Psychiatrists Admit to Role in the Holocaust but Admission Still Needed for Apartheid
CAPE TOWN, South Africa,–Dr. Koos Marais, a surgeon and author of Die Keiservoel oor Namaland (“The Kaiserbird over Namaland”) spoke at the opening of a human rights exhibit in Cape Town this week, addressing the role that psychiatry played in the Holocaust. His book about the German occupation of South Africa also reveals the beginnings of psychiatry’s collusion in the Holocaust and the precursors to apartheid. The book exposes how German psychiatrist Eugen Fischer—whose works influenced Hitler’s plan for mass murder—experimented on the Khoisan people in 1906 in concentration camps at Shark Island, decapitating them, forcing female prisoners to scrape the skulls clean with broken glass and then shipping the heads to Germany for study of “inferior races.”
Later, South African psychiatrists helped steep their own country in racism and claimed Africans were “inferior.” However, while German psychiatrists have admitted to their role in the Holocaust, South African psychiatrists have yet to admit their integral role in helping design, build and maintain apartheid.
Dr. Marais detailed how Fischer traveled to German South-West Africa in the early 1900s to study the offspring of German or Boer fathers and African women in Rehoboth, present-day Namibia. Fischer claimed that each mixed-race child was physically and mentally inferior to its German father and therefore mixed marriages should be prohibited (1). Fischer’s recommendations were followed, and by 1912 interracial marriage was prohibited throughout the German colonies.
Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) (CCHRint.org), a mental health watchdog group that organized the Psychiatry: an Industry of Death exhibit displayed free at the Castle of Good Hope, said the history of psychiatry’s involvement in both the Holocaust and apartheid should be known. Dr. Marais added that contemporary society could learn from the past. “I wrote my book about these events in order to hold up a mirror to society, to show the world how a small, seemingly unimportant chain of events can have serious consequences,” said Dr. Marais.
The CCHR exhibit uses historical photographs and film to showcase the history of psychiatry fueling eugenics and racism and helping engineer the Holocaust and apartheid. After sixty years of silence about this, in 2010, Dr. Frank Schneider, then President of the German Society for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Neurology (DGPPN), publicly apologized for Nazi psychiatrists being “primarily responsible” for euthanasia, controlling “the selection of those to be killed,” murdering 275,000 patients and sterilizing 400,000 (2). It was psychiatrists who tested the first gas chambers before they were implemented in the concentration camps, killing millions.
In 1921, Fischer co-wrote Menschliche Erblehre und Rassenhygiene (Human Genetics and Racial Hygiene), one of three psychiatric books on racial inferiority that inspired Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the “scientific” justification for euthanasia (3). Apartheid Prime Minister and psychologist Hendrik Verwoerd had studied in German universities during the height of such eugenics planning. His Nazi thinking was obvious in South Africa’s segregation and apartheid laws.
In 1997, CCHR presented an extensive submission on psychiatry and psychology’s role in apartheid to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) detailing some of the German and South African psychiatrists’ eugenics studies that had fueled racism and apartheid.
“While such atrocities seem like something of a distant past, psychiatry’s influence is interwoven through the fabricate of apartheid in South Africa and the discrimination still experienced today, here and abroad,” said Rev Fred Shaw, international spokesperson for CCHR, who flew to Cape Town from his home in Los Angeles to officiate the grand opening.
Rev Shaw said the submission to the TRC detailed how in the 1970s, South African psychiatrists incarcerated 10,000 blacks in secret psychiatric camps, drugging and subjecting them to painful electroshock without anesthetic. Blacks were allowed to die from easily treatable medical conditions. Those that lived were used for slave labor, funded by the apartheid government. When CCHR first exposed this in 1975, pressed by psychiatrists, the government passed a law in 1976 making it a criminal offense to report or photograph conditions in psychiatric hospitals. CCHR went outside South Africa, reporting to the World Health Organization, which investigated the camps and in 1983 reported, “In no other medical field in South Africa is the contempt of the person, cultivated by racism, more concisely portrayed than in psychiatry.”
In 1999, the late Lawrence Anthony, an advisor to CCHR International and representing the South African Department of Health, addressed a World Psychiatric Association (WPA) meeting saying that psychiatrists in South Africa had “failed to admit any guilt or responsibility” in apartheid. He stated: “Unfortunately, the fact remains that without the driving forces of psychiatry and psychology, both the Holocaust and apartheid arguably may not have happened or, at the very least, wouldn’t have been maintained. Psychiatrists and psychologists were not the victims of an oppressive apartheid regime, many helped build, man and perpetuate it” (4).
CCHR’s exhibit, which is offered free the world over in the public interest, provides facts so that people can become wiser: “This information can change the course of history so it doesn’t repeat itself. The objective is to secure a better and safer future for Africans by not allowing psychiatry to subvert the Khoisan and other tribal cultures and traditions,” said Rev. Shaw.
(2) Robert H. Yolken (APO.af/fLcUVj), et al, “Psychiatric Genocide: Nazi Attempts to Eradicate Schizophrenia,” Schizophrenia Bulletin, 2010 Jan; 36(1): 26–32.
(3) Robert N. Proctor, Racial Hygiene, Medicine Under the Nazis, (Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 26.
(4) “Psychiatry and Apartheid,” Presentation on behalf of the South African Government to the XI Congress on Psychiatry, Hamburg, Germany, 11 Aug. 1999.
Distributed by APO on behalf of Citizens Commission on Human Rights International (CCHR).