Nazi nurses. It’s a tricky concept when you think about it. As with other selfless wartime nurses, it was their job to tend to wounded soldiers in some of the toughest conditions imaginable. Yet at the same time, they were helping the Nazi cause – even if injured German soldiers wanted treatment like any others. Far more controversial, though, is the fact that the nurses of the Third Reich were also called upon to assist with more “experimental” Nazi programs – like euthanizing the mentally handicapped and other “undesirables.”
The actions of Nazi doctors are well documented and widely known about, but the roles played by the nurses and others who assisted them are often brushed over and ignored. Research suggests that nurses in Nazi Germany often remained apolitical and believed that they were doing good, regardless of the rapid social change happening around them. However, one critic points out that nursing “never takes place in a value-free, neutral context; it is always a socially significant force.” The theorist goes on to highlight the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions (or inactions) and points out that we cannot simply overlook the profession’s “darkest hours.”
At any rate, whether they were simply following orders, trying to help out, or fighting for a cause in which they believed, these nurses are part of the diverse history of their profession. Read on for 10 snapshots of nursing in Nazi Germany.
10. The Lebensborn Program
In this photograph, a Nazi nurse assists as scientists attempt to lighten the hair of “Super Race Children” using light rays. The program of which this formed part, known as Lebensborn, was one of the strangest ever produced by Nazi Germany. It was also horrible to the core, as children who didn’t measure up cosmetically were sent to concentration camps.
Founded in 1935 by Heinrich Himmler, the program was an attempt to both increase Germany’s declining Germanic/Nordic population and to breed an elite race of pure Aryans to lead the Third Reich. Initially, the project accepted “racially pure” unwed mothers and offered them support, safety and secrecy. Applicants were screened, and their lineages had to be traced back at least three generations.
Eventually, the program encouraged soldiers (even those who were married) to fraternize with racially desirable “native” women. And as time went by, Lebensborn developed an even more sinister purpose. After 1939, thousands of Aryan-looking children were kidnapped from occupied territories. These youngsters were transferred to the Lebensborn clinics to be indoctrinated as “pure Germans.” Those who refused were beaten – and often sent to concentration camps and exterminated. Meanwhile, SS families adopted children who were successfully “Germanized.” Estimates suggest that, from Poland alone, as many as 100,000 children were stolen.
9. DRK Nurse With Wounded German Soldier
This photo shows a Deutsche Rote Kreuz (DRK) nurse assisting a wounded soldier in what looks like a train carriage during World War II. Hospital trains were common during the war; they were crucial for evacuating injured troops to safer areas and often doubled as portable field kitchens.
The DRK is the German equivalent of the Red Cross. And during WWII, the organization included more than 600,000 members on all fronts. By the end of 1938, the DRK had come under the official control of the Nazi Party and became a Nazi entity.
8. German Nurses and Nazi Officers
The German attitude towards women in WWII was a kind of paternalistic chauvinism. Unlike the Soviets, the Nazis were initially slow to enlist women and hesitant to allow them on the front lines. The Nazi ideal was that women should be limited to “kinder, küche, kirche” (children, kitchen, and church) and not be expected to fight. Hitler even ordered women to produce more Aryan children to fight in future wars.
In order to keep them safe, most nurses assigned to posts on the front line were given details in hospitals at least 9.3 miles (15 km) away from the enemy.
German women were drafted into the armed forces, especially as more people were mobilized for war. That said, they were considered auxiliary military personnel and were mainly used for logistics and administration – although in the air force, women did handle combat duties and shot down Allied planes.
7. Maternity Nurse At A Lebensborn Facility
Here we see the personification of the Nazi nursing dilemma; care under an evil regime. In the image, a concerned-looking maternity nurse dotingly looks after babies of the Lebensborn program beneath fluttering SS and Nazi flags.
On top of nursing children, the women involved with the program were also responsible for more sinister actions as well. When kidnapped children were taken to the Lebensborn clinics to be “Germanized,” it was the nurses’ role to convince the youngsters that their parents had abandoned them.
Nazis and high-ranking SS officers fathered children through the Lebensborn program, and this led to a generation of alienated children without family ties; unwitting participants in a Nazi experiment. Many children involved in the program also suffered trauma from growing up and realizing that their fathers were war criminals. In Norway, Nazis were encouraged to father children with women who had “Viking blood.” Some individuals were put in mental asylums as they struggled to accept their origins, unable to deal with the shame of having German fathers.
Self-help groups such as Traces of Life have been set up to help Lebensborn survivors come to terms with their histories.
6. Nursing At the Siege of Leningrad
This rare color photograph shows a nurse seeing to the wounded during the Siege of Leningrad. The German army besieged the Soviet city (now again known as Saint Petersburg) from September 1941 to January 1944, making it one of the longest-lasting battles in modern history.
Despite being less well known than the Battle of Stalingrad, this campaign was even more costly in terms of casualties: as many as 4.5 million people were killed or wounded, including more than a million civilians. Most of the civilians died of hunger.
German nurses, many of them DRK volunteers, were often exposed to the atrocities committed by their army on the Eastern Front. They saw random shootings, the killing of Jews, and mass graves. These volunteers were often shocked by what they witnessed.
5. Two German Red Cross (DRK) Nurses Greet Each Other
This candid shot of an everyday meeting between two German DRK nurses highlights how common humanity was caught up in the war. Even so, members of the DRK were, to some extent, willing partners of the Nazi regime. For example, their involvement included deceiving delegates about the real conditions of the concentration camps.
In view of this, the DRK has conducted an independent study into the organization’s role in Nazi Germany in an effort to understand what happened. The DRK also emphasizes the fact that they have an ethical and moral obligation to never again be corrupted by ideas like anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
4. Nursing Staff At Hadamar
The Hadamar Center was founded in 1883 as a correctional institution for released prisoners. However, to cope with the increased number of mentally disturbed German people in the early 20th century, the center was converted into a mental asylum in 1906.
Later, in 1939, a gas chamber and two ovens were installed and the facility was converted into a giant euthanasia center. From 1939 until the 1945 German surrender, Hadamar was used as a site for the Nazi T-4 Euthanasia Program.
Most of those murdered were physically and mentally disabled, although the center also exterminated other “undesirables,” such as soldiers judged to be psychologically incurable. As many as 100 victims arrived each day. The victims were told that they were going to be examined and sent to a physician. Then, according to a 2008 feature in German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, they were marked with colored adhesive bandages signifying three different categories. These were: kill; kill and remove brain for research; or kill and break out gold teeth.
Under the supervision of head nurse Irmgard Huber, medical staff were directly involved in the killings. This typically involved either lethal overdoses or intentional neglect. After the war, Huber was convicted of war crimes and tried as an accomplice in no less than 120 cases. It was discovered that Huber had chosen victims to kill, falsified death reports, and controlled the supply of drugs to overdose patients. She was sentenced to 33 years in prison but in the end served only five.
3. German Red Cross (DRK) Nurse In Front of a Troop Train
This shot of a group of soldiers posing with a DRK nurse and a dog in front of a troop train again shows the human side of the war. German nurses were responsible for everything from looking after the wounded and taking care of POWs, to treating soldiers and civilians. A number of nurses received the Iron Cross Second Class as a reward for their dedication.
After the DRK came under control of the Nazi Party at the end of 1938, nurses often just had to accept the real-life horror stories that were unfolding around them. In an interview with Spiegel Online, DRK nurse Annette Schücking-Homeyer explained how she screamed out, “But that’s impossible, it’s completely impossible, it’s against all international laws!” in her sleep after she had been told about the annihilation of the Jewish community in the Ukrainian city of Zwiahel.
2. Captured German Nurses In Cherbourg
These German nurses were captured by Allied Forces in Cherbourg, France in July 1944 and were held as prisoners of war. Again, this candid shot offers a glimpse of the faces and personalities behind the statistics, from the young, fresh-seeming nurses on the right-hand side, to the older, stern-looking nurse on the far left.
The Battle of Cherbourg was an intense month-long campaign fought soon after the June 6, Normandy Invasion. During the battle, over 7,000 German military personnel were killed and 30,000 were captured. On the Allied front, 2,800 US soldiers were killed and 13,500 were wounded. A further 5,700 US soldiers went missing.
In 1945, towards the end of the war, many POWs were kept in open fields known as Rheinwiesenlager camps. These prisoners were known as Disarmed Enemy Forces (DEFs) rather than POWs. Members of the Hitler Youth and female prisoners judged to have no association with the Nazi Party were the first to be set free from the camps. Occupational groups like miners, farmers and drivers soon followed. By October 1945, all of the Rheinwiesenlager camps had been shut down, except for one near Bad Kreuznach. This one stayed open until 1948 and served as an interim camp for German prisoners released from France.
1. DRK Nurse Ilse Schulz Wearing the Iron Cross 2nd Class
In this photo, DRK nurse Ilse Schulz wears the Iron Cross Second Class she won in April 1943, while two Knight’s Cross winners sit on either side of her. More than 30 German women were given the Iron Cross Second Class during the war, but DRK nurse Else Grossmann and pilot Hanna Reitsch were the only two women to receive the Iron Cross First Class.
Elfriede Wnuk was a highly decorated WWII DRK nurse who won the Iron Cross 2nd Class, the Eastern Front Medal, and the Wounded Badge in Silver. She was heavily involved on the Eastern Front from September 1939, working in a military field hospital.