They'd Rather Fight Than Switch
The Nazi War on Cancer, Robert N. Proctor, Princeton UP, 1999Ernest Sommers
If I were to describe a society that was obsessed with carcinogens, which was militantly anti-smoking, which extolled the "organic" in everything from food to shampoos, that emphasized exercise and body culture and a "back to nature" ethos, you'd probably think that I had in mind the US back in the '70's, at the tail end of the hippie era and the beginning of the "Me Decade." But you'd be wrong. All of these were prominent characteristics of National Socialist Germany, however much they may appear to have been "discovered" by know-it-all Baby Boomers 30 years ago, and these characteristics of Nazi Germany, I think, give a clue to the popularity of that otherwise highly questionable political movement.
The Nazi approach to public health and medicine has never been subjected to serious study; references to any of its policies have usually been restricted to the usual false litanies of mad German scientists attempt to "infect" concentration camp inmates with cancer, artificially inseminating female inmates before gassing them, injecting food dye into the irises of brown-eyed prisoners in order to make them blue-eyed Aryans, sewing hunchbacks together to create Siamese twins, and similar and typically horror stories.
The real value of Robert N. Proctor's new study is that it is the first attempt to discuss an aspect of National Socialist culture with some willingness to give credit where it is due. German efforts, sometimes almost visionary in terms of modern health concepts, are repeatedly underlined and more or less discussed without rancor and unnecessary German bashing.
Even so, Proctor spends a lot of time indulging the typically prejudiced reader with all of the Nazi fantasies that such readers seem to need to hear. Thus, for example, Proctor insists that the medicinal developments of Third Reich Germany went hand in hand with developing the high technology of the gas chambers, and he speaks darkly about a supposed laboratory in Posen for the development of biowarfare, or as we would call it, "weapons of mass destruction." The fact that he discusses this really tangential matter while failing to mention the highly developed and thoroughly documented efforts by the British, who developed a huge inventory of anthrax bombs during the war, speaks volumes about his lack of objectivity. Similarly, there are the obligatory anecdotes about Hitler, who gets mentioned in this book because of his well-known vegetarianism; but Proctor is probably the first professor of history who thinks it important enough to repeat in full the children's rhyme concerning the number of the Fuehrer's testicles.
An even more serious error on Proctor's part concerns a memo, that he uncovered with the help of a German researcher. It is from Heinrich Himmler, written in February 20, 1945, just a few months before the war ended. In this document, Himmler writes about the need for cancer research in the concentration camps, because, as it has turned out, there have been practically no cases of cancer in the concentration camp system. Himmler writes that the death rate in the camps is at this point comparable to the civilian population and discusses "our 700,000 prisoners" of which some 35,000 are over the age of 50 (5 thousand over the age of 60!)
Such statements, which frankly vindicate revisionist ideas about camp populations, their age distributions, and the unintentionality of the epidemics that wreaked havoc in the camp system in the last three months of the war, are passed over by Proctor with bracketed comments and confusing footnotes. Proctor even goes on to add, without a shred of evidence, "The would-be cancer sage [i.e., Himmler] was spending the last weeks of his life exterminating Jews as fast as was humanly possible" [260, 246n], even though everybody in Holocaust studies "knows" that the "exterminations" were officially ended by Himmler the previous November.
On the other hand, there are many positives in Proctor's work, and they lie in the details of Nazi public health. There is an extensive discussion of diet, and the manner in which the regime promoted whole grains for health and weight problems, apple cider for pregnant and nursing mothers over alcohol for the sake of the baby's health, high fiber/low fat diets, and so on. There are also extensive discussions on the move to get rid of artificial colorings in foods, directly related to Germany's leadership in the chemical industry and hence its leadership in identifying cancer-causing chemicals and other dangerous substances like asbestos. Time and again we find German doctors and scientists establishing etiological linkages between substances and health problems that the rest of West did not begin to notice until almost 30 years later.
Nowhere is the competence of Nazi German medicine better demonstrated than in Proctor's lengthy discussion of Nazism's anti-smoking campaigns. To be sure, this campaign, representing a coming together of many different influences, including Hitler's non-smoking, the discoveries of German doctors, and the enormous cost of the smoking habit to the German nation, was not very successful once the war began. Apparently, a lot of soldiers picked up the habit after being exposed the terrors and boredom of service life. But one side effect of the campaign that Proctor adduces is that in fact lung cancer rates for German women were abnormally low after the war, and he links this development directly to Hitler's anti-smoking campaign.
On balance, therefore, Proctor is led to conclude that one cannot paint Nazi Germany with too broad a brush; because right alongside the atrocities-the real ones, as well as the phony ones Proctor believes-there was a competent effort from the top echelons in Germany on down to improve the quality of life and the longevity of the average German.
It seems to us that this aspect of National Socialist public health deserves more meditation than Proctor was willing to give it. While National Socialist Germany was institutionally racist and anti-Semitic, it was also oriented to the nation as a whole, and its public health policies were directed to all Germans, not just the well to do or the remnants of Wilhelmine nobility. Proctor's book features dozens of posters and illustrations meant to inform the average German about how to take care of him or herself: how a woman should inspect her breasts for lumps, how certain foods are bad for your health, how smoking reduces energy and wears you down. At some point, one begins to feel that this government, as xenophobic and cruel as it could be, really was concerned about the health and welfare of its people. If the disinterested researcher can get a sense of this sixty years later, it is likely that Germans themselves were much aware of such governmental concern at the time.
Historians of the Third Reich have always expressed some mystification about the German people's acceptance of Nazism, figuring that since the majority of Germans were not virulently anti-Semitic their support of the regime makes no sense. But that kind of equation only stands when we argue that National Socialism was nothing but Jew[--]hatred[.] Proctor's book reminds us that in fact there were many other factors involved. It is these other factors that may be the key to understanding why the German people gave their lives and loyalty to the Third Reich.
Installed: 06/04/00, 04: 15 PM, EST