The Hippocratic Oath, the document that historically binds physicians to ethical standards, carries the following stipulation in its direct translation: “…I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free.” A modern version of the Oath states that doctor “will remember that [they] remain a member of society, with special obligations to all . . . fellow human beings.” While this version was written in 1964, well after the events of World War II and the Holocaust, it carries the same intent as the original message: a physician’s first responsibility is to humanity, not to science.
As a result, exploration of medicine that harms human beings in the process is morally reprehensible. Doctors, Nazi sympathizers or otherwise, directly violated the tenets of their profession to carry out mass extermination of several populations considered “undesirable.” They did this through a strict doctrine of dehumanization—purposefully denying the humanity of their subjects.
Physicians willfully abandoned their patients’ humanity in order to conduct reprehensible experiments. Many medical advances came from Nazi doctors pushing their victims past their physical limits, violating professional codes (military, legal, etc.) for comparison. My desire to serve as a military physician means that I must consider the ethics of two different professions in my work.
The summary of the American Service Academies Program (ASAP) includes the following learning objective for participants: “to understand what can happen . . . when fear overpowers ethics.”
While fear is certainly one of the most important circumstances that challenges individual loyalties to moral and ethical codes, German professionals also sacrificed their professional obligations out of greed or ambition. In any case, the Holocaust contains numerous case studies that demonstrate precisely how dangerous abandoning one’s professional ethos can be when that person is in a position of power. The history of the Holocaust—before, during, and after—includes enabling factors perpetuated by military members, physicians, educators, clergy, and financiers or bankers. For instance, instructors taught Nazi racial ideology and encouraged youth participation in organizations like the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls, and Nazi industrialists seized and repurposed formerly Jewish factories.
Focusing on physicians and military officers, I consider the violation of these professional codes to be the most devastating throughout the course of the Hitler’s Germany because doctors and members of the armed forces are responsible for protecting human life and managing violence. Moreover, because I aspire to commission into the Navy Medical Corps upon graduation, the impacts these two professions can have directly impact human life. The ASAP trip included historical examples, case studies, and personal interactions with individuals who served in both capacities.
The most notorious examples of physicians violating their ethics come from the labor and mass-extermination camps throughout Europe. Prisoners were subjected to experiments from three categories: military survival techniques, pharmaceutical and procedural treatments, and studies that helped perpetuate Nazi racial and ideological ideas. Many experiments incorporated varied atmospheric and environmental conditions, including high altitudes, pressure shifts, and low temperatures. Scientists also tested methods of making seawater potable. The Nazi doctors were able to conduct these experiments because they considered their victims to be less than human. As far as the Nazi physicians were concerned, the people captured and tortured by the Nazis were akin to rats in a laboratory. By practicing this mentality, they could abandon their duty to the Hippocratic Oath. Similarly, doctors on the platform at Auschwitz who performed the Selektion—sorting the healthy from the weak, to make one group laborers and send the other to the gas chambers—simply herded the people like cattle, poking and prodding at them when required.
Dr. Josef Mengele, the most famous of the physicians involved in these atrocities, essentially capitalized on the abundance of “patients” at Auschwitz. The Angel of Death (a nickname given to him) exemplified the blatant lack of concern Nazi physicians demonstrated towards their patients—his most famous work involved twins, especially children. In this sense, he is one of the most reprehensible figures of the Holocaust. While visiting Auschwitz I, the ASAP participants heard the story of Block 10, where a majority of the gruesome experiments took place. Doctors also conducted sterilization procedures on adults. Other such medical knowledge derived from the atrocity includes how long a human can survive low temperatures, and exploration of infectious diseases like tuberculosis.
The experiments Nazi physicians conducted during the Holocaust were undeniably committed in direct violation of the oath, which the professionals swore to uphold upon their completion of military or medical school training. However, in the case of the doctors, the data that remains as a consequence of the experiments is another issue entirely. I believe that the tragedy of the Holocaust is magnified exponentially when the scientific community chooses to ignore the information absolutely. However, I believe that using such material also runs the risk of contributing to future human rights violations done in the name of science or improvement of the human condition. The “data” runs the risk of shrouding the human suffering—some victims still live as a testament to their abuse at the hands of Nazi scientists. The scientific validity of many experiments is highly questionable because, as in the racial studies, the data manifested as a self-fulfilling prophecy: the results were tailored to support Nazi racial theory and can be of no scientific value.
In my opinion, the most impactful speaker ASAP students encountered during the trip was Dr. Andrzej Wiczynski, who served as a platoon commander during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Dr. Wiczynski, who retired as a major and then attended medical school to eventually work as a trauma surgeon following World War II, was the lone military speaker during the program. Consequently, his experiences excited and astonished ASAP participants—many of us could not even begin to imagine the sacrifices Dr. Wiczynski made to protect his city and his people. He is an example of the power one individual has with regard to personal decisions, and worked as a servant leader in both the military and medical professions.
Dr. Wiczynski performed a number of staggering tasks during his time in the Polish Home Army. Some of these missions floored the midshipmen and cadets because we could not fathom having to take on the same level of responsibility. One such action involved Dr. Wiczynski having to arrest and execute the mother of five children because she spied for the Germans and betrayed many of her neighbors. He was not pleased at the prospect of having to bring her to justice because that involved orphaning the five children, but did so because it was his task. Dr. Wiczynski embodies a principle often taught to budding military officers, particularly those at service academies: “If not me, then who.” Dr. Wiczynski took on even the most unpleasant aspects of his work in order to fully support the mission of the Polish Home Army in expelling the Nazis from their city and eventually the entire country.
Even more shocking to the students was a fact that Dr. Wiczynski shared in a very straightforward manner: his age during several military milestones. He commanded a platoon of sixty-five 14 to 16-year old boys when he was 17. These numbers are so noteworthy because the thirteen ASAP participants are all 18 years of age or older—only one of us had any significant prior military experience, and nobody among us could imagine making decisions on the caliber of Dr. Wiczynski’s even as many approach graduation and full-fledged service in the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Navy, and Marine Corps. He demonstrated the deepest considerations for the moral and ethical codes that guided his work.
Dr. Wiczynski’s high regard for his professional codes is further reflected by his choice to pursue medicine after the events of the Warsaw Uprising and World War II. He became a trauma surgeon. When the ASAP participants asked him what his rationale was for this decision, the response was simple: he hoped to give back, and make some sort of restitution to society for the lives he took during his military service. Dr. Wiczynski doubly contributed to the chorus of voices that deepen the narrative of the Holocaust to one that includes hope—he fulfilled his professional codes and upheld ethical standards.
The ASAP experience taught me how pivotal my role as an officer will be for upholding the values and laws of the United States of America. Even as a junior officer or budding medical student still learning the ropes of my work, my decisions must fundamentally reflect a higher calling and code.
MIDN Jess Miller is a senior (Midshipman 1/C) at the United States Naval Academy. She is in 7th Company, serves as president and Editor-in-Chief of The LOG, the Academy’s satire magazine for AY17, and serves as Brigade Protocol Officer. She worked as a Regimental Honor Advisor during the Class of 2020’s Plebe Summer. Jess is from Chesapeake, VA, and is an Honors English major. She previously held the position of president of the Navy Medicine Club, works as a peer tutor at The Writing Center, and competes on the Navy Club Fencing Team. She has been blessed with the opportunity to pursue the Navy Medical Corps after graduation, and will attend the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences for medical school.