Dachau: The Origins and Brutalities of a Concentration Camp
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and foreseeing the need to legalize the incarceration of political opponents, had a Presidential Order signed that stated in part that "those who endanger human life by their opposition will be sentenced to penal servitude, or in extenuating circumstances to a term of imprisonment of not less than six months."1 With this order, the German government's need for concentration camps, both for political opponents and for government termed social undesirables, such as Jews, became a part of German law. Within six weeks, on March 22, 1933, the doors would open at the Dachau concentration camp, which in future years would see itself used as a model for other concentration camps.2 The gassing of concentration camp prisoners is a well-established fact, but while Dachau had its share of gas chambers, it is also infamous for some of the most brutal human medical experiments to ever take place. In the scope of this paper discussion will focus on the early days of Dachau, the medical experiments that took place at Dachau, and finally the liberation of the camp and the ethical questions that have arisen from the gruesome experiments that took place there.
Dachau was the first concentration camp opened and had accommodations for 5000 prisoners.3 Established near Munich, Dachau was the first permanent camp established under control of the SS in an attempt to regularize the system of camps. As more camps were needed to house the growing number of political and social prisoners, Dachau became the model for other camps and a "training ground for generations of camp commanders."4 The first group of prisoners were comprised of members of the Communist and Social Democratic parties, Catholics, and Jewish lawyers and doctors. Brutality was part of the camp system from the beginning as guard began executing prisoners from the very first days of the camp's existence.5 Over the twelve years of Dachau's active existence many more atrocities would be committed.
The first commandant of Dachau was SS-Oberfuhrer Wackerle who set out rules for the punishment and classification of prisoners.6 These rules were arbitrary enough so that the prisoners were at the mercy of the guards. When Wackerle was investigated by the Public Prosecutor's Office in May 1933, and summarily charged for the death of a prisoner, Sebastian Nefzer, he was promptly replaced by Theodor Eicke.7 Under Eicke's leadership, the Dachau system of punishment would be further systematized and would see the camp become the model for all other concentration camps.8 Eicke sought to standardize the system of punishment and set forth a principle that "prisoners should be treated with the maximum, though impersonal and disciplined, severity and should be shown no lenience."9 With Eicke's advancement of Wackerle's regulations, the brutality that would define the concentration camps had been born.
The original population of Dachau was 1,200 prisoners, but by the end of 1933 the number of registered prisoners had climbed to 4,821.10 As the population increased and the death toll mounted, the disposal of bodies became an issue for Commandant Eicke. Most deaths prior to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1940, were a result of natural attrition, exposure, disease, or from executions for supposed violations of the Disciplinary and Penal Code for the Prison Camp.11 In the beginning, common graves were for burial, but as Soviet prisoners of war were housed at Dachau, and many summarily executed, the problem of body disposal was a critical one for the Nazis.12 As a result of the growing number of prisoner fatalities, the first crematorium at Dachau was erected in 1940, in a well-concealed site.13
Due to the high number of deaths at Dachau following the invasion of the Soviet Union, additional crematoriums were needed. Mazal states that "in the autumn of 1941 …. mass liquidations took place daily" and that "well over 6,000 were executed" following the invasion of Russia.14 Because of the increased number of war prisoners, a four-furnace crematory, which included five gas chambers, was constructed in 1943.15 This new crematory would be put to use by the Nazis to fumigate clothing, exterminate prisoners, and dispose of bodies.
Of the five gas chambers in the new crematorium, the largest and most visible is the chamber disguised as a shower room. It was in this chamber that the deaths of prisoners took place.16 This room is equipped with fake shower heads hanging from the ceiling, a sign over the door stating Brausebad (shower room), and a brick finish that simulates tiles.17 This is clearly one of the infamous rooms which were used as a ploy to make victims think that they were going for a bath. Whether this gas chamber was ever used for homicidal purposes seems to be a bone of contention with historians and camp eyewitnesses. In contrast to the large chamber, the remaining four gas chambers are all smaller and seemed to be designed for fumigation and disinfestation. With lice-born typhus a danger due to overcrowding in the concentration camp, these chambers were used to fumigate clothing, bedding, blankets, and other materials with a hydrogen cyanide gas.18
More than just blatant homicide occurred at Dachau. It was at this camp were some of the most brutal and infamous human experiments took place during the Nazi regime. The experiments at Dachau, which included high altitude tests and hypothermia tests, were conducted by Dr. Sigmund Rascher. Dr. Rascher was born in 1909 and joined the Nazi party and the SA in 1933. In 1939, Rascher joined the SS and was inducted into the Luftwaffe.19 When Himmler was approached by Air Force Field Marshall Erhard Milch with the proposal for hypothermia experiments, Rascher, who was an acquaintance of Himmler’s, was called upon to conduct the tests along with Drs. Holzloehner and Finke. After two months, Holzloehner and Finke left the project and Rascher was left to conduct the experiments on his own.20
The most infamous experiments at Dachau were part of the immersion-hypothermia project, which purpose was to "establish the most effective treatment for victims of immersion hypothermia", especially for pilots shot down over the North Sea.21 This experiment involved male civilian prisoners of various religions and nationalities and also Soviet prisoners of war. The subjects were usually forced, although Berger states that occasionally volunteers were used "in response to promises, rarely fulfilled, of release from the camp or commutation of the death sentence."22
In the hypothermia experiments, subjects would be placed in water varying from 2.5 to 12 degrees Centigrade, dressed in a complete flying uniform and with a rubber life jacket to prevent submerging.23 Berger states that some of the subjects used were naked, and that some were anesthetized while others were conscious.24 Also, Rascher writes that in a September 10, 1942 report that in one series of experiments the brain stem of the subject protruded above the water while in another series of experiments the brain stem and the back of the head were submerged in the water.25 With the procedures of the "experiments" established, Rascher’s tests began in earnest.
After immersion, subjects would be tested through various methods of rewarming.26 Records show there were seven different methods of rewarming, although the only two methods known were through body heat and through immersion into a warm bath. The use of a warm bath is another point of contention, though, since an assistant at the Dachau labs testified after the war that some victims were thrown into boiling water for rewarming.27 Whatever methods were used, responses of body temperature, as well as other areas, would then be monitored, usually through rectal measurements as well as through autopsies.28
Although the Nazis destroyed many of the records of atrocities prior to the camps being liberated by the Allies, much of the detail of the experiments came to light in postwar testimony. While the exact numbers are not known, it was estimated during postwar testimony that 360 to 400 hypothermia experiments were conducted on 280 to 300 victims.29 This clearly indicates that some subjects were used more than one in these gruesome experiments. The number of fatalities in this experiment is also not fully known, although rough estimates can again give a glimpse into the brutality of the tests. Rascher wrote that although the hypothermia experiment was not designed to produce fatalities, a total of thirteen deaths took place. In testimony though, two assistants estimated that "at least 80 to 90 victims died during the experiments, and only two were known to have survived the war, both of whom became ‘mental cases’."30 Rascher himself wrote that fatalities occurred in subjects whose brain stem and back of the head were submerged. He also states that in cases where the subject was placed in water under narcosis, all cases ended fatally.31 No matter whose word is to be trusted, the fact that many people were murdered through the hypothermia experiment is undeniable.
The second major human experiments conducted at Dachau were high altitude tests. These tests were, according to Dr. Rascher, conducted solely on "Jewish criminals who had committed race pollution."32 These experiments, carried out on the request of the air force, were designed to test human endurance under severe subatmospheric pressure.33 There were several different tests conducted in the high altitude simulation. One set, which placed subjects at an altitude of 10.5 kilometers, resulted in breathing stopping after thirty minutes of exposure. Another experiment placed a subject at 12 kilometers, without oxygen, whose breathing continued for thirty minutes, even though he lost consciousness after 10 minutes, according to a letter from Dr. Rascher to Himmler.34 A third experiment had a subject breathe pure oxygen for 2.5 hours prior to the experiment starting, then be placed at an altitude of 20 kilometers where death occurred in six minutes.35 All told, these brutal high altitude experiments resulted in an additional 70 or 80 deaths at Dachau.36
During his time at Dachau, Dr. Rascher also conducted several other experiments using human test subjects. These included an experiment involving a plant extract as a cure for cancer and an experiment using a peptin-based preparation, named Polygal, to help promote blood clotting. It was Dr. Rascher’s belief that the Polygal tests, which were conducted by simulating combat wounds through amputating a subjects extremities, would allow for a higher rate of recovery for soldiers injured on the front lines. Before his death in 1945, word of Rasher’s work would spread throughout the Reich, so much so, that Hitler himself received reports on the experiments and who was reported to be pleased with the accounts.37
Rascher remained in Dachau conducting experiments until he and his wife were arrested in 1944. Apparently in an attempt to prove that "the growth of the Aryan population could be accelerated through an extension of the childbearing age," Rascher and his wife had kidnapped at least four infants and claimed them as their own.38 Himmler felt betrayed and had Rascher arrested for financial irregularities, murder, and scientific fraud.39 According to a British prisoner of war, Captain S. Payne Best, who would go on to publish his memoirs, Rascher was kept at Dachau until his execution on April 26, 1945.40 Rascher will reappear though, as the ethical questions arise as to whether the Dachau results should be used as references for present day medicine.
As the end of war in Europe approached, and Allied troops approached Dachau, chaos reigned at the camp. Massive transports of thousands of prisoners arrived at Dachau so that the population of the camp swelled to over 35,000 people.41 Also during these final weeks, Jews were beginning to be rounded up and evacuated from camp which instilled a fear in all prisoners according to survivor Oskar Muller who is quoted as saying that "we others are gripped by fear, for everyone knows what a transport of Jews means."42 The fear of imminent death felt by the prisoners was justified based on the following quote in a letter from Himmler referring to Dachau:
"The surrender of the camp is absolutely out of the question. The camp is to be evacuated immediately. No prisoner must be allowed to fall into the hands of the enemy alive."43
Fortunately for the prisoners of the camp, as the Allies approached the chaos surrounding the SS in charge of the camp appears to have helped render Himmler’s directive as unmanageable.
The liberation of Dachau by American forces would not have occurred if General Eisenhower’s original plans had been followed. Eisenhower had originally planned to "make one great thrust to the eastward" which would have bypassed Dachau.44 But on March 28, 1945, Eisenhower informed Stalin that a secondary advance southern Germany would be undertaken. As a result, The 45th Division of the Seventh Army was diverted to Dachau under orders to seize the camp, but to not disturb anything so that the International Commissioners could investigate conditions at the camp.45
On Sunday, April 29, 1945, the first Allied soldier entered the gate of Dachau. The Nazi guards who remained had been ordered to stay on to comply with the surrender of the camp.46 According to Bridgman, a young German lieutenant, who had been transferred from the front only two days earlier, conducted the surrender of the camp to Brigadier General Linden.47 According to an eyewitness account of Abram Sachar "some of the Nazis were rounded up and summarily executed."48 This account seems to be backed up by another account in which an eyewitness states that " dozens of German guards fell under the withering fire" of the American Army and also that some prisoners grabbed the guns of fallen guards and "exacted full revenge."49 After twelve years of terror the concentration camp at Dachau had been liberated.
The scene of the liberated camp was one of massive destruction. The final roll count at Dachau found 32, 335 prisoners at the camp.50 In the entire existence of the camp it is estimated that over 200,000 prisoners were at one time or another at Dachau and that about 30,000 people died there.51 As troops entered the camp, bodies were piled up inside and outside of the crematoriums. Bodies were also found outside of the prisoner housing and in boxcars at the nearby railway. At the time it was assumed that most of the bodies had been victims of the gas chamber, but according to Mazal, "it is generally accepted today that most . . . perished through starvation, exposure, sickness –particularly typhus – mistreatment, and execution by means other than poison gas."52 With the Allies in control of the camp, the disposal of bodies was undertaken through mass burial and cremations.53
Upon liberation, General Eisenhower sent out the following communiqué:
‘Our forces liberated and mopped up the infamous concentration camp at Dachau. Approximately 32,000 prisoners were liberated; 300 SS camp guard were quickly neutralized.’54
After Eisenhower’s communiqué, teams of medical officers were sent in to try and combat the sickness and disease that afflicted the former prisoners of Dachau. Food supplies also had to be brought in so that the prisoners could be adequately fed, but in a carefully prescribed manner so the prisoner’s systems could adjust to the increased food intake.55 It was at this time that the American commanders turned their attention to the German records that had been maintained and that the "full record of the pseudo-medical experimentations came to light."56
The records and accounts of Nazi atrocities and experiments of course led to the conviction of countless war criminals. One aspect of the Nazi medical experiments that still exists today is the ethical question surrounding the use of findings obtained through the use of human subjects. In the immediate postwar period, Andrew Ivy, a physician-scientist, declared that the experiments were of no medical value, while a fellow physician, Leo Alexander, echoed this sentiment by declaring that the results of the experiments were not dependable.57 The debate has resurface as of late as several investigators have either implicitly or explicitly endorsed the Dachau data through citing the results. These sources state that the data generated from the experiments in unavailable elsewhere and that it is good science in spite of the offensive ethics. As the debate has raged on for decades, it is interesting to note that by 1984 over 45 publications had made reference to the Dachau studies.58
In his critique of the Dachau experiments, particularly the hypothermia experiments, Berger seeks to discredit the experiments through a look at the scientific methods used rather than focusing on the ethical integrity of the work. For example, postwar testimony seemed to reveal that assistants and victims altered temperature readings and the timing of blood sampling in an attempt to save lives.59 Additionally, in looking at data that relates to the immersion of the brain stem causing death in subjects, Berger could find no evidence in the Dachau Comprehensive Report supporting this claim. He suggests that the observation was probably fabricated to support Himmler’s theory that submersion would result in death.60 Based on Dr. Rascher’s questionable personal integrity, the idea that his "professional" ethics might also be skewed has merit, especially considering that it was Rascher himself who advocated the use of human test subjects.
Berger further questions Dr. Rascher’s methods because the doctor was not well-regarded in professional circles. A general in the SS, Professor Karl Gebhardt, once told Rascher that his hypothermia experiment was unscientific and that if a student had submitted the report he would have been thrown out of school.61 Rascher was also rejected several times for faculty positions at several universities and a book by German scientists, published during the war, had an entire chapter devoted to hypothermia and did not mention Rascher’s name or his work.62 With this information available, Berger believes that the basis for rejection of the Dachau experiments purely on scientific grounds is irrefutable.
The supporters of using the Dachau data seem to focus on the unavailability of the results from other sources. They point to the tests on unanesthetized persons as "providing particularly important information on lethal temperatures, specific reactions to cooling, and methods of rewarming."63 Even though the ethical means by which this data was obtained is offensive, these people see the use of the data as helpful in the grand scheme of medicine. That the actual use of this data is supported seems troubling given the inhumane treatment of prisoners at concentration camps.
Berger’s approach to discrediting the Dachau data is unique. He skirts around the ethical issues of the experiments and instead focuses on the experimental design and ethics of the doctor in charge of the experiments. In doing so, Berger believes that "if the shortcomings of the Dachau hypothermia study had been fully appreciated, the ethical dialogue probably would never have begun."64 While Berger discredits the Dachau data, he also states that this one debate should not bring an end to the dialogue involving the "implications of the use of ethically tainted data."65 In regard to the larger issue of ethically tainted data, The New England Journal of Medicine has adopted the policy that citations of Nazi work will not be allowed since the experiments were "such a gross violation of human standards that they are not to be trusted at all."66
Based on the atrocities committed at Dachau, not to mention the various other concentration camps, it seems difficult to argue for the use of the data. Perhaps studies seek to look at the data as mere numbers or information instead of people who involuntarily suffered and died for the results. It might be beneficial for all to consider the human impact the concentration camps had on people’s lives. For example, the humanity of the prisoners and the suffering endured can be seen in art forms, such as the work of Zoran Music, who was a Dachau survivor and whose works portray his experiences there.67 Other examples of this can be seen, such as the illustrations of Corrado Cagli, who was at Birkenau, and the paintings of Adolf Frankl, who paints scenes from Sereth, Birkenau, and Auschwitz.68
Although it has been over 65 years since the establishment of the Dachau concentration camp, Dachau remains an infamous part of the Nazi regime to this day. The accounts of survivors, the records of people killed through executions, such as brutal medical experiments, and the fact that a person can visit the site of the camp all help to keep the history of the concentration camp, as well as the holocaust, alive. It is important to keep the fact that thousands of people were murdered at Dachau ingrained in our memories when discussing such things as the use of data from offensive experiments. As Mazal states, "the intentional destruction of human life by whatever means is still murder."69 As people debate the use of Nazi data, perhaps they should keep in mind a quote from Hannah Arendt, who suggested that "the camp was itself a vast laboratory in which the Nazis proved that there is no limit to human depravity."70 Perhaps that should be the strongest argument against the use of data from the holocaust experiments.
1. Harry W. Mazal, The Dachau Gas Chambers (In the Holocaust History Project, 1998 [cited 21 July 1999]) Available at www.holocaust-history.org/dachau-gas-chambers/index.cgi; Internet.
4. Henry Friedlander and Sybil Milton, ed., The Holocaust: Ideology, Bureaucracy, and Genocide (Millwood: Krauss International Publications, 1980), 337.
5. Mazal, Dachau Gas Chambers.
6. Helmut Krausnick, Hans Buchheim, Martin Broszat, and Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, Anatomy of the SS State, trans. Richard Barry, Marian Jackson, and Dorothy Long (New York: Walker and Company, 1965), 429.
7. Ibid, 430-31.
8. Ibid, 431.
9. Ibid, 433.
19. Robert L. Berger, "Nazi Science – The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments," The New England Journal of Medicine 20 (1990), 1438.
20. Berger, "Nazi Science," 1438.
23. "Dachau High Altitude Medical Experiments, The Liberation of Dachau, Dachau Low Temperature Experiments," Dachau (From the Jewish Student Online Research Center, Source: The Nikzor Project:www.nikzor.org, from Abram L. Sachar, The Redemption of the Unwanted [New York: St. Martin’s/Marek, 1983] [cited on 21 July 1999]) available at www.us-israel.org/jsource/Holocaust/dachautoc.html: Internet.
24. Berger, "Nazi Science," 1435.
25. "Dachau High Altitude Medical Experiments."
26. Berger, "Nazi Science," 1435.
27. Ibid, 1436.
28. Ibid, 1435.
29. Ibid, 1436.
30. Ibid, 1437.
31. "Dachau High Altitude Medical Experiments."
36. Berger, "Nazi Science," 1439.
37. Ibid, 1439.
38. Ibid, 1439.
39. Ibid, 1439.
40. Mazal, Dachau Gas Chambers.
41. Herman Langbein, Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps 1938-45, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Paragon House, 1994), 363-64.
42. Ibid, 364.
43. Ibid, 366.
44. Jon Bridgman, The End of the Holocaust: The Liberation of the Camps, ed. Richard H. Jones (Portland: Areopagitica Press, 1990), 61.
45. Ibid, 61.
46. "Dachau High Altitude Medical Experiments."
47. Bridgman, End of the Holocaust, 62.
48. "Dachau High Altitude Medical Experiments."
49. Bridgman, End of the Holocaust, 62.
50. Langbein, Against All Hope, 370.
51. Bridgman, End of the Holocaust, 63.
52. Mazal, Dachau Gas Chambers.
53. Bridgman, End of the Holocaust, 68.
54. "Dachau High Altitude Medical Experiments."
57. Berger, "Nazi Science," 1435.
58. Ibid, 1435.
59. Ibid, 1436.
60. Ibid, 1438.
61. Ibid, 1439.
62. Ibid, 1439.
63. Berger, "Nazi Science," 1435.
64. Ibid, 1440.
65. Ibid, 1440.
66. Ibid, 1435.
67. Friedlander, The Holocaust, 125.
68. Ibid, 125.
69. Mazal, Dachau Gas Chambers.
70. "Dachau High Altitude Medical Experiments."
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