Dr. Adolf Pokorny
Dr. Adolf Pokorny

Sterilization Experiments
on Trial

by Jodi Fleishman

December 7, 2005

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust

UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2005
(course homepage, web projects index page)

Dr. Viktor Brack
Dr. Viktor Brack

The Medical Trial
Dr. Adolf Pokorny
Dr. Viktor Brack
About the Author
web projects index page

Background (back to top)

Vivien Spitz's book, Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans, published in 2005, describes the cases of fourteen medical experiments done on humans during the Nazi period, and the sentencing and convictions of the twenty three defendants. I have used this book to closely evaluate one case, the sterilization experiments, involving two defendants with two very different fates, Viktor Brack, Chief Administrative Officer in the Fuehrer Chancellery, and Adolf Pokorny, Physician Specialist in Skin and Venereal Diseases. I will cover the defendants’ testimonies as well as gather evidence of their involvement in the conduct of the medical experiments. These facts will illustrate what relation their actions had in perspective to the Hippocratic Oath to assess why one man was found guilty and another innocent of committing crimes against humanity.

The Nuremberg Medical Trial (back to top)

In researching this topic, there appeared to be no real consistency in the convictions. The Holocaust, being on such a large scale, involved many levels of perpetrators, from the operator of a gas chamber to the bystander who disclosed his/her Jewish neighbors to the Nazi regime. Both contributed in some way, directly or indirectly, to the inhumanity, but would not be held with the same level of responsibility inside a courtroom. Likewise, the convictions seemed to vary between a leader (the person who issued the orders) and the physical perpetrators (people carrying out the orders). Both Pokorny and Brack could easily be held accountable for their actions, yet one of them was let off. With all things considered, I have hypothesized that within this particular case, the level of damage was directly correlated with whether the alleged perpetrator was convicted of committing a crime or not. I have used the fallowing example to support how I arrived at my belief.

First, it is essential to have an understanding of what the Hippocratic Oath actually represents. Upon graduation from medical school, each physician must take an oath to observe and uphold the ethical standards of their profession, more specifically they vow to preserve life. In other words, the Hippocratic Oath is "a doctor’s promise to uphold medical standards." A passage taken from the Oath printed in Spitz’s book reads: "I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice. I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect." (Spitz p. ix)

During the trials both the Hippocratic Oath and the expertise of a man named Andrew Ivy, are two of the means by which medical ethics would be measured. Dr. Andrew C. Ivy represented the American Medical Association at the trials to serve as a medical consultant and expert witness for medical ethics. In his testimony, Ivy set forth the guidelines that would be used to determine permissible medical experiments that became known as "The Nuremberg Code." He addressed three crucial points:

  1. The voluntary consent of the individual upon whom the experiment is to be performed must be obtained;
  2. The danger of each experiment must be previously investigated by animal experimentation, and
  3. The experiment must be performed under proper medical protection and management.

These basic principles were approved, not only by the American Medical Association, but are in accordance with the medical profession’s code of moral, ethical, and legal concepts practiced all over the world. Many of the test subjects in the experiments were either prisoners of war or volunteers led on by the false pretense that by participating, they would be granted liberation from the concentration camp(s). This is an important distinction to be made when considering medical ethics.

Dr. Adolf Pokorny (back to top)

Dr. Adolf Pokorny
Adolf Pokorny: Physician, Specialist in Skin and Venereal Diseases.

In the sterilization experiments, Reich Leader SS Heinrich Himmler had made his objective clear, he was interested in the development of a cheap and more efficient (rapid) method of sterilization that could be used against the enemies of Germany en masse; in other words, "not only to defeat the enemy but also to exterminate him." Defendant Dr. Adolf Pokorny had notified Himmler of a newly synthesized drug from the caladium plant that, when administered orally or injected, produced sterility in the animals tested. In a letter dated in October, 1941, Pokorny wrote to Himmler, "If on the basis of this research, it were possible to produce a drug, which after a relatively short time effects an imperceptible sterilization on human beings, then we would have a new powerful weapon at our disposal." At a conference held on July 7-8, 1942, Himmler announced that prisoners from the Auschwitz concentration camp would be used as experimental subjects to test methods of sterilization without their knowledge.

Pokorny’s earlier statement proves that, he not only had total knowledge of the intended usage of the experiments, but that he supported its conduct. This, demonstrates that Pokorny is guilty of violating his commitment to the Hippocratic Oath. Pokorny knew that the methodology he was suggesting was a direct and serious violation of the patients’ rights; not only were they to be sterilized without their consent, but in complete ignorance.

Up to this point I have illustrated how Pokorny can be seen as a perpetrator. However, the active ingredient, the caladium plant, needed for the sterilization injections was grown only in North America, thus the production rate would be too slow to satisfy Himmler’s request, which I would argue is the primary reason that Pokorny was not convicted.

Although Pokorny’s method did not become the principal form of sterilization, there are records that Dr. Clauberg, used it to sterilize several thousand women in Auschwitz. Clauberg reported on June 7, 1943 that it was possible to sterilize several hundred to a thousand people per day. He went on to say that such sterilization could be, "performed by a single injection made from the entrance of the uterus in the course of the usual customary gynecological examination." For whatever reason, Clauberg was not part of the trial I have simply incorporated this as evidence that although Pokorny was not convicted, his methods of sterilization were in fact used and considered to a significant degree.

These numbers in comparison to the numbers of victims of what would become the primary method of conduct for sterilization (not yet discussed) may have appeared to be insignificant in the court room. However, we cannot morally ignore the fact that still thousands of lives were affected as a result of Pokorny’s research. In his final statement of the trial, Pokorny said:

With this hope I am looking forward to your judgment, and in that connection I am thinking of my children who, for years now, have lived under the protection of an allied power, and who will not believe that their father, after everything that he has suffered, could possibly have acted as an enemy to human rights.

One has to wonder what effect supplying such a drug to Himmler would have had on the fate of thousands of victims of forced sterilization, had Pokorny successfully synthesized such a drug.

Dr. Viktor Brack (back to top)

Dr. Viktor Brack
Viktor Brack: Oberfuehrer (Senior Colonel) in the SS and Sturmbannführer (Major) in the Waffen SS; Chief Administrative Officer in the Chancellery of the Führer (Oberdienstleiter, Kanzlei des Führers)

Defendant Viktor Brack had a similar exchange with Himmler regarding sterilization. Brack estimated that with only 20 x-ray devices (low cost of machinery), three to four thousand individuals could be sterilized daily, thus suggesting that a new method of sterilization be implemented. This technique satisfied Himmler’s request for a rapid and inexpensive procedure. Experiments were carried out on no fewer than one hundred inmates in Auschwitz who received damaging levels of radiation to the genital area causing severe burns and preventing them from working, for which they were sent to their deaths. Once these experiments proved that radiation was a permanent method of sterilization by destroying the secretions of the ovary and of the testicles, Brack wrote other letters to Himmler that not only demonstrated his knowledge of the effects of the procedure being loss of menstruation in the females, climacteric phenomena, and alterations in capillary growth and metabolism, but he also relayed a personal opinion that read:

Castration by x-ray, however, is not only relatively cheap, but can also be performed on many thousands in the shortest time. I think that at this time it is already irrelevant whether the people in question become aware of having been castrated after some weeks or months once they feel the effects…Heil Hitler! Yours, Viktor Brack.

These are not the words of a person who acts out of benevolence for humankind. In his trial, Brack denied allegations under the premise that he felt "obliged" not only to comply but to encourage experiments in order to protect himself, "I pretended to be willing to clarify the question of mass sterilization through x-ray methods." It may be one thing to obey orders, but it must be considered entirely different once a person goes beyond diabolical directives and "does worse" to others than he has to which Brack did by not only exploiting his findings to Himmler, but by encouraging their usage toward harming innocent people as well.

On June 23, 1942, Brack reportedly suggested to Himmler that Jews able to work could be sterilized while others unable to work were exterminated. This would mean that only the young and healthy inmates would be selected for forced sterilization, a violation of the Hippocratic Oath in several ways, a primary one being, neither to give a deadly drug to anybody even if they asked for it, nor make suggestions to this effect, which Brack had done. Himmler responded to Brack’s appraisal on August 11, 1942, implying that Brack’s method of x-ray sterilization should be tested on concentration camp inmates by expert physicians. Brack created a method of sterilization that had the capacity to sterilize as many as three to four thousand people per day. He was convicted and sentenced to death. These are the words of his final statement;

For all those years I had no reason to have any misgivings with regard to Hitler’s personality. Therefore, I also believed in the legality of the euthanasia decree as it emanated directly from the head of state. The state officials and doctors, competent for me at that time, told me that euthanasia had always been an endeavor of mankind and was morally as well as medically justified. Therefore, I never doubted the legal character of the euthanasia decree.

This plea of being an innocent subordinate of the true perpetrators was a common theme of many of the Nazi doctors’ testimonies. Many of the defenses throughout the Nuremberg Trials included this argument that the criminal acts against humanity were carried out strictly by order. But as medical expert Dr. Andrew C. Ivy would say in his testimony, "There is no state or no politician under the sun that could force me to perform a medical experiment which I thought was morally unjustified." With an atrocity as significant as the Holocaust with millions of victims, there are various levels of perpetrators who contributed to the violation of human rights. It is clear that both Pokorny and Brack on some level contributed to the persecution of victims of the Holocaust, but only Brack was held accountable. In this case, the level of damage that each method of sterilization carried determined the accountability to which the two men were held liable. Therefore I have concluded that it is far too difficult to determine responsibility and we often are left with bringing only the worse of two evils to justice as demonstrated by the particular trial of Porkorny and Brack.

Sources (back to top)

  • Spitz, Vivien. Doctors From Hell; The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans. Sentient Publications 2005.Vivian Spitz
    Vivien Spitz, barely twenty-two at the time, became the youngest court reporter at the Nuremberg Trials. Spitz was called out of her bed in the middle of the night to report for duty where she had been assigned to the Office of the Chief of Counsel for War Crimes in Nuremberg, Germany. It was only eighteen months after the war had ended, and the city was still in rubble; there would be no heat, no hot or purified water, and Nazi terrorists lurked within the debris and attacked members of the Allied patrol. The prior Nuremberg trials had dealt with many of the major Nazi leaders; Spitz became a court reporter for the subsequent proceedings which prosecuted Nazi Doctors’ medical cases. The hearings began October 25, 1946 and went until April 1949.
    Spitz was asked by congressmen to view the 1978 Holocaust Television Series in preparation for discussion, but after the first episode she was taunted by nightmares of the horror stories she had heard over and over again in the courtroom. Later, Spitz would face confrontations by those who tried to deny and debate the Holocaust with her, in 1987 Spitz decided to speak out. She has since devoted the next twelve years of her life giving over 500 speeches about being a "front seat witness," to the accounts of survivors as well as perpetrators. In 2005, she published her first book, Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans, in which she writes about her experience while living in Nuremberg for nineteen months, the fourteen medical trials she reported on, and life after Nuremburg including years spent sleepless from haunting nightmares. For the trials, she includes a few of the prosecutions and testimonies, as well as the sentencing of 23 of the alleged perpetrators.
    Today Spitz lives with her husband, a former U.S Army military police officer, near Denver, Colorado.
  • www.ushmm.org/research/ doctors/persons.htm

About the Author (back to top)

Jodi Fleishman
I am a sophmore aspiring to major in psychology and minor in global peace studies. I chose this topic because I was interested in understanding the minds of the perpetrators as they committed such terrible acts against humanity. In the future, I hope to use my studies toward becoming an advocate for present day refugees being denied thier basic human rights.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on12/15/05; last updated:
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