Did Nazi Human Experimentation Benefit Allied War Efforts?

During World War II, Germany conducted a horrific human experimentation program in concentration camps across Europe. However, many of the findings influenced science in the Postwar period.

Jan 31, 2022By Lucy Soaft, BA History w/ Medical Ethics and Military History concentration
Nazi Human experimentation project


In the aftermath of the First World War, a new style of warfare was emerging. Total war resulted in the mass mobilization of all areas of society combined with the urgency for new weaponry. While many advancements came from ethical means, a vast number came from the efforts of human experimentation. The most notorious of these were the ones carried out by the Nazi doctors in concentration camps. Many of these experiments suggested a means to rid the camps of those the Nazi regime deemed as degenerates to society. Testing new weaponry, military survival experiments, medical experiments involving nerve and bone transfusions, and many more were all conducted on prisoners of war in horrific conditions. However, despite the nature of these experiments, it was clear that many were pivotal in advancing the war effort, both from the Nazi’s perspective as well as in the postwar era.


Human Experimentation and Gas

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Hermann Göring at the Nürnberg trials, via Encyclopedia Britannica


One experiment with human participants that benefited the war effort was the testing of gas. The use of gas as an offensive weapon was previously seen in World War I. As previously proven, it proved an effective way to incapacitate and even kill the enemy. As World War II progressed, an array of new chemicals was introduced, created by chemical experts established prewar. While many gas cures were improved upon in World War I, the most elusive was mustard gas. This chemical not only caused respiratory problems but also blistered the skin and led to infections.


In order to expedite the discovery of treatment, doctors in Nazi concentration camps began human experimentation on prisoners. The experiments that took place were conducted across many concentration camps and appeared to directly correlate with gas attacks from the allied forces. The first instance began in 1939, in response to a sulfur mustard mine explosion.


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Declassified photographs of test subjects in US military trials who were exposed to toxic agents such as nitrogen mustard during the war, via National Public Radio


On October 13, 1939, sulfur mustard was applied to the upper arms of 23 inmates. The burns and wounds inflicted were then examined, and various treatments were tested. While no treatment was established, this did not stop Nazi scientists and doctors from continuing their research. Vitamins were found to be effective, along with burn ointment, for the recovery of mustard gas burns. After mass animal testing, the human subjects were selected from the Natzweiler concentration camp.

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In a summary of these experiments, August Hirt, SS-Sturmbannführer and director of the Anatomical Institute at the Reichsuniversität Straßburg, “concluded that a mix of vitamins (A, B-complex, C) given orally, or Vitamin B-1 injected with glucose would give the best results.” Therefore, it can clearly be indicated that these experiments benefitted the war effort, as this information was passed on to medical personnel on the front lines in order to successfully treat as many soldiers in the front lines, as opposed to sending them home and effectively diminishing manpower.


War Experiments at Dachau In World War II: High Altitude Experiments

dachau ww2 concentration camp
Dachau Concentration Camp, via History.com


Dachau was the first concentration camp established in 1933 before the outbreak of World War II. It soon became home to many instances of human experimentation carried out by Nazi doctors in World War II. Three sets of experiments were conducted at Dachau with the aim of “helping German soldiers in the war survive extremes,” which encompassed aviation, seawater, and hypothermia experiments. These examples are clear indicators of how World War II presented an environment that necessitated a swift and rapid response to the everchanging war.


High altitude experiments were conducted in the concentration camp Dachau in the year 1942. These experiments came to pass “for the benefit of the German Air Force, to investigate the limits of human endurance and existence at extremely high altitudes.” German pilots who were previously forced to eject from high altitudes frequently succumbed to hypoxia – low oxygen in the blood. With air warfare becoming a major component for both the allied and enemy countries, more and more deaths were seen to be amassing in the skies. In order to conserve manpower, these experiments were deemed a “military necessity.” Therefore, as of March 1942, the high altitude experiments of Dachau began.


human experimentation aviation world war ii
Prisoner falls unconscious as a result of High-Altitude experiments at Dachau concentration camp, via Süddeutsche Zeitung


Prisoners of Dachau were put into a low-pressure chamber that could replicate an altitude of up to 60,000 feet. Of the two hundred human participants unwillingly enrolled in this experiment, eighty died. The remaining survivors were executed in order to examine the changes high altitude caused to the brain. Through horrific human experimentation, it was found that illness and death as a result of high altitude were caused by the formation of tiny air bubbles in the blood vessels of a certain part of the brain. While the use of human experimentation cannot be justified, speaking in strictly scientific spheres, these experiments proved useful. The US Air Force carried on further experiments in the postwar era, aided by many Nazi scientists involved in the original experiments. Today it is strongly argued that “if we did not have this research, no matter how cruelly it was collected, thousands of more people would be dead today from high altitude exposure and hypothermia.”


War Experiments at Dachau: Seawater Experiments


The next set of human experimentation deemed beneficial to the war effort were seawater experiments. An estimated 90 Roma prisoners were forced to drink seawater without any food or freshwater, with no seeming end to the experiment. The purpose of human experimentation in this instance was to aid German pilots who were forced to eject from their planes into the ocean.


Control groups were formed, with one being given nothing but seawater, the other given seawater with an added saline solution, and the other given distilled seawater. The participants were starved during this process, and it has been noted that the participants became so dehydrated “that they reportedly licked floors after they had been mopped just to get a drop of fresh water.


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A Romani victim of Nazi medical experiments to make seawater safe to drink in Dachau concentration camp, Germany, 1944, via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


All bodily fluids were taken and measured to explore how much seawater an individual could digest. The symptoms noted in this period were gastric distress, delirium, spasms, and in many cases, death. The conclusions drawn from these experiments were that unsurprisingly “when we drink salt water, we will become extremely dehydrated and slowly die.” What could be concluded from these experiments was the length of days one could survive at sea without water.


War Experiments at Dachau: Hypothermia Experiments


In the same vein as the seawater experiments, more human experimentations were carried out to aid pilots stranded in the ocean. Most notably, the hypothermia experiments, the third experiment of the “military necessity” trio. These experiments were conducted at the height of World War II, between the years 1942 and 1943. As the fighting progressed across the North Sea, many pilots were shot down into subzero ocean waters. These experiments consisted of prisoners being immersed in containers of freezing water. Variables were introduced, such as the addition of clothing or anesthetic, to testing not only the responses of the body to these temperatures but also treatments.


Around 3,000 individuals were subjected to this horrific human experimentation. All were either immersed in water or left outside naked in winter while “rectal temperature, heart rate, level of consciousness and shivering were meticulously monitored and charted.” To those prisoners who did not succumb, rewarming techniques were practiced. All results were noted down in the hopes of obtaining a method for saving pilots. For example, “Rascher reported… rapid warming was better than slow warming. Rewarming by animal warmth, or by the use of women’s bodies, was found to be too slow.”


Dachau comprehensive report ww2 hypothermia study
Reproduction of Figure 10 from the Dachau Comprehensive Report, in “Nazi Science — The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments by Robert L. Berger, M.D.”, via the New England Journal of Medicine


The above graph shows the survival rate of each technique that was tried to prevent death by hypothermia. The graph “reveals that body-temperature recovery was fastest with immersion in warm water, but that rewarming and presumably survival were achieved with the other methods, too.” It was also found that if the victim were naked, they would perish in the process between 80 minutes and six hours. However, if the individual was clothed, then they could last up to seven hours.


Human Experimentation With Bone, Muscle, and Nerve Transplants

human experimentation nuremberg jadwiga dzido ww2 amputated limbs
Prisoners of Ravensbrück whose limbs were amputated, via PBS; with Concentration camp survivor Jadwiga Dzido shows her scarred leg to the Nuremberg court, via the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


During the years 1942 – 1943, bone, muscle, and nerve transplants were conducted on prisoners of the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Prisoners’ limbs were removed in order to test if they could be transferred to another individual. However, the methods used to enact these experiments were barbaric. After the limb was inserted into a different individual, many people died, either by lack of treatment after the removal or the body rejected the foreign limb. However, if it were not for the conditions of the concentration camp and the brutal treatment of the doctors, then “it is possible the Nazis could be credited with the first successful limb transplant.”


As World War II progressed, Nazi scientists were presented with a problem. One of the new, varied types of injuries that had dominated the war was “fractures; severe soft-tissue and bone defects; peripheral nerve lacerations….” This pushed doctors and scientists stationed at concentration camps to begin human experiments on nerve regeneration and bone marrow.


One experiment involved the fracturing of the bone either with brute force or a surgical instrument such as a clamp. The wounds were then bound in plaster and observed. In testimony at the Nuremberg Trials, “Dr. Zofia Maczka states that in one or both legs, the 16-17 bones would be broken into several pieces by a hammer” (Doctors from Hell,” Google Books). The second experiment would involve “an incision to obtain a bone chip, which would then be removed in a second operation, along with a piece of the bone it was in.” Out of a vast number of experiments undergone, it is estimated that “3.5% died during the operation.”


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The disfigured leg of Maria Kusmierczuk sustained during sulfanilamide experiments, via the US National Library of Medicine


While these human experiments would later become crimes against humanity, the time of the experiments, a long-term approach was to deliver “the treatment of soldiers who sustained amputations, pseudoarthrosis, and tissue defects, setting the stage for treatments they expected would continue after the war’s end.” The results were also presented at the Third Medical Conference of the Consulting Physicians of the German Armed Forces in May of 1943, demonstrating the significance the Nazi doctors placed on these human experiments as a benefit to the war effort, no matter the cost.


In conclusion, as it can be clearly seen from the examples given, the Nazi human experimentation project did in many ways aid the war effort. The establishment of concentration camps before World War II is a clear indicator that the fears of new warfare were ever-present. If viewed in purely scientific spheres, the experiments would have given way to many scientific advancements. However, the horrific conditions that these experiments were conducted in and the brutality of those in charge were a clear hindrance to their progression. On the other hand, the usefulness of these experiments in aiding warfare can evidently be seen through the efforts of Operation Paperclip. In an attempt to gain leverage over new enemies, “the US government hatched a plan to bring 88 Nazi scientists captured during the fall of Nazi Germany back to America” to continue the research they conducted in World War II, in line with the newly formed Nuremberg Code.

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By Lucy SoaftBA History w/ Medical Ethics and Military History concentrationLucy is pursuing an MSc in Military and Medical history with the aspiration of becoming a museum curator. She holds a BA in History with a focus on medical ethics and Military history from the University of Kent (UKC). Topics of interest also include Tudor History, Human Experimentation, and Gothic Architecture. Lucy volunteers at various museums including the Huntarian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in England.