to purge Germany of all things foreign, including
By MICHAEL SHERRY
NAZI WAR ON CANCER
By Robert N. Proctor.
Illustrated. 380 pp.
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
THE Nazi war on cancer? Other
readers may be as incredulous as I was when this
book came to my attention. We think of Hitler's
regime as waging war on nations and peoples, not on
behalf of public health.
But good historical work surprises us by
recovering forgotten facets of the past. Robert
N. Proctor, a veteran historian of science who
teaches at Pennsylvania State University, has
produced a book full of surprises.
Going well beyond the "cancer" of his catchy
title, Proctor surveys an extraordinary range of
health campaigns that predated the Nazi regime but
to varying degrees allied with it and climaxed
under it. These included minor and spurious ones
like colonic cleansing; major efforts to promote
organic foods and medicines purged of toxins;
barbarous programs of sterilization and murder of
alleged social defectives; and serious efforts
grounded in superior science to conquer cancer.
German experts, for instance, were the first to
link smoking with lung cancer and to promote breast
self-examination by women. As the book's rich
illustrations show, modern advertising techniques
accompanied many health campaigns, like the one
against smoking. "Our Fuhrer Adolf Hitler
drinks no alcohol and does not smoke. . . . His
performance at work is incredible," one magazine
gushed in 1937.
Motivations ran the gamut: nostalgia for an
imagined premodern Germany of rural health and
vigor; faith in Germany's scientific prowess;
ambition to make Germans fit for war; and longing
to purge the nation of presumed social bacilli and
cancer, with Jews sometimes described as a "cancer"
on Germany and, like Communists and homosexuals,
sometimes blamed for bad habits like smoking and
Proctor summarizes the "spirit of millenarian
social engineering" that these motivations
nourished: "Aggressive measures in the field of
public health would usher in a new era of healthy,
happy Germans, united by race and common outlook,
cleansed of alien environmental toxins, freed from
the previous era's plague of cancers, both literal
and figurative." Proctor refuses, however, to
reduce those motivations to a single Nazi
His triumph lies in showing how many impulses
could be braided into the prevailing Nazi ethos. It
also comes from finding just the right tone --
mostly straightforward, rarely condescending,
occasionally whimsical -- for telling these
fascinating, unsettling stories. And he commands an
astonishing volume of detail, some of it loathsome
and bizarre, some more familiar -- the rhetoric of
anti-smoking advertisements, for example, and fads
like colonic cleansing (which does, after all,
still have its devotees). In the end, the Nazi
efforts to promote health came to little.
Like health campaigns everywhere, they
confronted the intractable habits of most people,
and, in any case, the metaphorical war on disease
was swamped by the real war Germany started in
1939, which made its leaders worry that denying
soldiers and civilians the indulgences of tobacco
and alcohol would undercut their morale. War
reinforced public health in some ways -- shortages
of tobacco and new taxes on it cut consumption,
especially by women -- but, of course, its overall
effect was disastrous.
Nonetheless, Proctor's account reminds us that
even bad regimes do some good things, just as
better regimes do some terrible things. While
rejecting "banalities" like "good can come from
evil," he offers a modulated view of the
differences between fascism and democracy that once
had some cachet in American politics and letters --
among critics of the United States' use of the
atomic bomb against Japan, for example.
The physicist Freeman Dyson, admiring
Germans' resistance to Allied bombing of their
cities, concluded in 1979 that "a good cause can
become bad if we fight for it with means that are
indiscriminately murderous. A bad cause can become
good if enough people fight for it in a spirit of
comradeship and self-sacrifice." But that grasp of
moral complexity has weakened amid the recent
feel-good politics of nostalgia about America's
role in World War II. Although acutely aware of
Nazi crimes, Proctor brings that moral complexity
back within reach.
He shows, among other things, that Nazism's
appeal to many Germans included its promises to
bring progress, even as many thrilled to its vision
of order and subjugation. He insists that "public
health initiatives were pursued not just in spite
of fascism, but also in consequence of fascism,"
which had its "fertile, creative faces," along with
its "monstrous and sadistic demons."
Proctor notes that anti-tobacco advocates in the
United States "have been labeled 'health fascists'
and 'Nico-Nazis,'" and he points out "the logical
error" of arguing that "since the Nazis were
purists, purists today must be Nazis." He clearly
believes that it is foolish to think that "public
health measures are in principle totalitarian." But
perhaps he overlooks similarities between American
and Nazi "wars" of social betterment.
Anyone familiar with today's genetic agenda in
science may wince at Proctor's summary of the
"genetically anchored" agenda of Nazi ideology:
"The Nazi imagination ran wild in this territory,
claiming racial, genetic or 'constitutional'
predispositions for every conceivable human talent
and disability." Just as pertinent is the American
penchant for waging "war" on social problems.
Lyndon B. Johnson declared "war" on
poverty, crime, hunger and other social ills --
nothing less than a "worldwide war on disease" --
while Richard M. Nixon declared "war on
cancer." Announced by groups with little else in
common, "wars" on AIDS, drugs, terrorism, abortion,
smoking and other presumed enemies have defined
much of America's recent politics.
Just as I received this book, I read an article
in The New York Times, "Crimes of the War on
Crime," that detailed the injury to lives and civil
liberties inflicted in the name of that war.
Today's "purists" need not be fascists to sanction
questionable measures on behalf of apparently
unquestionable goals. Even in a democracy, "war,"
whether actual or metaphorical, justifies the
identification of "enemies" and the corrosion of
While joining Robert Proctor in rejecting glib
comparisons between Nazi Germany and the United
States, we can still take instruction from his
splendid account about the dangers of pursuing
social betterment through warlike words and
Michael Sherry is the author of "In the Shadow of
War: The United States Since the