Historians find that the New England Journal of Medicine ignored Nazi atrocities

A new article in the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the oldest and most respected publications for medical research, criticizes the journal for paying only “superficial and idiosyncratic attention” to the atrocities perpetrated in the name of medical science by the Nazis.

The magazine was “an exception in its sporadic coverage of the rise of Nazi Germany,” wrote the article's authors, Allan Brandt and Joelle Abi-Rached, both medical historians at Harvard. Often, the paper simply ignored the Nazis' medical depredations, such as the horrific experiments conducted on twins at Auschwitz, which were largely based on Adolf Hitler's spurious “racial science.”

By contrast, two other major scientific journals – Science and Journal of the American Medical Association – covered the Nazis' discriminatory policies during Hitler's tenure, historians noted. The New England newspaper did not publish an article “explicitly condemning” the Nazis' medical atrocities until 1949, four years after the end of World War II.

The new article, published in this week's issue of the journal, is part of a series that began last year to address racism and other forms of bias in the medical establishment. Another recent article described the magazine's enthusiastic coverage of eugenics in the 1930s and 1940s.

“Learning from our past mistakes can help us move forward,” said the journal's editor, Dr. Eric Rubin, an infectious disease expert at Harvard. “What can we do to make sure we don't fall for the same kind of questionable ideas in the future?”

In the publication's archives, Dr. Abi-Rached discovered a document that endorsed Nazi medical practices: “Recent Changes in German Health Insurance under Hitler's Government,” a 1935 treatise written by Michael Davis, an influential figure in the field of healthcare, and Gertrud Kroeger, a nurse from Germany. The article praised the Nazis' emphasis on public health, which was steeped in dubious ideas about the innate superiority of the Germans.

“There is no reference to the series of persecutory and anti-Semitic laws that had been passed,” Dr. Abi-Rached and Dr. Brandt wrote. In one passage, Dr. Davis and Mrs. Kroeger described how doctors were forced to work in Nazi labor camps. Duty there, the authors cheerfully wrote, was “an opportunity to socialize with all kinds of people in everyday life.”

“Apparently, they considered discrimination against Jews irrelevant to what they saw as reasonable and progressive change,” Dr. Abi-Rached and Dr. Brandt wrote.

For the most part, however, the two historians were surprised by how little the paper had to say about the Nazis, who killed some 70,000 disabled people before turning to the massacre of European Jews, as well as other groups.

“When we opened the file drawer, there was almost nothing there,” Dr. Brandt said. Instead of discovering articles condemning or justifying the Nazis' perversions of medicine, there was something more disconcerting: a blatant indifference that lasted until well after the end of World War II.

The newspaper recognized Hitler in 1933, the year he began to implement his anti-Semitic policies. Seven months after the advent of the Third Reich, the magazine published “The Abuses of Jewish Doctors,” an article that today would most likely face criticism for lacking moral clarity. It appeared to be based largely on New York Times reporting.

“Without providing any details, the notice reported that there were signs of 'bitter and unremitting opposition to the Jewish people,'” the new article reads.

Other newspapers saw the threat of Nazism more clearly. Science has expressed alarm at the “crass repression” of Jews, which has taken place not only in medicine but also in law, the arts and other professions.

“The paper, and America, had a narrow vision,” said John Michalczyk, co-director of Jewish Studies at Boston College. American multinationals eagerly did business with Hitler's regime. The Nazi dictator, in turn, looked favorably on the massacre and displacement of Native Americans and sought to adopt the eugenic efforts that had taken place in the United States in the early 20th century.

“Our hands are not clean,” Dr. Michalczyk said.

Dr. Abi-Rached said she and Dr. Brandt wanted to avoid being “anachronistic” and to view the newspaper's silence on Nazism through a contemporary lens. But once she saw that other medical publications had taken a different path, the journal's silence took on a charged new meaning. What was said was dwarfed by what was never said.

“We were looking for strategies to understand how racism works,” Dr. Brandt said. It seemed to work, in part, because of apathy. Many institutions would later say that they would have acted to save more Holocaust victims if they had known the extent of Nazi atrocities.

This excuse rings hollow to experts who point out that there was enough eyewitness testimony to merit action.

“Sometimes, silence contributes to these kinds of radical, immoral, catastrophic changes,” Dr. Brandt said. “This is implied in our article.”

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