All for the wrong reasons

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- The Nazi war on cancer by Robert N Proctor Princeton University Press Princeton 2000

The night before the German invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1941, Adolf Hitler was closeted with his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Along with discussing means to eliminate communism, the two also talked over ways to extirpate cancer. This was no idle chitchat to ease tension. Cancer was an abiding concern for the Nazis. And that concern is the subject of Robert N Proctor's The Nazi War on Cancer. Proctor is no Nazi apologist: Nazi anxiety about cancer is merely an entry point for his analysis of a project to create a racial utopia of healthy Germans. After all, Nazism was not just about eliminating Jews, gypsies and Bolsheviks. It was also about creating ideal bodies -- celebrated in sculptures of Arno Breker and Joseph Thorak.

Abominable tumours stood in the way of this biological engineering project: when the thousand-year Reich was formed, cancer was the second most notorious killer in Germany. So, for the Nazi leaders, the disease became a metaphor for all that was wrong with the country: Jews were described as tumours and both had to be dealt with equal aggression. So the Nazi state fought against cancer on many fronts, battling environmental and workplace hazards (there were strict restrictions on the use of asbestos), recommending food standards (bans on carcinogenic pesticides and food dyes) and encouraging early detection (men were advised to get their colons checked as often as they would check the engines of their cars).

Armed with the world's most sophisticated tobacco-disease epidemiology, the Nazi medical machinery was the first to link smoking to lung cancer definitively. Proctor does an excellent job of showing how the Nazis created the world's strongest anti-tobacco campaign. Hitler himself was a devout nonsmoker, and credited his political success to kicking the habit.

The Nazi interest in cancer also has to be seen in the context of an extraordinary cancer research machinery created by its predecessors: the Wilhelmine and the Weimar republics. As early as the 1870s, German scientists discovered skin cancers caused by coal tar distillates, and were also the first to show that uranium mining could cause lung cancer. The Weimar period saw several campaigns to stress early cancer detection. The Nazis combined this campaign with stringent legislation and widespread use of police power.
Dual objective Proctor details all these with great meticulousness, but also desists from identifying Nazi anti-cancer measures as part of a totalising ideology: science was at best a "faithful and neutral servant, blind to politics". His objective is dual: to show that Nazification of science was much more complex than commonly described, and to present Nazism as a nuanced phenomenon.

He goes about his first goal by positing anti-cancer measures against all those who argue that Nazi medicine was only about abortion, euthanasia and medical rationing. Proctor also uses his research to take up issues against those who argue that Nazi science was an obscurantist 'return to nature' endeavour. He shows that this science was, in fact, a curious combination of forcibile sterilisation and herbal medicine, of genocidal selection and bans on smoking. The painstaking research does help Proctor score academic points. But in no way does it absolve Nazi science from its complicity with the monstrous ideology. In fact, Proctor himself cites numerous examples of German medical practitioneers fascinated by Nazism, belying his description of science under the fascist regime as one of "irresponsible purity".

And with doctors culpable in the Nazi project, Proctor's aim of showing the ideology as much more nuanced than a totalising endeavour flounders. The elements all add up to the aggregate. But then, does association with a draconian ideology condemn anti-tobbacco campaigns and other cancer research for good? No. Curing sickness is important for the sake of life itself -- not for biological engineering.

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