Robert N. Proctor is professor of the history of science at Pennsylvania State University. He has written extensively about politics and medicine in his previous works, which include Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer (1995), Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis (1988), and Value-Free Science? Purity and Power in Modern Knowledge (1991).
Proctor’s The Nazi War on Cancer is an engrossing and relevant study of various aspects of medical research and public health as practiced under one of the world’s most despicable regimes. In less than a decade and a half, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi government, in calculated fashion, murdered millions of men, women, and children, among them, Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and the disabled. Nazi Germany practiced racial hygiene, euthanasia, sterilization, horrendous medical “experiments,” and implemented the “final solution.” Germany between 1929 and 1945 was itself a cancer in a century of cancers, and cancer is what Proctor discusses in this controversial work, cancer both as a disease and as a metaphor for the ills—physical, moral, and intellectual—of modern society.
The author’s aim is to discuss the positive medical accomplishments that occurred during the era in which Hitler and his party ruled Germany. Secondarily, he explores the connections between what can be considered progressive and enlightened approaches and responses to medical problems with the Nazi regime and its racial philosophy. Were the numerous public health efforts to limit smoking, encourage more healthful diets, and end pollution in the work environment largely divorced from the Nazi program and philosophy, or did its fascist ideology give support to those healthy endeavors? Proctor’s study suggests that there were not only sadistic and monstrous Nazis committed to genocide and the final solution but also positive and creative medical and public health elements to be found in the Nazi state, paradoxically sometimes within the same person.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, German science ranked among the world’s best. Much of the leading medical and scientific research was done in Germany, written in German, and published first in German publications. Significant cancer research began in Germany as early as the 1830’s, and cancer was recognized as a major disease in Germany in part because of its early and extensive industrialization. German research led the way; half of the Nobel Prize winners were Germans. World War I and Germany’s defeat had an impact upon scientific research, but during the years of the democratic Weimar Germany of the 1920’s, German scientific research remained in the vanguard of medical studies, including cancer. Thus the public health concerns of the Nazi government after it came to power in 1932 were not a departure, but instead built upon a long scientific and medicinal tradition. What does give pause and raise issues of the relationship between science and morality is how easily and readily many German doctors and researchers were willing to work within the parameters of the new fascist regime. Proctor points out that 60 percent of all German biologists and 80 percent of all German anthropology professors (most of whom were physicians) joined the Nazi Party.
Given the high rate of cancer in Germany, it was not surprising that prevention played a role in the war against the disease. Of course, prevention antedated the Nazis’ accession to power, but under Hitler’s regime, the authority of the state was harnessed to the battle. One leading figure was Erwin Liek, often called the “father of Nazi medicine.” He never joined the party, but he praised Hitler and was anti-Semitic in his private correspondence. In the 1930’s, he argued that cancer was a disease of civilization—the more civilized a society, the greater the incidence of cancer. He believed that cancer was largely the result of environmental factors and could be prevented through a change in lifestyle, particularly diet. Hitler was a vegetarian who neither smoked nor drank, as were a number of other leading Nazi figures, and the führer imposed his beliefs on those around him. Early detection was also a weapon in the anticancer war, and detection likewise had its origins before 1933, but under the Nazis there were increased endeavors encouraging women and others to consult their doctors as an act of prevention, and hundreds of thousands of women were medically examined during those years.
However, the Nazi commitment to prevention and detection was not for the benefit of the individual but for Germany as a whole. The preservation of a healthy and pure German race took priority over the needs of any single individual. Jewish doctors were fired from their research laboratories and university positions. Proctor estimates approximately one hundred Jewish cancer researchers were purged, an obvious loss in the battle against the disease. Racial purity had...
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