Born in Erfurt on September 12, 1875, Friedrich Alfred Schwenkenbecher was the son of Gustav Schwenkenbecher, a privy health councillor, and his wife Rosa Stoltz. He passed the Abitur exams at the Königliches Gymnasium in Erfurt in 1894. He received his doctorate in Marburg six years later, with a thesis on "Nährwerthberechnung tischfertigiger Speisen", having previously studied in Jena, Göttingen and Munich. The summary of his discoveries were subsequently published in the book "Nährstoffgehalt und Nährwert von Speisen. Zur Berechnung von Kostenverordnungen", in eleven editions until 1942.
Following his state examination in 1899, Schwenkenbecher had been an assistant at the Marburg Medical Polyclinic under Friedrich Müller, then in Greifswald (1900-1902) and Tübingen (1902-1904), where he habilitated in internal medicine in 1904. He moved to Strasbourg as a private lecturer in 1904, and to Heidelberg to Ludolf Krehl in 1907, whose daughter he married. He arrived at the University of Marburg as an associate professor the same year, where he was appointed director of the Medical Polyclinic and, director of the Pharmacological Institute in 1908.1
Schwenkenbecher followed the call to Frankurt am Main in 1909, where he was director of the Medical Clinic of the Municipal Hospital, and full professor and director of the Medical Clinic of the University of Frankfurt from 1914. He moved to Marburg, where he was appointed as full professor, director of the Medical Clinic of the University of Marburg, and director of the Medical Polyclinic in 1920. In Marburg, he was dean in 1921/22, rector in 1922/23, and prorector in 1924/25.
Commitment to National Socialism
Schwenkenbecher contributed to the establishment of the Nazi system. After earlier memberships in the National Liberal Party and the German People's Party, Schwenkenbecher became a member of the NSDAP during the "Third Reich" and made a public appearance by signing the "Bekenntniss der Professoren an den deutschen Universitäten und Hochschulen zu Adolf Hitler und dem nationalsozialistischen Staat" (Confession of Professors at German Universities and Colleges to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist State) on November 11, 1933. He was a consultant internist for the Wehrmacht during World War II.
Within the DGIM, Alfred Schwenkenbecher was one of those who wanted to counteract the alienation of more and more specialties from internal medicine as a core subject, by cooperating "with other societies close to internal medicine." He "would do everything possible", he declared in 1935, to make a joint meeting possible the following year and took particular notice of the "Gesellschaft für Kreislaufforschung," the "Gesellschaft für Verdauungs- und Stoffwechselkrankheiten" (GVS), and the "Gesellschaft für Kinderheilkunde."2 A joint Wiesbaden congress was realized with the "Deutsche Röntgengesellschaft" and the "Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaft für eine Neue Deutsche Heilkunde", which was politically more effective.3
Congress Under the Sign of "New German Heilkunde"
Schwenkenbecher, unlike his immediate predecessors, proceeded with great openness in finding topics for the 1936 congress. Without submitting any ideas of his own, he asked the participants of the previous year's Second Committee Meeting, traditionally concerned with program planning, for suggestions. Alfred Schittenhelm took the opportunity to speak in the spirit of Reichsärzteführer Gerhard Wagner and to plead for the consideration of "biological medicine". Schwenkenbecher complied, especially since there had been massive interventions from government and party offices since October 1935, because they feared too little consideration of the New German Medical Science at the Congress.
As a result, the Wiesbaden Congress of 1935, chaired by Schwenkenbecher, is remembered as being particularly close to the Nazis. It is considered the "only propagandistic high point" of "New German Healing", whose importance to National Socialism soon diminished, because – in view of the preparations for war – there was more interest in efficient (war) medicine.4The "Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaft für eine Neue Deutsche Heilkunde" disbanded.5
Alfred Schwenkenbecher's welcome address at the beginning of the Congress was humble overall. Both Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaftsführer Kurt Kötschau and Reichsärzteführer Gerhard Wagner, were able to speak at the opening event.
Feigned Internationality during the Olympic Year
Nevertheless, Schwenkenbecher remained comparatively defensive.6 If he had already left program proposals to others and had not initially implemented them with the expected commitment in the National Socialist sense, he emphasized international elements in a striking way in his speech at the opening of the DGIM Congress. At that time, this was not in contradiction to the strategic approach of the regime, which for its part courted recognition from abroad in the Olympic year 1936 with the games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Berlin. Schwenkenbecher expressly greeted and thanked the colleagues who had come to Wiesbaden from abroad, and continued: "A few months ago, we in Germany enthusiastically experienced the Winter Olympics and were able to see how strongly the sport and the great joy in it – along with magnificent nature – awakens and revives friendly feelings between the representatives of the different nations. The same is true of the noble competition in which the intellectual workers of all cultural states are constantly involved. Let us also use this meeting to keep old relations young and to establish new ties in a lively exchange of ideas, for the advancement of our science, for the salvation of our peoples."7
To Schwenkenbecher the adherents of the New German Heilkunde, who, as he pointed out, were guests "at the request of the Herr Reichsärzteführer", seemed more distant than his foreign colleagues. They had been invited "with the goal of unifying groups of German physicians with different therapeutic outlooks, and thus had gone their separate ways for a long time."8 The sentence, which could be understood as an appeal, had an almost pastoral effect: "We would herewith like to provide the opportunity to get to know each other, the ground should be created for better mutual understanding and personal respect for those who think differently."9 In this context, Schwenkenbecher mentioned the following book as helpful: "Gespräche über Schulmedizin und Naturheilkunde", published a few months earlier by the two main speakers Louis Grote and Alfred Brauchle, which was intended to bring together both sides' point of view.10 Homeopathy was mentioned cautiously but not dismissively: Referring to the DGIM chairman of 1924, Max Matthes, Schwenkenbecher asked, "Was Matthes not right, when he raised his voice in warning against us in a lecture on homeopathy in 1925, and compared our therapeutic multiplicity, especially the exaggerated use of intravenous injections, with bloodletting in Hahnemann's time?"11
Understanding Methods Beyond "Conventional Medicine"
Schwenkenbecher thus strove to awaken understanding for alternative forms of therapy. He tried to smooth opposites ("True naturopathy [...] belongs to the therapeutic armamentarium of every doctor"), acknowledged weaknesses of conventional medicine in hospitals ("too little [...] air and sun").12 The DGIM chairman may thus have succeeded in containing criticism of therapies considered unscientific, but supported by Nazi policy. One way or the other, Schwenkenbecher left no doubt about the DGIM's devotion to the Nazi state. He praised the new "Reichsärzteordnung" (Reich Medical Practitioners Act) with its mandate to serve the people "not only as a physician, but also as their educator and advisor [...]" and celebrated that the congress opening took place "on the birthday of our all-honored Führer Adolf Hitler."13
The loyalty to Hitler was manifested in the "Telegram to the Führer" sent to Berlin by those gathered in Wiesbaden in 1936, which had become a tradition by now. The telegram in 1936 shows a commitment to Nazi medicine: "The members of the German Society for Internal Medicine and the Reich Working Society for a "New German Healing", who met for a joint conference in Wiesbaden, have come together on the birthday of the Führer and savior of our people on the basis of a German healing science, which is to unite medical science with folk medicine into one single entity."14
Exclusion of Julius Bauer
Schwenkenbecher also proved to be an enforcer of National Socialist expressions of will in other respects. His signature appears under the document that sealed the expulsion of committee member Julius Bauer from the DGIM.15 From Vienna, Bauer had presented Nazi racial hygiene as scientifically untenable, both in the Swiss "Medizinische Wochenschrift" and previously in the "Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift".16 Bauer's sharply lucid article exposed errors and inconsistencies of representatives of Nazi racial hygiene such as Hans Günther and Otmar von Verschuer and questioned the practicability of the compulsory sterilization law that had come into force in Germany in 1934. Reich medical leader Gerhard Wagner publicly ostracized Bauer. The DGIM followed without objection. At the opening of the committee meeting on April 12, 1936, Schwenkenbecher explained the expulsion of the colleague, stating that "he had published an article in the "Schweizerische Medizinische Wochenschrift", to which the German medical profession took exception."17
After Austria was incorporated into the German Reich in 1938, Bauer, now dismissed from the University of Vienna, fled to the United States via France. He was able to take professorships at Louisiana State University (New Orleans), California's Loma Linda University and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He died at the age of 91 in Beverly Hills in 1979.18
Julius Bauer had done what could have been an honour to the DGIM. At the right time, he found the appropriate words to expose the inhumanity along with the inadequate scientific foundation of Nazi legislation on forced sterilization. The DGIM and Schittenhelm, however, did not stand up for its clear and free-thinking member, but followed Reichsärzteführer Wagner and the propaganda machinery of the dictatorship.
In the postwar period, Schwenkenbecher was nevertheless considered trustworthy enough to be charged with the functions of administrative director of the Marburg University Women's Clinic in 1945. He retained a teaching position in internal medicine until 1949 and remained acting director of the Marburg Medical Clinic. Schwenkenbecher was made an honorary member of the DGIM in 1956. He died in Marburg on March 8, 1963, where he was buried in the main cemetery.19