‘These grim documents…’: physicians’ responses to Nazi medical war crimes

In 1946, the British Advisory Committee for Medical War Crimes began investigating experiments conducted on people against their will in concentration camps and other sites. To mark Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January 2018, we look at what our records reveal about the role of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in investigating these crimes.  

In 1944, as Allied forces advanced on Berlin, they set up camps to interrogate captured or defected enemy personnel. Captain John Thompson (1906–1965) was a Royal Canadian Air Force intelligence officer stationed at on one of these camps, codenamed Camp Dustbin, in Frankfurt. His role as an interrogator brought Thompson into contact with doctors who had worked in Nazi concentration camps, and he began to learn of medical experiments performed on people imprisoned in the camps against their will.

After victory in Europe, Thompson was put in charge of investigating whether the results of these experiments could be utilised by the British. He was not instructed to focus on the morality or criminality of the research, but, as the horrific nature and extent of what had taken place in the camps became more and more apparent, Thompson grew convinced that the evidence he was gathering should be used to condemn the perpetrators and give a voice to the victims and survivors.   

Due to the RCP’s role in helping to investigate the medical war crimes, our archive holds copies of several statements from concentration camp survivors. Zofia Baj (1918-2006) was a resistance fighter with the Związek Walki Zbrojnej (ZWZ) underground movement in occupied Poland, when she was arrested in 1941 and taken to Ravensbrück camp. In 1946 she described her experiences:

A list of 10 names including mine was read during the morning roll-call …, we went to the X-Ray department where our chests were radiographed and out of the ten of us only two were considered able to stand the operation and live through it, i.e. myself and [Irena Backiel (1923-1996)]. [Nurse] Fina Pautz then locked us in the ward room with four other girls who had been selected before and were awaiting the operation. …

Shortly after our arrival at the ward-room, Fina came with small glasses, she said they were containing morphia and that we should drink it. We refused to drink the liquid in the glasses, but Fina went out and came back with SS nurse Erika and both together forced us to drink the morphia. After that, we started feeling dizzy and sleepy and we lay down, then Erika came and gave us a morphia injection … When they came to take us to the operation room, [Irena] and I screamed and struggled. [Doctor] Rosenthal put his hand over my mouth and I bit him hard.

[Nurses] Gerda and Fina came and put [me] by force on a rolling stretcher, I was too dizzy to fight any longer … Nurse Dora told me not to be afraid, for in a few minutes I ‘would see flowers and hear bells’. While I was lying on the stretcher, a man from the Political Department, whose name I do not know, came and took our names and numbers given to him by Fina …

I recovered consciousness later on in the evening and I noticed that I could not move because my legs and hips were in a plaster-cast. I was suffering terribly and I screamed with pain, so that Fina came and gave me another glass with morphia. Then I fell asleep.

Baj underwent a series of operations, in which her bones were deliberately broken, and foreign matter introduced into her body to cause infection. In her statement, she mentions that one of the other women restrained was pregnant, and describes in detail how the camp staff killed and removed the baby in order to experiment on the mother.

In 1941, Emile Schaus (1903-1994) was director of the Teachers’ Normal School in Luxembourg when he was arrested for his political views and later sent to Dachau concentration camp. There, he became aware that groups of inmates, including his friend, Karl Hilmes, were being forcibly infected with malaria:

I personally saw [Karl] under a cage in Ward 3. This was a fine wire cage. The fat malaria insect was crawling on his face and I could determine that it was inflicting wounds on him there. Later [Karl] told me that he imagined how terrible this infection was, with its continuously returning chills and fever. The reactions differed in accordance with the constitution of the victim. While the fever left some of them within three to six weeks, others had to suffer the after-effects for life.

Typescript letter: 'My dear Moran. I understand that you have already been approached informally regarding the proposal to form a British Advisory Committee for the Investigation of German medical war crimes. The medical war crimes which were committed by the Germans during the late war are at present the subject of investigation by the British and American military authorities in Germany and it is ...'
Letter from Clement Attlee to Lord Moran, 28 October 1946 (MS5954.1).

Captain Thompson ultimately convinced the American, French, and British governments to establish the International Scientific Commission (War Crimes), to fully investigate the atrocities. In October 1946, UK prime minister, Clement Attlee, wrote to RCP president, Charles McMoran Wilson (Lord Moran, 1882-1977), to ask him to lead the British component of the International Commission, the British Advisory Committee for Medical War Crimes. 

Moran had been Winston Churchill’s personal physician, and had accompanied the then prime minister on visits across the world during the war. Moran did not accept this new assignment graciously, complaining in a letter to civil servant, Leslie Rowan, about the level of reimbursement offered, and remarking:

I gave up my practice to travel with the Prime Minister of the day … Any doctor will tell you that a man of my age who retires from practice for five years will find great difficulty in getting it back, and that in fact is what has happened … This has wanted saying for a long time but I could never bring myself to say it and I am writing now before I cool down after receiving the Treasury’s proposals for this new job.

Britain’s economy had been decimated by the war, and Moran was asked to report on whether the Nazi experiments could be exploited to boost the nation’s scientific knowledge and gain economic advantage. Despite suggestions from his colleagues and an international shift in focus towards the ethics of the experiments, Moran obstinately stuck to his original brief to comment only on their scientific value.

Working together, Moran and Thompson asked eight medical specialists to submit reports about the different experiments, and sent them evidence to review consisting of statements of survivors and camp staff, as well as seized Nazi reports and correspondence. The specialists were Carlos Paton Blacker (1895-1975), Neil Hamilton Fairley (1891-1966), William George Barnard (1892-1956), Valentine Herbert Ellis (1901-1953), Cecil Wakeley (1892-1979), Aubrey Lewis (1900-1975), Charles Lovatt Evans (1864-1968), and Ronald Hare (1899-1986).

All eight specialists concluded that the experiments had no scientific value. They found that the majority of staff involved were not medically qualified, and that scientific procedure was not followed. Most of the submitted reports comply with Moran’s determination to keep questions of ethics out of the discussion. However, Aubrey Lewis, tasked with investigating experiments into what their perpetrators euphemistically call ‘euthanasia’, writes more emotively than his colleagues. He recognises the experiments as massacres and describes the evidence as ‘these grim documents’. He states:

I cannot find anywhere in these documents evidence that the murders were intended to serve any scientific purpose: they were explicitly for the purpose of doing away with people who were considered unproductive, in order that the buildings and the staff of the institutions where they were living might be diverted to other purposes.

Much of the evidence used by the British Advisory Committee was the same as that used at the Nuremberg Medical Trial, also known as the Doctors’ Trial, which commenced in December 1946. Thompson had coined the term ‘medical war crime’, but there was not yet any international consensus on a definition, and prosecutors were concerned they would not be able to convict the Nazi doctors. Fittingly, it was a piece of pre-existing German legislation that provided the answer. In 1931, following a tragic vaccination experiment in which 77 children died, Germany had introduced regulations for the ethical treatment of patients in medical experiments, which included the need for informed consent. At the time, these guidelines were some of the strictest ever produced by any government concerning human experimentation. The Nuremberg prosecutors were able to use the 1931 regulations to show that Nazi physicians had disregarded not only their professional ethics, but also the law of the land. An outcome of the trial was the Nuremberg Code, an internationally recognised set of principles governing the treatment of human subjects in medical experiments.

Thousands of adults and children were murdered or permanently injured through experimentation in the camps and other locations. Many of the doctors responsible for the medical war crimes, including Rolf Rosenthal, who experimented on Zofia Baj, were executed in 1947 and 1948. Baj endured pain from her injuries for the rest of her life, but she overcame it to work for the International Red Cross. She settled in Australia, where she married Kazimierz Kotkowski.

The records of the RCP’s involvement in investigating the medical war crimes as part of the British Advisory Committee for Medical War Crimes can be searched on our online catalogue, and are available for anyone to view in our reading room.

Felix Lancashire ,
Assistant archivist

Read our weekly library, archive and museum blog to learn more about the RCP’s collections, and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Library, Archive and Museum