Exploring the horrors of Nazi science in Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race

Posted on September 18, 2018

Members of the public, UP students and UP staff are invited to view an international exhibition titled Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race currently on display in the Merensky Library on the University of Pretoria’s Hatfield Campus.

Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race explores the Nazi regime’s “science of race”, and questions the implications of these views for medical ethics and social responsibility today.

The exhibition is co-hosted by the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, the Department of Library Services, and the Faculty of Humanities. (Trigger warning: The scenes and information depicted in this exhibition are of an extremely violent and disturbing nature. Sensitive viewers are advised to exercise caution.)

Prof Cathy Burns, Associate Professor of History in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies and the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender explains the importance of this exhibition in the South African context: “Since the 1980s historians, social scientists, human rights legal scholars and medical researchers have been showing how these ideas reverberated into South African society and culture - shaping not only state formation here, but also leaking into medicine, law, psychological theory and areas of the Humanities and educational research. Building on ideas of racial hygiene, and controlled reproduction and marriage, those regarded as threatening to the health of the nation, or master race, were then targeted for systematic elimination, or murder prior to World War II. The lasting implications of this era can be found in works on racial hierarchy and difference written in the USA and in South Africa. In South Africa, this led to a focus on the need to bolster so-called ‘white purity’ and to constrain the development of black society. Thus South Africa has its own history with ideas of racial purity, controlled reproduction, and medical and psychiatric professionals colluding with the apartheid state and military.”

Nazi Germany carried out mass ‘cleansings’ of German society of people who the Nazis deemed as biological threats to the nation’s health. The Nazis used race and racially biased views to ‘cleanse’ society of those they viewed as undesirable to their idea of Germans being a ‘master race’. The idea of a superior master race was used by Nazis to entrench their might over others. They believed themselves to be Aryans, and thus superior. This was in itself a scientific and historical fallacy, because the original Aryans were not German, but rather an Indo-Iranian people who lived across the Middle East and Northern India. This is an example of how poor science and ill-informed, biased research built the basis of an ideology which wreaked violence, torture and murder on millions of people.

Initially, Nazis did not commit their atrocities against people solely on their own, but their inherently racist views were fuelled by correspondingly poor ‘scientific evidence’ based on the eugenics studies of the early 20th century. This was followed by research from physicians, geneticists, psychiatrists, and anthropologists who were funded by the Nazi regime and helped to bolster the Nazis’ claims of racial superiority, by convincing the Nazis and their sympathisers that science ‘proved’ that some races were genetically superior to others. Eugenics is now widely discredited and viewed as racist by the mainstream scientific community internationally. “We also know that some of the early eugenics work developed out of medical experimentation on African prisoners of war in Namibia during the Herero and Namaqua Genocide”, says Prof Burns.

From 1933 to 1945, the Nazis applied their racist “science” and began mass sterilising “hereditarily diseased” persons. This included children born with Down’s Syndrome or cerebral palsy, and any persons with physical and mental disabilities. Under the guise of World War II, these killings eventually progressed into what we know as the Holocaust, which was the near eradication of the European Jewry, Roma gypsies, and gay people. Evidence suggests that anyone who did not fit the mould of blond and blue-eyed (which is what Nazis defined as characteristics of Aryans), was seen to be less than perfect, and was likely to be sent to their death in pursuit of a society in which only racially ‘superior’ genes were meant to flourish.

The atrocities committed by the Nazis continue to be one of the worst human rights violations in human history. But still their quest for human perfection through science continues to have an impact in genetic studies in fields like genetic manipulation, which promotes the possibility of creating persons who embody human perfection.

As part of the programme, students were shown the movie Skin, and Prof Burns says, “It occasioned a very moving and rich discussion with students, covering such themes as the new right-wing rise of Nazism, fascism, the difference between eugenics and current genetic science, and race classification in South Africa.”

As part of the exhibition, the following seminars will take place with various discussions pertaining to this exhibition. 

Seminar 1 will take place on 19 September 2018 from 16:00 to 18:00.

This seminar will be opened by Prof Vasu Reddy, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Chairperson of the Tuks AIDS Reference Group and it will be chaired by Pierre Brouard, Deputy Director: Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender.

Prof Catherine Burns will provide an introduction.

Prof Linda Chisholm (UJ) will discuss education and memory culture in Germany and South Africa.

Prof Ulrike Kistner, Department of Philosophy, will speak about Biolegitimacy and the valuation, evaluation, devaluation of life.

Prof Pieter Carstens, Department of Public Law, will look at revisiting the infamous Pernkopf anatomy atlas and how it provides historical lessons for medical law and ethics.

Lizeka Tandwa, from the Steve Biko Bioethics Centre (Wits), will talk about poisoned pasts and the links between medicine, Wouter Basson and the chemical weapons programme.

Seminar 2 will take place on 20 September 2018 will take place from 15:30 to 17:30.

This seminar will be chaired by Dr Ruth Murambadoro, Researcher: Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender.

Rory du Plessis, Department of Visual Arts, will discuss the visual in medicine: chronic patients and mental illness.

Tlaleng Mofokeng, Disa Clinic, Nalane Associates for Reproductive Justice, Global Doctors for Choice will speak about Deadly Medicine, gender justice and reproduction in South Africa

Prof Catherine Burns will give a talk on eugenics and population control. She will use the Biko case, and its denialism and medicine to highlight engagements and struggles with apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.

Sasha Stevenson, Section 27: Attorney and Head of Health - Law and Medicine in South Africa will ask what we have learned from the Life Esidimeni tragedy.

Seminar 3 will take place on 25 September 2018 from 10:30 – 12:00.

This seminar will be chaired and facilitated by Mr Lubabalo Mdedetyana, Researcher: Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender.

Prof Laurel Baldwin-Ragaven, (Wits), the author of ‘An Ambulance of the Wrong Colour’, will draw on her TRC work, and her more current work on ethics and medical education, and will talk on Deadly Medicine in South African Medical History.

Dr Glen Ncube, Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, will draw on his doctoral and post-doctoral work on medicine in the service of freedom and justice and dignity for all, and medicine in the service of imperialism, authoritarianism, fascism, oppression in Southern Africa. His talk is titled Good Medicine, Bad Medicine: The History of Medicine in Southern Africa.

The seminars all take place in the Merensky Library Auditorium. To attend these seminars, please send RSVP to [email protected].

Please go here for more information on the seminars.

- Author Shakira Hoosain

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