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The Nazis’ Biowarfare Program at Dachau

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Heinrich Himmler

Hitler decided against Germany’s officially establishing a biological warfare program for reasons that are not entirely clear. Speculation has centered on his experience of being gassed in World War I and on a personal phobia about microbes.

That may have stopped the Nazis from putting in place the type of aggressive effort instituted by the Japanese that led to devastating attacks on Chinese cities with the likes of plague and cholera. The German war machine, moreover, never attempted to approximate the biowar capabilities that the Allies had in place, if needed.

That didn’t put a lid entirely on the Nazis’ interest in biological weapons. Research continued at more than one institute under the guise of enabling troops to defend against bioweapons attacks—and a defensive program can morph easily into one used against troops and civilians.  Klaus Reinhardt, a research fellow at the  University of Tuebingen has published a recent article in the journal Endeavour that provides evidence that a program at Dachau—a brainchild of Heinrich Himmler’—went as far as developing malaria-carrying mosquitoes that could be delivered by air as bioweapons in a military campaign.

When it was established in 1942, the purpose of the Entomological Institute of the Waffen SS centered primarily on preventing the types of louse-borne typhus epidemics that had ravaged troops during World War I. It also was intended to preserve the lives of concentration camp prisoners from insect-borne disease so they could work as slave labor for arms and chemical companies.

The entomologist Eduard May headed up the program, chosen, not least, because of personal views that were politically correct to the Third Reich. In his writings, he had railed  against Einstein’s theory of relativity and called for a natural science built on the “spirit of Indo-Germandom.” Karl Ritter von Frisch, who later received a Nobel Prize, along with Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen,  for work on how honeybees communicate using a waggle dance, was another candidate, but his reputed non-Aryan grandmother probably didn’t help his chances.

In May 1943, May received funds for a program to develop pesticides to counter any Allied attempt to destroy crops by dropping insects from the air and also to study “the habits of insects harmful to humans in order to clarify the questions concerning specific uses and heightened defense against them.” Documents found by Reinhardt showed that May’s program began to research  Anopheles mosquitoes—the carrier of the malaria parasite—to determine whether a malaria bioattack against Germany was possible.

The documents also showed that perhaps the program may have had more sinister motives.  One record details a research protocol to test how long mosquitoes could survive without food while carried for an air drop.  Anopheles maculipennis females were capable of enduring longer than A. bifurcatus. “This result appears to me particularly important,” May wrote,  “inasmuch as for the practical execution one should make efforts to employ A. maculipennis.”—wording that appears to suggest that consideration was being given to the details of how to deploy the insects against an enemy. Reinhardt thinks the program was at an embryonic stage— “not very sophisticated, and probably not very effective either.”

There was no indication, he notes, that the Entomological Institute of the Waffen SS had any connection with experiments carried out at Dachau by notorious tropical medicine specialist Claus Schilling who infected prisoners with malaria. The documents Reinhardt found did not turn up any connection to another piece of evidence about the Nazis’ involvement with bioweapons. Yale historian Frank Snowden has written about a Nazi-initiated bioattack using malaria-laden mosquitoes in Italy.

Whether entomologist May really led an offensive program needs further confirmation, but many of the critical documents were destroyed  by the Germans and the Soviets.  So it still remains an open question to what extent the entomological institute at Dachau was involved in developing biological weapons of mass destruction, despite the Fuhrer’s squeamishness.

Image Source: Zentralbild Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler (Aufnahme 1938)


Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. 7:02 am 02/22/2014

    This article does not really tell us much, and appears to be conjecture. Why was Claus Schilling infecting inmates with Malaria? That is surely an experiment.

    “It also was intended to preserve the lives of concentration camp prisoners from insect-borne disease so they could work as slave labor for arms and chemical companies.” There seems to be a conflict of interests.
    The high mortality rate from most of the concentration camps indicates that the Germans were not that bothered about the inmates (workers) being kept alive.I am aware of the different types of camps; some for providing a workforce, and others as purely extermination camps.

    I get a slight feeling that this article is a bit of a whitewash. I hope I’m not correct in this impression.

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  2. 2. tuned 9:05 am 02/22/2014

    It is well to remember atrocities occasionally.
    “In a letter to Colonel Henry Bouquet dated July 7, 1763, Amherst writes “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?” In a later letter to Bouquet Amherst repeats the idea: “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
    ” Lord Jeffery Amherst (who commanded the British military forces stationed in North American during this time), discussed with his troops the advantages of hunting down Indians with dogs, versus infecting them with smallpox.” –
    Is another example of such monstrosity.

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  3. 3. jgrosay 5:11 pm 02/25/2014

    There are many peculiar things in the nazi weaponry development. They say Niels Bohr offered the German ambassador the concept for nuclear weapons around 1940, but was rejected by an officer on premises that war would have ended before the lapse of 3-4 years required to have the A-bomb ready. As late as the Dresden bombings, some hebrew families lived there with no more restrictions than being banned from going out of home, they survived both the regime and the allied bombings. In August 1941, Hitler decided to discontinue the ‘euthanasia’ program, in order to avoid uprisings by the people against this. Theresienstadt was not exactly a concentration champ, but some kind of an specially devoted village, with goals similar in their builder’s minds to isolation places for people with infectious diseases, Fidel Castro built something analog for persons infected with AIDS VIH virus, called ‘sidatorios’. Anyway, a regime that made crimes is a criminal regime.

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