International Campaign for Real History

Review of Books

May 23, 1999

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SwastikaHitler's Other Battlefield

Wanting to purge Germany of all things foreign, including disease


By Robert N. Proctor.
Illustrated. 380 pp.

Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. $29.95.

THE Nazi war on cancer? Other readers may be as incredulous as I was when this book came to my attention. We think of Hitler's regime as waging war on nations and peoples, not on behalf of public health.

But good historical work surprises us by recovering forgotten facets of the past. Robert N. Proctor, a veteran historian of science who teaches at Pennsylvania State University, has produced a book full of surprises.

Going well beyond the "cancer" of his catchy title, Proctor surveys an extraordinary range of health campaigns that predated the Nazi regime but to varying degrees allied with it and climaxed under it. These included minor and spurious ones like colonic cleansing; major efforts to promote organic foods and medicines purged of toxins; barbarous programs of sterilization and murder of alleged social defectives; and serious efforts grounded in superior science to conquer cancer.

German experts, for instance, were the first to link smoking with lung cancer and to promote breast self-examination by women. As the book's rich illustrations show, modern advertising techniques accompanied many health campaigns, like the one against smoking. "Our Fuhrer Adolf Hitler drinks no alcohol and does not smoke. . . . His performance at work is incredible," one magazine gushed in 1937.

Motivations ran the gamut: nostalgia for an imagined premodern Germany of rural health and vigor; faith in Germany's scientific prowess; ambition to make Germans fit for war; and longing to purge the nation of presumed social bacilli and cancer, with Jews sometimes described as a "cancer" on Germany and, like Communists and homosexuals, sometimes blamed for bad habits like smoking and drinking.

Proctor summarizes the "spirit of millenarian social engineering" that these motivations nourished: "Aggressive measures in the field of public health would usher in a new era of healthy, happy Germans, united by race and common outlook, cleansed of alien environmental toxins, freed from the previous era's plague of cancers, both literal and figurative." Proctor refuses, however, to reduce those motivations to a single Nazi ideology.

His triumph lies in showing how many impulses could be braided into the prevailing Nazi ethos. It also comes from finding just the right tone -- mostly straightforward, rarely condescending, occasionally whimsical -- for telling these fascinating, unsettling stories. And he commands an astonishing volume of detail, some of it loathsome and bizarre, some more familiar -- the rhetoric of anti-smoking advertisements, for example, and fads like colonic cleansing (which does, after all, still have its devotees). In the end, the Nazi efforts to promote health came to little.

Like health campaigns everywhere, they confronted the intractable habits of most people, and, in any case, the metaphorical war on disease was swamped by the real war Germany started in 1939, which made its leaders worry that denying soldiers and civilians the indulgences of tobacco and alcohol would undercut their morale. War reinforced public health in some ways -- shortages of tobacco and new taxes on it cut consumption, especially by women -- but, of course, its overall effect was disastrous.

Nonetheless, Proctor's account reminds us that even bad regimes do some good things, just as better regimes do some terrible things. While rejecting "banalities" like "good can come from evil," he offers a modulated view of the differences between fascism and democracy that once had some cachet in American politics and letters -- among critics of the United States' use of the atomic bomb against Japan, for example.

The physicist Freeman Dyson, admiring Germans' resistance to Allied bombing of their cities, concluded in 1979 that "a good cause can become bad if we fight for it with means that are indiscriminately murderous. A bad cause can become good if enough people fight for it in a spirit of comradeship and self-sacrifice." But that grasp of moral complexity has weakened amid the recent feel-good politics of nostalgia about America's role in World War II. Although acutely aware of Nazi crimes, Proctor brings that moral complexity back within reach.

He shows, among other things, that Nazism's appeal to many Germans included its promises to bring progress, even as many thrilled to its vision of order and subjugation. He insists that "public health initiatives were pursued not just in spite of fascism, but also in consequence of fascism," which had its "fertile, creative faces," along with its "monstrous and sadistic demons."

Proctor notes that anti-tobacco advocates in the United States "have been labeled 'health fascists' and 'Nico-Nazis,'" and he points out "the logical error" of arguing that "since the Nazis were purists, purists today must be Nazis." He clearly believes that it is foolish to think that "public health measures are in principle totalitarian." But perhaps he overlooks similarities between American and Nazi "wars" of social betterment.

Anyone familiar with today's genetic agenda in science may wince at Proctor's summary of the "genetically anchored" agenda of Nazi ideology: "The Nazi imagination ran wild in this territory, claiming racial, genetic or 'constitutional' predispositions for every conceivable human talent and disability." Just as pertinent is the American penchant for waging "war" on social problems.

Lyndon B. Johnson declared "war" on poverty, crime, hunger and other social ills -- nothing less than a "worldwide war on disease" -- while Richard M. Nixon declared "war on cancer." Announced by groups with little else in common, "wars" on AIDS, drugs, terrorism, abortion, smoking and other presumed enemies have defined much of America's recent politics.

Just as I received this book, I read an article in The New York Times, "Crimes of the War on Crime," that detailed the injury to lives and civil liberties inflicted in the name of that war. Today's "purists" need not be fascists to sanction questionable measures on behalf of apparently unquestionable goals. Even in a democracy, "war," whether actual or metaphorical, justifies the identification of "enemies" and the corrosion of normal scruples.

While joining Robert Proctor in rejecting glib comparisons between Nazi Germany and the United States, we can still take instruction from his splendid account about the dangers of pursuing social betterment through warlike words and means.

Michael Sherry is the author of "In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930's."


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