This week in Jewish history | Doctors' Trial commences to bring Nazi criminals to justice - World Jewish Congress

This week in Jewish history | Doctors' Trial commences to bring Nazi criminals to justice

This week in Jewish history | Doctors' Trial commences to bring Nazi criminals to justice

On 9 December 1946, an American military tribunal opened criminal proceedings against  23 leading German physicians for their participation in war crimes and crimes against humanity during World War II. Taking place just 25 days after the conclusion of the Nuremberg Trials, the Doctors' Trial aimed to bring Nazis leaders from various sections of the Third Reich to justice. 

The physicians were accused of implementing the Nazi Euthanasia Program, the systematic killing of those they deemed "unworthy of life," and were indicted on four counts: conspiracy to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity; war crimes; crimes against humanity (including persons not protected by the laws of war); and membership in a criminal organization. The victims were people with severe psychological, neurological, or physical disabilities, and members of other groups such as Jews, Poles, Russians, and Roma. 

According to Chief of Counsel Brigadier General Telford Taylor, the purpose of the trial was to “cut out and expose” the “ideas and motives which moved these [physicians] to treat their fellow men as less than beasts” so that they do not “become a spreading cancer in the breast of humanity.”  

In his opening remarks, Taylor described the horrors perpetrated by the German physicians, insisting that: "The victims of these crimes are numbered in the hundreds of thousands. A handful only are still alive; a few of the survivors will appear in this courtroom. But most of these miserable victims were slaughtered outright or died during the tortures to which they were subjected. For the most part they are nameless dead.” 

During the tribunal, several of the German doctors argued that their actions differed little from previous American experiments and that international law did not differentiate between legal and illegal human experimentation. 

Prosecutors responded by attempting to prove that American scientists’ actions were not comparable to Nazi German experiments. On 17 April 1947, Dr. Leo Alexander, a key member of the prosecution, submitted a memorandum outlining six points defining legitimate research in attempt to protect humans from enduring the cruelty and exploitation that Nazi physicians had carried out during the Holocaust. The verdict on 19 August would reiterate almost all these points in a section entitled "Permissible Medical Experiments." While the original six points would subsequently be revised into ten points, it would become known as the "Nuremberg Code," and is commonly believed to be the most important legacy of the Doctors’ Trial. 

While the Nuremberg Code has not been adopted by any nation or major medical association, it has still had a strong influence on human-rights law. Its basic requirement of informed consent, for instance, has been widely accepted and is articulated in Article 7 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

Over the course of the 140 days of proceedings, 85 witnesses testified, and 1,500 documents of evidence were examined. On 20 August 1947, American judges found 16 doctors guilty. Seven were sentenced to death, five were sentenced to life imprisonment, and seven were acquitted.