its most heinous extremes.”
Indeed. And as the exhibit pointedly illustrates, there’s more than enough blame to go around. For the exhibit begins with a panel illustrating the various programs from countries
around the world (including the United States) advocating various
eugenic schemes at the turn of the 20th century whose “racial hygiene”
included programs in population policy, public health education, and
government-funded research whose ends (even if they weren’t remotely the
same) clearly showed an undeniable bias.
The rediscovery of Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel’s genetics experiments in 1900 coupled with the increasingly fashionable “Social Darwinism” of British philosopher cum sociologist Herbert Spencer, whose catchphrase “survival of the fittest” was being bandied about, led
to increasing public prestige in the efforts to stabilize public policy
issues that emerged with increasing industrialization and urbanization.
This was, in retrospect, a philosophical and political slippery slope
that was in part absorbed in the ideology and practice of the newly
emergent Nazi party of the 1920s.
From the early 1930s through the balance of the Nazi regime, there were repeated campaigns to rid German society of what they viewed as biological threats. As “Deadly Medicine” clearly shows, this
policy absorbed the efforts and energies of many of the nation’s most
talented doctors, psychiatrists, anthropologists, and medically trained
geneticists, as well as social planners and party functionaries at every
level. [And soon to be repeated in the form of Obamacare - ED]
What started as a secret campaign to eliminate the weak and infirm disguised as medical assistance
metastasized into a full-fledge program of eradication under the
pressure of World War II. Ultimately, this so-called “sanitary campaign”
finally took form as a genocide that we now know as the Holocaust,
resulting in the near total annihilation of Europe’s Jewish population.
To its credit, “Deadly Medicine” doesn’t pull any punches. Its juxtaposition of scientific certitude and racial hatred are handled as responsibly as the topics deserve.
By naming names, dates, and events—as well
as providing significant visual evidence—the exhibit takes the full
measure of this circumstance where those in charge of healing
and sustenance distorted their responsibilities until their lifework
turned into a horror whose pain continues to this day.
It’s certainly enough pain for Professor Stern to remind us that the example of this massive failure of science, technology, tolerance, and ultimately compassion, “raises weighty questions about the potential benefits and harms of genetic and reproductive technologies today.” And it’s on this cautionary note that the solemn exhibit rightfully concludes.
“It’s certainly enough pain for Professor Stern to remind us that the example of this massive
failure of science, technology, tolerance, and ultimately compassion,
“raises weighty questions about the potential benefits and harms of genetic and reproductive technologies today.” And it’s on this cautionary note that the solemn exhibit rightfully concludes.” The article first appeared here. - DNI