Wednesday, November 18, 2009
The course “Nazi Politics and Medicine” is not for the faint of heart. “It isn’t easy to study atrocities,” says Astrid M. Eckert, assistant professor of history. “We’re looking at some really gruesome subject matter, and we all struggle in dealing with it.”
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum sponsors the course, which is offered through the Emory College history department, the Institute of Liberal Arts and the schools of medicine, nursing and public health. (USHMM collection graphics, above and below, are from a 1941 public health brochure, counseling couples to select marriage partners based on genetics.)
"The subject matter raises difficult questions, many of which we are still grappling with in a much different historical context," says Sander Gilman, professor of liberal arts and sciences, who co-teaches the course with Eckert.
Jacqueline Black, a senior majoring in American Studies, was shocked to learn during the class that several U.S. states had sterilization laws for criminals and the “feeble minded” before the Nazis. “Some of the exact wording of the Nazi law was taken from U.S. laws,” says Black, who is researching a paper on the topic. “That was a real wake-up call for me.”
"I was surprised that German physicians joined the Nazi party earlier and in greater numbers than many other demographics," says Luke Reimer, a sophomore majoring in biology and history who plans to go to medical school. “The medical field in Germany underwent a severe crisis and some physicians were living on the streets, selling sausages. For me, it’s an interesting story. Physicians should look at their responsibilities as a caregiver first and put their careers second. I think German physicians inverted this relationship during this phase of history.”
The course also delves into important science done in the totalitarian state. "All of the early work on the relation between cancer and smoking was done in Germany under the Nazis," Gilman says.
Would it be ethical for a modern geneticist to consider data gathered by the infamous Josef Mengele and his twin experiments? "These questions get really, really complicated," Gilman says.
Students read and watch videos of first-hand accounts by both perpetrators of atrocities, and survivors of pogroms against Jews, homosexuals and the disabled. The testimony of real people describing what happened to them is often more gut wrenching than photos of mutilated corpses, Eckert says.
“After we watched a clip of an elderly homosexual man recalling what he went through at Dachau, there was silence in the class,” she says. “That was a real game changer. I felt a rush of empathy come out of the students.”