In addition to forced labour, the Nazis used prisoners incarcerated in camps as live test subjects for medical experiments. These experiments were usually extremely painful, debilitating, and in many cases, lethal.
The experiments had various purposes: experiments attempting to prove the supposed superiority of the ‘Aryan’ race, experiments to try and find solutions to military or common war related injuries, and or experiments to further individual doctors’ research interests.
Experiments attempting to prove the superiority of the ‘Aryan’ race
Just six months after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, on 14 July 1933 the Nazis passed their first sterilisation law, which forced people with certain hereditary conditions to be sterilised by law.
Following the mass imprisonments after the start of the Second World War, the Nazis escalated this sterilisation policy and also targeted other racial enemies such as Jews. The Nazis conducted a number of experiments on concentration camp prisoners in an effort to discover a method for mass sterilisation. These experiments primarily took place on women prisoners at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück.
Experiments to find solutions to military or common war related injuries
The start of the Second World War also led to a number of medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners in attempts to discover new, cheaper and quicker treatments for common military injuries. Some examples of these experiments include hypothermia experiments at Dachau, which attempted to discover ways to quickly reverse the effects of hypothermia. This set of experiments forced inmates to be submerged in cold water. Out of the 300 inmates involved, between 80-90 died – typically of heart failure. Other experiments at Dachau involved attempts to make seawater drinkable, in case troops were marooned with no running water, attempts to find a similar drug to penicillin, which involved infecting prisoners with sepsis, and attempts to find a cure for malaria. Almost all of these experiments resulted in a significant number of deaths or physical and mental deformities among the prisoners tested on. Prisoners were typically given little to no pain relief during experiments, and the Nazis saw their deaths as inconsequential due to their inferior status.
Dachau was not the only site of war-related medical experiments on prisoners. Experiments to find a cure for typhus also took place at Natzweiler and Buchenwald (where 154 inmates out of the 729 used died, in addition to 120 carrier patients who died whilst being used to keep the infection alive so it could be further tested). Hepatitis experiments took place at Sachsenhausen and Natzweiler, and bone, muscle and nerve regeneration experiments took place at Ravensbrück.
Experiments to further individual doctors’ research interests
Concentration camp inmates were also used as live test subjects in individual doctors research experiments. Perhaps the most infamous example of this was the experiments performed by Dr. Mengele on inmates of Auschwitz. Mengele was particularly interested in twins, people with different colored eyes, and people with physical impairments. Mengele did not spare any thought for the wellbeing or health of the inmates subject to his experiments, and many of them died or were purposefully killed so that their corpses could be examined.
Another example of medical experiments on inmates driven by personal interest was the Tuberculosis experiments carried out by Dr. Kurt Heissmeyer in June 1944 in Nuengamme. Heissmeyer hoped that his experiments would find a cure for tuberculosis. All of Heissmeyer’s experiments failed. Despite the lack of positive results, Heissmeyer continued his experiments, and started new rounds on children in 1945. All of the inmates involved in the experiments either died as a result of them, or were murdered on Heissmeyer’s orders directly afterwards.