The Nazi Doctor
At the Nuremburg trials, the Americans tried those Nazis they had captured after the war, and who had been suspected of medical crimes. One of those trials became known as the Doctor’s Trial, during which a group of Nazi doctors were charged with some of the most abhorrent crimes against humanity. As the only female doctor, Herta Oberheuser stood out from the rest of her co-accused.
A specialist in dermatology, Dr. Oberheuser first served at Ravensbrück, the notorious female concentration camp. There she was under the supervision of the chief camp doctor, and participated in forced abortions of the women prisoners. Later she took part in grotesque medical experimentation, treating purposefully infected wounds with newly discovered drugs. It was for these crimes that she found herself in the dock at Nuremburg.
From a young age, Herta Oberheuser had wanted to be a doctor. Born on May 15, 1911 in Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, that was then part of the German Empire. The young Herta grew up in Düsseldorf, and after passing her Abitur in 1931, she went on to study medicine at universities in Bonn and Düsseldorf.
Her father worked as an engineer, and the family was not wealthy, meaning Herta had to partially finance her studies herself. After passing the state exam in 1936, she achieved her doctorate the following year from the University of Bonn. Her first job was as an assistant medical doctor at the Physiological Institute in Bonn, before later working at the Medical Clinic in Düsseldorf.
At some point she decided to train as a dermatologist, switching to the Düsseldorf Dermatology Clinic. In 1940, she obtained her specialist title in dermatology, and worked for the health department in Düsseldorf. Her specialized field of study was in the research and conducting vivisection experiments on living animals.
She then applied to join the Nazi Party and served as a doctor with the League of German Girls. In 1940, she applied for a medical job advertisement as a doctor in a women’s retraining camp. This camp, known as Ravensbrück, became synonymous with the suffering of female opponents of the Reich, and she trained there over the course of a three month period.
By the beginning of 1941, she was assigned to serve as a camp doctor, a role she continued in until the Summer of 1943. Under the supervision of the camp dentist Walter Sonntag and the chief camp doctor Gerhard Schiedlausky, Dr. Oberheuser participated in forced abortions along with Dr. Rolf Rosenthal.
Eventually she was entrusted with carrying out these abortions independently, which were also achieved through beatings and the killings of newborns, as well as gruesome medical experiments on female patients at the camp hospital. She would regularly attend over 60 patients during her working day and unlike her male colleagues, she never used the results from her tests to advance her own career.
She firmly believed her position and purpose was to help her male superiors with their medical experimentation and research. In the Summer of 1943 she was transferred as a surgical assistant at the Hohenlychen Sanitorium under Dr. Karl Gebhardt, where she remained until the end of the war. At Hohenlychen Dr. Oberheuser continued her involvement in medical experimentation on prisoners at Ravensbrück.
These experiments were conducted in an attempt to discover better methods of treating infection. She performed horrific operations, treating purposefully infected wounds with sulfonilamide on 86 female prisoners from Ravensbrück, 74 of whom were Polish political prisoners.
These wounds were designed to simulate those which German soldiers might suffer in combat situations, and Dr. Oberheuser applied foreign substances, such as rusty nails, glass particles, dirt, wood splinters and sawdust directly into the cuts. The Germans placed great hopes on these anti-biotics with the emphasis being for use on those injured in the war.
However, the experiments resulted in the deaths of many of the subject prisoners, with some who survived left horribly disfigured and dying years later from their infected wounds. Those who were close to death were often given lethal injections, administered personally by Dr. Oberheuser, who later attempted to portray this as humane given their suffering.
Under the direction of Dr. Gebhardt and Dr. Fritz Fischer, she undertook bone, muscle and nerve regeneration and transplantation experiments. In these she was assisted by Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger. During the course of other experiments she gave healthy children oil and evipan injections, which usually took between three to five minutes to kill the patient.
These subjects were semi-conscious until the end, aware and suffering. Dr. Oberheuser considered the prisoners as test subjects, not even people, just rabbits who were expendable. Like many other Nazis, she saw the Jewish people as subhuman. It was this mentality that assisted Nazi doctors like Herta Oberheuser in carrying out her gruesome work.
War Crimes Trial
During the last few months of the war, the Soviet Red Army advanced towards Ravensbrück. The camp staff forced the remaining inmates, roughly 24,500, on a forced death march deeper into German territory. Others were released, and some were handed over to Swedish officials of the Red Cross. This left around 3,500 malnourished women and some men remaining in the camp when the Russians liberated the camp on April 30, 1945.
The female SS guards fled the camp along with their male counterparts and the SS medical staff. Like many of the former SS staff, Dr. Oberheuser was arrested by the advancing Americans in May 1945. Like others who had served at Ravensbrück, she was investigated for over her participation in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
After the Nuremburg Trial that saw some of the most senior Nazid hanged for their crimes, the American prosecutors arraigned twenty-three defendants who were responsible for Nazi medical experimentation. Amongst those, twenty were former SS or civilian doctors, and all were male doctors, except for Herta Oberheuser.
The trial commenced on December 9, 1946, and as the only female defendant on trial, Oberheuser presented herself as a passive woman who could not be guilty of such brutal medical practices. She claimed the orders for her experiments came from Adolf Hitler himself, something she considered legal. Along with Dr. Fischer, both believed they had saved the lives of condemned female prisoners by offering them the chance to partake in experimental procedures.
Those claims however were contradicted by the inmates who survived the surgeries, and were left with debilitating physical deformities. Some would suffer physical pain as a result, and succumb to their wounds many years after the war. Yet Herta Oberheuser argued that the research conducted at Hohenlychen contributed to the survival of over 100,000 wounded Wehrmacht soldiers.
The prosecution called witnesses, those who had survived the experiments at Ravensbrück, and now carried the scar of those medical procedures. These women showed the court the wounds that had been infected by Dr. Oberheuser and the others SS doctors, wounds that had festered and never properly healed, resulting in scars.
With regards to the experiments she carried out at Ravensbrück, Oberheuser claimed not to know what atrocities were committed at the camp, or said she could no longer remember what happened. The court did not believe her, and on August 20, 1947, she was found guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
She was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Because she could not serve as a doctor of the SS, who did not accept women within its membership, she was not found guilty of the charge of belonging to a banned organization, which most likely saved her from being condemned to death like some of her fellow defendants such as her former boss Dr. Gebhardt.
The Legacy of Dr. Oberheuser
Her sentence was reduced to 10 years imprisonment in 1951, and on April 4, 1952 she was released from Landsberg Prison due to her good conduct. She had not been stripped of her medical licence and after her release she practiced medicine at Stocksee near Neumünster in West Germany, and worked at the Johanniter sanatorium in Plön.
However, she was recognised by a former Ravensbrück prisoner in 1956. After allegations made against her became public knowledge, an attempt was made by the Kiel Public Prosecutor’s Office to charge her with war crimes. This was discontinued in 1957 because she had already been charged with the same crimes at Nuremburg, and she could not be punished twice for the same crime.
Her medical practice continued to flourish, when in 1958 her license to practice medicine was revoked due to strong protests from former Ravensbrück survivors. She then had to close her practice after an attempt to regain her license failed in December 1960. It was announced by the local press;
“After a twelve-hour hearing, the eighth chamber of the Schleswig-Holstein administrative court in Schleswig on Saturday dismissed the action for annulment by the doctor Oberheuser against the Kiel Interior Minister Lemke, who accused her of her work in the Frauen-Ravensbrück concentration camp (…) had withdrawn her license to practice medicine, was dismissed with costs.”
Several years later in 1965, Herta Oberheuser moved away from Stocksee and resettled in Bad Honnef. She could not escape the stigma of the crimes she committed in the name of science, and her name was well known due to the international coverage of the Nuremburg war crimes trials. She would never again practice medicine, and died in nearby Linz on the Rhine on January 24, 1978.