Herbert Assmann was born in Danzig on November 25, 1882 as the son of Edwin Assmann, a district court judge, and his wife Anna Steimmig. He was a Protestant Christian. He married his wife Eleonore Anna on August 14, 1909. She was born on May 6, 1888, and her maiden name was also Steimmig . The couple had five children: Elisabet [sic] (May 25, 1910), Wolfgang (February 5, 1913), Gerhard (June 25, 1916), Horst (November 24, 1920) and Gudrun (May 4, 1925).
After graduating from the Städtisches Gymnasium in Danzig, Assmann attended the universities of Königsberg, Freiburg, and Munich to study medicine. The title of his Königsberg dissertation (1905) was „Versuche über den Wert des Aethylalkohols, insbesondere des alkalischen Alkohols als eines Desinfektionsmittels bei bakteriologischen Sektionen“.1 During a one-year practical training in 1905, Assmann performed his military service with the 5th Grenadier Regiment King Frederick I in East Prussia. More military service followed, and he reached the rank of senior reserve physician in 1909.
Assmann received his approbation on April 1, 1906. He then spent a few months as a regular assistant at the Institute of Pathology at the University of Geneva under Max Askanazy (until March 31, 1907) and, after completing his military service in the summer of 1907, as a regular assistant at the Medizinischn Universitätsklinik in Königsberg under Ludwig Lichtheim (November 15, 1907, to September 30, 1908). He then moved to the internal medicine department of the Städtisches Krankenhaus Dortmund as a senior assistant to Walter Rindfleisch (October 1, 1908 to September 30, 1912).2
He then spent nearly two decades at the Medizinische Universitätsklinik Leipzig. Here he habilitated in internal medicine under Adolf von Strümpell on July 11, 1913. The title of his habilitation thesis was "Erfahrungen über die Röntgenuntersuchung der Lungen unter besonderer Berücksichtigung anatomischer Controllen."3 Assmann completed World War I as a staff physician in the reserves, having served in a reserve hospital in Karlsruhe, among other places. He was awarded the Iron Cross II Class and the Cross of Honor for Frontline Fighters.
He was appointed as extraordinary associate professor in 1919, regular associate professor in 1922, and a full professor and director of the Universitätspoliklinik in 1927. His research on X-ray diagnostics attracted particular attention at that time.4
He accepted the call to move to the Medizinische Universitätsklinik Königsberg as director on April 1, 1931. Here he devoted himself to tuberculosis research, among other things; His description of the "Assmann foci" became well known.5
Politic Outlook: Right Fringe Tendencies
Assmann's political outlook tended towards the right fringe of the political spectrum. He joined the Stahlhelm movement during the Weimar Republic. The movement was transferred to the SA-Sturmbann R I on April 1, 1934. He was sworn in as a member of the SA on June 27, 1934.6
The autobiography of his Königsberg assistant Ferdinand Hoff, which was widely read in the 1970s, brought Herbert Assmann, DGIM chairman from 1938, to the attention of a wider public.7 The autobiography describes Assmann as a Prussian who's more of a soldier and less of a professor: "Assmann was a medium-sized slender man with energetic facial features, an almost bald head, short-cropped mustache and taut posture. His somewhat upturned chin gave him an authoritative appearance." The call to Königsberg also had a political dimension for Assmann. Hoff quotes Assmann from memory: "Königsberg is a great task [...] it is now an island, separated from Germany [...]. No German university is more important now than Königsberg. I am proud that I have been appointed to the clinic of my homeland."8
Interested in the Disease, not the Patient
Assmann's "terse, cool manner" was accompanied by little understanding of "far-reaching physiological and psychological connections." According to Hoff,9 he was "interested in the disease, [...] not so much in the sick person."10 Moreover, he was "primarily a diagnostician": "Once the diagnosis was made, he considered his task having essentially been fulfilled. He was not as interested in therapy, i.e. treating the sick."11 His textbook contributions, which are vivid descriptions of disease patterns, do not contradict this assessment.12This professional practice, known since the beginnings of science-based medicine, was actually not that unusual. It was said to have been practiced by luminaries such as Friedrich von Müller, as well as Alfred Schittenhelm in the first half of the 20th century.13 Assmann thus had a somewhat different approach as DGIM chairman, than his predecessor Richard Siebeck.
Critical of Anti-Semitism
Ferdinand Hoff claims to have saved Herbert Assmann from removal as Königberg's clinic director. Hoff had pleaded in Assmann's favor with one of his associates, a senior SA leader.14 Assmann had no knowledge of this, but was surprised that he remained unscathed after a demonstrative anti-Nazi act.15 In the incident that took place during a faculty meeting, a Nazi speaker had insulted Jews and the academia that tolerated them. Hoff reports, "[a]fter all, the fellow was using the vilest of invectives against some great Jewish researchers, including Paul Ehrlich: 'They want to be German professors. They all kissed the boots of these Jews.' It was at this point that Professor Assmann, who had been sitting in the front row, got up from his seat and left the hall with his head held high. The speaker paused for a moment, but then continued his invective. The assembly was mesmerized by the incident. I felt a wave of admiration, but also of fear of the consequences."16
Assmann had been a member of the Leopoldina since 1932. Given his professional reputation – even with regard to diseases threatening Wehrmacht soldiers – he was always brought up, when it came to new appointments for chairs. 17 When a replacement for the position of director of the I. Medical Clinic of the Charité in Berlin had to be found in 1941, due to the transfer of Richard Siebeck to Heidelberg, the appointment committee first thought of Assmann, but had reservations due to his age: "If Professor Assmann of Königsberg would not already have been in his 60s, he would have been the committee's first choice, not only due to his immortal merits in the X-ray detection of the occurrence of infraclavicular early infiltrate in pulmonary tuberculosis, but also because he was one of the first to apply clinical X-ray diagnostics throughout the clinic and is thus to be regarded as a full clinician who has also undertaken essential work in completely different fields. To that effect, his last paper on dysentery in the Polish campaign was classic."18
Committed Military Doctor
Assmann's mission as staff physician and consulting internist was primarily medical in character and aimed at deciding as quickly as possible on the military usefulness of soldiers admitted to military hospitals. Not infrequently, he referred to his experience during the First World War. A report from the first days of the war is characteristic of this: "I have therefore suggested to the army doctor that a so-called observation department [...] be set up in the medical university clinic and, if necessary, also in the medical university polyclinic in Königsberg for unclear cases with stomach, heart, kidney and nerve complaints and for suspected tuberculosis patients. These observation departments, according to our own experience in the World War, have proved their worth in the best possible way, since they allow us to quickly reach a clear assessment as to the nature and fitness for service, and the duration of treatment of cases, which would otherwise be lying around in the military hospitals for a long time is greatly shortened, and the question of those hurt during the while serving in the military, which is otherwise difficult to decide, can be quickly and finally resolved."19
Assmann made specific recommendations to improve the performance of soldiers. He suggests that a few large breaks are more useful than many small ones, also of permanent supervision of the troops by the doctor, who must determine who may temporarily put down their baggage or ride on a requisitioned wagon. He recommended to undertake foot care in the evenings under medical supervision.20 Assmann writes elsewhere – referring to soldiers suffering from kidney tumors and cirrhosis of the liver: "[b]y burdening the field troops with people who are obviously seriously ill, their fighting strength is reduced, and by the unnecessary lying around of such cases in military hospitals, the resources of the state are uselessly wasted."21
In one of Assmann's early reports, a distance from discrimination against Jews is apparent. He attributed their situation not to their behavior, but to the way they were treated. Assmann writes the following about the situation in East Prussian camps: "On the other hand, the camp near Dexen makes a dirty impression, where a part of the civilian prisoners, among them also Jews, were accommodated, the latter in special tents. These tents at Dexen are partially located in a shallow depression in the ground, which became sodden when it rained. [...] Those infested by lice and those suspected to be, were deloused in various delousing apparatuses, the rest were only cleaned. The Jewish civilian prisoners housed in the Dexen camp, however, are not deloused, allegedly because cleaning and exfoliating their hair causes the greatest difficulties. [...] In summary, the facilities taken in the Stablack prison camp can be considered quite satisfactory. [...] The accommodation of the captured soldiers and the Volksdeutsche is especially good [...]. It would be desirable if delousing and greater cleanliness were also to be implemented in the camp of Dexen, where the Jewish civilian prisoners are housed."22 On his special topic of "delousing" and spotted fever control, Assmann recommended "apparatus" with which one could heat even larger rooms to 80°C.23
To the German nationalist Assmann, the NSDAP seemed too vulgar and too lacking in understanding of science. But he came to terms with the regime, supported the Wehrmacht wherever he could, and by 1938, apparently had no trouble fitting into Hitler's propaganda apparatus. He was now capable of the reverence and pathos to the "Führer". Nevertheless, it suited Assmann's rather sober nature that the 50th DGIM Congress in 1938 was not celebrated in a special way. The elaborate 50th anniversary celebration of the DGIM in 1932 were still vividly remembered and "a repetition" was considered "impious and inappropriate."24 Perhaps the special conditions under the dictatorship may have played a role too, as the DGIM had by now had extensive experience with interventions from Berlin during program planning. One would also have to submit to special circumstances this time: The congress had been brought forward to the last days of March, due to the Reichstag elections and the simultaneous referendum on the "Anschluss" of Austria on April 10, 1938.
Propagator of Nazi Medicine
Assmann did not continue Siebeck's more politically restrained course. In his opening speech he reiterated the premises of Nazi health policy, promoted Nazi performance medicine, and then allowed Deputy Reich Medical Leader Kurt Blome to make "fundamental remarks about our young scientists".25 Assmann believed that "only now" was it a "generally more fully ascertained task to place our medical knowledge and skill and action entirely in the service of general public health." 26 For the "internists," this meant assisting "in the large serial examinations" that recorded the "health status of children and young people in youth organizations" as well as the "performance of adults and especially also of older age groups in sports and marching performances." 27The aim was "[t]o determine the limit of what can be achieved and, if possible, to increase it and, moreover, to protect those who are not entirely fit from damage by deferring or sparing them", also "in marriage counseling and in the eradication of offspring with heredatory diseases."28 The path to war was hardly concealed. Whereas two years earlier Bach flowers, homeopathy and massages had dominated the congress in the context of "Neue Deutsche Heilkunde" , the focus was now on soldiers' highest performance.
In order for the physician to fulfill these new tasks as a "duty of honor," according to Assmann, corrections were admittedly needed, especially to the detriment of the resource-consuming activity of providing expert opinions. He left no doubt about his will to follow Hitler: "Yes, we physicians always want to be aware of the high tasks that the times demand of us, and to which the Führer has especially called us, and to show ourselves worthy of the high honor of being pioneers for this task. [...] The German soil is once again free and loosened and ready to receive new seeds and to let them sprout for the good and honor of our fatherland, and for this we owe indelible gratitude to the man who has gathered the undestroyed forces of our people to liberate and uplift and now to unify us into a new and greater Germany. We want to follow him as a champion for the great tasks of the Nation. Our Greater German Fatherland and our Führer Adolf Hitler, Sieg Heil!"29
Near retirement age, Assmann did not return to the university after the end of the Nazi era. He took over as head of internal medicine at the Oldenburg Protestant Hospital and Red Cross in 1945. He died in Oldenburg on February 27, 1950.