After the renowned director of the Medical Clinic in Freiburg, Siegfried Thannhauser, had been expelled, the Baden Ministry of Culture deployed Otto Bickenbach, a man who was a guarantor of upheaval in the National Socialist spirit.1He was appointed deputy director with broad powers on April 25, 1934. At that time, Bickenbach, who was born in Ruppichteroth in the Siegkreis region of the Rhineland, was an assistant at the I Medical University Clinic in Munich. A former member of the Lettow-Vorbeck and Ehrhardt Freikorps, he had joined the NSDAP in May 1933 and the SA in October 1933.
Bickenbach moved from Freiburg to the Medical Clinic in Heidelberg as early as October 1934, where he became a senior physician under Johannes Stein, who was a staunch National Socialist. He habilitated with a thesis on "Blutkreislaufkorrelationen als Grundlage konstitutioneller Leistungsfähigkeit" (Correlations of Blood Circulation as the Basis of Constitutional Performance) in 1938. For a time, he conducted research with the support of I.G. Farben. Like Johannes Stein, he joined the Reich University of Strasbourg in 1940/41, where he was appointed associate professor and director of the Medical Polyclinic in November 1941.
Active National Socialist
After establishing the "Nationalsozialistische Betriebszellenorganisation" (NSBO) (National Socialist Operational Cell Organization) at the Munich hospitals, he came to Freiburg as a "Säuberungskommissar" (purge commissioner). His activities there "degenerated into continued provocation."2 He openly polemicized against the former "employees of the 'Jew Thannhauser' [...] whose further continuation in service was intolerable."3 Bickenbach was still a member of the DGIM at this time, but was no longer registered after 1935.
Bickenbach's record card at the "Reichsforschungsrat" (Reich Research Council) notes on December 13, 1943, "[Hitler's companion physician Karl] Brandt endorses RM. 25.000,- for work in the field of K."4 The "K" is for Kampfstoffe, i.e. warfare agents. The project was designated in February 1944, "U.[ntersuchungen] zur Wirkungsweise d.[er] Kampfstoffe"5 (research into the functioning of warfare agents). The grant for the material was approved on March 1, 1944, and the research contract was awarded in June 1944 and extended in November 1944.6
50 Killed in Experiments at Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp
Bickenbach and his assistant Helmut Rühl had already begun to carry out experiments at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp prior to this date. There had been a gas chamber there since August 1943, in which Bickenbach and his assistant Helmut Rühl exposed "gypsies" transferred from Auschwitz to Natzweiler to phosgene from June to August 1944. More than 50 people did not survive the human experiments. The efficacy of a substance developed by Bickenbach to reduce the effects of phosgene poisoning was to be investigated, among other things.7
Amnestied After Being Sentenced to Hard Labor for Life
Bickenbach was arrested on March 17, 1947, and convicted by the French judiciary. A Metz military court sentenced him to hard labor for life on Christmas Eve of 1952 for having commited the "crime of using harmful substances and murder by poisoning." After a Paris military court overturned the sentence in January 1954, Bickenbach was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in May 1954. Bickenbach was already amnestied in the fall of 1955.
Intercession of the DGIM
During Bickenbach's imprisonment, there was intense advocacy on his behalf from within the DGIM. The attempt to achieve broad support for Otto Bickenbach in 1954 through the DGIM chairman Heinrich Pette, is documented. Pette assured to contact Hans Heinrich Berg in the matter and to raise it in the board and committee.8 During the deliberations, letters of further advocates of Bickenbach arrived, among them from Alfred Schittenhelm: "It is [...] certain that Mr. Bickenbach experimented on human beings and also that there were some cases of deaths. [...] Even if one does not agree with such experiments, one would like to help a distressed colleague."9
It was decided to inquire at the Federal Foreign Office first, especially since Paul Martini had already corresponded with the Foreign Office years before about Bickenbach.10 Secretary Friedrich Kauffmann wrote to Bonn: "From circles of the German Society of Internal Medicine it was suggested whether a step could not be taken by our Society in favor of Prof. Dr. Bickenbach, who is in French custody. In the matter of Prof. Bickenbach, I already received a letter from the Foreign Office around the summer of last year with the request that nothing about the matter of Prof. Bickenbach be handed over to the press. May I perhaps ask for the courtesy of receiving a statement from the Foreign Office on the question of whether it is expedient or even desirable for our Society to take a step in favor of Prof. Bickenbach with the French ambassador as soon as possible ."11 Kauffmann explicitly pointed out that in the cases of Handloser and Beiglböck one had been able to achieve a "mitigation of the sentence".12
Heinz Trützschler von Falkenstein, the deputy head of the Political Department, was the DGIM's contact person at the Federal Foreign Office. He let Kauffmann know in a telephone call in March 1954 that he strongly advised against DGIM intervention, since "the prospects" for Bickenbach were "now more favorable than before." There was no need to worry about the amount of his legal fees. These, he said, were borne by the Foreign Office.13 In parallel, Paul Martini was in contact with Hermann Jetter of the Office of the Federal President, where he asked for material that would facilitate a possible expert opinion on the case by the DGIM.14 Jetter definitely considered such an expert opinion to be helpful.15
Kauffmann, meanwhile, developed the idea of forming a three-person commission to examine Bickenbach, as in the Handloser and Beiglböck cases. To this end, he brought Paul Römer (Stuttgart) as well as Klee, Martini, Pette, and even Schittenhelm into the discussion.16 Due to the bringing forward of the decisive appeal proceedings against Bickenbach, there was a time pressure that probably no longer allowed for regular sessions. The surviving files contain numerous letters of exoneration in favor of Bickenbach and a nine-page "statement" by Carl Römer dated "April 1954", which could have served as an expert opinion for the DGIM.17
Files from the period following the court proceedings until Bickenbach's amnesty in the fall of 1955 have not been retained by the DGIM.
Private Practice in Siegburg
Bickenbach practiced in Siegburg, Siegfeldstraße 7a, without a health insurance license until his death. In 1966, the "Berufsgericht für Heilberufe" (Court of Honor for the Healing Professions) did not consider him to have violated his medical professional duties.18 His one-time assistant Helmut Rühl, who was involved in the crimes, was working as a public health officer in Siegburg.19