Well, you do not know what you have even suffered.
–an anonymous inmate at Dachau, addressing a survivor of one of Dr. Rascher’s infamous freezing experiments.1
Okay, so you’re a Nazi paratrooper on a sensitive recon mission for the Luftwaffe in Norway. Because of the secrecy of your operation, you must deploy from a height of 45,000 ft. Because of the weather, it’s not safe to open your parachute above 4,000 ft. Your commanding officer is expecting you at a base outside Narwik by sundown tomorrow, but you never arrive. In fact, you’re dead before you even hit the ground.
The physiology of manned flight has been the subject of rigorous investigation within the aviation medicine community. Yet research ethics and a general regard for human life have prevented scientists from studying the physiology of a man plummeting to his own death. That is of course, until the Nazi Dr. Sigmund Rascher came along.
Armed with a sealed low pressure chamber, Rascher simulated the effects of atmospheric pressure at varying altitudes. By altering pressure either quickly or slowly, he could mimic a range of scenarios, from gradual ascent to rapid freefall. Normally, simulated freefall experiments are easily conducted on military volunteers. However, after a certain altitude is reached, this becomes a hazardous if not deadly undertaking. Rascher (pictured above holding a baby it was later determined he kidnapped…more on that later) had the bright idea to use prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp to simulate descents from heights well beyond the limits of human safety.
In a typical experiment, detailed in a report by Rascher and his colleagues, a deli clerk was forced to endure an excruciating drop from 47,000 ft. without the aid of oxygen. Diligently, Rascher noted the subject’s behavior:2
- “spasmodic convultions”
- “agonal convulsive breathing”
- “clonic conclusions, groaning”
- “yells aloud”
- “convulses arms and legs”
- “grimaces, bites his tongue”
- “does not respond to speech”
- “gives the general impression of someone who is completely out of his mind”
The lurid Nuremberg testimony of Rascher’s prisoner assistant Antòn Pacholegg tells a similar story:3
“I personally saw, through the observation window of the chamber, how a prisoner inside was subjected to a vacuum until his lungs burst. Certain experiments produced such a pressure in the men’s heads that they went mad, tearing their hair out in an effort to relieve it. They lacerated their heads and faces with their nails, mutilating themselves in their frenzy.”
Unsurprisingly, of the roughly 200 prisoners subjected to this study, nearly 80 died due to violently painful heart and brain embolisms and massive subarachnoid edema.2
In a personal letter to Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, Rascher recounts a horrific incident in which one subject, killed in the chamber, literally came back to life during an autopsy while his chest was carved open!2 With a trademark touch of compassion, Himmler ordered that the death sentence of any prisoner revived in such a manner be mercifully reduced to mere life imprisonment.2 (Mercy denied to Russians and Poles.)
In the spring of 1942, after demonstrating the deadliness of rapid changes in air pressure, Rascher turned his eye to another pressing wartime concern, the resuscitation of pilots downed in cold seas. For this study, Rascher would immerse subjects in near-freezing cold water for periods of up to 3 hours. Afterwards, he would attempt to revive them through various means. Anything from hot lamps and sheets, to a hot bath, to, on Himmler’s suggestion, naked women were used to speed up the recovery process.1 Rascher found that a hot bath worked best, though when the presence of a naked woman was accompanied by intercourse, that method proved comparably effective.1
Of course, many of Rascher’s subjects simply froze to death.
After the war, data from Rascher’s freezing study posed a tricky problem for medical ethicists and hypothermia researchers, as numerous scientists argued that Rascher’s findings were actually useful.4 Is it wrong to utilize data obtained through torture and murder? Do we have an ethical obligation to obscure these results, even if they could potentially save lives?
Ethics aside, the U.S. government did take Rascher’s research, and indeed the whole of Nazi science, quite seriously. Operation Paperclip employed nearly 800 German and Austrian scientists in the decade following the war, several of whom were later discovered to have collaborated with Rascher.5
Space medicine pioneer Hubertus Strughold, whose own pressure chamber experiments for the U.S. air force led to the development of the space suit, served as wartime head of the Aviation Medical Research Institute of the Luftwaffe. Though he’s never been directly linked to Rascher’s experiments, he admittedly was aware of them at the time, and allegedly expressed interest in Rascher’s chilling results during a 1942 conference.5
On the one hand, it’s plausible to see Rascher as a scapegoat for endemic moral decay within the German scientific establishment. Rascher was not a distinguished scientist by any means, and on top of that he was dead by the war’s end (again…kidnapping babies…I’ll get to this soon). Neither Strughold nor his physiologist colleague Hermann Friedrich Rein implicated anyone besides Rascher in their Nuremberg war crimes testimony.5 It was only after Himmler’s obsessively prepared archives were discovered that links between Rascher and other respected scientists began to emerge.5
On the other hand, Rascher seems like a really a weird guy. He reportedly had a collection of human skin from which he fashioned leather handicrafts for his friends and colleagues.6 Later on, when a 48-year-old Mrs. Rascher was caught attempting to kidnap a baby during her fourth “pregnancy,” it was revealed that all of Rascher’s little heirs were in fact either bought or stolen.6 This deceit, combined accusations that Rascher had murdered one of his German assistants, led Himmler to order Rascher and his wife arrested.6 Somewhere, at some point, the two were killed.7
Thus ended the bizarre life of one of the most brutal mad scientists our world has ever known.
Congratulations Rascher! May you continue to freak us the out for generations to come!
(Correction: Dr. Rascher’s wife was hanged not shot.)
1. Spitz, V. (2005). Doctors From Hell. Boulder, CO: Sentient Publishing.
2. Annas, G.J., Grodin, M.A. (1995). Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation. New York: Oxford University.
3. Delarue, J. (1962). The Gestapo: A History of Horror. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.
4. Moe, K. (1984). Should the Nazi Research Data Be Cited? The Hastings Center Report, 14(6), 5-7.
5. Conot, R.E. (1983). Justice at Nuremberg. New York: Carroll & Graf.
6. Berger, R.L. (1990). Nazi Science – The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments. The New England Journal of Medicine, 322(20), 1435-1440.
7. Kater, M.H. (1989). Doctors Under Hitler. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.