The DGIM During the Nazi Era
Persecution and Exclusion
In the last year of the Weimar Republic, the German Society for Internal Medicine (DGIM) celebrated its 50th anniversary with its 1,223 members (including 15 women). The celebrations were undertaken with an awareness of the fragile political situation, at the same time with pride in the own tradition. The former chairman Georg Klemperer presented an anniversary publication on the history of the specialist society, and was celebrated and appointed honorary member.
Just one year after the jubilee congress, Klemperer was concerned with bringing his family and himself to safety. He was able to emigrate after several attempts at the end of 1935, awaiting the end in Boston "with equanimity," as documented by his brother, the Romance philologist Victor Klemperer.
The German Society of Internal Medicine did not only lose formative personalities like Georg Klemperer in the years after 1933. Numerous "ordinary" members also found themselves forced to leave Germany and their specialist society, only rarely experiencing solidarity.
With this development, the DGIM is no exception. It is one of the medical societies that have been studied more closely in recent years. It can at the same time be understood as one of the institutions of the middle classes that, in the face of the totalitarian National Socialist dictatorship, abandoned values of a democratically organized republic with a humanistic foundation that had just come into fruition.
"The real doom lay", as the political scientist and historian Karl Dietrich Bracher put it, "in the failure of the majority of the educated, who must be reproached for failing to do good." Most internists probably acted "well" in direct contact with their patients, but obeyed the new authorities in politicis. This is especially true for the leadership of the DGIM, which in the first years served the National Socialist rulers, acting in – at first even anticipatory – obedience, thus accepting the abandonment of central principles.
Signs of solidarity with politically or "racially" persecuted colleagues were rare. On the contrary, this was the field of rapid adaptation to the new political conditions, of "self-equalization". Leopold Lichtwitz, who was persecuted as a Jew, was deprived of the presidency of the DGIM a few weeks before the Wiesbaden congress, which he was to chair. Lichtwitz, head of the Internal Department of the Rudolf Virchow Hospital in Berlin, apparently did not find unrestricted solidarity anywhere; with prominent DGIM members such as Gustav von Bergmann even turning their backs on him completely. The Lichtwitz couple left for Switzerland On March 30, 1933, exactly two months after the beginning of Hitler's chancellorship. They never returned to Germany.
"Taking Into Account the Spirit of the National Uprising"
In the meantime, the Kiel hospital director Alfred Schittenhelm had taken the lead within the DGIM. It quickly became apparent that – contrary to tradition – he would preside over two congresses in succession. How resolutely the DGIM leadership adapted to the new circumstances is reflected in the minutes of Schittenhelm's statements before the committee, the second highest body of the DGIM after the board. The statements are reproduced in indirect speech: "Schittenhelm had endeavored to make this year's conference completely German, in keeping with the spirit of national uprising. This would prevent the emergence of currents or hostility against the congress, which would also damage the reputation of the congress abroad. Such disturbances were to be feared if Jews were to give lectures at the Congress." The Committee, with its approximately 25 members, expressly approved the remarks.
Unsystematic Exclusion of Jewish Members
Under Schittenhelm, the DGIM unsystematically began to exclude members with a Jewish background. Research so far has shown that between 1933 and 1940 about 250 members were Jews, as defined by National Socialists criteria. Those members known to us are mentioned by name on this website. Some of them were still listed in the last membership directory published during the Nazi period in 1940, some with their new address in exile. The majority of its Jewish members were lost to the DGIM, probably through lack of contact due to flight, expulsion, and membership fees not having been paid from exile. In individual cases, membership was expressly revoked. This is documented in the case of the Viennese internist Julius Bauer, who had denounced the National Socialist "hereditary health policy" in several publications with scientific arguments and incurred the wrath of "Reichsärzteführer" (Reich Health Leader) Gerhard Wagner. Bauer, who had been a member of the DGIM committee in 1936, was expelled from the professional society under the chairmanship of Alfred Schwenkenbecher.
Forced Sterilizations and Human Experiments in Concentration Camps
None of the DGIM chairmen who followed after Schittenhelm's tenure rejected National Socialism. Except for Herbert Assmann, who had been transferred to the SA, they all were party members of the NSDAP until 1945. Some of them were indirectly involved in Nazi medical crimes, such as Hans Dietlen, who was authorized to perform forced sterilizations with X-rays, and Hans Eppinger, who was jointly responsible for the seawater drinking experiments at Dachau concentration camp.
Those acting in the spirit of National Socialism appear on this website under "Perpetration", those affected by these actions under "Emigration", "Suppression" and "Medical Injustice".
The number of those persecuted for political reasons and those who actively resisted, some of whom remained undetected, is comparatively small. However, persecuted, active opponents of National Socialism and oppositional voices from the ranks of the DGIM should not be forgotten. Among them are Paul Krause (Münster), Walter Seitz (Berlin) and Hermann Straub (Göttingen). They – along with other courageous internists – are presented on this website in the section "Resistance."