Monday, June 13, 2011

{review} doctors from hell

Vivien Spitz Doctors from Hell (2004)

Doctors from Hell

"How nice it would be if we could drive the whole pack of them [the Poles] through such ovens. Yesterday two wagonloads of Polish ashes were taken away. Outside my office, the robinias are blooming beautifully, just as in Leipzig." (Diary of Dr Hermann Voss, professor of anatomy at the university in Posen, Poland)

Vivien Spitz was only twenty-two years old in 1946 when she was sent from America to the Nuremberg Trials in 1946 as a court reporter (stenographer). Her job involved recording the proceedings against doctors accused of war crimes in the Nazi concentration camps.


What she heard at the Trials - what she had to write down word for gruesome word - changed her life forever. But it was not until the late 1980s, when she began to hear stories about Holocaust deniers, that she was able to face the nightmarish visions she retained from her two years in Germany. The result, based on the transcripts on which she worked, is a frightening and horrible catalogue of crimes against humanity committed by men (and one woman) who had been trained to heal but chose to participate in something altogether less salubrious.

This litany of sins against the Hippocratic Oath is a painful and gruesome read and one wonders how Spitz (whose own German heritage speaks plainly in her name) had the courage to face these horrors for a second time. She is, obviously, an extraordinary woman, as the details of her subsequent career attest here).

The organisation of Doctors from Hell is a practical one: Spitz has divided her material into types of 'scientific' investigations undertaken on concentration camp inmates. These included experiments with high altitudes; freezing; malaria; bone, muscle and nerve regeneration; bone transplants; mustard gas; sulphanilamide; sea water drinking; epidemic jaundice; sterilization; typhus; poisons; incendiary bombs; infections and inflammations; phenol; coagulation; euthanasia; and skeleton collecting. The testimonies provided by survivors and witnesses are graphic and horrifying - a "barrage of horror", as Spitz notes. The defences provided by the treating doctors are very weak, not least because of the Nazi love of obsessive documentation.

Herta Oberheuser
"In administering therapeutical care, following established medical principles, as a woman in a difficult position, I did the best I could." (Herta Oberheuser, physician at Ravensbrück camp; sentenced to 20 years imprisonment but released in 1952 (!) for good behaviour, she practised as a GP until a survivor recognised her and she was finally struck off in 1958).

Karl Brandt
"It is immaterial for the experiment whether it is done with or against the will of the person concerned... The meaning is the motive—devotion to the community... ethics of every form are decided by an order or obedience." (Karl Brandt; Hitler's personal physician and head of his euthanasia program; executed 1948)
It is never far from the surface in these testimonia that the concentration camps provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to advance one's own research on the "useless eaters" without fear of consequences. At the medical trials held at Dachau prior to those at Nuremberg, one defendent, Dr Schilling, offered the defense that, "his work was part of his duty; that it was unfinished; and that the Dachau court should do what it could to help him finish his experiments for the benefit of science." Terrifying stuff.

Doctors from Hell is saved from being a simple catalogue of evil by Spitz's alternation of the trials with details of her life at the time, as a young American woman in Nuremberg. The description of the wartime destruction of Nuremberg by the Allied forces underlines that encounters between good and evil are far from ethically simplistic.
Witness: There were only three types of resistance possible. First of all, emigration for a person who was able; second, open resistance which meant a concentration camp or the death penalty, and to my knowledge, never met with any success; third, passive resistance by apparent yielding, misplacing and delaying orders, criticism among one’s friends, in short, what writers today call "internal emigration."
What Spitz took from Nuremberg was an understanding that responsibility and accountability would be the foundations that underpinned her sense of personal duty. Quirkily, she aligns these with Bob Dylan's lines from 'Blowin’ in the Wind': How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Doctors from Hell is in places a tad overwrought and incongruously anecdotal - "As I looked at Karl Brandt, his eyes locked onto mine—boring into me with such deep, evil intensity that I shuddered with a chill that went down my spine and froze me to my seat" - but it amply fulfils Spitz's "hope that this record will not be forgotten by history."

She quotes Martin Niemöller (a somewhat problematic figure):
In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
This is a powerful, horrifying book and not one for the weak of stomach.

Rating: 9/10.

If you liked this... the introduction to this book was written by Elie Wiesel, and reminded me that I have put off reading Night for too long.

Night (Oprah's Book Club)

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