Edited by Susan Benedict and Linda Shields
The ethics of nursing and midwifery, and how these were abrogated
during the Nazi era. Nurses and midwives actively killed
their patients, many of whom were disabled children and infants and patients
with mental (and other) illnesses or intellectual disabilities. The
book for the first time, explains the role of one of the world's most
historically prominent midwifery leaders in the Nazi crimes... "a
groundbreaking and chilling historical analysis of a medical system in which
death becomes a medical cure and nursing professionals view their allegiance
to the state, their superiors and society above that of individual
The role of physicians in the crimes of the Nazi era in Europe has been extensively studied, but nurses and midwives have been largely ignored. Many of the crimes for which doctors were charged and punished occurred in hospitals, and nurses make up the main work force in any hospital; ergo, they, too, were at least complicit in, and often primarily responsible for,
many of the same crimes. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the so-called "euthanasia" programs, where people, including children, were systematically killed because they were considered "life unworthy of life" or "useless feeders". (It is worth noting here that the term "euthanasia" is a misnomer. While the word means "a good death" there was nothing
good about how these people died. However, it continues to be used in the context of these crimes.)
Midwives were mandated to report infants born with deformities so they could be killed, and the midwives were paid per capita to do so. Psychiatric hospitals were cleared of their patients and used for barracks to house soldiers. Killing took place in the hospitals, and often a crematorium was built on site to dispose of the dead. A telling film exists-now held by and publicly available from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum-which shows a nurse in uniform helping naked men and
boys into a gas chamber. The care she takes to put a blanket around their shoulders makes us wonder how a nurse, who is educated and trained to think that caring is the platform on which her/his work is based, can regard killing as a legitimate part of that caring. This is the essence of this book.
While there is a large literature about the roles of the medical profession in the Third Reich, the reason that nursing and midwifery have been largely ignored until recently is open to supposition. Two authors have been dominant in the area (apart from the contributors to this book). A German nurse, Hilde Steppe (1947-1999), first published reports of the role of German nurses in the Nazi era in the early 1980s in German and then in the 1990s in English. Historian Bronwyn McFarland- Icke published a book about psychiatric nurses in Nazi Germany in 1999. Other investigations in the area have been piecemeal, and a conference held in Limerick in Irelandin 2004 highlighted the dearth of scholarship in this area of nursing and midwifery history. Perhaps this deficit relates to the fact that females have traditionally dominated these professions, and it has been assumed that women would not commit such crimes. It could be due to the fact that
people hold nursing and midwifery in high regard, and believe (as we have been told on several occasions) that "nurses would not do those things". Such unenlightened thinking inhibits full and proper examination of a dark side of the history of nursing and midwifery. Unless this is addressed, we cannot develop the professions to their full potential.
This book has eleven chapters. This first introductory chapter, called "Setting the Scene", does just that, with explanations of the primary political theories of fascism and Nazism, how the Nazis came to power, the role of propaganda in influencing the lives of the German people, and a description of the "T4" programs, which were the planned and systematic killing
of people with a range of illnesses and disabilities.
Chapter 2 examines the role played by eugenics in the development of the racially motivated killings in which nurses were complicit.
Chapter 3 discusses nursing in Nazi Germany, describing how the profession developed and was structured in that era.
Chapter 4 explains how psychiatric nursing was structured in Nazi Germany, and how it was the main specialty of nursing under which the killings were done.
Chapter 5 discusses the "euthanasia" programs in detail.
Chapter 6 explains the actions of nurses at Meseritz-Obrawalde, one of the psychiatric hospitals that were killing centers, and, using trial transcripts, examines the nurses' justifications for their roles in murder.
Chapter 7 includes more detail from another institution and testimonies
of the nurses who killed.
Chapter 8 describes the role of midwives
Chapter 9 is a discussion on how the lessons learned from the euthanasia
program can be taught to nurses and midwives today.
In Chapter 10, there is a discussion of the philosophical and sociological theories that could
account for the nurses' and midwives' actions, while
Chapter 11 rounds off the discussion with some questions as to whether this could happen again,
and some reflections on how similar things are happening in twenty-first century nursing and midwifery practice.
The book is available for download on online reading here
Susan Benedict is Professor of Nursing, Director of Global Health, and CoDirector of the Campus-WideEthics Program
at the University of Texas Health Science Center School of Nursing in Houston.
Linda Shields is Professor of Nursing-Tropical Health at James Cook University, Townsville,Queensland,and Honorary
Professor, School of Medicine,The University of Queensland.
[Yep. All over again. I guess I am particularly sensitive to
these seemingly separate issues because as a biochemistry major, and having
already published research, my thesis director suggested that I so something
more broadly relevant to research ethics. Bottom line, I finally did my
biochemistry thesis on the Nazi medical war crimes, finally narrowing the topic
to Mengele's twin (TWIN TWIN TWIN) experiments. It wasn't an
"ethical" analysis, but a scientific analysis of his researcher evaluating his
scientific method, procedures, data and conclusions. Spend a year and a
half at the Library of Congress researching it. It has stayed with me all
these years, and I finally wrote an article for people who kept wondering why I
chose to do the doctoral dissertation I did: “Me
and Mengele” (October
18, 2003), at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_136meandmengele.html
(also attached to this email). Very worrisome. -DNI]