Medical Experiments at Dachau

Medical experiments were done for German Air Force

Among the worst atrocities committed at the infamous Dachau concentration camp were the cruel and inhumane medical experiments, using prisoners as guinea pigs, conducted by Dr. Sigmund Rascher for the benefit of the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force. From March 1942 until August 1942, Dr. Rascher performed high altitude experiments under the authority of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. The Nazi justification for these experiments was that this was done in an effort to save the lives of German pilots.

The most disturbing picture of the medical experiments, performed by Dr. Sigmund Rascher, that I first saw in the Dachau Museum in May 1997, and the one that I can't get out of my mind, is shown in the photograph above. The prisoner looks like an American, but the caption on the photo identified him as Russian. He is wearing the parachute harness of a German Air Force pilot, which is very similar to an American pilot's parachute harness.

In 1942, the American government did similar high altitude experiments for the US Air Force. According to a book entitled "Lindbergh" by A. Scott Berg, these experiments began on September 22, 1942 when Charles Lindbergh and six of his colleagues flew to Rochester, Minnesota where they met Dr. Walter M. Boothby, a pioneer in aviation medicine, who was the chairman of the Aeromedical Unit for Research in Aviation Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. Their mission was to study the medical problems associated with high altitude flying. For the next ten days, Lindbergh himself became a human guinea pig, according to Berg's book. After the conquest of Germany, the American government confiscated the results of Dr. Rascher's tests and made use of his experiments for the US Air Force.

Prisoner subjected to high altitude experiment

Prisoner after high altitude experiment

The two photos above were shown in the Dachau Museum exhibits when I first visited Dachau in May 1997. The subject is wearing a striped prison uniform. An autopsy was performed on the brains of the victims who died during the experiments.

Much of the information about the Dachau medical experiments comes from the testimony of Walter Neff who was a prisoner in Dachau. Neff worked as an assistant to Dr. Sigmund Rascher in the camp; after he was released from Dachau, Neff continued to work for Dr. Rascher inside the camp.

According to Neff, medical experiments were conducted on 180 to 200 prisoners. He testified during the Nuremberg Doctors Trial that 10 of these prisoners were volunteers, and that most of the other prisoners, with the exception of about 40, had been condemned to death by German courts. The other 40 subjects were Russian POWs who were brought to Dachau because they were believed to be Communist Commissars. Just before the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Adolf Hitler had issued an order that all captured Communist Commissars were to be executed.

During the course of the medical experiments, 70 to 80 prisoners died, according to Neff. This information regarding Neff's testimony comes from a book entitled "Dachau 1933 - 1945: The Official History," written by a prisoner in the camp named Paul Berben. Berben does not mention how many of the 70 to 80 prisoners that died had already been condemned to death.

At their trial, the Nazi Doctors attempted to defend these experiments by claiming that the prisoners who were forced to participate in the experiments were men who had volunteered or had been condemned to death. However, Martin Gottfried Weiss, who was the Commandant at Dachau when the experiments took place, told American interrogators that the subjects of the experiments were "professional criminals" or "career criminals" who had not been condemned to death.

On June 17, 1936, Adolf Hitler had signed a decree which made Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler the new Chief of the German Police within the Reich Ministry of Interior. According to Peter Padfield, author of the book "Himmler," the new Police Chief "saw his task as preventing crime before it happened by shutting away habitual criminals, preserving the Volk from contamination by shutting away subversives who might corrupt them, picking up vagrants, the 'work shy' and 'anti-socials' and putting them to work in his camps, and in addition supervising public morals."

Padfield wrote that Himmler's first large-scale action as Police Chief was the "nationwide round-up of professional criminals." On March 9, 1937, Himmler gave the order to arrest around 2,000 "professional criminals" who had committed two or more crimes, but were now free after having served their sentences. They were arrested without charges and sent to a concentration camp for an indeterminate time.

The main category of prisoners in all the camps in Germany were the Schutzhäftling or prisoners in "protective custody." These prisoners were political dissidents who had been arrested, but not charged with any crime. They were sent to the camps for the purpose of political indoctrination. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler wanted the concentration camps to be primarily re-education centers, where the prisoners would be given courses that would result in lasting conversions.

At least one Jew, a former delicatessen clerk, died in the Dachau medical experiments, as Dr. Rascher noted in a letter to Heinrich Himmler, detailing the results of an autopsy. Dr. Rascher described the victim as a condemned criminal who had violated the laws against race mixing. According to Peter Padfield, who wrote a book entitled "Himmler," Dr. Rascher participated in his own experiments as a subject, but unlike the prisoners, he had the option of stopping the experiment at any time.

Neff worked with Dr. Rascher from the beginning of 1941. He was released from camp custody as a prisoner, on the condition that he continue working with the Doctors. Berben wrote that Neff would regularly report for duty in uniform, and carried a pistol in the camp. Neff testified that he worked in the interest of the prisoners and attempted to sabotage the work of Dr. Rascher. According to Berben's book, Neff's "role in his dealings with Rascher never seems to be very clear, nor the part he played in choosing the subjects for experiments."

Neff also participated, along with other prisoners who had been released or had escaped from the camp, in the uprising in the town of Dachau a few days before the American forces arrived.

According to Peter Padfield, "After the high-altitude experiments had been completed the previous spring, the Luftwaffe had requested another series of experiments to throw light on the problems of reviving aircrew shot down over the sea."

Padfield wrote that the formal proposal came from Generalfeldmarschall Milch in a letter to Karl Wolff dated 20 May 1942. After Himmler gave his approval, these new experiments began in August 1942. The subject was immersed in a chamber of ice cold water, dressed in a full flying outfit complete with a life jacket. It took up to an hour and a half for the subjects' temperature to fall to 29.5 degrees and body temperature continued to fall after the subjects were removed from the water.

From these experiments, it was learned that death occurred only among those subjects who were wearing life jackets that allowed the back of the neck to be immersed in the water. In a report submitted on 10 September 1942, Rascher said that another major finding was that rapid rewarming in a hot bath was more effective than slow rewarming with blankets or by other means. Rewarming by animal warmth, or by the use of women's bodies, was found to be too slow. Dr. Rascher was not keen on using women to warm up the subjects, but Himmler insisted on testing this method, according to Padfield's book.

Another experiment was done to test rewarming of subjects exposed to dry cold. In a letter 17 February 1943, Dr. Rascher wrote:

Up to the present I have carried out intense chilling experiments on thirty human beings by leaving them outside naked from nine to fourteen hours, thereby reducing their body temperature to 27-29 degrees. After an interval which was supposed to correspond to a period of transport lasting one hour, I placed these experimental subjects in a hot bath. In all experiments to date all subjects were successfully rewarmed within another hour despite the fact that their hands and feet were partly frozen white .... No fatalities occurred as a result of extraordinarily rapid method of rewarming.....

The following quote is from Berben's book:

The most terrible experiment at which Neff was present was one carried out on two Russian officers. They were taken from the Bunker and plunged naked into a tank [of freezing water] at about 4 p.m., and they held out for almost five hours. Rascher had leveled his revolver at Neff and a young Polish aide who tried to give the two wretches chloroform. Dr. Romberg considered the whole episode as described by Neff during the trial to be improbable; in his view, the subject of such experiments is stiff and incapable of making a movement or uttering a word after 10 or 20 minutes, whereas, according to Neff, the two officers were still talking to one another during the third hour and bade each other farewell.

Dr. Rascher (on the right) conducting a freezing experiment

Dr. Hans Wolfgang Romberg, who is mentioned in the quote above, was put on trial at Nuremberg in the Doctors Trial which started on December 9, 1946 and ended on August 20, 1947. Dr. Romberg was acquitted, as were Dr. Siegfried Ruff and Dr. August Weltz who were also involved in the Luftwaffe experiments at Dachau.

Dr. Rudolf Brandt, who selected the victims for the Luftwaffe experiments, and Dr. Wolfram Sievers, who observed the experiments, were also put on trial at Nuremberg in the Doctors trial. They were both convicted, but not for anything they did during the experiments at Dachau. Brandt and Sievers were both hanged on June 2, 1948.

Dr. Rascher was given his assignment to do the Luftwaffe experiments by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler after Frau Nini Rascher, who was a very good friend of Himmler, recommended him. Nini Rascher was older than her husband, as was Frau Himmler and both were past child-bearing age when Dr. Rascher claimed that his wife had borne two children. When it was discovered that the children were actually orphans that Dr. Rascher had illegally adopted, Dr. and Frau Rascher were both arrested and imprisoned in a Munich jail.

Dr. Leo Alexander, a native of Austria who fled to China and then to America when the Nazis came to power, worked as an investigator for the prosecution in the War Crimes Commission at Nuremberg from 1946 to 1947, gathering information for the Nuremberg Doctor's Trial. Dr. Alexander's papers are kept in the Guide to the 65th General Hospital Collection in the Archives and Memorabilia Department at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Dr. Alexander's report on the Prolonged Exposure to Cold evaluated the Nazi hypothermia experiments conducted by Dr. Rascher at Dachau; he found inconsistencies in Dr. Rascher's lab notes which led him to believe that Dr. Rascher had deceived Himmler about his results. According to Dr. Alexander, Rascher reported to Himmler that it took from 53 minutes to 100 minutes for the prisoners to die in the freezing water. However, Dr. Alexander's inspection of Dr. Rascher's personal lab notes revealed that some of the subjects had suffered from 80 minutes to five or six hours before they died. According to Dr. Alexander, Himmler discovered that Dr. Rascher had lied in his reports and Dr. Rascher's deception was the reason that Himmler ordered the execution of both Dr. Rascher and his wife in April 1945.

The Execution of Dr. Sigmund Rascher

Medical Experiments done by Dr. Klaus Karl Schilling

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This page was last updated on February 27, 2009