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The Nazis’ Biowarfare Program at Dachau


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)


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

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