Neuroethics is an inherently historical field, although this is not always pointed out: the cases and experiments discussed by the neuroethics literature took place sometime in the past, and in many cases it might be beneficial to also consider the historical context when examining them. What were the theoretical assumptions that informed the experiments? What social and political factors surrounded some specific case story? An interesting example of this strategy is three new papers on “Neurosciences and the Third Reich” published in the September issue of Journal of the History of Neuroscience. As Axel Karenberg notes in an accompaning editorial: “What and how much can we learn from the past to help us better plan for the future? Every interaction with Nazism forces us to confront this question.”
The first of the three papers, Florian Steger’s essay “Neuropathological research at the ‘Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Psychiatrie’ in Munich…”, examines how German scientists took advantage of the Nazi regime’s euthanasia policies to conduct unethical experiments on people, often children, who were later killed.
The second, Florian Schmaltz‘s paper “Neurosciences and Research on Chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction in Nazi Germany”, looks at the neurochemical weapons development program started and later discontinued in 1942. While the resulting nerve gasses were never widely used during World War II, the German researchers responsible for developing them were later, after the war, recruited by the allied forces.
And the third, an essay by Jürgen Pfeiffer entitled “Phases in the postwar German reception of the ‘Euthanasia Program’ (1939-1945)…”, explores how Germany after the war refused to deal with this dark chapter of German neuroscience and medical research.
At the end of his editorial Alex Karenberg ponders what ethical lessons can be extracted from examining the history of neuroscience in the Third Reich and draws three conclusions which I here quote:
1: Our view of the natural sciences has changed since the development of atomic weapons and the Nuremberg Trials. “Pure science” — the search for truth in ivory towers — no longer exists. Scientists today bear a moral responsibility for consequences and aberrations. The history of medicine in the Third Reich made abundantly clear how dependent medical research is on political pressure, social expectations, and financial considerations.
This is as true today as it was then, even when the circumstances have changed. The task of medical historians is to make this clear to current and future students and scientists.
2: Nazi medicine makes equally clear that it is not a question of good versus bad research — but that medical knowledge is always in conflict with ethical values. Ever since medicine became a true natural science, this union has had an inherently destructive potential. Where and whenever the desire for scientific progress dominates and is made superior to all other moral values, that is where and when the “dark side” of medicine will be found: in the Third Reich, in other totalitarian regimes, and even in democratic states lacking strong ethics. Inhuman and inhumane progress is possible in any kind of research when the only goal is the acquisition of knowledge. This is and shall remain true.
3: Finally, writing history is not the same as personal memory. History is constructed memory based on dates and facts. Personal memory is subjective and emotional. Society and above all science needs both forms of cultural remembrance in order to fully understand itself. This is especially the case for German medicine when recalling those crimes committed in the name of science. I would thus like to conclude this introduction with two citations dealing with the power of self-criticism and memory. The first is from the Book of KingsI (19:4): “I am no better than my ancestors.” The second is from a speech given by former German President Richard von Weizsäcker: “The secret of reconciliation is remembering.”
It would certainly be interesting, in the future, to see a more direct integration of historical research with neuroethics discussions.