Neurology under National Socialism: The Lives of Displaced Physicians

Ethnic or religion-based forms of discrimination against trained medical specialists and the influence of National Socialism in neurology were topics of focus at the DGN 2021.

Neurology: a particularly affected medical field in Nazi times

Professionally-trained medical specialists who are not allowed to work because of their skin colour or religion. Such forms of discrimination and the influence of National Socialism in neurology was a theme of analysis at the DGN 2021 (In German: Deutsche Gesselschaft für Neurologie), the German Neurological Society's medical congress this year.

"We decided that it was impossible for us to be part of this system any longer": This is how the neurologist Berta Scharrer looks back on the Nazi era in her memoirs. A fate shared by many physicians in the Third Reich, such as Prof. Martin Grond, initiator of the research project "Neurologists and Neuroscientists in the Nazi Era", medical historian Prof. Axel Karenberg, and Prof. Dr. Heiner Fangerau, Chair for History, Theory and Ethics of Medicine at the University Hospital Düsseldorf, emphasised at the DGN 2021. Under the title "Neurology under National Socialism - the persecution and expulsion of neurologists (1933-1939)", the speakers looked ack at the cities of Berlin, Vienna and Frankfurt am Main during the Nazi era and reported on differences and similarities in the lives of persecuted and expelled neuroscientists.

Dismissal, persecution, forced emigration - a fate shared by many neuroscientists during the Nazi era who did not conform to the regime's "values". The path to systematic exclusion and discrimination was already set in motion shortly after the National Socialists "seized power" in 1933, as Prof. Dr. Fangerau reports. The historian quotes a letter from the Prussian Minister of Culture Bernhard Rust dated 6 May 1933: "...I must eliminate part of the German university teaching staff so that the German university can once again fulfil its task in the synthesis of research and leadership. Today, German youth cannot be led by foreign-racial professors." On 7 April 1933, he passed the "Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service".

A momentous decision: As a result of the law, 137 "non-Aryan" university professors were dismissed in Berlin in the year 1933/34 - more than 50%. In the Department of Neurology, almost all scientists were dismissed. Medical historian Professor Axel Karenberg cites Frankfurt am Main as an example of a formerly liberal city in which Jewish physicians continued to advance young medical fields. While 36.5% of university teachers were affected by the dismissals at the university and 42.9% at the medical faculty, more than 50% were dismissed in the field of neurology/psychiatry.

According to Prof. Fangerau, a particular radicalisation took place in Vienna: While Jewish physicians made up about a third of the medical profession until Austria's "Anschluss" (annexation) to the Third Reich on 13 March 1938, from 15 March of the same year an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler was required, which Jewish citizens could not take. In the same year, by the beginning of July, the licences of Jewish physicians were invalidated, and by the end of September their licences were also invalidated. Of 197 members of the Medical University of Vienna, 153 were dismissed (78%), in the field of neurology and neuropathology this affected 92% of the staff. Thus, compared to Berlin and Frankfurt, radicalisation occurred much faster in the Austrian capital, as Fangerau points out. Shortly after the occupational ban, robberies, vandalism and the public humiliation of Jewish fellow citizens followed. Pure envy and vindictiveness came to light. To describe the scenes in Vienna, the historian quotes the author Carl Zuckmayer: "The city is transformed into a nightmare painting by Hieronymus Bosch."

From early emigration to last minute escape

To illustrate how living conditions changed for marginalised and persecuted people under the Nazi regime, Karenberg, Fangerau and Grond look specifically at some examples from the three cities named earlier.

As one of the few examples of early emigration, the medical historian mentions the neurosurgeon Carl Felix List (1902-1968). He received his specialist title in 1933, but lost his position at the Moabit municipal hospital in Berlin after the seizure of power by the Nazis in March 1933. Shortly before his dismissal, List wrote to the US neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing about his plans to leave Germany. Cushing, however, advised List to stay in Germany for the time being - assuming that the "pendulum" would swing back again. In 1934 List emigrated via Brussels to the USA, where - presumably through Cushing's mediation - he began working under Max Peet in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Michigan. In September 1962, the Federal Republic of Germany paid a compensation of DM 68,000 for damage to his reputation and assets.

The story of the German-US-American neurologist Alice Rosenstein, who received her licence to practise medicine and her doctorate in 1923 and worked as an assistant to Karl Kleist in the neurological clinic in Frankfurt am Main until the National Socialists came to power, also shows a special career. After being dismissed due to the "Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service", Rosenstein emigrated to New York in 1933, where - as the child of a US-American - she passed the language exam in 1934 and received a residence permit, a US "licence to practice medicine" and a work licence. Due to strong anti-Semitism that was also rampant in the USA, Rosenstein changed her surname, which she said sounded "too Jewish", to Rost in 1938. From 1943, Alice Rost worked as a neurologist and psychiatrist for the US Army. Throughout her life, Rost was also a particularly strong advocate for homosexual people, as Karenberg points out. Homosexuality, according to Rost, is not a disease and accordingly cannot be cured.

Nazi sympathisers also among persecuted neuroscientists

Although they themselves came into the crosshairs of the National Socialists, not all of the neuroscientists concerned were critical of Nazi ideology, as Prof. Fangerau emphasises. An example of this is the Viennese psychiatrist and neuropathologist Erwin Stransky. He advocated anti-Slavic theories, was considered a radical German nationalist and supported the National Socialists, who were banned in Austria until 1938.

Nevertheless, Stransky also had to resign from his teaching and examination post in July 1938 after an official demand by the dean because of his Jewish ancestry. Shortly after the war, still in 1945, Stransky was entrusted with the reconstruction and management of the mental hospital in Rosenhügel (Vienna, Austria). Throughout his life, the neuropathologist was honoured many times in Austria, and in 1974 a Viennese street was named after him. Due to his convictions, his role as a persecuted person, and also someone who would have gladly cooperated with the Nazi regime, Stranksy is always the subject of heated debate in Austria.

Sympathy towards the National Socialists could also be seen in the example of Ernst Albert Scharrer, the husband of Berta Scharrer mentioned at the beginning: He joined the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) in 1933 and was temporarily responsible for the ideological "cleansing" of the school libraries in Bremen as "specialist adviser for elementary education". Later, in 1939, Scharrer distanced himself from National Socialist ideology and pedagogy and resigned from the party. As early as 1937, the neuroendocrinologist emigrated to the USA with his wife Berta due to the onset of the Holocaust.

"Emigration" as a necessity for survival

In conclusion to the presentation by Fangerau, Karenberg and Grond at the DGN 2021, it remains to be noted that neurology as a subject was particularly affected by the "purges'' of the National Socialists, since in comparison to other medical fields, "non-Aryan" scientists made up a large part of the workforce. Many neuroscientists therefore had similar experiences of exclusion and discrimination, especially in the period between 1933 and 1938, emphasises Fangerau, but their lives diverged in some cases afterwards. 

While some neurologists were able to build a new life abroad, especially in the USA, many researchers were suppressed and forgotten in their old homelands; only in a few cases did they remigrate. Some, such as Raphael Weichbrodt, were imprisoned by the Nazi regime and murdered in concentration camps. The frequently used term "emigration" is, according to Fangerau, actually a euphemism - because for many, fleeing abroad was much more a necessity for survival.

DGN Kongress 2021, Berlin: Neurologie im Nationalsozialismus – die Verfolgung und Vertreibung von Neurologinnen und Neurologen (1933-1939) (English translation: Neurology under National Socialism - the persecution and expulsion of neurologists); 5 November 2021