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Max Planck Society confronts Nazi past

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(Vienna, 03 August 2017) The German-based Max Planck Society (MPG) is funding a project to look into the history of brain research on victims of the Nazi regime, carried out under MPG and its predecessor organisation. This project was sparked by the recent discovery of brain samples in archives in Berlin and Munich. The project, which has been running since 1 July, is being conducted by a team of renowned scientists – including contemporary historian Herwig Czech from MedUni Vienna.

"The task that awaits us is to locate the medical records of victims of euthanasia and link them to the samples that have been found," explains Herwig Czech, "Thanks to some preparatory work, we know where to start looking." Among the documents that will be analysed are files from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science (the predecessor of today's Max Planck Society) and its institutes, medical records from psychiatric institutions throughout Germany and Austria and documents from the German Federal Archives.

"Our job is to identify all victims of Nazi crimes by name and also to establish a reliable figure for the number of victims," said Munich historian Gerrit Hohendorf from the Institute of Medical History and Ethics at the Technical University of Munich, who is also working on the project. The third project leader in the team is Paul Weindling from Oxford Brookes University and the Leopoldina research institute in Halle an der Saale.

Extensive archive collections will be checked
MPG is providing 1.5 million euros for the project, which is expected to take more than three years. The researchers will have a lot of searches to do. They will need to check thousands of brain samples and the records of probably 2,000 – 3,000 patients. "The patient records, where they still exist, will help us to establish whether these people were victims of euthanasia or not," explained Hohendorf.
As the predecessor of the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry, the German Institute for Psychiatric Research (Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Psychiatrie or DFA) provided information in support of the Nazi's "eugenics policy". One of the directors, Ernst Rüdin, was one of the most influential "racial hygienists" of the Third Reich.

The aim of the project is to identify victims by name, record their history and then lay to rest the samples that were taken from them. Although samples from the Nazi period were interred in the Waldfriedhof cemetery in Munich in 1990, more brain sections have recently been discovered.
Historian Herwig Czech has worked on similar themes in the past, e.g. as curator of the Steinhof Memorial Centre in the Otto Wagner Hospital and as author of numerous publications on the history of medicine under National Socialism.

This project not only addresses historical questions but also those relating to the medical ethics of using human tissue in research, thereby further raising the profile of the organisational unit "Ethics, Collections and the History of Medicine" with Christiane Druml's UNESCO Chair for Bioethics.