Nazi Eugenics, Euthanasia, and Medical Ethics Today

Document Type

Book Chapter


Holocaust; post-World War II; ethics; medical experiments; eugenics; Nazis; euthanasia


Pennsylvania State University

Rights Management

CC BY-NC 4.0


When I teach the Holocaust and post-war Nazi trials to undergraduates and law students, they are often most horrified by the medical experiments carried out in the concentration camps during the war. Their revulsion was shared by the chief American prosecutor of the Doctors Trial at Nuremberg, Telford Taylor, whose opening statement placed Nazi medical crimes in a category all their own:

"The defendants…are charged with murder, but this is no mere murder trial. …To kill, to maim, and to torture is criminal under all modern systems of law. These defendants did not kill in hot blood, nor for personal enrichment. …They are not ignorant men. Most of them are trained physicians and some…are distinguished scientists. Yet [they]…are responsible for wholesale murder and unspeakably cruel tortures" (Taylor 1946).

The “wholesale murder and unspeakably cruel tortures” that Taylor refers to did not occur in a vacuum; they were powered by ideas that, while corrupted and twisted to fit Nazi ideology, came down to Hitler and his followers from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Among these ideas, and most crucial for our discussion here of Nazi medical crimes, is “eugenics.” One does not have to be a Nazi to support eugenics. Indeed, some of the brightest and most compassionate minds have been sympathetic to it. Nonetheless, Nazism reveals the destructive potentiality of eugenics when a racist tyranny is inspired by its ideals. While allied armies destroyed Nazism in 1945, Nazi-like interpretations of eugenics persist until our own day. Nazi racial sciences, including eugenics, represent the lethal underbelly of modern science and its sometimes-heedless interference with the sources of life on our planet.