Nurses' Involvement in Nazi Germany: What We Know


Published: 17 September 2018

There is much scholarship around the role of doctors during the Holocaust.

It is known that they were substantially involved in just about every facet of the Holocaust, from selecting victims for the gas chambers, through to the egregious experiments done in the name of science on prisoners in concentration camps.

Doctors had other jobs too, such as deciding who would live and who would die during the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programmes.

At the end of the war, many doctors were tried for war crimes. Some were executed, some imprisoned, and many walked free. Much research has been done about what the doctors did. However, little attention has been given to the role of nurses and midwives.

Also read part one: The Killing Nurses of the Third Reich

Were Nurses Involved in the Holocaust?

To answer this question we must first define the Holocaust. For some, it means the systematic annihilation of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during World War Two. For others, it involves the annihilation of everybody considered unworthy of life. For this discussion’s purposes, we will be using the second definition.

It was not until the 1980s that people began to consider nurses’ involvement in the Nazi Holocaust. This change came when a very courageous German nurse scholar, Hilde Steppe, first wrote about what nurses did at Hadamar, a psychiatric hospital that had become the main institution for Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programmes.

Sadly, Hilde Steppe has since died, but her work is carried on by a small band of nurses, midwives and historians across the world, led by Professor Susan Benedict.

American war crimes investigators question chief nurse Irmgard Huber at the Hadamar Institute, 4 May 1945.

The Nazi euthanasia programs were specifically designed to kill people who were considered a burden on society and a risk to the so-called Aryan race. Labelled as ‘euthanasia’, the German public believed the state were conducting mercy killings. A raft of propaganda educated people into thinking society and the German community would be much better off if people who were chronically ill, intellectually or physically disabled, had a mental illness, or suffered from conditions such as alcoholism and epilepsy, were removed.

The killings took place in institutions or hospitals such as Hadamar, where people with disabilities were once cared for.

When one considers that the bulk of the workforce in these places were nurses, it soon becomes apparent that they had to have taken part. In actual fact, when the doctors had signed certificates to designate a person to live or die, the nurses were informed and it was they who would deliver the intravenous injections, the overdoses of drugs (such as phenobarbitone), or left infants outside on verandas in the middle of winter to die of hypothermia.

Perhaps it may be thought that these nurses had little choice, given the social conditions of the time. Anyone who refused to do what the Nazis wanted would find themselves incarcerated in a concentration camp.

With these nurses, however, this was not the case. They were given a choice. If they did not want to participate in what was happening in the wards and hospitals they could say so, and would be moved to another ward, unit, or another hospital. Some did, of course. However there is no record of any nurse being punished or ostracised for refusing to take part in these “euthanasia” killings.

In other words, these nurses murdered patients of their own free will. Why did they do it? How could a nurse, whose raison d’être is to care for people, kill them?

Some said (as did many Nazi perpetrators) that they were simply ‘following orders’. Others openly admitted that they believed they were doing the right thing – that they were providing a service to society by removing these people, and a service to the patient, by putting them out of their misery.

What could possibly have led these nurses to believe that killing was a legitimate part of the caring role?

You can read more about the ethics of nursing and midwifery. and how these were abrogated during the Nazi Germany era in Linda Shields’ book, Nurses and Midwives in Nazi Germany: The Euthanasia Programs (Routledge Studies in Modern European History)