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Ethics of Using Nazi`s Experiments in Concentration Camps: Josef Mengele`s Experiments

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Throughout World War Two, a number of German physicians, geneticists, psychiatrists, and anthropologists performed torturous and often deadly experiments on thousands of unconsenting concentration camp prisoners. These experiments were primarily conducted to research the survival of military personnel, the testing of treatment and drugs, and the advancement of the Nazi racial ideology. On one side of the spectrum, these experiments were merely another method of imposing mass torture and murder. However, they also present an apprehensive moral challenge. Scientists, historians, and commentators of the Nuremberg Trials in 1947 have argued that; if some of the medical experiments produced relevant and scientifically sound results, would it be justifiable, and moreover ethical, to utilise that data for modern medical purposes?

Historical Context

From 1933 to the culmination of the Second World War, the Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler, introduced and aggressively pursued a racial ideology that asserted the “Aryan Race” of pure, healthy Germans above ethnic groups considered inferior. The Nazi Party sought to execute this ideology of racial supremacy by preventing Germans from integrating with what they regarded as inferior races, as well as encouraging the increase in the number of children born to pure, Aryan Germans and reducing other races either to slavery, such as Slavs, or eliminating them altogether, as in the case of the Jews. As part of the ideology, the Nazis aggressively antagonised and persecuted these peoples throughout the pursuit of racial purity within Germany and the territories they occupied. Gipsies, Slavs, Poles, disabled persons, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and particularly Jews, were persecuted, and later exterminated in mass killings during the Holocaust. It was within Nazi concentration camps where the ideology of the “master race” was systematically extended, and in which deadly experiments were carried out on certain prisoners. Experiments included the sterilisation of imprisoned women, to investigate methods for the limitation of future children of the ‘inferior’ people being birthed, as well as the infamous experiments performed by Josef Mengele performed on twins in Auschwitz. Gruesome experiments performed without anaesthesia were conducted regularly through numerous concentration camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Mauthausen concentration camps in Austria.

Motivations for the Experiments

The experimentation on prisoners of Nazi concentration camps occurred for three central reasons: investigating the survival of the military, testing drugs and treatments, and advancing racial and ideological goals based on racial superiority used to justify the subjugation or elimination of perceived racial enemies.

The majority of the experiments conducted within concentration camps were performed with the intent of preserving and aiding the German military. Experiments were administered to discover means of adjusting the human anatomy in order to improve military standards or to discover means of rehabilitating injured soldiers. Many experiments were tested to uncover if illnesses such as malaria and altitude sickness could be combated, and it was through this testing that hundreds of concentration camp prisoners were put through gruesome experimentation. Bone, muscle and nerve regeneration and transplantation were also studied, in which sections of bones, muscles or nerves were removed from the subjects without anaesthesia, resulting in many subjects experiencing severe agony and permanent mutilation. Freezing and hypothermia experiments were completed to simulate the conditions of military units in combat on the Eastern Front. Subjects were forced to sit in tanks containing freezing water for up to three hours or placed naked in the open air of temperatures as low as -6 degrees Celsius. Similar experiments were performed on captured Russian soldiers to study whether their genetics resulted in superior resistance to cold conditions.

Experiments were additionally carried out to test and examine newly developed drugs and treatments to be used for curing illnesses or nursing injuries. At the German concentration camps of Dachau, Natzweiler, Buchenwald, Neuengamme and Sachsenhausen, doctors performed experiments on prisoners to study immunisation methods for the prevention, containment and treatment of various contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis, malaria, typhus, hepatitis and typhoid fever. When examining malaria, subjects were infected by mosquitos, or through injections containing traces of malaria, then treated with numerous drugs to test their respective ability to combat the disease. In Natzweiler and Sachsenhausen, experiments were conducted examining the effects of mustard gas, and the effectiveness of various treatments of wounds caused by the gas. Subjects were exposed to the gas, resulting in chemical burns, of which doctors then studied to investigate the best possible solution. The gruesome experiments performed were believed to have beneficial outcomes for the German military in combating contagious diseases that could be contracted while in combat.

Furthermore, a large quantity of the experiments performed was to further the belief of the Nazi ideology and the superiority of the Aryan Race of Germans. Many conducted were to investigate heredity, in an attempt to prove that the genetic makeup of other races, such as Jews and Slavs, was inferior to that of the Germans. The most infamous of the doctors that performed these experiments was Auschwitz head doctor, Josef Mengele, who became known as the “Angel of Death”. Mengele was a highly significant figurehead throughout the Holocaust, renowned for performing brutal experiments on prisoners in an attempt to cement the view of the Aryan Race’s dominance over inferior peoples. Mengele was practically granted free will, as a head doctor, to conceive and carry out any medical procedures that he believed to be beneficial to both the war effort, and the Nazi ideology. With the seemingly unlimited supply of condemned prisoners at his disposal, Mengele took a particular interest in twins. Experiments were performed on nearly 1500 sets of twins, barring the use of anaesthesia, including mass blood transfusions, lethal injections, organ removal, castration and amputations, as well as murder. Some prisoners were gouged with a needle that pierced their hearts and then injected with petrol or chloroform, resulting in blood coagulation and excruciating deaths. Others were frozen alive in tanks of ice water or burnt with phosphorous, all in an attempt to understand human anatomy and heredity. Mengele’s eye experiments included attempts to change the eye colour by injecting chemicals into the eyes of living subjects, and he killed people with heterochromatic (of a different colour) eyes so that the eyes could be removed and sent to Berlin for study.

Another infamous concentration camp doctor was Aribert Heim, infamously renowned as “Doctor Death”. Heim was a doctor at Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria, where he performed often fatal operations on prisoners to examine treatments, solutions and organs. Heim injected subjects with lethal solutions, including petrol and phenol, into their hearts so as to understand which killed faster, and organ removals were performed on living subjects without anaesthesia, who were later left to die on operation tables. Heim attempted these experiments with the aspiration of assisting the war effort through the understanding of the human anatomy.


Arguments Against Using the Data

To a considerably large extent, it would be unethical to cite or utilise any data produced from Nazi concentration camp human experimentation. In his opening statement for the prosecution of twenty-three former Nazi doctors during the Nuremberg Trials, Chief Counsellor Telford Taylor claimed: “the experiments revealed nothing which civilized medicine can use”. Throughout the trial, Taylor successfully challenged the defendants, stating their practices as “scientifically useless”, a perspective that the majority of commentators studying the Nazi experiments have echoed or supported. Don Wilkinson, an Oxford medical ethicist, states that “It’s important to say that these findings very rarely provide key important information in isolation”. Because of the appalling unethical nature of the experiments, the general consensus is that the utilisation of any data would be subsequently unethical. Such data obtained illegally and judged inadmissible, would, if cited and utilised, “corrupt the institution of medicine itself”, as stated by anesthesiologist Henry K. Beecher.

Furthermore, a number of ethical codes and theories reinforce the belief that the data found should ultimately be destroyed for zero future usage. One of which is Kantian ethics, theorised by Immanuel Kant, primarily claiming that one should never harm another in order to accomplish anything. Upon performing the experiments, the Nazi doctors did not acknowledge or respect the integrity or inherent dignity of each individual and instead treated the Jewish prisoners as expendable laboratory rats, thus treating them as tangible objects, rather than humans. Sarah Wilson, a bioethics professor at Cedarville University in Ohio, argues that scientists should not utilise the only vestige remaining of the prisoners victimised by the Nazis. Wilson stated in a 2011 report that treating the data as a commodity would only serve to “further devalue human life”. As scientists are incapable of separating the raw data from the method in which it was produced, it is arguable that the data should thus not be referenced, primarily in order to avoid associating contemporary medical practices with immoral methodologies and bigoted preconceptions. Furthermore, utilising the data, regardless if practised with moral intent, could stimulate or revitalise similarly unethical experiments, hence affirming the validity of the experiments conducted within the concentration camps.

Arguments in Support of Using the Data

The primary argument for the utilisation of the Nazi research disputes that citing the data may yield scientifically sound references and data that could be utilised to better understand certain diseases and the conduction of contemporary medical practises. Utilitarianism, relating to the concept of attaining “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, does not support the techniques in which the data was obtained, as unethical, unconsented procedures and torture do not qualify as the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, as the data exists, and the methods in which produced it is now predominantly avertible, it is plausible to suggest that applying the data to further understand and develop ministrations for certain diseases would be scientifically beneficial. Jay Katz, an American physician at the University of Yale, argued in the 1992 collaborative book by Arthur Caplan, When Medicine Went Mad, that preserving lives and furthering medical treatment by utilising the data may “redeem” the atrocities of the Holocaust in a “small way”. However, Katz also argued that by accepting the data as legitimate, “the door opens” for medical practitioners to subsequently conduct and justify any future underhanded research procedures.

Additionally, a number of scientists have referenced and utilised Nazi research. John S. Hayward, a hypothermia expert at the University of Victoria in Vancouver, believes the data to be conventional and “necessary” to his work. Hayward references the Nazi experimenters’ measurements of body cooling rates when testing freezing water survival suits in Canada. Hayward stated in a 1984 interview conducted by Kristina Moe that he “doesn’t want to use the research, but there is no other and will be no other in an ethical world”. Hayward went on to say that he has “rationalised” the utilisation of the data, in an attempt to “make something constructive out of it”. Moe additionally interviewed former US Army Medical Corps major, Leo Alexander, who evaluated the Nazi’s hypothermia experiments and concluded that they had been conducted in a “reliable manner”. Nazi experiments surrounding auditory trauma, low-pressure and high-altitude have also been evaluated as relatively coherent. However, it is highly unlikely that a modern participant would willingly volunteer for their eardrums to be ruptured due to low-pressure or high altitude. Therefore, the beforementioned experiments are unable to be replicated, and thus the results produced by the Nazi doctors cannot be challenged or compared against.

A pragmatic approach to the argument suggests that using the research produced by the Nazi doctors does not condone the methodology behind the experiments, primarily because the results are not a separate moral entity. A scarce number of physicians, including author Robert Pozos, argue that the data exists merely as numbers, and henceforth cannot be morally detrimental. However, as the experiments can never be legally repeated, the data must correlate with its methodological origin from a scientific standpoint, and thus scientists cannot simply treat the findings as morally impartial statistics to justify applying the data in modernized practices.

Historical Outcome

Following the 1947 Nuremberg Trials, the Nuremberg Code was established; legislation comprised of ten regulations surrounding the conduction of human experimentation. The most paramount points included within the Code established that all participants must explicitly provide consent when being experimented upon, and must understand any potential risks or side effects the experiments may induce. The Code also outlined regulations for the conduction of any human experiments, in particular, granting participants the allowance to discontinue their participation at any time. Doctors must furthermore terminate the experiment if they judge it to be harmful, and no experiment can be administered if the perceived risks outweigh the scientific or statistical benefits. Numerous separate codifications were constituted that expanded on the principles established in the Nuremberg Code, including the Belmont Report, the Common Rule, and the Declaration of Helsinki. Although there have been advancements in the development and superintendence of these principles, such as the introduction of electronic signatures, the cardinal goal of operating ethical clinical procedures and protecting the participants has remained relevant.


To a substantially large extent, it would be highly unethical and scientifically immoral to utilize, or reference, the research and statistical evidence produced by forced human experimentation in Nazi concentration camps. The experiments, performed upon unconsenting concentration camp prisoners, involved the investigation of hereditary, the human anatomy, and research attempting to uncover diversified strategies to preserve the German military. For example, experiments were conducted on prisoners to investigate immunization methods for the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis and malaria, and twins were studied by Josef Mengele to examine hereditary, in an attempt to reinforce the Nazi racial ideology and the dominance of the Aryan Race. It is arguable that contemporary medicine and anatomy research could benefit from utilizing the data produced by the Nazi doctors, and a number of physicians have been able to both study and reference the data to yield valuable scientific results. However, the majority of scientists and historians have recurrently argued against applying the data to modernized medical practices, contesting the moral appropriacy and virtue of utilizing research performed through such iniquitous methods.  

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Ethics of Using Nazi`s Experiments in Concentration Camps: Josef Mengele`s Experiments. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from
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