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Max Planck Society confronts Nazi past

Brain research on victims of the Nazi regime – medical history project at MedUni Vienna
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(Vienna, 24 February 2020) The Max Planck Society is funding a research project on the use of mortal remains of Nazi victims for scientific purposes in institutions of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and/or the Max Planck Society. This project is domiciled at MedUni Vienna, inter alia, and has recently presented an interim report: the total number of victims used for neuropathological research is far higher than previously thought; moreover, new finds require that the research be expanded to include the Neurological Institute (Edinger Institute) of Goethe University in Frankfurt.

New finds in Frankfurt am Main
The Edinger Institute was closely associated with the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research between 1962 and 1982 and this resulted in partial amalgamation of collections and documents – which, as it turns out, also include specimens and documents from the Nazi period. For example, British medical historian Paul Weindling was able to match two brain specimens in the Edinger Institute’s so-called display collection to Polish Jews who perished in Warsaw under the German occupation.

By making a comparison with the data gathered as part of MedUni Vienna's sub-project, it was possible to identify other suspected cases – including one person who was killed in the gas chamber of the Bernburg extermination centre as a victim of "Operation T4". The University of Frankfurt made the first documents for the study available in December 2019; in the near future the suspect human specimens and other documents from the Edinger Institute will also be made available for the research project.

The project (full title: "Brain research at institutions of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in the context of Nazi injustices: brain specimens in institutions of the Max Planck Society and identification of victims") was started in July 2017 and is being funded by the Max Planck Society for a period of 40 months to the tune of €1.5 million. It is being led by Gerrit Hohendorf (Technical University of Munich), Paul Weindling (Oxford Brookes University/Leopoldina) and Herwig Czech (Medical University of Vienna in collaboration with Berliner Charité); also associated with the project are Volker Roelcke (University of Gießen) and Patricia Heberer-Rice (US Holocaust Memorial Museum). MedUni Vienna is participating via its organisational unit for Ethics, Collections and History of Medicine in the Josephinum.

The aim of the research project is to name and document those people who can be regarded as Nazi victims, whose brains were used for research by scientists from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and/or the Max Planck Society during and after the Second World War. The research networks for neuropathological research (on Nazi victims) before and during the war are also being reconstructed and investigations are being carried out to identify which publications were produced on the basis of research on Nazi victims. Based on current knowledge, the total number of Nazi victims is assumed to be between 1,800 and 2,400. The vast majority were victims of the Nazis killing of the sick ("euthanasia"); however, they also used brains from Jewish victims of the occupation in Poland, from people executed by Nazi justice, from Allied prisoners of war and from the inmates of concentration camps.

Link to press release from Max Planck Society