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54

Lab Times

1-2015

Book Review

D

r Sigmund Rascher has a poor rep-

utation as one of the worst of the

Nazi medical experimenters, the

prototype of a Nazi monster. In his various

experiments during World War 2, over 200

people are thought to have died. But Sieg-

fried Bär’s book,

The Fall of the House of Ra-

scher

, is about more than just Rascher’s

deadly research. It is, in effect, a biography

of Rascher (1909-1945), his family, his ed-

ucation, his helpers, co-workers and superi-

ors. Bär says he wrote it because there was

enough material to reconstruct Rascher’s

life in the “finest detail” – some hundred

personal letters from his close family and

friends, documents from the years 1936 to

1944, and testimony from the 1947 Doctors’

Trial at Nuremberg. He traces the influenc-

es that shaped Dr. Rascher, “an average per-

son like you and me who happened to live

through a dark and strange adventure un-

paralleled by any other.”

“An average person like you and me”

Rascher’s family were early adherents

of Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual movement,

the Anthroposophical Society (founded in

1913). Sigmund attended the first Waldorf

school, a hotbed for children of educated

middle class Anthroposophists. Here, he

came under the direct influence of Ehren-

fried Pfeiffer, an ‘apostle’ who played a

major role in developing Steiner’s ideas on

biodynamic farming (that are still popu-

lar today).

Rascher went on to study medicine, but

was drawn to research by Pfeiffer’s ideas

about the influences of cosmic rhythms on

life processes. In particular, Pfeiffer claimed

to show that spiritual forces could influence

the crystallization of copper chloride. Start-

ing in 1934, Rascher hoped to get his doc-

toral degree by proving that hormones af-

fect this crystallization process and that

it could be used as a pregnancy test. He

claimed that his test worked, but there were

doubts and funding problems.

His research career was saved when he

fell in love with an influential older wom-

an, Karoline “Nini” Diehl, a former crooner.

While Rascher was working on his crystal

studies, the Nazis were firmly establishing

their power in Germany. Nini just happened

to be a close friend of a top Nazi – Heinrich

Himmler, head of the SS and, as General

Plenipotentiary, one of the most powerful

men in Nazi Germany. Trained as an agron-

omist, Himmler himself had plenty of ide-

as about science. In 1935, he founded the

Ahnenerbe

, the ‘Study Society for Primor-

dial Intellectual history, German Ancestral

Heritage’. At its height, the

Ahnenerbe

com-

prised 46 departments and 300 employees.

Not much of a researcher

After Nini lobbied Himmler on behalf

of her beloved, Rascher duly completed his

thesis in 1939 and started a five point re-

search contract under Himmler’s patron-

age. Unfortunately, Rascher was not much

of a researcher. In 1941, fearing he would

lose favour with Himmler, he began a re-

search project investigating the effect of low

pressure on adult men. The Luftwaffe were

concerned that their pilots flying at high al-

titudes would suffer from low air pressure

should their planes be hit by enemy fire. Ra-

scher took prisoners from the Dachau con-

centration camp (near Munich) as substi-

tutes for Luftwaffe pilots, and began stick-

ing them in a vacuum chamber to see what

happened. Not surprisingly, they suffered

agony and occasionally died.

A year later, Rascher moved on to a

new problem. Luftwaffe air crews who

parachuted into the North Sea were freez-

ing to death. What is the cause of death by

freezing? How can frozen men be warmed

again? Prisoners were duly placed in ice

cold water baths. More deaths.

However, Rascher was now preoccupied

with getting enough research results for his

Habilitation

(the German university teach-

ing qualification). For this, he needed to

write an extensive thesis. He began to col-

lect projects like others collect stamps (Ra-

scher was, in fact, also a keen philatelist).

In Dachau, he had a team of prisoner tech-

nicians who proposed projects for which

he could claim all the credit. These includ-

ed patented mashed potatoes, an anti-rust

agent, a cancer cure, and a hemostatic,

Po-

lygal

. The latter, when taken orally, is sup-

posed to stop bleeding in wounded soldiers.

It is actually a pectin preparation normally

used to make jams and jellies.

Rascher’s downfall ...

Bär presents and analyses many of Ra-

scher’s dubious research projects. Noth-

ing really worked, but that didn’t matter as

long as Himmler was happy. Ironically, Ra-

scher’s downfall came from his wife’s fer-

tility – Nini was suspiciously old to be hav-

ing babies. She gave birth, in mysterious

circumstances, to a first son in 1939. Then

she had a second and a third.

The scandal errupted at the end of a

fourth pregnancy in 1944 – Nini was ac-

cused of baby-snatching at Munich railway

station. The police investigation discovered

that she had been ‘hiring’ babies. Rascher,

however, had noticed nothing (at least, this

is what he claimed).

... caused by his wife’s fertility

Himmler was not happy. Nini and Ra-

scher were duly imprisoned and, as Nazi

Germany descended into chaos, they were

finally executed in 1945.

Siegfried Bär has written a highly docu-

mented biography. He finds that Sigmund

Rascher was not a monster, “Apart from his

personal ambition, he had no outstanding

mental or emotional gifts, not even a dispo-

sition for cruelty.”

And yet he initiated and performed

these deadly experiments on living humans.

Bär suggests that if Rascher were alive to-

day, “he would probably be a popular phy-

sician in alternative medicine.”

The Fall of the House of Rascher: The bizarre

life and death of the SS doctor Sigmund Ra-

scher.

By Siegfried Bär. Kindle edition, Eng-

lish, 1436 KB (the equivalent of about 500

pages),

7,66 Euro (sold by Amazon Media

EU S.à r.l.). ASIN: B00MBOFX5K.

Jeremy Garwood

Book review:

The bizarre life and death of the SS doctor Sigmund Rascher

An Ordinary Scientist

During the Third Reich, he was the prototype of a Nazi monster. If he were alive today, however,

he would probably be a popular physician in alternative medicine, claims the author of an

equally disturbing and entertaining biography on Nazi medical experimenter, Dr Sigmund Rascher.