Revealing the Dagger: Holocaust Education for Medical and Law Students

Jessica Rosh

Image by Luke Lawreszuk from Pixabay.

December 9th marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg, which sought justice against twenty-three physicians and administrators for their crimes against humanity during the Holocaust. In his opening statement for the prosecution, Brigadier General Telford Taylor described “murders, tortures, and other atrocities committed in the name of medical science” by the defendants. Soon after, sixteen members of the legal profession were charged with crimes against humanity in the Justice Trial, another of the twelve subsequent trials held at Nuremberg following the lead war crimes trial of Nazi officials before the International Military Tribunal. As was chillingly described by General Taylor in the Justice Trial, “The dagger of the assassin was concealed beneath the robe of the jurist.” His intent was clear. These defendants engaged in genocide, but they did so cloaked with medical authority and legal legitimacy.

Now more than ever, we must ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust remain universally relevant by showing how medical authority and legal legitimacy may at times “conceal the dagger” and how professional education can both reveal and remove it. According to the recent release of the annual FBI hate crimes statistics report, antisemitism, racism and other forms of hatred and intolerance are on the rise. In a report released this year by the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacist propaganda reached an all-time high in 2020. Holocaust denial and distortion have become commonplace along with legislation in multiple states restricting civil rights and infringing on medical care.

Holocaust education for medical and law students is essential as the weaponization of professionals in pursuit of the Nazi agenda was insidious. Hitler’s awareness of the critical role of the medical community in furthering Nazi ideology is captured by his own words, “You, you Nationalist Socialist doctors, I cannot do without you for a single day, a single hour. If not for you, if you fail me, then all is lost.”

Now more than ever, we must ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust remain universally relevant by showing how medical authority and legal legitimacy may at times “conceal the dagger” and how professional education can both reveal and remove it.

The acceptance of eugenics, i.e., the practice of selective reproduction to eliminate undesirable traits from the human population, as scientifically valid and the propagation of racial purity by the medical and scientific communities legitimized and fueled the Nazi agenda. Social issues were intentionally medicalized, as people were classified as mentally, physically or racially inferior based on eugenic theories that were grounded in Social Darwinism.  Laws were framed as public health measures with the goal of strengthening society. The Nazis were masters of propaganda and thought control. Law served as the engine for the Nazi machine and together, the Nazification of the medical and legal communities provided the foundation for the Final Solution.

Medicine and law worked methodically in tandem to pave the way for the mass murder of millions of people who were declared “unfit,” stripped of their human dignity, and murdered to prevent them from “infecting” the nation. The involvement of medical and legal professionals went further than simple complicity; they were perpetrators of violence. We must learn from the painful lessons of history to ensure that future professionals know what can happen when human dignity and ethics become corrupted.

How did healers become murderers? How did advocates become executioners? Reliance on eugenics, which holds its own dark place in American history and which has been widely discredited both morally and scientifically as racially biased, provided the support to systematically rid society of those who were deemed to be infecting the public.

Image by Marie Sjödin from Pixabay.

It is critically important to recognize, though it is often either overlooked or misunderstood, that the Holocaust did not start with death camps. It began with the systematic labeling of members of society as mentally and physically “unfit”, followed by forced sterilization, “euthanasia” and ultimately mass murder. The power to determine who was “unfit” rested with doctors and lawyers, trusted professionals validating the policies of National Socialism which sought to rid the world of the less desirable. In 1920, the book, Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life co-authored by German lawyer Karl Binding and German psychiatrist Alfred Hoche was published laying the groundwork for medically and legally acceptable murder through the Aktion T4 “euthanasia” program and eventually in the Holocaust. Binding and Hoche asserted that ill and disabled individuals were unproductive members of society requiring much more of society than they were able to contribute and that caring for them was a burden.  Aktion T4, a medical program which involuntarily “euthanized” people with physical and mental illnesses and disabilities was a test ground for the extermination of millions in the years to come. Children were the first targets and as the program achieved its desired murderous results, gas chambers built to look like showers were used to extend the program to adults with physical and mental illnesses and disabilities.

Without the complicity of medical professionals, the Holocaust never could have happened. This position is not hyperbole; it was recognized at the Doctors’ Trial, when Dr. Andrew Ivy, one the AMA’s official medical representatives at Nuremberg stated, “Had the profession taken a strong stand against the mass killing of sick Germans before the war, it is conceivable that the entire idea and technique of death factories for genocide would not have materialized.”

While the groundwork was being implemented for medically sanctioned genocide, the German legal system became a pawn of the Nazi party and the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor, collectively known as The Nuremberg Race Laws, were promulgated.  In addition to these racial purity laws, hundreds of far-reaching and comprehensive decrees were enacted to separate and persecute Jews and others deemed to be living lives unworthy of life itself. Professional licenses were revoked and Jewish individuals were mandated to carry heritage identity cards. Quotas on admission of non-Aryans to schools were imposed.  Jewish businesses were closed, valuables were confiscated, and Jews were forced from their homes. Members of the Sinti and Roma communities and other ethnic and religious minorities were also targeted, rounded up and sent to labor and concentration camps. Gay men were persecuted, arrested and eventually imprisoned in concentration camps and often required to wear pink triangles on their prisoner uniforms like the yellow stars used to identify Jews.

Holocaust education, through the bioethical lens of human dignity and respect for persons, is necessary to engage the next generation of medical and legal professionals firmly grounded in these bioethical values.

Hitler and the Nazis, as evidenced by the calculated and systematic use of the medical and legal communities to pursue the Nazi agenda, relied upon the acquiescence of professionals. To avoid similar manipulation of the professions in the future, professionals and professional societies must learn to be vigilant against political pressure and must make meaningful connections with history when currently confronted with dehumanization and lack of respect for human dignity. We must consistently recognize that the identification of groups as “others” can lead to devastating places and ask questions, foreground dialogue in bioethics, dig deeper and hold those who seek to marginalize others accountable. Professionals and professional organizations must heed the lessons of history and encourage ethics education. As we are so powerfully reminded through the words of Nobel laureate, activist, author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness. Not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are responsible for what we do with those memories.”

Introspection can be challenging and sometimes disturbing work but gaining historical context of the role of professionals in the Holocaust is necessary educational development to promote human dignity, justice and equality. The proposal to include additional material to professional curricula, which already leaves little space for adjustment, is often met with understandable pushback. However, this challenge can be met in a variety of ways, none of which necessitate a major overhaul; elective courses can be offered, guest speakers can be welcomed on campus, students can be encouraged to attend webinars given by Holocaust educators, faculty can develop suggested reading and film lists and trips to Holocaust museums and memorials can be coordinated. Holocaust education, through the bioethical lens of human dignity and respect for persons, is necessary to engage the next generation of medical and legal professionals firmly grounded in these bioethical values. These lessons transcend traditional boundaries. They are intergenerational, international, interfaith and interprofessional, and we have an obligation to use these lessons to stay true to our values as professionals and to teach students that loyalty to their professions entrusts them with the responsibility to carry on the legacy of those professions. Learning from the tragic missteps of those who came before them, brings with it the opportunity to find relevance, inform current issues and shape the future.  We must reveal the dagger which not only sat comfortably under the robes of the jurists and others in the legal profession but also rested firmly under the white coats of medical professionals. Anything less is reckless and dishonors those who were dehumanized by medicine and law. ♦

Jessica A. Rosh, a lawyer and bioethicist, is an Educational Consultant for the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust.

Recommended Citation

Rosh, Jessica A. “Revealing the Dagger: Holocaust Education for Medical and Law Students.” Canopy Forum, December 8, 2021.