Book Review

Jeremy Garwood

Siegfried Bär:
The Fall of the House of Rascher.

Format: Kindle Edition
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Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
Language: Englisch
Price: 7.66 EUR (Kindle Edition)

An Ordinary Scientist - The bizarre life and death of the SS doctor Sigmund Rascher

During the Third Reich, he was the prototype of a Nazi monster. If he were alive today, however, he would probably be a popular physician in alternative medicine, claims the author of an equally disturbing and entertaining biography on Nazi medical experimenter, Dr Sigmund Rascher.

Dr Sigmund Rascher has a poor reputation as one of the worst of the Nazi medical experimenters, the prototype of a Nazi monster. In his various experiments during World War 2, over 200 people are thought to have died. But Siegfried Bär’s book, The Fall of the House of Rascher, is about more than just Rascher’s deadly research. It is, in effect, a biography of Rascher (1909-1945), his family, his education, his helpers, co-workers and superiors. Bär says he wrote it because there was enough material to reconstruct Rascher’s life in the “finest detail” – some hundred personal letters from his close family and friends, documents from the years 1936 to 1944, and testimony from the 1947 Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg. He traces the influences that shaped Dr. Rascher, “an average person like you and me who happened to live through a dark and strange adventure unparalleled by any other.”

“An average person like you and me”

Rascher’s family were early adherents of Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual movement, the Anthroposophical Society (founded in 1913). Sigmund attended the first Waldorf school, a hotbed for children of educated middle class Anthroposophists. Here, he came under the direct influence of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, an ‘apostle’ who played a major role in developing Steiner’s ideas on b­iodynamic farming (that are still popular today).

Rascher went on to study medicine, but was drawn to research by Pfeiffer’s ideas about the influences of cosmic rhythms on life processes. In particular, Pfeiffer claimed to show that spiritual forces could influence the crystallization of copper chloride. Starting in 1934, Rascher hoped to get his doctoral degree by proving that hormones affect this crystallization process and that it could be used as a pregnancy test. He claimed that his test worked, but there were doubts and funding problems.

His research career was saved when he fell in love with an influential older woman, Karoline “Nini” Diehl, a former crooner. While Rascher was working on his crystal studies, the Nazis were firmly establishing their power in Germany. Nini just happened to be a close friend of a top Nazi – Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and, as General Plenipotentiary, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany. Trained as an agronomist, Himmler himself had plenty of ideas about science. In 1935, he founded the Ahnenerbe, the ‘Study Society for Primordial Intellectual history, German Ancestral Heritage’. At its height, the Ahnenerbe comprised 46 departments and 300 employees.

Not much of a researcher

After Nini lobbied Himmler on behalf of her beloved, Rascher duly completed his thesis in 1939 and started a five point research contract under Himmler’s patronage. Unfortunately, Rascher was not much of a researcher. In 1941, fearing he would lose favour with Himmler, he began a research project investigating the effect of low pressure on adult men. The Luftwaffe were concerned that their pilots flying at high altitudes would suffer from low air pressure should their planes be hit by enemy fire. Rascher took prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp (near Munich) as substitutes for Luftwaffe pilots, and began sticking them in a vacuum chamber to see what happened. Not surprisingly, they suffered agony and occasionally died.

A year later, Rascher moved on to a new problem. Luftwaffe air crews who parachuted into the North Sea were freezing to death. What is the cause of death by freezing? How can frozen men be warmed again? Prisoners were duly placed in ice cold water baths.

More deaths.

However, Rascher was now preoccupied with getting enough research results for his Habilitation (the German university teaching qualification). For this, he needed to write an extensive thesis. He began to collect projects like others collect stamps (Rascher was, in fact, also a keen philatelist). In Dachau, he had a team of prisoner technicians who proposed projects for which he could claim all the credit. These included patented mashed potatoes, an anti-rust agent, a cancer cure, and a hemostatic, Polygal. The latter, when taken orally, is supposed to stop bleeding in wounded soldiers. It is actually a pectin preparation normally used to make jams and jellies.

Rascher’s downfall ...

Bär presents and analyses many of Rascher’s dubious research projects. Nothing really worked, but that didn’t matter as long as Himmler was happy. Ironically, Rascher’s downfall came from his wife’s fertility – Nini was suspiciously old to be having babies. She gave birth, in mysterious circumstances, to a first son in 1939. Then she had a second and a third.

The scandal errupted at the end of a fourth pregnancy in 1944 – Nini was accused of baby-snatching at Munich railway station. The police investigation discovered that she had been ‘hiring’ babies. Rascher, however, had noticed nothing (at least, this is what he claimed).

... caused by his wife’s fertility

Himmler was not happy. Nini and Rascher were duly imprisoned and, as Nazi Germany descended into chaos, they were finally executed in 1945.

Siegfried Bär has written a highly documented biography. He finds that Sigmund Rascher was not a monster, “Apart from his personal ambition, he had no outstanding mental or emotional gifts, not even a disposition for cruelty.”

And yet he initiated and performed these deadly experiments on living humans. Bär suggests that if Rascher were alive today, “he would probably be a popular physician in alternative medicine.”

Letzte Änderungen: 05.02.2015