First Do No Harm

December represents a slow month for jury trials around my courthouse. We don’t call jurors down during the last two weeks of the year. The adage of the “holiday juror” slips into the courthouse psyche around December 1st. The Holiday Juror is the notion that all the goodwill- among-people” sentimentality of the season will overwhelm evidence and adversely affect outcomes. Perhaps, it merely rationalizes ignoring the work people don’t want to do anyway.

As a result, it proved a bit of a challenge to find the Trial of the Month for December. Yet, on December 9th, 1946 a case began which stands as the opposite of goodwill among peoples. In a courtroom in Nuremberg, Germany, the second of the war crimes trials began. On trial this time were twenty-three leading German physicians and administrators for their willing participation in pseudo-scientific medical experiments and euthanasia against captured peoples deemed by the Nazis to be “Unworthy of Life.”

The Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbruck was a model women’s camp with manicured lawns, flower beds and peacocks. The facade presented a picture of decent treatment for observers from the International Red Cross. Within the hospital walls, however, fiendish medical experiments were conducted. The experiments, conducted without the consent of the patients involved deliberately infecting leg bones and muscles, often by sewing wood, glass or rusting metal into tissue to cause gangrene. Conducted under the direction of Dr. Herta Oberheuser, the tested women were left maimed. They became known as Ravensbruck Rabbits because they served as the laboratory animals. (Others would contend that they earned the moniker because the procedures required them forever to hop in order to travel about on ruined legs.) In the camp the pretty, young Oberheuser became known as ” der Teufel mit dem Engelsgesicht” (the devil with the face of an angel). judges_nuremberg_trial

As the world learned of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany’s other crimes near the end of the war, it became apparent that the existing rules of post-war justice were not adequate for the atrocities committed, events which Winston Churchill called, a “crime without a name”. A new method of balancing the scales must be developed. The Nuremberg Trials became the first time that defendants could be charged with “crimes against humanity.”

Herta Oberheuser, a dermatologist who dreamt of a career as a surgeon became one of twenty-three doctors and administrators put to trial in the second Nuremberg Trial. She stood alongside nineteen other physicians and three administrators. Other notorious experiments included both high-altitude and freezing “studies,” both tests resulted in the planned deaths of the test subjects.

The opening statement by Brigadier General Telford Taylor, the Chief Counsel for the prosecution sets out crimes against humanity.

“The defendants in this case are charged with murders, tortures, and other atrocities committed in the name of medical science. The victims of these crimes are numbered in the hundreds of thousands. A handful only are still alive; a few of the survivors will appear in this courtroom. But most of these miserable victims were slaughtered outright or died in the course of the tortures to which they were subjected. For the most part they are nameless dead. To their murderers, these wretched people were not individuals at all. They came in wholesale lots and were treated worse than animals.”

At the end of the trial, sixteen of the twenty-three defendants were convicted. Seven were executed while the others received prison terms. In their final judgment decrying the experiments, the judges announced what has become known as The Nuremberg Code, ten ethical principles governing experiments on humans. The voluntary consent of the subjects became the first principle of such research. Some have argued that The Doctors’ Trial marks the beginning of biomedical ethics.

Both those of us who practice in the criminal field and those who write about it, must, on occasion, think about the criminal mind. The Doctors’ Trial provides few answers but offers a perch from which to consider the subject. Physicians, learned in and devoted to healing, became remorseless killers. The transformation is at once fascinating and a frightening commentary on humanity. A single answer during Oberheuser’s cross examination gives us a glimpse into the mindset.

   …I was told by Prof. Gebhardt, as I have already said in my direct interrogation, that it had been ordered on the highest level, that the state had ordered it, and that it was legal and, in any case, that the experiments were not supposed to be dangerous, and besides, that they were Poles who had been sentenced to death…

The workaday quality to Oberheuser’s answer, represents the slippery slope of evil. The veneer of research and learning, the subjugation to authority and the devaluing of the test subjects made the most atrocious actions possible. The metaphor seems stark. Cruel medical experiments sewed poison into the bodies of prisoners while the devaluing of human life sewed a toxin into the souls of the doctors and staff who ultimately stood trial.

Oberheuser_during_sentencingThe Nuremberg Court convicted Herta Oberheuser of war crimes. In a mixed bag of justice, she received a sentence of twenty years in prison. Released after five years, she became a physician in West Germany. Her medical license was subsequently revoked after she was recognized by a Ravensbruck survivor. She died in 1978.

The Doctors’ Trial is my December Trial of the Month. It began December 9th, 1946. (For those who would rather fill their holiday thoughts with more pleasant topics, A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on CBS December 9th, 1965.)

Mark Thielman

5 thoughts on “First Do No Harm

  1. Mark–
    What a wonderfully unique case to review. I was in Iraq in 2003 with the Army CID (Criminal Investigation Command) and assigned as the commander of the War Crimes Investigation Team, which was responsible for investigating the former Iraqi Regime for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity until a new Iraqi government could be established. I was fortunate to have four awesome JAG lawyers on my team (I loved having lawyers working for a cop), who did extensive research on the Nuremberg trials and that Post WWII era since there was no other precedence for what we were doing. The evidence we gathered in the early days of war eventually made its way to the new Iraq justice ministry and led to the conviction of Suspect #1 on our list, Saddam Hussein.


  2. Great story, Brian. Nuremberg provides so many different topics on which one might write–the atrocities, the character studies, the banality of evil, the precedent setting response by the victorious Allies–name just a few.
    ((And I’d love to ask the lawyers about working for a cop. They’d undoubtedly give the lawyer answer. “It depends…”)


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