Medical practitioners and nurses in Nazi Germany

May 18, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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A travelling exhibition, that showcases the persecution and murder of hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled patients by medical practitioners and nurses in Nazi Germany, has been brought to Brisbane by several academics from the University of Queensland.

UQ Faculty of Medicine’s Professor Linda Shields, UQ Political Science and International Studies’ Dr Kirril Shields, Member for Aspley Bart Mellish, exhibition convenor Dr Darren O’Brien and TJ Ryan Foundation president Dr Mary Crawford.

The exhibition’s organiser, Dr Darren O’Brien, is an Honorary Research Senior Fellow in UQ’s School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, a registered nurse, and an Adjunct Lecturer in the Susan Waikil Nursing School at the University of Sydney.

UQ Faculty of Medicine’s Professor Linda Shields and her son, Dr Kirril Shields of the UQ School of Political Science and International Studies, are in the leadership team for the exhibition, entitled ‘registeredpersecuted, annihilated. The Sick and the Disabled under National Socialism’.

More than 400,000 people living with psychiatric illnesses and intellectual and physical disabilities were forcibly sterilised and more than 200,000 were murdered in Germany and occupied territories between 1933 and 1945.

Professor Linda Shields, also a registered nurse, said nursing as a profession had been blighted by the lack of historical examination and accountability for the actions of nurses in this period.

“The doctors decided who would be killed, and signed the forms, but it was largely nurses who did the killings,” she said.

“They used narcotics or overdoses of drugs such as phenobarbitone along with starvation and exposure to cold.

“In some places, gas was used; indeed, these places were where the factory-style killing methods of the Final Solution were developed.”

Doctors, nursing staff and functionaries passed judgement on patients in their care on the basis of each patient’s supposed “value”.

The extermination of patients took place within the institutional and hospital systems.

The exhibition contrasts the views of the perpetrators with those of their victims, as revealed by their files, and examines how such atrocities were able to take place.

The exhibition was on show at the Queensland Museum during Australian Holocaust Memorial Week 3–7 May and will relocate to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital Conference and Education Centre from 17–21 May.

Professor Shields said some nurses participated willingly, while others refused.

“Many had been influenced by Nazi Party propaganda infused with eugenic ‘race hygiene’ theory to believe that killing those of inferior race and intellect was the correct approach to ensure the preservation and continuity of the Aryan race,” she said.

“They were happy to participate in the factory-style executions that occurred at places like Hadamar, a psychiatric hospital.

“These nurses were either committed to what they thought was a correct procedure, or believed they had to obey the orders of others at all costs.”

Dr Kirril Shields, who also works at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (APR2 Centre), said taking the exhibition to a wider audience was vital if the lessons of history were to be learned.

“I’m always conscious of efforts to prevent atrocity crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing,” he said.

“One question we grapple with at the centre is ‘what’s the best approach to preventing crimes of such magnitude?’

“Foremost is education, and education across as many people as is possible, and this is what’s so important about an exhibition such as ‘registered, persecuted, annihilated.

“It provides people of all backgrounds insight into the terrible crimes committed by Germany’s medical and nursing professions during Hitler’s reign, and has us realise that these crimes are so easily committed by seemingly reputable and educated members of our communities.”

Dr O’Brien, also Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies president, secured the grant to bring the exhibition to Queensland for the first time as part of Australian Holocaust Awareness Week activities in this state

“I first viewed  the exhibition in Sydney in 2018, and it has been staged in Melbourne, in both places’ Jewish/Holocaust museums”,

Dr O’Brien said: “I wanted to bring the exhibition to the wider public, especially to nursing and medicine audiences. Doctors and nurses consistently globally rank as the most trusted professions. There is tremendous accountability that comes with such a profile.”

The exhibition was commissioned by the German Association for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics and is curated by the Foundations Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and Topography of Terror, Berlin.

An accompanying lecture and film program will take place next door to the exhibition in UQ’s Centre for Clinical Research auditorium throughout the week. Free tickets are available here and are required to attend.

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