Siemens Ingenuity for Life in the Service of Death During the Third Reich
Jakobovits Center for Medical Ethics, Ben Gurion University, Israel
BACKGROUND: Siemens is known today as a global leader in innovative medical technology, with a strong presence in medical imaging. The company began in 1847 as a small family business in Berlin, co-founded by Ernst Werner von Siemens. Today, the German conglomerate is the largest industrial manufacturing company in Europe. However there is a dark chapter in the illustrious corporate history: the company’s activates during the Nazi era from1933-1945.
MEDICAL IMAGING: Seimens supplied and maintained the state of the art X-ray machines used in unethical clinical practices in Germany and its occupied territories. These included X-ray machines used in the national forced sterilization campaign starting in 1935 as an investigative alternative to surgical sterilization. An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 German citizens were sterilized during the campaign. Later in the war, Siemens was commissioned to install and maintain X-ray machines in Auschwitz and Ravensbrück for a series of heinous experiments performed by Dr. Horest Schumann. The experiments were an attempt to actualize the Nazi plan of clandestine mass sterilization by X-ray of what were considered sub-human Slavic nations. Siemens supplied and maintained specialized mobile X-ray units for the SS X-ray “Storm unit” (Röntgensturmbann) which operated from 1938-1945. The declared goal of this unit was to allow for early detection of tuberculosis and create a “People’s Roentgen Registry”. The unit was led by a senior radiologist and SS officer Prof. Hans Holfelder. Ultimately, rather than screening for early intervention to help TB patients, the unit used the machines to serve various “racial hygiene” goals to “cleans” the German occupied populations.
SLAVE LABOR: To keep up with the increasing production demand of the Nazis, Siemens made use of at least 80,000 forced laborers in nearly 400 factories with prisoners from Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Sachsenhausen and other concentration camps. The slave laborers, men and woman, usually worked for twelve hours a day under conditions of extreme exploitation and dehumanization. In 1998, Siemens was forced to set up a special fund to pay compensation to slave laborers it exploited.
DESPOLIATION: Siemens took an active role in the so-called “Aryanization” of the German economy which included the forced seizure and expropriation of Jewish businesses and foreign companies in the occupied territories for resale at below market value to approved German companies.
CONCLUSION: As radiologist we have a special duty to recall the deadly interface between science, technology and the distorted biomedical Nazi vision.