Oberheuser, Herta (1911—)

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Oberheuser, Herta (1911—)

German physician whose complicity in the medical experiments at the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women led to her sentence of 20 years' imprisonment at the Nuremberg Medical Trial of 1946–1947. Name variations: Hertha Oberheuser. Born in Cologne on May 15, 1911; University of Bonn, M.D., 1937.

Since antiquity, the Hippocratic Oath has called on physicians to heal humanity and to show tenderness and mercy to those afflicted with illness. In Nazi Germany, the medical profession not only ignored its own ideals but became an active accomplice in the murderous racial agenda of Adolf Hitler's regime. The Third Reich's physicians could boast of having the highest percentage of Nazi Party members of any profession—an astonishing 45%. Their ratio of membership in the brown-shirted SA (Sturmabteilung or Storm Troopers) and the elite black-shirted SS (Schutzstaffel) was, respectively, two and seven times that of teachers. Even before the Third Reich, with few exceptions, German physicians had for decades been sympathetic to authoritarian, nationalist, and racist beliefs and ideologies. The German medical community, generally comprised of conservative males determined to preserve their professional and gender privileges, was ill-equipped to resist the seductions of Adolf Hitler's movement which promised the restoration of traditional social and cultural hierarchies.

In the case of Herta Oberheuser, the only woman physician to be indicted by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal in the Medical Case of 1946–1947, the motives underlying her actions were complex but hardly unfathomable. Born in Cologne in 1911, Oberheuser grew up in a Germany in chaos. Her father, an engineer, had survived World War I physically, but found it difficult to adapt to a postwar world in which Germany was a humiliated nation. Like millions of other German families, the Oberheusers found themselves economically devastated by inflation and permanently embittered by their loss in status. Growing up in Düsseldorf, Herta absorbed the prejudices of her milieu, particularly the festering resentments of her ultra-nationalistic family. In the 1932 elections in which Adolf Hitler ran for the presidency, Oberheuser and her parents voted for the Nazi Party. Like millions of others in the impoverished German middle class, they believed that only Hitler's movement would be able to rescue the nation from the economic misery of the world depression, by creating jobs for millions of the unemployed. Only Hitler's movement could restore Germany's honor by tearing up the humiliating Versailles Treaty.

Encouraged by her family and despite economic sacrifices, Oberheuser enrolled in a gymnasium to qualify for a professional career in medicine. The Oberheusers felt that a medical career would enable Herta to live free of the privations and low social status that the family had long endured. The intelligent, ambitious young woman studied medicine at the University of Bonn, but commuted to Düsseldorf where she worked part-time. As she began her studies in 1933, the Nazi Party seized control of Germany. A reign of terror and a propaganda campaign quickly swept aside all organized opposition, so that by July 1933 the German Reich had become a one-party totalitarian state. Although she gave little thought to the details of the political revolution that had swept through Germany, Oberheuser supported the Nazis, even though one of the new regime's policies called for eliminating women from virtually all of the nation's professional positions.

In 1935, Oberheuser volunteered to serve as an unpaid medical assistant in the Düsseldorf branch of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM or League of German Girls), the female counterpart organization of the Hitler Youth. Although at this time only 0.5% of the Nazi Party's members were female, about one-fifth of these were medical students or practicing physicians. In 1937, Oberheuser earned her M.D. degree from the University of Bonn. Specializing in dermatology, she quickly found a post at the municipal pediatric clinic (Kinderstation) in Düsseldorf.

In August 1937, Oberheuser joined the Nazi Party and became a member of the Nazi professional organization Nationalsozialistischer Ärztebund (National Socialist Physicians' League). Despite her political loyalty and willingness to devote long hours at the pediatric clinic, Oberheuser soon realized that as a woman in Nazi Germany her chances of receiving equal treatment in relation to her male colleagues in medicine were virtually nil. Indeed, the discrimination at the Düsseldorf clinic was blatant and hurtful, particularly financially. At a time when specialized medical textbooks could cost as much as 70 reichsmarks, Oberheuser's monthly salary was 100 reichsmarks. Her male counterparts in Düsseldorf earned fully four times that amount.

In 1940, she saw an advertisement in a Nazi medical journal about a job as medical officer for the "medical care of female criminals" at the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Since it paid a significantly higher salary than the one she was earning in Düsseldorf, Oberheuser applied for the position and was accepted. Situated 90 kilometers north of Berlin on the Havel River and near a village of the same name, the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women had begun operations in May 1939 when 867 female prisoners were transferred there from the Lichtenburg concentration camp in East Prussia. Ravensbrück was part of the vast SS empire of terror, repression, surveillance and economic exploitation, the heart of which was the nationwide system of concentration camps that had begun at Dachau and other KZs (Konzentrationslager or concentration camp) in March 1933.

Soon after Germany conquered Poland in September 1939, women members of the Polish resistance movement began to be sent to Ravensbrück. While the camp contained only about 2,000 prisoners at the end of 1939, most of them German citizens, by the end of 1942 the facility's prisoner population had grown to 10,800. Many of these women were Polish, and along with other citizens of Slavic countries they were regarded by a Nazi state based on a racist ideology of Aryan supremacy as mere Untermenschen—"sub-humans" fit only for menial labor, or worse. It was because of these ideological assumptions, and the abandonment of medical ethics that customarily protect humans from dangerous or potentially fatal experimentation being performed on their bodies, that a group of Ravensbrück prisoners were forced to undergo tests that maimed all and killed some.

Starting in July 1942, experiments to investigate the effectiveness of the antibiotic sulfanilamide against infections sustained by soldiers in battle took place at Ravensbrück. The doctor in overall charge of these experiments was Karl Gebhardt, chief surgeon of the SS and German

Police and SS Führer Heinrich Himmler's personal physician. Gebhardt had been attending physician at the bedside of SS functionary Reinhard Heydrich after he was the victim of an assassination plot in Prague in May 1942. When Heydrich died of his wounds Gehhardt's medical skills were questioned. Some in the SS hinted that Heydrich might have lived had Gebhardt chosen to treat his patient with massive doses of sulfanilamide, arguing that such intervention would have reversed the severe infection that resulted in fatal gangrene and putrefaction. At this point Himmler requested Gebhardt to prove experimentally that sulfanilamide was effective against gangrene and putrefaction in wounded soldiers. Because these experiments, if successful, would save the lives of severely wounded German soldiers, it was argued that the purpose of the experimentation was in fact humane, and that it was not only justifiable in terms of urgent military necessity but could, in the final analysis, be regarded as being profoundly humanitarian in nature. The exact opposite was to be the case.

The experiments to determine the most effective treatment of war wounds began at Ravensbrück on July 20, 1942. Unlike the French physician Adelaide Hautval , who refused to participate in Nazi medical atrocities during her incarceration at Auschwitz, Oberheuser used them to advance her career. Until shortly before the experiments were finally terminated in September 1943, she determined who would be chosen for the tests—a total of 74 Polish women political prisoners. Almost all of them were young (their ages ranged from 16 to 45, with most in their early 20s), and the great majority were members of the intelligentsia, being either students or teachers. Resistance activists, they had been sentenced to death in typical SS fashion, without benefit of trial or jury.

After preliminary experimentation had taken place on 15 male inmates from another concentration camp, the first series of experiments began on 60 of the 74 Polish women. They were experimented on in 5 groups of 12 subjects each. In addition to simulations of simple injuries, Oberheuser and her colleagues Gebhardt and Fritz Ernst Fischer created the severe condition known as gas gangrene in the women, who came collectively to be known as "the Ravensbrück Lapins" (rabbits or guinea pigs). Working as a junior member of the team, Oberheuser assisted her colleagues in cutting into the limbs of the Polish women and then stuffing their open wounds with staphylococci and streptococci bacteria, gas gangrene cultures, and tetanus. Circulation of the women's normal blood supply was interrupted by tying off blood vessels at both ends of wounds so as to create a condition similar to that of a battlefield wound. These infections were then aggravated by filling the open wounds with dirt, wood shavings, and ground glass. Once the procedure was completed, the wounds were sewn up. At this point, the now-raging infections would be treated with sulfanilamide and other drugs to determine effectiveness.

When it became known at SS medical headquarters in Berlin that of the experimental subjects none had yet died, chief medical officer of the SS Dr. Ernst Robert Grawitz demanded that the virulence of the infections created in the women's wounds be increased. When this was done on a group of 24 Polish prisoners by Oberheuser and her colleagues (after an earlier group of 36 had been experimented on), five women died as a result not only of the severity of their infections (brought on by introduction into their wounds of highly infectious staphylococci, and other bacteria), but also because the "experimenters" were interested only in the properties of sulfanilamide, and thus would use no other drug or procedure on the women they had infected.

These infections resulted in excruciating agony for all of the Polish women who had been operated on. Of the five who died, Weronica Kraska succumbed to tetanus and Kazimiera Kurowska died at age 23 after being artificially infected with gangrene bacillus that caused her leg to swell and turn black. Kurowska, forced to endure "unbelievable pain," was provided with medical care for only a few days, even though amputation of her gangrenous leg might have saved her life. Zofia Kiecol and Aniela Lefanowicz , both of whom had been intentionally infected with oedema malignum, suffered agonizing pain from their swollen, infected legs, but were medically ignored after two or three days; eventually both died from severe bleeding. Alfreda Prus , a university student before her arrest, was also infected with oedema malignum. Her good health kept her alive a few days longer than Kiecol and Lefanowicz, but eventually she too succumbed to infection, suffering terrible pain and finally dying of a massive hemorrhage. Miraculously, another member of the infected group, Maria (Marysha) Kusmierczuk , not only survived the experiment but survived Ravensbrück itself, living to testify against Oberheuser and several of her colleagues at the Nuremberg Medical Trial in 1946–1947. One prisoner, Barbara Pietrzyk , survived five different operations, a fact that would be documented after the war by a commission of Polish physicians who in 1946 examined survivors at the Gdansk Medical Academy.

Additional experiments on the surviving Ravensbrück Lapins, who included one German and one Ukrainian woman, resulted in eight more deaths, bringing the total to 13. Although the women had been promised that their participation in the experiments, which was involuntary, would result in a commutation of their death sentences, this promise was never kept. Six of the women were executed after the experiments on them had been terminated—obviously to silence them. In 1943, Apolonia Rakowska was shot while her wounds were still festering.

Oberheuser was an indispensable member of the German team. To many of the women, the well-groomed young doctor in the SS uniform was " der Teufel mit dem Engelsgesicht" (the devil with the face of an angel). Besides her participation in the sulfanilamide studies, she was an active member of the team that carried out a series of pseudo-scientific investigations to study bone, muscle, and nerve regeneration, as well as bone transplantation from one person to another. These experiments, which began at Ravensbrück in September 1942 and lasted until the end of 1943, included the smashing of bones with hammers as well as the removal of sections of bones, muscles, and nerves from the test subjects. In one "experiment" performed by SS physicians Fischer and Gebhardt, muscles and shoulder bones were transplanted from one patient to another, with predictable consequences. Three kinds of bone operations were performed: artificially induced fractures, bone transplantations, and bone splints. On the operating table, the bones of the lower part of both legs of a number of women were broken or shattered with a hammer. Later, the bones were joined with or without special clips and the legs placed in a plaster cast. Post-operative care, for which Oberheuser was responsible, was minimal. As a result, the women suffered intense agony, mutilation, and permanent disability. Some of the young women were operated on more than once. On one occasion, when a prisoner asked for painkillers, Oberheuser told her that the healing process would take even longer if painkilling drugs were applied to wounds.

After the war, a number of ex-prisoners commented on Oberheuser's cruelty. Besides her inhuman "treatments," she also killed a number of them. In her Nuremberg trial deposition of November 1, 1946, she admitted that she had given lethal injections to five or six woman who "were close to death." During the trial, she defended her actions under cross-examination as having been "mercy killings" (Gnadentod), no more than "medical assistance for suffering patients who were in agony." On other occasions during the war, Oberheuser had revealed a remarkably callous nature. When Anna Heil , a German woman, received news that her sister had died in Ravensbrück, she contacted Oberheuser hoping to discover more details on her sister's final days. Oberheuser hit Heil in the face and stomach, while screaming at her, "She is gone! Because she was only a useless eater [ unnötiger Fresser], and we really don't need those sort of people around any more!"

On several occasions, the Polish women protested the cruelty of their medical "treatment." When Jadwiga Kaminska , who could speak some German, courageously protested to Oberheuser on behalf of all the Polish women, Oberheuser's response was simply to shrug her shoulders without a word. On another occasion, a group of Polish women drew up a written protest, and went to the camp commandant, SSHauptsturmführer Max Kögel. The petition declared, "We, the undersigned, Polish political prisoners, ask the Commandant whether he knows that since the year 1942 experimental operations have taken place in the camp hospital…. We ask whether we were operated on as a result of sentences passed on us because, as far as we know, international law forbids the performance of operations even on political prisoners."

Not surprisingly, there was no official response. Soon, however, one of the female overseers came to the barrack where Vladislava Karolewska , one of the leaders of the protest, was being kept. The names of Karolewska and nine other women were called out. When the overseer asked the women, "Why do you stand in line as if you were to be executed?" Karolewska responded that as far as they were concerned, the operations they had undergone had been worse than executions and that as a group they would prefer to be executed rather than operated on again. Karolewska had already undergone two operations, and endured excruciating pain, and while recovering in the hospital had been abused by Oberheuser. Soon after, two SS men entered her unlit cell, held her down with force, and gave her an injection. When she regained consciousness, Karolewska felt severe pain in her feet and was suffering from a high temperature; she had been operated on a third time.

In June 1943, Oberheuser was assigned a new position, as a pediatrician at the main SS hospital at the Hohenlychen Medical Institute near Berlin. After two and a half years at Ravensbrück, she was moving up in the SS medical hierarchy. Hohenlychen was regarded as a promotion, because its chief surgeon was Karl Gebhardt, one of the most powerful men in the SS and Oberheuser's superior during the time she was part of the experimental team at Ravensbrück. Oberheuser was at Hohenlychen when the war ended in the spring of 1945, and some months after this she was arrested along with most of her colleagues, including Gebhardt and Fischer.

For the "Lapins" at Ravensbrück, the last years of the war brought no improvements in their lives, despite Oberheuser's departure. Their wounds healed slowly, if at all, leaving many of them permanently crippled. In early 1945, when it became obvious that Nazi Germany would lose the war, their lives were further endangered as the various administrators of concentration camps took measures to destroy all evidence of their criminal conduct. An attendant confided to the women that an extermination squad was scheduled to arrive at Ravensbrück within a few days. With the assistance of a few sympathetic attendants, most of the women were able to hide out in other barracks to avoid detection. Those few who were too sick to be moved dug little "foxholes" for themselves in their regular barracks block, hiding under the floorboards. For three days and nights they lay there, without food or water, suffering from fever. On the second day, they heard the stomping and scuffling of heavy boots directly overhead. Years later, survivor Helena (Helenka) Piasecka recalled: "We were very sick and we were stained by our own filth. I don't suppose human beings ever had less reason to want to live, yet that was when the will to live was strongest. We knew that if we could survive for just a few more days we might be able to let the world know."

On the night of April 29–30, 1945, Soviet soldiers liberated Ravensbrück. They found 3,500 gravely ill and exhausted female prisoners, with the healthier ones caring for the most enfeebled. The surviving Polish "Lapins" returned home to a nation that was, along with the formerly Nazi-occupied areas of the Soviet Union, the most devastated state in Europe. At least six million Poles had died during the occupation and war. Ninety percent of Poland's Jews had been systematically murdered in the Holocaust. Most of the Ravensbrück women returned to families that had been decimated or virtually annihilated. Yet as a group they refused to give up. While some returned to school or careers as quickly as they could, hoping to forget the past, a few made an effort to tell the world about what had been done to them in Ravensbrück in the name of "science" and "medical progress."

Starting only a few months after the conclusion of the Nuremberg trial of major war criminals, the Nuremberg Medical Trial began in late October 1946. Unlike the main Nuremberg trial, which was constituted as an International Military Tribunal representing the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France, the medical trial and others that followed it were solely under American jurisdiction and control. On trial were 23 defendants, many of whom had medical degrees and had held high positions in the SS or the German Armed Forces. All except Oberheuser were male, and most observers agreed that there was more than sufficient evidence that she had been significantly involved in activities of a criminal and inhumane nature, although her position both within the SS and at the Ravensbrück camp while medical experiments took place there was of a secondary and subordinate nature. At the camp, she had assisted Fritz Fischer, who ranked as an SS-Sturmbannführer (equivalent to major), while both she and Fischer carried out their assignments under the authority of Gebhardt, who was an SS-Gruppenführer (major general). Gebhardt's power within the SS and the Nazi Reich was attested to by the fact that he held other high positions including major general in the Waffen-SS, was Himmler's personal physician, served as chief surgeon of the Staff of the Reich Physician SS and Police, and last but not least was president of the German Red Cross.

During the trial, which lasted from October 1946 until August 1947, Oberheuser did not stand out among the 22 other defendants. She tried to evade responsibility for the many atrocities revealed during the trial, either pleading forgetfulness or trying to minimize her culpability, arguing that while she had attempted to administer therapeutic care according to established medical principles, that was impossible in the environment of a concentration camp, one that she "had never cared for." She characterized herself "as a woman in a difficult position" who "did the best" she could. She argued that on the occasions—five or six, according to her—when she gave fatal dosages of intravenous injections, she had released terminally ill prisoners from their "hopeless suffering." Oberheuser gave the standard argument of accused war criminals, namely of merely following orders, adding to this that as a dermatologist she had had little or no knowledge of the precise medical needs of the Polish women prisoners before, during, or after the experiments.

The 23 medical trial defendants were sentenced on August 20, 1947. Seven, including Gebhardt, were sentenced to death and executed in June 1948. Five were given life imprisonment, while four, including Oberheuser, received various terms of incarceration. Oberheuser was found guilty of having committed both war crimes and crimes against humanity, and was sentenced to a term of 20 years. But she would not serve out her sentence. For Washington, the rapidly developing Cold War environment meant that West Germany had to be turned into a dependable partner of the West as quickly as possible. A rearmed Germany would be expected to play a key role resisting Soviet power in the heart of Europe. For the United States, implementing this strategy included the termination of such "anti-German" activities as war crimes trials and long sentences for former officials of the Third Reich suspected of complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Concrete evidence of a radical change in American policy toward defeated Germany was clearly evident when several defendants in the medical trial with dubious backgrounds were secretly hired by the U.S. military. Under their new masters, they continued their research in such areas as aviation medicine and biological warfare. With few exceptions, several hundred medical personnel who had inflicted pain, suffering and often death on more than 1,200 individuals in facilities other than Ravensbrück went unpunished as alliances shifted due to the Cold War. In 1952, Oberheuser benefited directly from these policy changes, being released from prison for her "good conduct." Not only did Oberheuser regain her freedom, she was legally defined as a Spätheimkehrerin (late returnee from foreign captivity) and given a generous financial grant in compensation for her sufferings. She quickly established a medical practice.

Settled in the town of Stocksee bei Plön in the northern province of Holstein, Oberheuser built up a thriving practice as a pediatrician. She had become a respected physician by the time information circulating within the international medical community about her wartime activities began to put pressure on her. For a considerable time she was supported by a West German medical establishment that was hiding many skeletons in its professional closet. Eventually, however, massive publicity from abroad and from such critical journals as Der Spiegel in 1960 shamed officials into revoking her medical license. Since that time, nothing has been heard of Herta Oberheuser.


Anderson, Erica. "These Women Were Nazi Guinea Pigs," in Look. Vol. 23, no. 6. March 17, 1959, pp. 110–114.

"Human Laboratory Animals," in Life. Vol. 22, no. 8. February 24, 1947, pp. 81–82, 84.

Klier, Freya. Die Kaninchen von Ravensbrück: Medizinische Versuche an Frauen in der NS-Zeit. Munich: Knaur Verlag, 1994.

Machlejd, Wanda, ed., Experimental Operations on Prisoners of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Poznan: Wydawnictwo Zachodnie, 1960.

McKale, Donald M. "Purging Nazis: The Postwar Trials of Female German Doctors and Nurses," in William S. Brockington, Jr., and W. Calvin Smith, eds., The Proceedings of The South Carolina Historical Association 1981. Aiken, SC: The South Carolina Historical Association-USC-Aiken, 1981, pp. 156–180.

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Trials of War Criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals under Control Law No. 10, Nuernberg October 1946–April 1949. 15 vols. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949–1952, Vols. 1 and 2.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia