Skip to main content
A brief summary and response to the 2024 Silvers' Annual Lecture by the same name.

The Value of the Holocaust in Medical Education

Last month, the annual Silvers Lecture on Holocaust, Genocide, and Contemporary Bioethics hosted by the IU Center for Bioethics, was given by Stacy Gallin, DMH, founding director of the Ferencz Institute, on “The Value of the Holocaust in Medical Education.” Beforehand, I was not sure what to expect, but I assumed that she might talk about the importance of taking personal responsibility when considering moral questions. I was half right, (or half wrong), but I was completely taken by surprise by her main point.

I had expected Dr. Gallin to portray the role of physicians in Nazi Germany as people who were compelled to do evil, either by social pressure or by threat of force. But that was not the case she presented. Rather, physicians in Nazi Germany were taught to view health on a societal level rather than an individual level. This meant that people could be ostensibly healthy on an individual level, yet unhealthy for the German people.  People who were unable to work, or were a drain of resources, were represented as “life unworthy of life.” This line of thinking led Nazi physicians to participate in killing disabled children and adults, then Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and others . It started in 1939 with young children who showed signs of severe developmental or physical disability. It ended in the deaths of some 11 million.

The healthcare providers in Nazi Germany were deeply complicit in the Holocaust not because they were forced to do evil but because they were convinced it was right, focusing on what they saw was best for the German people overall, the Volk. This reprioritization of the provider from individual patients to the population justified profound dehumanization and then genocide.

What I took away from this lecture is the importance of questioning authority in matters of conscience, especially when your actions impact others. Recall that in that era, Germany was a world leader in scientific advancement, and “Race Hygiene” was at the bleeding edge of medical science. This science condoned horrific acts.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t “trust science” but rather that we should seek evidence for empirical claims and always respect, value, and protect individual human life. This is a fine line to walk, but in this day and age we have the capacity to independently search for and verify information, and you do yourself and others a disservice by not questioning what you are taught and forming your own conclusions. Use your judgement, engage in conversation and most importantly, have the courage to ask questions.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Default Author Avatar IUSM Logo

Nicolas Oliver

Nicolas Oliver is the program manager for the Center for Bioethics and the Bioethics and Subject Advocacy Program at the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute. He received his BA in history and his MA in bioethics from Wake Forest University. His academic interests include public health reform, clinical ethics and the intersection of the law and bioethics.