Did Nazis Study Insects for Use in Biological Warfare?

 

aerial photo of the Dachau concentration camp in Nazi Germany
Here, the entomological institute (marked by “J”), which was located on the margin of the Dachau concentration camp, marked by red.
Credit: USHMM, public domain

 

Was the Nazi SS studying insects with the intent of launching a bug-based attack? A new analysis of archived documents concludes that, yes, they were.

Scholars have known for decades the feared SS (Schutzstaffel or “protection squadron”) in Nazi Germany had established an entomological research institute at the Dachau concentration camp. Documents that survived World War II describe experiments related to biological warfare. However, it can be difficult to parse whether these experiments were intended to protect against insect-borne Allied attacks, or to devise ways to use insects as bioweapons against the enemies of the Third Reich.

After reading through historical documents, including those descriptions of experiments and their results, a modern-day entomologist has concluded the SS wanted to create creepy-crawly weapons.

“You cannot suggest this was defensive research anymore,” said Klaus Reinhardt, who studies bedbugs and fruit fly sperm biology at the University of Tuebingen in Germany. But, he said, “in technical terms it was far away from a bomb, or a massive malaria infection and breeding program being carried out.”

Evil entomology

On Jan. 2, 1942, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, the organization that controlled the police force and the concentration camp system, ordered the creation of an entomological institute. This wasn’t an overt call for biological warfare research. Hitler had forbidden research into bioweapons, although some authorities attempted to circumvent this ban, Reinhardt writes in an article published in the December issue of the journal Endeavour.

There were other reasons for Himmler to launch studies of insects. Insect-borne diseases, such as typhus, threatened SS troops and concentration camp guards. Reinhardt also links the foundation of the institute with the SS supplying slave laborers to industry in return for financial support from the companies. Without a certain survival rate among the prisoners, the SS could not uphold their end, he writes. [5 Lethal Chemical Warfare Agents]

Himmler also had a personal motivation: a phobia of flies.

Reinhardt stumbled across this topic when he noticed that a German book on dragonflies first published in 1933 by an unknown in the field, Eduard May, which sparked his curiosity. Reinhardt then found that the same Eduard May had also headed up the SS’s entomological institute, in spite of his poor qualifications. Reinhardt’s research offers a glimpse into the inner workings, and dysfunction, of the SS by revealing how more qualified candidates were passed over.

Mosquitos, fleas & flies

The entomological institute was established at Dachau, where some Nazi researchers conducted horrific experiments on prisoners. Dr. Claus Schilling inoculated prisoners with malaria, and Schilling’s malaria research was one reason for locating the insect studies at Dachau. (Schilling was tried, convicted and executed after a war crimes trial.) However, May reportedly refused to conduct experiments on humans.

May arrived with a background in pesticides, and research in this area was at the top of all of the institute’s proposed research programs. In a meeting, he discussed pesticides as a defense against a bio-attack — “the airborne dropping of plant pests” — and proposed using toxins sprayed from an airplane, Reinhardt writes.

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Interesting read also from LiveScience:

7 Absolutely Evil Medical Experiments

Guatemala syphilis study

Credit: CDCMany people erroneously believe that the government deliberately infected the Tuskegee participants with syphilis, which was not the case. But the work of Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby recently exposed a time when U.S. Public Health Service researchers did just that. Between 1946 and 1948, Reverby found, the U.S. and Guatemalan governments co-sponsored a study involving the deliberate infection of Guatemalan prisoners and mental asylum patients with syphilis.

The study was intended to test chemicals to prevent the spread of the disease. The researchers attempted to infect their subjects both by paying for them to have sex with infected prostitutes and by abrading the skin on their penises and pouring cultured syphilis bacteria on the wounds.

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Japan’s Unit 731

Credit: WikipediaThroughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Japanese Imperial Army conducted biological warfare and medical testing on civilians, mostly in China. The death toll of these brutal experiments is unknown, but as many as 200,000 may have died, according to a 1995 New York Times report.

Among the atrocities were wells infected with cholera and typhoid and plague-ridden fleas spread across Chinese cities. Prisoners were marched in freezing weather and then experimented on to determine the best treatment for frostbite. Former members of the unit have told media outlets that prisoners were dosed with poison gas, put in pressure chambers until their eyes popped out, and even dissected while alive and conscious. After the war, the U.S. government helped keep the experiments secret as part of a plan to make Japan a cold-war ally, according to the Times report.

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Nazi medical experiments

Credit: nullPerhaps the most infamous evil experiments of all time were those carried out by Josef Mengele, an SS physician at Auschwitz. Mengele combed the incoming trains for twins upon which to experiment, hoping to prove his theories of the racial supremacy of Aryans. Many died in the process. He also collected the eyes of his dead “patients,” according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Nazis used prisoners to test treatments for infectious diseases and chemical warfare. Others were forced into freezing temperatures and low-pressure chambers for aviation experiments. Countless prisoners were subjected to experimental sterilization procedures. One woman had her breasts tied off with string so SS doctors could see how long it took her baby to starve, according to an oral history collected by the Holocaust Museum. She eventually injected the child with a lethal dose of morphine to keep it from suffering longer.

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