Internal Medicine Society Reappraises Its Nazi History

BERLIN — The German Society for Internal Medicine (DGIM) has announced it has withdrawn the honorary membership of five of its former members who were followers of the Nazi regime and perpetrators of atrocities between 1933 and 1945. The decision was made after the DGIM reappraised its own history during the Nazi period.

On the DGIM – Commemoration and Remembrance website, created in 2020, members who suffered under the Nazi regime are commemorated and those who committed crimes and caused suffering are called out.

The reappraisal began in 2012, when the DGIM commissioned two historians — Hans-Georg Hofer, PhD, from the University of Münster, and Ralf Forsbach, PhD, from the Institute for Ethics, History and Theory of Medicine at the University of Münster — to research the history of the Society and its members during the periods of the National Socialism dictatorship and the young Federal Republic.

“Reappraising our own history, even at this late stage, is important and the right thing to do, although of course it cannot in any way make up for the suffering caused by individual DGIM members during that time,” Georg Ertl, MD, Secretary General of the DGIM, states in a press release.

It is important, however, that the Society takes appropriate action in response to the historians’ findings, he adds.

The DGIM has done just that by retrospectively withdrawing the honorary membership status of five of its former members: Alfred Schittenhelm, Alfred Schwenkenbecher, Hans Dietlen, Siegfried Koller, and Georg Schaltenbrand.

“Out of opportunism or on the basis of Nazi beliefs, they intentionally harmed colleagues, other members of our Society, or simply other people on the basis of their ethnicity. Therefore, the DGIM can no longer accept them as honorary members,” said Markus M. Lerch, MD, chair of the DGIM and medical director of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

The board has also distanced itself from two other honorary members: Gustav von Bergmann and Felix Lommel. “More research is needed and we cannot currently make a responsible decision on withdrawal of honorary membership,” Lerch explained.

Early results from the historical reappraisal were presented to the public in 2015 at an exhibition held during the 121st DGIM Congress in Mannheim. The Society concurrently underwent a process of public self-reflection, stating that it was ashamed of having allowed 70 years to pass before it objectively examined its actions under National Socialism and acknowledged its responsibility.

The exhibition used photos, documents, and explanatory texts to show the actions, or lack of action, taken by some Society members during the Nazi regime. For example, it showed how then DGIM chair Alfred Schittenhelm — whose honorary membership has since been withdrawn — put the Society on the track to National Socialism. It also shone light on the role played by internists who consulted with the Wehrmacht in the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war and others, and on criminal experiments conducted on humans.

The exhibition also highlighted Jewish doctors who were persecuted and expelled, such as Leopold Lichtwitz, MD, who lost his position as clinic director in Berlin in 1933 and was forced to resign his chairmanship of the Society. And it presented portraits of members who loudly objected to and even actively resisted the regime, such as Wolfgang Seitz, MD, who became director of the Medical Outpatient Clinic at the University of Munich and deputy of the state parliament of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in Bavaria after the war.

The historians focused on the years after 1945, because “1945 was no zero hour,” said Forsbach. Some culpable doctors continued to practice or became honorary DGIM members, he explained. The DGIM’s attitude toward history was characterized by suppression, denial, silence, and attempts at justification, consistent with the postwar attitude in the Federal Republic of Germany and in the medical profession as a whole.

After 1945

Behavior before 1945 is not the only source of shame. Crimes committed by doctors were never really confronted until the late 1970s, Jörg-Dietrich Hoppe, MD, former president of the German Medical Association, explained to ZEIT, a German newspaper, in 2011.

The psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich, MD, and Fred Mielke were official observers from the German Commission of Physicians at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial who were made painfully aware that National Socialism was by no means over when the regime came to an end. They were both reviled as traitors to their country and for fouling their own nest, and, according to Mitscherlich, the behavior of the “authorities” bordered on character assassination.

As late as 1973, a renowned internist threatened that German internists would leave the room locked at the upcoming DGIM Congress if — as had been planned by congress chair Herbert Begemann — Mitscherlich gave a talk on this subject, journalist and doctor Renate Jäckle reported in her book on doctors and politics.

Even toward the end of the 1980s, Karsten Vilmar, MD, then president of the German Medical Association, reacted in an insensitive and defensive manner — during an interview — to an article in the Lancet, written by the Mainz pediatrician Hartmut M. Hanauske-Abel, MD, on the role of the German medical profession in the Third Reich and the suppression that followed after 1945.

A group of 400 doctors, at most, were culpable, and coming to terms with the past should not defame doctors collectively, Vilmar said in a statement chillingly reminiscent of declarations made by the Wehrmacht, which described itself as mainly “clean”.

Of course, the end of the Nazi regime was not the end of all barbarity, not even in Europe. “Violence will be something we have to confront in our future lives, too. Belief in the healing powers of civilization is nothing but a fairytale,” Berlin historian Jörg Barberowski wrote in a 2012 essay.

Nevertheless, as Michael Hallek, MD, from the University Hospital of Cologne, said, it is important to keep memory alive.

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