Public Release: 

1930s Fascism Spawned Public Health Initiatives

Penn State

University Park, Pa. -- Anti-tobacco campaigns, whole grain breads, breast self examination and control of carcinogens in the workplace are normal approaches to preventing or controlling cancer today, but, according to a Penn State historian of science, in the 1930s and 1940s, it was actually Nazi Germany that pioneered many such practices.

"Nazism took root in the world's most powerful scientific culture boasting half of the world's Nobel Prizes and a sizable fraction of the world's patents" says Dr. Robert N. Proctor, professor of the history of science. "The story of science under German fascism cannot be just a narrative of suppression and survival, we also have to explain how and why Nazi ideology promoted certain areas of inquiry, how research was turned and twisted, how projects and policies came and went with the movement of political forces."

In his book, "The Nazi War on Cancer," (Princeton 1999), Proctor charts the path of Nazi science and medicine throughout many different twists and turns, focusing on cancer. The atrocities and injustices of Nazi Germany are not ignored, but Proctor is primarily interested in how the philosophies that created concentration camps, mass sterilization and "racial hygiene" influenced other, less well-known aspects of public health and safety.

"In the Nazi period, health officials developed safeguards against exposure to deadly chemical toxins at the same time the efforts were also underway to use some of those very same toxins to kill millions of Jews and Gypsies," says the faculty member in the College of the Liberal Arts.

The Nazi effort against cancer took many forms, including nutritional and diet therapeutics, mitigation of occupational hazards such as asbestos and an aggressive anti-tobacco program. Hitler's vegetarianism and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco influenced preventive approaches, as did the increasing scarcity of supplies in a country long at war.

On the dietary front, efforts were not always simply for human health benefits, but also for economic health benefits. White bread was bad because it was deemed a "French revolutionary invention" and white flour because it was chemically treated. However, white bread also cost more to bake. Eating less bleached flour, meat, sugar and fat was not only healthy, but also economically sound.

The Nazi war against tobacco took many forms. Tobacco advertising was restricted and regulations were imposed to limit smoking by women and children. Basic science initiatives were also launched.

"The startling truth is that it was actually in Nazi Germany that the link was originally established (between cigarettes and lung cancer)," writes Proctor. "German tobacco epidemiology was, in fact, for a time, the most advanced in the world, as were many other aspects of the anti tobacco effort."

Proctor believes that the recognition of the dangers of tobacco was fostered by a political climate stressing the virtues of racial hygiene and bodily purity. In racial hygiene journals, smoking was associated with rebellion, jazz and swing dancing, degenerate blacks, Jews and Gypsies. Anti-smoking posters used inflammatory and insulting images of Africans, Jews and Indians.

Detection, prevention and treatment of cancer were important in Nazi medicine and an effort to gain good statistical control of a cancer registry was an early goal. However, because one in eight German physicians was Jewish, the regulations prohibiting Jewish doctors from treating anyone other than Jews severely disrupted the cancer registry and similar restrictions in universities strongly affected research.

The Penn State historian shows that public health initiatives were launched in the name of national socialism and that Nazi ideals informed the practice and popularization of science, guiding it, motivating it and reorienting it in ways we are only beginning to appreciate.

"The Nazi war on cancer has been ignored because we do not seem to be comfortable with the idea that people with rotten ethical ideas could have been 'ahead of their time' in spheres of medicine and public health," Proctor says.

While Nazi medicine is remembered for its atrocities, that is only part of its lesson and that alone would distort our understanding, according to Proctor.

"Not because the crimes have been exaggerated ... but rather because there is a danger of our failing to understand the origins and appeal of German fascism."

The Nazification of science in Germany is more complex than is usually recognized; it is a history of "forcible sterilization and herbal medicine, of genocidal 'selection' and bans on public smoking." Much of what was done, even if benign or positive, was done for the furtherance of racial purity and the Nazi state.

"The Nazi campaign against tobacco and the 'whole grain bread operation' are, in some sense, as fascist as the yellow stars and the death camps," says Proctor. "Understanding such complexities may better allow us to understand how even many right-thinking Germans supported Hitler."


EDITORS: Dr. Proctor is at 814-863-8943 or at by e-mail.

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