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Typhus Fever Experiments at Natzweiler Concentration Camp

The suffering of the victims of medical trials is in the fore of the research Professor Hans-Jürg Kuhn conducts at the International Tracing Service (ITS) at Bad Arolsen. Within this general field of interest, he places special emphasis on the typhus fever experiments carried out on prisoners at Natzweiler concentration camp. “I am interested to learn how many inmates died as a result of the experiments”, says Kuhn. “The tracing service with its enormous volume of documents is an active source on that subject.”

During the war, typhus fever also known as louse typhus fever named after its transmitter, constituted a huge problem that the poor hygienic conditions prevailing at the time aggravated to endemic dimensions. Attempting to remedy or counteract a typhoid epidemic, National Socialist physicians tested vaccines on prisoners mainly at the Buchenwald, but also at the Natzweiler concentration camp. The doctor taking charge of the experiments on humans at Natzweiler was Eugen Haagen who, since October 1941, held the chair for hygiene and bacteriology at Strasbourg University simultaneously acting as Director of the Strasbourg-based Institute for Hygiene and promoted to the rank of a captain of the military corps and consulting hygienist of the “Luftflottenarzt Reich” (Reich air fleet physician).

“In November 1943, 100 Sinti and Roma were moved from Auschwitz to Natzweiler concentration camp”, relates the Professor, “because Haagen sought to test the effectiveness of the typhus fever serum he had developed.” Owing to their wretched state of health, 18 prisoners died already on the transport. Following preliminary medical checks and further deaths among them, the remaining prisoners were considered “too weakened” for the trials and sent back to Auschwitz”, narrates Kuhn. In December 1943, 89 new victims to-be arrived.

“Haagen selected 80 persons: 40 of them were injected his serum, the other 40 stayed unvaccinated. About ten days later, he infected all of them with a less potent variant of the pathogenic agent”, so Kuhn. The serum turned out to be effective. Whether its effectiveness surpassed that of other sera tested and tried at the time is a question unsolved, though. As the liberation of Alsace and the war end were nearing, Haagen’s plans to produce the serum in Strasbourg did not materialize any more. And after the war, the researchers’ interest in typhus fever was dying away, as a new insecticide proved effective enough to kill – even in poor hygienic conditions – the clothes louse that transmits the disease.       

Primary victims of the experiments are those 40 persons who had not been vaccinated against, but infected with the pathogen and, in consequence, were compelled to suffer from a serious disease intentionally produced in them. The precise number of the casualties the experiments claimed is still unknown. Pertinent lists kept at the ITS often bear the remark that, when Natzweiler concentration camp was evacuated in September 1944, the prisoners affected were moved to Dachau or Neckarelz. “This gives us a hint that the majority of the prisoners outlived the experiments. The number of the deaths mentioned varies ranging from no one to 50 persons. The truth will probably be somewhere in between the two extremes”, so Heidelberg-resident Kuhn.