The Doctors' Trial is the unofficial name for the particular Nuremberg Trial held before a U.S. military court for 23 Nazi medical doctors and officials accused of criminal human experimentation and mass murder under the guise of euthanasia. Its official name is United States of America v. Karl Brandt et al. The trial began on December 9, 1946, and concluded on August 20, 1947.
The Doctor's Trial was one of a series of trials held in Nuremberg, Germany after World War II for individuals being charged as war criminals. The best known of these is the one held for major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT). However, twenty physicians and three officials who engaged in Nazi human experimentation and mass murder were also subject to a trial. This Doctors’ Trial was the first of 12 tribunals known as the "Subsequent Nuremberg Trials" for war crimes of high-ranking German officials and industrialists that the United States authorities held in their occupation zone in Nuremberg, Germany, after the end of the war. These trials were held before U.S. military courts (U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunal or NMT), not before the International Military Tribunal, but took place in the same rooms at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. The Doctors' Trial was conducted under Control Council Law No. 10, with the indictment filed on October 25, 1946 and the trial lasting from December 9, 1946 to August 20, 1947.
Of the 23 defendants, seven were acquitted and seven received death sentences; the remainder received prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment.
The Doctors' Trial catalogued some of the most heinous acts of torture conducted under the status of human experimentation. The Trial did lead to the Nuremberg Code, a set of ethical standards for research with human subjects, which played a pivotal role in the development of other ethical codes for researchers.
Nazi Germany, or the Third Reich, was the state between 1933 and 1945 when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party controlled the country. Racism, Nazi eugenics, and antisemitism were central ideological features of the regime. Discrimination and the persecution of Jews and Romani people began in earnest after the seizure of power. The first Nazi concentration camps were established in March 1933. Jews and others deemed undesirable or who opposed Hitler's rule were imprisoned, killed, or exiled. More than 1,000 concentration camps (including subcamps) were established during the history of Nazi Germany and around 1.65 million people were registered prisoners in the camps at one point. Around a million died during their imprisonment.
During the Nazi control of Germany, many German physicians and their associates advanced a "race-based program of public health and genocide," conducted unethical medical experiments "to advance medical and racial science," and inflicted "unparalleled medical atrocities" (Weindling 2011). In his summary of "The Nazi Medical Experiments," Weindling (2011) noted that "physicians and medical and biological researchers took a central role in the implementation of the Holocaust and exploited imprisonment, ghettoization, and killings as opportunities for research," and demanded that "mental and physical disabilities be eradicated from the German/Aryan/Nordic race by compulsory sterilization, euthanasia, and segregation."
Inhumane medical experiments were conducted on large numbers of prisoners, including children, by Nazi Germany in its concentration camps in the early to mid 1940s, during World War II and the Holocaust. Nazi physicians and their assistants forced concentration camp prisoners into participating in the medical experiments; they did not willingly volunteer and no consent was given for the procedures. In addition, physicians provided support for mass killings in the concentration camps by undertaking selections as to whom would be sent to the gas chambers. At Auschwitz and other camps, under the direction of Eduard Wirths, selected inmates were subjected to various experiments that were designed to help German military personnel in combat situations, develop new weapons, aid in the recovery of military personnel who had been injured, and to advance the Nazi racial ideology and eugenics (USHMM 2006), including the twin experiments of Josef Mengele (Wachsmann 2015).
The Third Reich ended in May 1945 when the Allies defeated Germany, ending World War II in Europe.
After World War II, a series of trials were held in Nuremberg, Germany for individuals being charged as war criminals. One was held for major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT). Subsequent trials, including the one known as the “Doctors’ Trial,” were held before an American military tribunal (U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunal or NMT) under Control Council Law No. 10. The Doctors’ Trial involved twenty-three defendants, most of whom were medical doctors and were being accused of criminal human experimentation and mass murder. The trial began on December 9, 1946, and concluded on August 20, 1947.
One of the issues before the tribunal was what constituted acceptable medical experimentation involving human subjects. Some of the Nazi doctors argued that their experiments differed little from those conducted by American and German researchers in the past, and that there was no international law or even informal statements that differentiated illegal from legal human experimentation. Some Nazi doctors defended themselves by claiming that at the time of their experiments there were no explicit regulations in Germany governing medical research on human beings (Vollmann and Winau 1996).
However, as detailed in the section "Ethical standards of German medical research pre-Nazi human experimentation" of the article Nazi human experimentation, there were both informal and formal codes of ethics relative to German medical research prior to the advent of Nazism. One example was the Reich Circular on Human Experimentation of February 28, 1931, which included such regulations as the following (Weindling 2011; Vollman and Winau 1996):
- Experimentation involving children or young persons under 18 years of age shall be prohibited if it in any ways endangers the child or young person.
- Innovative therapy may be carried out only after the subject or his legal representative has unambiguously consented to the procedure in light of relevant information provided in advance.
- New therapy may be applied only if consent or proxy consent has been given in a clear and undebatable manner following appropriate information.
- New therapy may be introduced without consent only if it is urgently required and cannot be postponed because of the need to save life or prevent severe damage to health.
- [Non-therapeutic research was] under no circumstances permissible without consent.
Based on their review of German policy, Vollman and Winau (1996) concluded the following:
- Explicit directives concerned with the welfare of people subjected to medical experimentation in Germany were in place long before the Nuremberg Code was devised in 1947.
- We conclude that at the turn of the century informed consent was already a legal doctrine in medical experimentation in Germany, being based on "unambiguous consent" of the subject after "proper" information had been given by the doctor, including negative consequences and side effects.
- Our primary objective was to show that the basic concept of informed consent was developed long before the second world war and before Nazi crimes in Germany, not on the initiative of the medical profession or research community but as a legal doctrine by government authorities. The guidelines of 1931 were not annulled in Nazi Germany, when unethical experiments were performed by German doctors in concentration camps.
In addition, for the Doctors' Trial, the prosecution also produced a set of principles to demonstrate how the defendants' experiments had deviated from fundamental ethical principles that should govern research in civilized society. This Nuremberg Code was presented as part of the verdict issued in August 1947.
In terms of the Doctors' Trial, twenty of the twenty-three defendants were medical doctors (Viktor Brack, Rudolf Brandt, and Wolfram Sievers were Nazi officials), and were accused of having been involved in Nazi human experimentation and mass murder under the guise of euthanasia. Josef Mengele, one of the leading Nazi doctors, had evaded capture.
The judges, heard before Military Tribunal I, were Walter B. Beals (presiding judge) from Washington state, Harold L. Sebring from Florida, and Johnson T. Crawford from Oklahoma, with Victor C. Swearingen, a former special assistant to the Attorney General of the United States, as an alternate judge. The Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution was Telford Taylor and the chief prosecutor was James M. McHaney.
The trial included the testimony of 85 witnesses and about 1,500 documents were submitted (USHMM 2). On August 20, 2947 the American judges pronounced their verdict, with sixteen of the doctors/administrators found guilty and seven of these sentenced to death.
The accused faced four charges, including:
- Conspiracy to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity as described in counts 2 and 3;
- War crimes: performing medical experiments, without the subjects' consent, on prisoners of war and civilians of German-occupied countries, in the course of which experiments the defendants committed murders, brutalities, cruelties, tortures, atrocities, and other inhuman acts. Also planning and performing the mass murder of prisoners of war and civilians of occupied countries, stigmatized as aged, insane, incurably ill, deformed, and so on, by gas, lethal injections, and diverse other means in nursing homes, hospitals, and asylums during the Euthanasia Program and participating in the mass murder of concentration camp inmates.
- Crimes against humanity: committing crimes described under count 2 also on German nationals.
- Membership in a criminal organization, the SS (USHMM).
The tribunal largely dropped count 1, stating that the charge was beyond its jurisdiction.
Defendants, charges, and verdicts
I — Indicted G — Indicted and found guilty
|Name||Photograph||Function||Charges||Verdict and sentence|
|Hermann Becker-Freyseng||Stabsarzt in the Luftwaffe (Captain, Medical Service of the Air Force); and Chief of the Department for Aviation Medicine of the Chief of the Medical Service of the Luftwaffe||I||G||G||20 years' imprisonment, commuted to 10 years. Died 1961|
|Wilhelm Beiglböck||Consulting Physician to the Luftwaffe||I||G||G||15 years' imprisonment, commuted to 10 years. Died 1963|
|Kurt Blome||Deputy [of the] Reich Health Leader (Reichsgesundheitsführer); and Plenipotentiary for Cancer Research in the Reich Research Council||I||I||I||Acquitted. Died 1969|
|Viktor Brack||Oberführer (Senior Colonel) in the SS and Sturmbannführer (Major) in the Waffen SS; and Chief Administrative Officer in the Chancellery of the Führer of the NSDAP (Oberdienstleiter, Kanzlei des Führers der NSDAP)||I||G||G||G||Death, executed 2 June 1948.|
|Karl Brandt||Personal physician to Adolf Hitler; Gruppenführer in the SS and Generalleutnant (Lieutenant General) in the Waffen SS; Reich Commissioner for Health and Sanitation (Reichskommissar für Sanitäts und Gesundheitswesen); and member of the Reich Research Council (Reichsforschungsrat)||I||G||G||G||Death, executed 2 June 1948.|
|Rudolf Brandt||Standartenführer (Colonel); in the Allgemeine SS; Personal Administrative Officer to Reichsführer-SS Himmler (Persönlicher Referent von Himmler); and Ministerial Counselor and Chief of the Ministerial Office in the Reich Ministry of the Interior||I||G||G||G||Death, executed 2 June 1948.|
|Fritz Fischer||Sturmbannführer (Major) in the Waffen SS; and Assistant Physician to the defendant Gebhardt at the hospital at Hohenlychen||I||G||G||G||Lifetime imprisonment, commuted to 15 years. Released 1954, died 2003|
|Karl Gebhardt||Gruppenführer in the SS and Generalleutnant (Lieutenant General) in the Waffen SS; personal physician to Reichsfuehrer-SS Himmler; Chief Surgeon of the Staff of the Reich Physician SS and Police (Oberster Kliniker, Reichsarzt SS und Polizei); and President of the German Red Cross||I||G||G||G||Death, executed 2 June 1948.|
|Karl Genzken||Gruppenführer in the SS and Generalleutnant (Lieutenant General) in the Waffen SS; and Chief of the Medical Department of the Waffen SS (Chef des Sanitätsamts der Waffen SS)||I||G||G||G||Lifetime imprisonment, commuted to 20 years. Released 1954, died 1957|
|Siegfried Handloser||Generaloberstabsarzt (Lieutenant General, Medical Service); Medical Inspector of the Army (Heeressanitätsinspekteur); and Chief of the Medical Services of the Armed Forces (Chef des Wehrmachtsanitätswesens)||I||G||G||Lifetime imprisonment, commuted to 20 years. Released/died 1954|
|Waldemar Hoven||Hauptsturmführer (Captain) in the Waffen SS; and Chief Doctor of the Buchenwald concentration camp||I||G||G||G||Death, executed 2 June 1948.|
|Joachim Mrugowsky||Oberführer (Senior Colonel) in the Waffen SS; Chief Hygienist of the Reich Physician SS and Police (Oberster Hygieniker, Reichsarzt SS und Polizei); and Chief of the Hygienic Institute of the Waffen SS (Chef des Hygienischen Institutes der Waffen SS)||I||G||G||G||Death, executed 2 June 1948.|
|Herta Oberheuser||Physician at the Ravensbrück concentration camp; and Assistant Physician to the defendant Gebhardt at the hospital at Hohenlychen||I||G||G||20 years' imprisonment, commuted to 5 years. Released 1952, died 1978|
|Adolf Pokorny||Physician, Specialist in Skin and Venereal Diseases||I||I||I||Acquitted|
|Helmut Poppendick||Oberführer (Senior Colonel) in the SS; and Chief of the Personal Staff of the Reich Physician SS and Police (Chef des Persönlichen Stabes des Reichsarztes SS und Polizei)||I||I||I||G||10 years imprisonment. Released 1951, died 1994|
|Hans-Wolfgang Romberg||Doctor on the Staff of the Department for Aviation Medicine at the German Experimental Institute for Aviation||I||I||I||Acquitted. Died 1981|
|Gerhard Rose||Generalarzt of the Luftwaffe (Major General, Medical Service of the Air Force); Vice President, Chief of the Department for Tropical Medicine, and Professor of the Robert Koch Institute; and Hygienic Adviser for Tropical Medicine to the Chief of the Medical Service of the Luftwaffe||I||G||G||Lifetime imprisonment, commuted to 20 years. Released 1955, died 1992|
|Paul Rostock||Chief Surgeon of the Surgical Clinic in Berlin; Surgical Adviser to the Army; and Chief of the Office for Medical Science and Research (Amtschef der Dienststelle Medizinische Wissenschaft und Forschung) under the defendant Karl Brandt, Reich Commissioner for Health and Sanitation||I||I||I||Acquitted. Died 1956|
|Siegfried Ruff||Director of the Department for Aviation Medicine at the German Experimental Institute for Aviation (Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt) and First Lieutenant in the Medical Service of the Air Force; still researching and publishing in the field of aviation as late as 1989 (Ruff et al. 1989).||I||I||I||Acquitted. Died 1989|
|Konrad Schäfer||Doctor on the Staff of the Institute for Aviation Medicine in Berlin||I||I||I||Acquitted|
|Oskar Schröder||Generaloberstabsarzt (Colonel General Medical Service); Chief of Staff of the Inspectorate of the Medical Service of the Luftwaffe (Chef des Stabes, Inspekteur des Luftwaffe-Sanitätswesens); and Chief of the Medical Service of the Luftwaffe (Chef des Sanitätswesens der Luftwaffe)||I||G||G||Lifetime imprisonment, commuted to 15 years. Released 1954, died 1958|
|Wolfram Sievers||Standartenführer (Colonel) in the SS; Reich Manager of the Ahnenerbe Society and Director of its Institute for Military Scientific Research (Institut für Wehrwissenschaftliche Zweckforschung); and Deputy Chairman of the Managing Board of Directors of the Reich Research Council||I||G||G||G||Death, executed 2 June 1948.|
|Georg August Weltz||Oberfeldarzt in the Luftwaffe (Lieutenant Colonel, Medical Service, of the Air Force); and Chief of the Institute for Aviation Medicine in Munich||I||I||I||Acquitted|
All of the seven criminals sentenced to death were hanged on June 2, 1948, in Landsberg prison, Bavaria.
The nine doctors/administrator found guilty were sentenced to between ten years in prison and life imprisonment. However, the sentences of these defendants were reduced during the appeal process. Handloser and Genzken, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, had their sentences commuted (substitution of a lesser penalty after a conviction) to 20 years. Schroder, Rose, and Fischer, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, had their sentences commuted to 15 years. (Rose's sentence was reduced on January 31, 1951, by the American High Commissioner John J. McCloy.) Becker-Freyseng, who had been sentenced to 20 years, and Beiglböck who had been sentenced to fifteen years, had their sentences commuted to ten years. Oberheuserm who had been sentenced to twenty years, had her sentence commuted to ten years and was released after five years, in April 1952, for good behavior. Poppendick, who had been acquitted from being criminally implicated in medical experiments, but was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for membership in a criminal organization (SS) was released on January 31, 1951 (USHMM 3).
Wilhelm Beiglböck, Fritz Fischer, and Herta Oberheuser were able to resume their careers after release from prison. From 1952 to 1963, Beiglböck served as the chief physician at the Hospital of Buxtehude. Fischer started a new career at the chemical company Boehringer in Ingelheim, after regaining his license to practice medicine. Oberheuser became a family doctor in Stocksee, near Kiel, in West Germany. However, she lost her position in August 1958 after being recognized by a Ravensbrück survivor and the interior minister of Schleswig-Holstein, Helmut Lemke, revoked her medical license and shut down her practice.
Among those acquitted, it was generally accepted that Kurt Blome actually had participated in chemical and biological warfare experiments on concentration camp inmates, but was saved by American intervention in exchange for information about biological warfare, nerve gas, and providing advice to the American chemical and biological weapons programs.
- Belmont Report
- Common Rule
- Declaration of Helsinki
- Human subject research
- Informed consent
- Nazi human experimentation
- Nuremberg Code
- Unit 731
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Ruff, Siegfried, Martin Ruck, and Gerhard Sedlmayr. 1989. Sicherheit und Rettung in der Luftfahrt. Koblenz: Verlag Bernard & Graefe.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). n.d. The Doctors' Trial. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved October 24, 2021.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). n.d.2. The Doctors Trial: The medical case of the subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved November 9, 2021.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). n.d.3. Sentences. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved November 9, 2021.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). 2006. Nazi medical experiments. Washington, D.C: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved October 5, 2021.
- Vollman, J., and R. Winau. 1996. Informed consent in human experimentation before the Nuremberg code. British Medical Journal 313(7070): 1445-9. Retrieved October 12, 2021.
- Wachsmann, Nikolaus. 2015. A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York, NY: Farrar Straus & Giroux. ISBN 978-0374118259.
- Weindling, Paul J. 2011. The Nazi Medical Experiments. Chapter 2, pages 18-30 in Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Christine C. Grady, Robert A. Crouch, Reidar k. Lie, Franklin G. Miller, and David D Wendler (Eds.), The Oxford Textbook of Clinical Research Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199768639.
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