The Nazis and the louse

Nazis claimed Jews were put in ghettos to contain typhus, when in fact, the crowded conditions only exacerbated the problem.

nazimedbook 88 298 (photo credit: )
nazimedbook 88 298
(photo credit: )
Murderous Medicine: Nazi Doctors, Human Experimentation, and Typhus By Naomi Baumslag Greenwood 272 pp., $49.95 The Third Reich's ideologies spawned all kinds of bizarre and perverted medical theories. Jews and other despised races were alleged to act on their societies in the same way that disease, such as cancer, affected a person. These theories buttressed the case for genocide, and made the inmates of the death camps suitable subjects for torture and murder under the guise of experimental research. Dr. Baumslag, who teaches at Georgetown University Medical School, focuses here on the role typhus played in the Final Solution, and uncovers another grim chapter in Nazi medical history. Typhus is an unusual disease. It is transmitted by the human body louse, but the causative agent, rickettsia, is neither bacteria nor virus. Further, it was unknown in Europe until the late 15th century, and its origin is still a mystery. While doctors had accurately linked the malady to poor hygiene, it was not until the early 20th century that researchers from France, the United States, Brazil and Poland cracked the mysteries of the transmission of typhus. Vaccines were cumbersome to manufacture, primitive and relatively ineffective. The only sure way to deal with typhus was to encourage personal hygiene, and boil clothes and bedding. Efforts were made to do this during the First World War, but the dislocations caused by the conflict and the shortage of food made typhus a notorious killer. An estimated 20 to 30 million people, soldiers and civilians, were killed in Russia and Eastern Europe by the disease during the war and in its aftermath. So severe was the disease in Russia that Lenin was reputed to have said, "Either socialism will defeat the louse, or the louse will defeat socialism." The Nazi war against the Jews therefore heavily emphasized comparisons between Jews and lice, openly claiming that Jews caused typhus. To a receptive population with fresh memories of the epidemics, this was potent propaganda. The Jew was immediately linked to blood-sucking, parasitism, dirt and death. The rounding-up of Jews into ghettos was justified by the need to contain typhus: the fact that the crowded conditions of the ghetto were ideal for the spreading of the disease was conveniently ignored. The gas chambers were presented to its victims as delousing showers: the gas that killed them - Zyklon B - had actually been used by the Germans in the First World War to kill lice. And typhus managed to kill countless numbers of concentration camp inmates without the Nazis having to lift a finger. Jewish doctors and nurses fought heroically to prevent the spread of typhus under dire conditions, while covering up the disease from the Germans for fear it would be used as a pretext for slaughtering the sick and those treating them together, as indeed happened. But the Nazis' bogus typhus science had its own reward. Typhus was a frequent visitor to the ranks of the Wehrmacht, while unknown to Western armies unencumbered by anti-Semitic myths. Murderous Medicine is thorough, profusely and admirably illustrated and tackles the medical issues clearly, if dryly. But a few errors creep into the text: Yom Kippur can never fall in November, and the researcher who performed the famous electro-shock experiments that showed how easy it was to persuade people to inflict pain on the orders of an authority figure was Stanley Milgram, not Thomas Milgrim. More seriously, the author loses focus towards the end, and the book becomes something of a grab-bag on matters related to medical ethics and biological warfare. Nonetheless, Dr. Baumslag has highlighted expertly the sinister role that epidemic disease, and attitudes towards it, played in the Holocaust.