After two years of bickering, the University of Göttingen has given the go-ahead for a project to establish the fate of slave labourers employed and treated at its medical faculty under the Third Reich.
The university has also agreed to publish a summary of the findings of an initial investigation led by historian Andreas Frewer, who delivered his report to the faculty's board last June. And it is calling for donations from staff and students to an existing compensation fund for the slave labourers.
Frewer has long been at loggerheads with the board of the medical school, claiming that its members have hindered his work. He was appointed by the university's Department of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine at the beginning of 2000, with a brief to investigate whether or not the university clinics had exploited slave labour, as many industrial employers did during the Second World War.
In his initial study, Frewer and his colleagues located files from the university's surgical and gynaecological wards, and identified 125 slave labourers who had worked within the faculty between 1940 and 1945. They also found details of some 600 slave labourers who were treated in the wards.
The records were used as evidence by some former slave labourers who applied to a federal compensation fund that was established in Germany in 1999.
But Frewer was denied access to neurological and psychiatric files on the patients, which were kept by a private company. Moreover, he claims, the faculty board obstructed his path, slowing down the publication of his results, limiting the amount of assistance that he received, and failing to respond to requests for meetings. The board also delayed and watered down press releases about the results, he alleges, and failed to respond to the project's final report.
Frewer argues that if the medical faculty had been more dedicated to the project, many more of the slave labourers — whose numbers are now rapidly dwindling — would have been able to claim compensation from a state fund, which is now no longer accepting claims. He also criticizes the faculty for not contributing to the federal fund.
The project's difficulties have also been noted by outsiders. Ernst Böhme, head of the Göttingen City Archive, which has also sought and supplied documents to support compensation claims by former slave labourers, says that the historical research at the medical faculty seems to have been proceeding too slowly.
But Manfred Droese, dean of the faculty, denies that he or his board sought to hinder the project or to block discussions of its results. “Maybe we caused a bit of delay, but I started the project because we wanted to face the faculty's history,” he argues. He adds, however, that the project should have concentrated on documenting the employment of slave labourers, rather than devoting effort to assisting compensation claims.
The neurological and psychiatric files contain sensitive information about people who could still be alive, Droese says, and their examination had to be approved by experts in data-protection law. But he says that the files will now be made available for a new research project.
According to Claudia Wiesemann, director of the university's ethics department, the new project will have a broader scope in looking for what happened generally to slave labourers in psychiatric and neurological clinics, and will attempt to determine how many were sterilized or killed.
Droese describes Frewer as 'self-righteous', but Frewer's supporters say that it is only his perseverance that has forced the faculty board to move the research forward.
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Abbott, A. University faces up to wartime use of slaves. Nature 422, 792 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/422792a