Berez, Thomas M. Weiss, Sheila Faith. "The Nazi Symbioxix: Politics and Human Genetics at

 

Berez, Thomas M. Weiss, Sheila Faith. "The Nazi Symbioxix: Politics and Human Genetics at
the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute," Endeavor 28 (December 2004) pp. 172-177.

The case of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics
(KWAI), from its inception in Weimar Republic German to its apogee under the rule of the Third
Reich, is an example of how politics and human heredity can function as mutually beneficial
resources. Whether it was a result of the Nazi bureaucrats' desire to legitimate their racial policy
through science, or the KWAI personnel's desire to secure more funding for their research, the
symbiotic relationship that developed between human genetics and Nazi politics could help
explain why many scientists in the Third Reich understood research projects that wholly
transgressed the boundaries of morally acceptable science.

In the words of the eminent Holocaust historian Omer Bartov, "What was it that induced Nobel-
Prize winning scientists and world-famous physicians ... to become not merely opportunistic
accomplices, but ...the initiators and promoters of [the] attempt to subject the human race to a
vast surgical operation by means of mass extermination whole categories of human beings?" [1]
Although this enigmatic question pertaining to the role of the biomedical community during the
Third Reich has been analyzed by numerous scholars, there are still some issues that elude us in
our understanding of the motives of the scientists involved. For instance, how can we explain
why many German geneticists and eugenicists were willing to serve the Nazi state and try toto
legitimize its genocidal policies? How could some of the most eminent biomedical professionals
in Germany transgress the moral boundaries of conventional scientific practice by using victims
or slave labour and death camps to carry out their research? These are the questions at the core of
our analysis of one or leading scientific institutions that operated during the Third Reich, the
Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology and Eugenics (KWAI). By discussing the KWIA as a
whole, we are to attempting to take any moral responsibility away from the main figures under
investigation, namely the first KWAI director Eugen Fisher (1874-1967) ...and his protégé - and
second director - Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer (1896-1969). The decisions of these two
scientists were fueled by ideological, professional and situational factors that are all important.
However, we much come to understand how the power of the science of human genetics could be
used as a political resource in the notorious deal struck between Fischer, Verschuer and the Nazi
state, and how it could be employed as a tool for the scientists to shape their image and enhance
their influence in the turbulent political environment of Nazi Germany. The scientist's political
and national circumstances are important in understanding the rationale behind their actions, but
the implications of the international recognition of Nazi racial policies and the scientists'
involvement in racial legislation, are equally significant. For example, the international human
genetics community did not universally condemn Verschuer, and some non-German geneticists
even believed that he was merely a good scientists doing research under difficult circumstances
[2] Nevertheless, an analysis of both the national and international context in which the KWIA
operated can help us understand how the scientists in question were able to establish a symbiotic
relationship with Nazi state officials and partake in morally problematic research.

The KWIA's pre-Nazi past: 1927-1933
The KWIA was formally opened on 15 September 1927, a day that coincided with the meeting
that week of the Fifth International Genetics Conference in Berlin The timing of the Institute's
opening was no mere coincidence; the President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWS), Adolph
von Harnack, had sold the idea of the Institute to the Weimar Government by stressing the need
for Germany to keep pace with the developments of the international biomedical community.
However, despite the lure of international prestige, establishing the KWIA proved to be quite a
struggle for Harnack [3] Words like "race" and "heredity" had implications within the KWIA's
research direction, but they were also politically charged terms, freely used in conservative
circles to imply anti-Semitism, anti-modernism and anti-parliamentarianism [4]. Needless to say,
the German government, headed at the time by a centre-left coalition, was hesitant about the
establishment of an institution whose research agency could potentially be embraced by
nationalists and conservatives. However, Harnack was eventually able to use his political
connections to convince the Government that the founding of the Institute would serve the est
interests of the health, welfare and social policy of the Weimar Republic [5] Indeed, the scientists
at the KWIA would become actively involved in managing such policies, thus making the
Institute a "resource" for the state...

Furthermore, Harnack promoted the indispensability renown racial anthropologist Eugen Fisher
as its director ... Fischer's greatest academic claim to fame was his study of the biological effects
of racial intermarriage in German Southwest Africa. Published in 1913, his results were heralded
as the first successful demonstration of Mendelism in a human population, although that has
since been called into question [6]. Nevertheless, Fischer's eminence increased around the time
of World War I, when German anthropology began to apply genetics to the study of the physical,
psychological and cultural differences between Homo sapiens [7]. By the time he assumed the
directorship of the KWIA, Fischer was famous enough to exploit what was known as the
"Harnack Principle" - a KWIA policy that enabled a director of the KWS institute to set its
research agenda and organizational structure in line with their interests [8].

Naturally Fischer began to fill positions in the Institute with colleagues who would most benefit
the Institute's research foci. Hermann Muckermann, a Jesuit eugenicist, was chosen to head the
Eugenics Department, owing to his ability to popularize the field of eugenics. Fischer's
appointment of Verschuer to head the Department of Human Heredity was to have far reaching
and notorious consequences for the future of the KWIA ... Indeed, Verschuer immediately set
about making the KWIA one of the leading institutes in twin research - an extremely innovative
method for studying human genetics at that time.

The research undertaken by these men, and other scientists at the Institute, served to spread the
"eugenic gospel" to the public in various ways. For example, personnel with the Institute formed
close relationships with officials in the state health and welfare systems. Unlike many other KWS
institutes, the KWIA was involved in teaching, offering courses in genetics and eugenics to state
medical and welfare officials. All in all, this close relationship between the KWIA and the
Weimar state prepared the Institute well for its future compliance with the National Socialist
state.

Coordination and compliance: enter the Nazis
5 July 1933 was the first time the KWIA Kuratorium (committee) met under the auspices of the
Nazi state. Among those in attendance was SS Officer Dr. Arthur Gutt, who was sent by the state
as a "guest" to ask that the KWS place itself in the service of the Reich and that the KWIA help
determine the details of state racial policy, such as the sterilization law and the Reich citizenship
law (which determined who could be a citizen based on "blood"). Gutt became more familiar
with Fischer when he was subjected to as denunciation campaign between 1933 and 1934. The
details of this campaign are still unclear, but it seems to have been instigated by Party officials,
medical bureaucrats and potential competitors who feared that this "non-Nazi" scientist would
gain the upper hand in shaping Nazi racial policy. Indeed, Fischuer was an easy target for his
adversaries because of his "soft stand" on the "Jewish question" and his former acquaintance
with Muckermann, who had been released from the Institute because of his association with the
Catholic Centre Party.

Although this denunciation campaign did not destroy Fischer's career, it left a mark on the
Institute. Gutt forced Fischer to "cleanse" his Institute of individuals who might not prove loyal
to the Nazi state [10]. This process, commonly referred to "coordination," was not unique to the
KWIA director. Fischer and his team were irreplaceable "resources" for the Third Reich. As Gutt
stated, "at present there is no other equally valuable institution that could assist the regime with
its racial policies." Gutt went on to stress the value of Fischer when he stated that "Prof. Fischer
is a nationally and internationally recognized authority in the field of genetics and racial science -
a split between him and official quarters could easily give the impression...that [our] government
policies contradict science" [11]. Naturally, Nazi officials had every intention of avoiding such a
contradiction.

At this point, Fischer realized that he and his institution were valuable commodities to the Reich,
and wrote a report to the government stressing that future racial policy must be founded in the
eye of scientific research that only an internationally recognized organization like the KWIA
could deliver. Such scientific expertise would not be cheap, but it was nevertheless imperative
for the state to invest in such know-how if its racial policies were to be legitimized. It was at this
point that the KWIA entered into a symbiotic relationship with the Nazi state in which both
would be beneficial resources for each other [12].

Institutional expansion: reaping the benefits of the relationship
Fischer utilized his newfound importance in the Reich to initiate a process of institutional
expansion. In 1934, the KWIA director was able to obtain a 60% increase in governmental
support from the previous year, which had risen 75% from its 1934 commitment by 1937 [13].
This generous financial backing was used by Fischer to increase the number of scientific
personnel at the Institute, where most of the staff was medically trained, and also to extend the
KWIA's research orientation. For instance, Fritz Lenz, a nationalist, conservative race hygienist
and long-time acquaintance of Fischer, was named as Muckermann's replacement as head of the
Eugenics Department [14] Also of importance was the departure of Verschuer, who left the
KWIA in order to head a new institute in Frankfurt in 1935. His departure notwithstanding,
Verschuer still remained in close contact with Fischer and the KWIA.

Services to the Reich: assisting the Nazi state
By 1935, Fischer could proudly proclaim that his Institute had placed itself in the service of the
Nazi state, sometimes even at the expense of "purely scientific tasks" [15]. Indeed, supporting
the highly extensive network of state advisory, legal, instructional and propaganda activities
concerning the Nazi's racial policy took up much of the KWIA members' time and effort.

On such activity undertaken by the KWIA included the preparation of expert testimonials in
sterilization cases. The Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring (i.e. the
sterilization law) was formulated to prevent individuals who had what the Nazis considered
"genetific defects" from passing them on to the next generation. The testimonials were given by
members of the Nazi Genetic Health Courts, and in most instances they resulted in the forced
sterilization of the individual examined. Further need for expert testimonials arose with the
enactment of anti-Semitic legislation, such as the infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which
defined one's "racial composition" according to the "racial history" of their family. It is
estimated that 800 racial testimonies were completed by the KWIA for the Nazi regime.

Besides providing expert testimonials, KIWA scientists were also involved in a wide variety of
teaching duties. Courses were offered as early as August of 1933 in "Heredity and Racial Care"
for those state personnel who staffed hospitals, administrative offices and other institutions
concerned with Nazi racial policy. Twenty-one SS physicians were sent to the KWIA in 1934 to
attend a series of year-long courses in "Genetics, Racial Science, and Racial Hygiene." Naturally,
the state paid for the "education" of these physicians, and there is little doubt that such "scientific
training" would complement the "political training" they received from the Party. Certainly,
Walter Gross, head of the Racial Policy Office, expected that such an education would make
these men prime candidates for influential positions with the Nazi Party [16].

As significant as testimonials and education were to the Nazis, the most important service
offered by the KWIA to the State was its legitimization of National Socialist racial policy. By
publicly bestowing respectability of Nazi racial policies, KWIA scientists not only legitimized
the scientific research behind National Socialist policies, they also reinforced the scientific
authority of the KWS as a whole. Of course, these scientists were not just acting as mere pawns
of the Nazi state. Besides promoting Nazi racial policy, they used the opportunity to make a
name for themselves in the national and international scientific community. Naturally, only the
best and most local scientists would be sent to international conferences, and Fischer was almost
always the head of the German delegation when the KWIA was involved. At one such
conference, in late 1941 or early 1942, Fischer was sent to occupied France to deliver a talk in
French on "Race and German Legislation." The speech was aimed at winning approval for Nazi
racial policy in the occupied nation and included a discussion of the "Jewish problem,' in which
Fischer admitted that although some Jews had made remarkable achievements, their racial
mentality separated them from Europeans. It is interesting to note that Fischer used the phrase
"Jewish Bolsheviks," a mainstay of Nazi terminology when addressing the "Jewish question" in
his talk. This phrase had implications for the Nazi's foreign policy objectives and their genocidal
goals, especially once the German war effort on the Eastern Front became a stalemate in 1942.
This example shows how the relationship between the KWIA and the Nazi State became even
more radically symbiotic, at least on a linguistic level [17]

Verschuer and the KWIA: 1942-1945
By early 1942, the nearly 65 year-old Fuscher had enjoyed a long and successful career. After
assuming leadership of the KWIA and navigating it through the potentially damaging storm that
was the rise of National Socialism, the renowned anthropologist eventually became the academic
spokesman for racial polity in the Third Reich. At this point, both Fisher and top Nazi officials
fully realized that the relationship between the Institute and the State was mutually beneficial,
and that the former suspicions about the "non-Nazi" director had been mostly alleviated. Fisher
officially stepped down from the directorship on 30 September 1942 and was replaced by
Verschuer. However, Verscheur's succession to the post was a long time in the making. Back in
1935, when Verschuer had left for Frankfurt, Fisher predicted that he would eventually return to
the KWIA as its director [18]. Regardless of Fischer's influence, however, it is doubtful that
Verschuer would have received the directorship if he had not enjoyed a good national and
internatrional reputation in the biomedical community [19]. As it was, the news director had
spent his years in Frankfurt cementing his reputation as one of the world's foremost experts on
twin studies...

There is no question that Verschuer's legacy in the KWIA is an uncomfortable and morally
problematic one that the world has yet to come to terms with it. That is not to say that ethically
objectionable research was not undertaken during Fischer's time, but historians up to now have
traditionally focused on the abhorrent crimes committed by Verschuer, and the infamous SS
physician from Auschwitz, Josef Mengele. Without removing the burden of moral responsibility
from KWIA personnel, it must be mentioned that Mengele was never officially associated with
the Institute. Although Verschuer would have liked to have given Mengele a position there,
"other duties," namely Mengele's involvement ast Auschwitz, prevented their from happening
[20].

During the early years of World War II, Verschuer was able to continue with his experimental
and clinical research on twins in Frankfurt ass he had done before. However, this research was
very time consuming and expensive when carried out under ethically sound conditions. Some
research areas required the dissection of internal organs of twins who had died at the same time.
Needless to say, such subjects were hard to come by, despite the Gestapo and the SS delivering a
large number of their victims' corpses to such research institutes. The situation got worse by the
time of the stalemate on the Eastern Front, and Verschuer mentioned his problem in a report in
the KWS in 1943 [21].

What would solve Verschuer's problem, and eventually pave the way for the medical crimes
perpetrated in the later years of World War II, was the sudden availability of a great reservoir of
"human subjects" for that could potentially be used in research. These people were the victims of
Nazi racial policy who were incarcerated in concentration and death camps, and subsequently
stripped of all their rights. The victims, whether dead or alive, could alleviate the shortage of
subjects available for research purposed caused by the manpower demands of the German war
effort. Auschwitz was one place that could supply organs and blood serum in large quantities
could supply organs and blood serum in large quantities from twins who were considered
"racially diverse" [22] enough for Verschuer to continue his research. The blood serum extracted
from Jews and Romans incarcerated at Auschwitz was sent for peptide analysis at the KWI for
Biochemistry, headed by Nobel Prize winner and future Max Planck Society
(http://www.mpg.de/english/portal/index.html) President Adolf Butenaandt [23]. These
"subjects" were to be used in research aimed, once again, to develop and refine racial policies for
the Nazi regime.

Of course, it was Verschuer's personal ties to Mengele that enabled KWIA personnel to benefit
from the SS officer's access to such subjects. Although we cannot fully fathom why researchers
such as Verschuer - and he was not the only compromised scientist at the KWIA - would take
advantage of such a macabre situation, their actions could be related to the prior dehumanization
os subjects by eugenicists worldwide not only through their actions, but also through their
rhetoric ([24], and for more information on Nachtsheim, see A von Schwerin, MD thesis, Free
University of Berlin, 2002). On a larger scale, scientist like Verschuer could also have been
subjected to the "moral numbing" - the greying of ethical borders through hardship and
brutalization - that was common throughout Nazi Germany, especially towards the end of World
War II [25]. It seem ironic that the brutalizers, in this case Verschuer and other such researchers,
could become brutalized themselves. But just because these biomedical researchers contributed
to the brutality of the regime through their scientific work does not mean that they could not have
been simultaneously brutalized by it. This fact does not, of course, in any way excuse their
actions.

Conclusion

From its inception, the Nazi state viewed human heredity as scientific resource that could
promote and legitimize its racial policies. As such, the regime was willing to provide financial
backing to institutions like the KWIA so that the fields of human heredity and genetics could be
advanced in the hope that such knowledge could further serve the interest of racial policy goals.
Naturally, the expectations of the Nazi government rose as the funding they provided to such
institutions increased. The personnel at the Institute, not wanting to lose their prestige, produced
more and more scientific studies pertaining to Nazi racial policy in an attempt to advance their
own research as well as to satisfy the growing desires of Party officials. More funding for the
KWIA meant that more "racial experts" could be trained to enter the bureaucracies that oversaw
issues relating to racial policy, enabling the Nazi state to coordinate such policies more
efficiently. During World War II, the myriad of factors mentioned above combined to produce a
situation where concentration and death camps were viewed as an indispensable source of
experimental "subjects" not only to advance Nazi policies, but also to support the scientists'
research and career agendas. The symbiosis between the ever-increasing radicalization of the
Nazi state and the science of human genetics took some KWIA practitioners like Verschuer well
beyond the borders of moral acceptability. It also demonstrates just how nihilistic and destructive
thee Nazi regime was during the final years. Returning to the words of Omer Bartov, we see how
this deadly symbiosis led as significant number of German biomedical scientists to subject those
who came under their grasp to as "surgical operation" designed to eliminate "whole categories of
human beings" - thus making Nazi genocide a frightening reality [26].