Vienna, 1938: was this the worst faculty meeting ever?

An image of massed ranks of anatomy faculty giving the Nazi salute is a reminder that academics are not immune to extremism, says Jonathan Leo 

March 29, 2023
Inaugural lecture by the new dean of the medical faculty, Eduard Pernkopf
Source: Vienna picture archive ÖGZ S 283/30/ÖNB/austrian national library

It is commonly assumed that academics are naturally resistant to populism and extremism. But while that may often be the case, we should keep in mind that it isn’t a universal truth.

There are thousands of graphic pictures of the Nazi era, but one of the more haunting ones for academics is of a medical school faculty meeting that occurred several months prior to the start of the Second World War. When young soldiers raised their arms in support of Hitler, they could sometimes be partially excused for not knowing any better or for just going with the irresistible flow. But it is more problematic to see some of most educated people in society, who self-identify as healers and educators, gesticulating their enthusiastic endorsement of ideas that ultimately led to the sterilisation of 400,000 people, the murder of 75,000 “genetically undesirable” individuals and the extermination of 6 million Jews.

The story behind the picture, even 85 years on, tells us something about human nature. It was taken during a faculty meeting at the University of Vienna’s Anatomical Theatre. Scholars debate the exact date, but it is most commonly assumed to be 6 April 1938, less than a month after Hitler’s troops entered Austria.

Standing at the lectern, flanked by guards and against a backdrop of Nazi flags and Hitler’s portrait, is Eduard Pernkopf, the newly enthroned dean of the College of Medicine. Pernkopf is best known as the lead illustrator of an anatomical atlas known for its superb drawings and used by countless medical students. It was only in the 1990s that the prodigious work of several scholars brought to light the story behind those illustrations.

Pernkopf and his assistants used executed political prisoners as their models. And rather than hide from their association with the Nazis, several of the artists immortalised their allegiances by boldly weaving images of the Nazi Cross and the Waffen SS lightning bolt insignia into their signatures. And the notion that Pernkopf himself was, at heart, an apolitical scientist who merely wanted to compose an atlas is quashed by the fact that one of his first official actions as dean was to purge 153 of the college’s 197 faculty members, the overwhelming majority of whom were Jewish – including three Nobel laureates. Many were subsequently sent to concentration camps, and several died by suicide.

Pernkopf’s speech that day was really just garden-variety Nazism: immigrants are destroying society; the Aryan race needs to remain pure; there is a declining birth rate; the mission of the medical community is therefore to “manage the propagation of the fit and the elimination of the unfit and defectives”. More specifically, he stressed the need for “the exclusion of the genetically inferior from future generations by sterilisation and other means”, and he ended by raising his arm in a Nazi salute. “We as doctors will gladly place at [Hitler’s] service our lives and our souls,” he thundered. “So shall our cry express what we wish with all our hearts: Adolf Hitler. Sieg Heil. Sieg Heil. Sieg Heil.”

But it isn’t Pernkopf that the eye is drawn to in the photograph. It is the apparently all-male faculty responding in kind, reaching out from the raked seating of the old-style lecture theatre as if they want to anoint him – their soldier-like discipline, stoic rigidity and blank facial expressions like something out of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. Robert’s Rules of Order may not be been strictly observed, but it is clear that Pernkopf’s motion was seconded and unanimously approved.

Maybe some faculty members simply lacked any insight into the depravity of the speech and saw it as just another day at work. Maybe some harboured doubts they kept to themselves. Maybe some even voiced cautious concern around whatever the 1930s equivalent of the departmental water cooler was during the subsequent days and weeks. However, we do know that little remorse for the speech was shown by the university administrators even after the war. Pernkopf and some of his faculty colleagues spent several years in prison, but, upon their release, they were allowed to return to the university to continue their work. Meanwhile, there was no significant effort to return the purged Jewish faculty members to their pre-war positions, let alone make further amends for their appalling treatment.

The significance of what we might reasonably describe as the worst faculty meeting ever goes far beyond Germany, Austria and the 1930s. Examples where even educated people have succumbed to violent groupthink can be found throughout history, and the power of this photograph is in its graphic illustration of that conversion of a crowd into a herd: the collapse of education’s buttress against pseudoscience and hate speech.

Not only did the medical community salute Pernkopf and Hitler that day, many members of it went on to be integral players in every aspect of running the death camps.

Jonathan Leo is professor of anatomy at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine.

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Reader's comments (1)

Academics are just people. We display the strengths and weaknesses of human beings. Being a job that is ego driven and often self-centred, some will go along with anything that they perceive as advantageous to their career.


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