Culpable killer who protested ignorance

Karl Brandt, the Nazi Doctor
September 28, 2007

In recent years a plethora of books has appeared on Nazi institutions that had been surprisingly understudied thus far: the SD, the WVHA, the RuSHA, the Reichs- sippenamt, the SS Ahnenerbe, the Hitler Youth and anti-Semitic research institutions. Similarly, a number of studies of individual Nazis have appeared, from the well-known, such as Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Eichmann, to the less famous, such as Werner Best and Alfred Six.

Rather than taking strictly biographical approaches, these studies have sought to show, through one individual's career, how deeply ingrained Nazi ideology was and what the circumstances were that compelled a generation of Germans, often educated and careerist, to throw their lot in so wholeheartedly with National Socialism.

Ulf Schmidt's study of Karl Brandt is part of this historiographical trend, and he skilfully demonstrates Brandt's trajectory from idealistic but ordinary medical student during the Weimar Republic to Hitler's private doctor to the medic in charge of the euthanasia programme. He does so while paying careful attention to the rise of Nazism more generally, the nature of the Hitler cult and broader phenomena such as the international context and the structure of the Third Reich.

Brandt, he shows, was neither an employee of the state nor a Nazi functionary; rather, he was one of Hitler's "commissars", a select group of people who had Hitler's ear and used their position to bypass the usual channels of bureaucracy and governance. From an uninspiring early career, Brandt thus eventually became one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany, a Nazi out of deep, almost religious, conviction. Yet he also managed, as the head of the euthanasia programme, to convince others that he was a rational, scientific man who knew nothing about the genocide of the Jews.

Once his rise to prominence began, Brandt became Begleitarzt ("escort physician") to Hitler. He partook of Hitler's daily life at the Berghof, became good friends with Albert Speer and travelled with Hitler to Venice, Greece, Bayreuth and the Nuremberg rally. In 1936, he became an army doctor and was drawn into politics. In November 1938, he treated the dying Ernst vom Rath, the German diplomat whose murder in Paris provided the immediate opportunity for Joseph Goebbels to unleash the Kristallnacht . The next major change in his career trajectory was his appointment, along with Philipp Bouhler of the Fuhrer's Chancellery, as the doctor heading the euthanasia programme, and it is here that the real interest in Brandt lies.

Brandt fashioned himself as a medical man, but Schmidt rightly notes that "by 1939 any sense of right and wrong had disappeared. Decisions over life and death had literally been handed over to the discretion of Hitler himself". In Schmidt's detailed examination of the origins of the euthanasia programme, we learn that Brandt was convinced of its legality and morality and had a "good conscience" about it. Nevertheless, it is perfectly clear that Brandt was involved in the programme's expansion, including its second phase in 1943-44, when asylum inmates were murdered to free space for wounded soldiers.

Here, a certain ambivalence about Brandt's leading role creeps into Schmidt's analysis, as he writes that Brandt "never exercised any meaningful level of supervision or control" over the programme, although such a claim is commensurate with the notion that Brandt modelled his style of rule on Hitler's. It does seem as though Brandt was not involved with the decision making process for the Final Solution, although it hardly seems credible that he would not have known about it. Naturally, after the war, while trying to ingratiate himself with his interrogators, he testified that there was no connection between the euthanasia project and the murder of the Jews, a claim - facilitated by the chaotic nature of the Third Reich - that Schmidt neatly names "plausible deniability". Brandt's British military interviewers, however, saw through his "remarkable ignorance". Besides, as Schmidt summarises, the regime functioned on the basis of orally delivered orders, of knowing and not knowing, and "anyone looking for explicit written orders that Brandt might have given fails to understand the nature and culture of communication at the highest levels of the regime, and perhaps even the regime itself". The snippets of evidence that survive, including those relating to human experiments, were enough in any case for the postwar court in Nuremberg to sentence Brandt to death.

For his input into euthanasia, Brandt was rewarded with the appointment as Hitler's medical supremo. As his career reached its zenith, it also brought him into greater conflict with others, notably Leonardo Conti, the Reich chief of public health, Theodor Morell, Hitler's personal physician, Martin Bormann, Hitler's powerful private secretary and, finally, Goebbels.

As of October 1944, when fears that Hitler had been poisoned began to spread, Brandt finally discovered that those who dine with cannibals end up being eaten. Accused of high treason, Brandt escaped execution thanks only to the parlous state of Germany's communications system at that late stage in the war. It was left to the Allies to finish the job.

Dan Stone is professor of modern history, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Karl Brandt, the Nazi Doctor: Medicine and Power in the Third Reich

Author - Ulf Schmidt
Publisher - Hambledon Continuum
Pages - 496
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9781847250315

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