Sigmund Rascher

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Sigmund Rascher
Born 12 February 1909
Munich, Germany
Died 26 April 1945(1945-04-26) (aged 36)
Dachau concentration camp
SS paramilitary career
Allegiance Nazi Germany Nazi Germany
Rank Captain (Hauptsturmführer)

Sigmund Rascher (12 February 1909 – 26 April 1945) was a German SS doctor. His deadly experiments on humans, which were carried out in the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, were judged inhumane and criminal during the Nuremberg Trials.[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Rascher was born the third child of Hanns-August Rascher (1880–1952), a physician, and completed his secondary education in Konstanz in 1930 or 1931 (this is uncertain, as he himself used both dates). His father was an avid follower of Rudolf Steiner, and Sigmund attended a Waldorf School which was based on Steiner's approach to education.[2] In 1933 he began studying medicine in Munich, where he also joined the NSDAP. The exact day of his joining is also uncertain, as there are two dates given: Rascher insisted that it was on 1 March, whereas the documents show 1 May. This is relevant in that the first date is before the Nazi victory in the election of 5 March 1933, where as the second date is after Hitler had consolidated power on 23 March with his Enabling Act.[3]

After his internship, he worked with his now divorced father in Basel, Switzerland, and also continued his studies there, joining the Swiss Voluntary Work Forces. In 1934 he moved to Munich to finish his studies, and received his doctorate in 1936.

In May 1936 Rascher joined the SA. In 1939 he transferred to the SS with the rank of Private.

In Munich Rascher worked with Prof. Trumpp from 1936 to 1938 on cancer diagnostics, supported by a stipend, and until 1939 was an assistant physician at Munich's hospital Schwabinger Krankenhaus.[4]

Career with the SS[edit]

In 1939 Rascher denounced his father, and was conscripted into the Luftwaffe. A relationship with and eventual marriage to former singer Karoline "Nini" Diehl gained him direct access to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Rascher's connection with Himmler gave him immense influence, even over his superiors.[5] Though it is unclear as to the precise nature of Diehl's connection to Himmler, she frequently corresponded with him and interceded with him on her husband's behalf; it is suggested that Diehl may have been a former lover of Himmler.[6]

A week after first meeting Himmler, Rascher presented a paper, "Report on the Development and Solution to Some of the Reichsfuehrer's Assigned Tasks During a Discussion Held on April 24, 1939".[5] Rascher became involved in testing a plant extract as a cancer treatment. Kurt Blome, deputy of the Reich Health Leader and Plenipotentiary for Cancer Research in the Reich Research Council, favoured testing the extract on rodents, but Rascher insisted on using human test subjects. Himmler took Rascher's side and a Human Cancer Testing Station was established at Dachau. Blome worked on the project.[5]

High altitude experiments[edit]

Rascher suggested in early 1941, while a captain in the Luftwaffe's Medical Service, that high-altitude/low-pressure experiments be carried out on human beings.[7] While taking a course in aviation medicine at Munich, he wrote Himmler a letter in which he said that his course included research into high-altitude flight and it was regretted that no tests with humans had been possible as such experiments were highly dangerous and nobody volunteered for them. Rascher asked Himmler to place human subjects at his disposal, stating quite frankly that the experiments might prove fatal, but that previous tests made with monkeys had been unsatisfactory. The letter was answered by Rudolf Brandt, Himmler's adjutant, who informed Rascher that prisoners would be made available.[8][9]

Rascher subsequently wrote back to Brandt, asking for permission to carry out his experiments at Dachau, and plans for the experiments were developed at a conference in early 1942 attended by Rascher and members of the Luftwaffe Medical Service. The experiments were carried out in the spring and summer of the same year, using a portable pressure chamber supplied by the Luftwaffe. The victims were locked in the chamber, the interior pressure of which was then lowered to a level corresponding to very high altitudes. The pressure could be very quickly altered, allowing Rascher to simulate the conditions which would be experienced by a pilot freefalling from altitude without oxygen. After viewing a report of one of the fatal experiments, Himmler remarked that if a subject should survive such treatment, he should be "pardoned" to life imprisonment. Rascher replied to Himmler that the victims had to date been merely Poles and Russians, and that he believed they should be given no amnesty of any sort.[8]

Freezing experiments[edit]

Mugshot of Wolfram Sievers, taken by American authorities after his arrest

Rascher also conducted so-called "freezing experiments" on behalf of the Luftwaffe, in which 300 test subjects were experimented upon without any consent. These were also conducted at Dachau after the high-altitude experiments had concluded. The purpose was to determine the best way of warming German pilots who had been forced down in the North Sea and suffered hypothermia. Rascher's victims were forced to remain outdoors naked in freezing weather for up to 14 hours, or kept in a tank of icewater for three hours, their pulse and internal temperature measured through a series of electrodes. Warming of the victims was then attempted by different methods, most usually and successfully by immersion in hot water; at least one witness, an assistant to some of these procedures, later testified that some victims were thrown into boiling water for rewarming.[10]

General Dr. Erich Hippke, chief of the Luftwaffe medical service, was the actual source of the idea for the so-called "freezing experiments" which were undertaken on behalf of the Luftwaffe and conducted at Dachau concentration camp by Sigmund Rascher.[1][7][11]

Himmler attended some of the experiments, and told Rascher he should go to the North Sea and find out how the ordinary people there warmed victims of extreme cold. Himmler reportedly said he thought "that a fisherwoman could well take her half-frozen husband into her bed and revive him in that manner" and added that everyone believed "animal warmth" had a different effect than artificial warmth.[12] Four Romani women were sent from Ravensbrück concentration camp and warming was attempted by placing the hypothermic victim between two naked women.[13][14]

A medical conference was held in Nuremberg in October 1942, at which the results of the experiments were presented under the headings "Prevention and Treatment of Freezing", and "Warming Up After Freezing to the Danger Point".[15]

Rascher, who had by now been transferred to the Waffen-SS, was eager to obtain the academic credentials necessary for a high-level university position. A habilitation which was to be based on his research failed, however, at Munich, Marburg, and Frankfurt, due to the formal requirement that results be made available for public scrutiny.[16] US investigators later concluded that Rascher had been merely a convenient front for Luftwaffe chief surgeon Erich Hippke, who had been the true source of the ideas for Rascher's experiments.[6]

Similar experiments were conducted from July to September 1944, as the Ahnenerbe provided space and materials to doctors at Dachau to undertake “seawater experiments”, chiefly through Wolfram Sievers. Sievers is known to have visited Dachau on 20 July 1944, to speak with Kurt Plötner and the non-Ahnenerbe Wilhelm Beiglboeck, who ultimately carried out the experiments.

While at Dachau, Rascher developed the standard cyanide capsules, which could be easily bitten through, either deliberately or accidentally.[17]

Blood coagulation experiments[edit]

Rascher experimented with the effects of Polygal, a substance made from beet and apple pectin, which aided blood clotting. He predicted that the preventive use of Polygal tablets would reduce bleeding from gunshot wounds sustained during combat or during surgery. Subjects were given a Polygal tablet, and shot through the neck or chest, or their limbs amputated without anaesthesia. Rascher published an article on his experience of using Polygal, without detailing the nature of the human trials and also set up a company to manufacture the substance, staffed by prisoners.[18]

Personal life and execution[edit]

Attempting to please Himmler through demonstrating that population growth could be accelerated by extending female childbearing age, Rascher publicized the fact that his wife had given birth to three children even after reaching 48 years of age, and Himmler used a photograph of Rascher's family as propaganda material. However, during her fourth "pregnancy," Mrs. Rascher was arrested while attempting to kidnap a baby and an investigation revealed that her other three children had been either purchased or kidnapped. Himmler felt betrayed by this conduct, and Rascher was arrested in April 1944.

In addition to acting as an accessory in the kidnappings of the three infants, Rascher was also accused of financial irregularities, the murder of his former lab assistant, and scientific fraud. Both Rascher and his wife were hastily condemned without trial to the concentration camps.[19] Rascher was imprisoned at Buchenwald following his arrest in 1944, until the camp's evacuation in April 1945. He and other prisoners were then taken to Dachau where Rascher was executed by firing squad on 26 April 1945, three days before the camp was liberated by American troops.[20]. In another first hand account (Hans-Guenter Ricardi's) a fellow SS officer witnessed Rascher's execution by Bongartz on Himmler's direct order by shooting him through the cell observation and food delivery door, then kicking his body with the words' You pig, now you've got the punishment you deserve'. [21]

Siegfried Bär: The Fall of the House of Rascher. The bizarre life and death of the SS-doctor Sigmund Rascher.


  1. ^ a b Heller, Kevin (2011). Oxford University Press, ed. The Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Origins of International Criminal Law. ISBN 978-0199554317. 
  2. ^ Sardar, Ziauddin ,; Yassin-Kassab, Robin. Love and Death. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  3. ^ "Hitler Becomes Dictator". The History Place. The History Place. Retrieved 27 October 2015. 
  4. ^ Kater, Michael H. (2000). Doctors under Hitler. UNC Press. p. 125. ISBN 0-8078-4858-1. 
  5. ^ a b c Michalczyk, John J. (1994). Medicine, Ethics, and the Third Reich: Historical and Contemporary Issues. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 95. ISBN 1-55612-752-9. 
  6. ^ a b Moreno, Jonathan D. (2001). Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans. Routledge. pp. 60–61. ISBN 0-415-92835-4. 
  7. ^ a b Moreno, Jonathan D. (2000). Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans. Routledge. pp. 7–17. ISBN 978-0415928359. 
  8. ^ a b Annas, George J.; Michael A. Grodin (1995). The Nazi doctors and the Nuremberg Code: human rights in human experimentation. Oxford University Press US. pp. 71–73. ISBN 0-19-510106-5. 
  9. ^ Pringle, Heather, The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust, Hyperion, 2006.
  10. ^ Berger, Robert L. (May 1990). "Nazi Science — the Dachau Hypothermia Experiments". New England Journal of Medicine. 322 (20): 1435–40. doi:10.1056/NEJM199005173222006. PMID 2184357. 
  11. ^ Hippkes letter to Wolff of 6 March 1943. In Facsimile at Nuremberg Trials Project. (Nürnberger Document NO-262).
  12. ^ Mackowski, Maura Phillips (2006). Testing the Limits: Aviation Medicine and the Origins of Manned Space Flight. Texas A&M University Press. p. 94. ISBN 1-58544-439-1. 
  13. ^ Annas, p. 74.
  14. ^ Letter from Rascher to Himmler, 17 Feb 1943 from Trials of War Criminals before the Nurenberg Military Tribunals, Vol. 1, Case 1: The Medical Case (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1949-1950), pp. 249–251.
  15. ^ Annas, p. 76.
  16. ^ Kater, pp. 125–126.
  17. ^ Alexander L. (July 1949). "Medical science under dictatorship". N. Engl. J. Med. 241 (2): 39–47. doi:10.1056/NEJM194907142410201. PMID 18153643. 
  18. ^ Michalczyk, p. 96.
  19. ^ Michalczyk, p. 97.
  20. ^ Doctors From Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans by Vivien Spitz, p. 225.
  21. ^ SS Geiseln in Der Alpenfestung, H-G Ricardi, Bolzano : Raetia, 2015, Loc 4644