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Keywords:

  • anatomy;
  • National Socialism;
  • racial hygiene;
  • NS victims;
  • ethics in anatomy

Abstract

Anatomists in National Socialist (NS) Germany did research on materials from animals and humans, including tissues from the bodies of NS victims. The research was competent but rarely innovative. This may be due to the isolation of the German research community from international developments, as well as to the dismissal of a great number of successful anatomists for racial or political reasons. Other research was unproductive because of its foundation in the pseudoscience of racial hygiene. Anatomists in the Third Reich acted according to a new set of medical ethics favored by the NS regime. Not the individual human being but the “body of the people” as a whole was the object of this ethics. Every action was ethical that ensured the health of the German people, including sterilization, so-called euthanasia, and finally mass murder. Anatomists made use of the opportunities given to them by the NS regime, which led to the postmortem utilization of the bodies of NS victims. After the war, most anatomists retained their positions and NS history was not discussed until the later 20th century. Since then, historical research and public discussions have led to an increased awareness of questions of ethics in anatomy. The history of anatomy in the Third Reich illustrates that the theory and practice of a science is dependent on the political system it exists in, and that the scientists' competence not only in their science but also in politics and ethics is a prerequisite for the freedom of science. Clin. Anat. 22:906–915, 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.