Monday, November 1, 2010

Michael Kater, "Doctors under Hitler", Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

This monograph is a sociohistorical study of the medical profession under the Third Reich and rests on the author’s previous work analyzing doctors and medicine from Wilhelm II to Hitler.  It draws upon documents in the Federal Archive of Koblenz and the Berlin Document Center.  Primary material was also drawn from the student archive in Würzburg and other regional West German archives.  He also drew on the papers of the former panel physicians’ association, the KVD, as well as the predominant professional journals and memoirs of physicians that lived beyond 1945.

 At the dawn of the Third Reich, in 1933, there was a surplus of physicians, inherited from the republican era.  These doctors were at first hopeful that the new regime would address issues left over from the health administration of the Weimar Republic, but their hopes were not fulfilled.  Under the republic medical graduates had to spend three years as an assistant in a hospital where they were poorly paid, and forbidden to seek other sources of income.  Establishing themselves as independent practitioners was almost impossible for a doctor straight out of medical school.  One of the complaints lodged by spokesmen for this group was that medical institutions should stop advertising junior positions for bachelors only.  They also emphasized that, after public school teachers, high school teachers, and jurists, they represented the fourth largest group of academically trained professionals born after 1900.

 But under the Third Reich, the medical profession became a microcosm of the larger Nazi sociopolitical system, governed by the Nazi leadership principle and redefined in National Socialist terms.  Physicians now had to present every private contractual arrangement to the Reich Physicians’ Chamber for approval, register with the Nazi medical agencies and keep them informed of any changes in their family status or medical qualifications.  They also had to report on their patients.  All serious cases of alcoholism, ‘incurable’ hereditary or congenital illness (i.e. imbecilism) and highly contagious diseases such as venereal disorders were recorded and reported to the appropriate authority.

 The doctors themselves were required to undergo continued training.  Partly this was to break down the distinction between general practitioners and medical specialists, but it was also to teach them National Socialist concepts of health and medicine.  The unpopularity of these courses was perhaps offset by another change in their profession implemented by the Nazi legislators, its redefinition.  By stating that the medical occupation was not a business, the Reich Physicians’ Chamber was able to exclude anyone who was not properly schooled or licensed.

 This did not do away with medical quacks, however, for the Nazi conception of medicine favored the lay element over ‘school’ medicine.  Instead they created a new class titled “physician of natural healing” open to anyone who could demonstrate the requisite ability.  Anyone in this group with extraordinary talent could enter a medical facility without the usual professional medical qualification, and could even receive a license as a doctor medici.  The Nazis further required that regular doctors had to assist registered lay healers at the latter’s request.

Under the Third Reich medicine became the preeminent academic discipline, with approximately 30 percent of all university faculty being composed of medical teachers by 1935.  Medical faculty also became dominant in university power politics.  Between 1933 and 1945 the percentage of medical faculty serving as rectors increased from 36 to 59 percent.  Along with this increase in power and significance there was the establishment of a new discipline that became a part of the medical curriculum after 1933, Rassenkunde or Rassenhygiene, race hygiene or eugenics.  This ‘science’ consisted of three parts: anthropological, sociological, and medical, and its goal was to improve the superior race, while eliminating the inferior ones.

Kater thus links the professionalization of medicine in the Third Reich with its corruption.  West German doctors saw these events as a struggle between the forces of freedom and democracy against the totalitarianism of the Nazi regime.  A battle which the latter eventually won.  East German doctors, on the other hand, saw these events as the result of a premeditated conspiracy between fascist-minded German doctors and Nazi political leaders.  Kater feels that the truth is somewhere in between, but that it lies closer to the East German perspective, than the West German one.

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