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Results presented of the research project "The Robert Koch Institute under National Socialism"

Press release

Academics from the Institute for the History of Medicine of the Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin undertook research on the history of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) under the National Socialist regime. The results of the project, which was initiated and funded by RKI, were presented on 1 October 2008 at a public event. Given its central position in public health administration between 1935 and 1942 and its role as part of the Reich Health Office, the Institute was heavily involved in the National Socialist policy of force. “The infringement of humanist principles, the violation of human dignity and of the right to freedom from bodily harm can never be justified at any time in the world even when the majority tolerates and even condones behaviour of this kind”, warned RKI President Jörg Hacker after the results had been presented.

These evil deeds should never be forgotten. They are documented in academic publications and in the monograph on the research results (“The Robert Koch Institute under National Socialism”, Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin, 2008). Furthermore, there will be some form of commemoration and remembrance on the site of the Robert Koch Institute. Details of the design and exact spot are not yet available but planning is already underway. “The most important lesson to be learned here is that everyone must stand up and be counted. We must never accept discrimination and emotional brutalisation, protection of perpetrators or a distinction between valuable and less valuable human beings”, stressed Jörg Hacker.

The project, which was launched in 2006, took a comprehensive and independent look for the first time at the scientific, political and politico-scientific actions of Robert Koch Institute under National Socialism. A commission made up of internationally renowned historians was the guarantee for the academic independence and quality of the research programme. Volker Hess from the Institute for the History of Medicine of the Charité – University Medicine Berlin was the Chairman of the commission and project coordinator.

The fact that RKI scientists and external research scientists attached to Robert Koch Institute had been involved in inhuman experiments in concentration camps and psychiatric institutions was already known. However, the research project revealed a series of new names. What emerged in the course of the project was the almost complete penetration of RKI research topics and staff by Nazi ideology. Following a wave of dismissals three months after the Nazis came to power in 1933, RKI lost almost all its mid-level scientists and, by extension, innovative research institutions and scientific cooperation. The scientists were forced to emigrate and one even had to go into hiding for a while. The senior management level was also restructured. After a few years the director and almost all heads of department were party members.

No cases of individuals showing moral courage or protests against the state, institutional or individual actions were found. From the certificates of employment issued, the medicine historians primarily identified efforts to smooth the path of staff to new positions, in most cases abroad, by giving them a positive assessment. “We had hoped to find traces of more courage being shown”, said Jörg Hacker.

Further information (in German): www.rki.de/geschichte

Date: 01.10.2008