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Nazi racial purity exhibit opens in Germany

The exhibit on Nazi policies of racial purity was created for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, but its journey to the 1930s-era German Hygiene Museum has particular resonance.
Susan Bachrach
Curator Susan Bachrach of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., explains and exhibit on Nazi policies of racial purity on Thursday Oct. 5, ahead of the exhibit's opening in the German Hygiene Museum, in Dresden, on Thursday. Matthias Rietschel / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The exhibit on Nazi policies of racial purity was created for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, but its journey to the 1930s-era German Hygiene Museum has particular resonance.

Many of the exhibit’s swastika-stamped posters trumpeting the Nazi theories that led to the Holocaust were produced in the long, high-ceilinged rooms of the Dresden museum after it fell under Nazi control in 1933.

The link to the museum’s role in promoting mass sterilizations and bans on what were considered interracial marriages helped the museum’s director, Klaus Vogel, persuade the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to let the show, which opens here Thursday, travel to Germany.

“This close relationship to the topic made it almost a requirement to bring the exhibit here,” Vogel told reporters last week.

It is the first time in the 13-year history of the U.S. Holocaust Museum that an exhibit has traveled abroad.

“This is the perfect place,” said its American curator, Susan Bachrach.

Vogel said the political situation in the eastern German state of Saxony also lends pertinence. A far-right party holds seats in the regional legislature. The National Democratic Party — known by its German initials NPD — also won seats last month in another east German region, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

“Such an opportunity to explain to young people the meaning of racial hatred — then and today — must not be missed,” Vogel said.

Eugenics, sterilization, and the 'master race'
Upon entering, visitors are greeted by “The Glass Man,” a figure whose bones, veins and organs are visible through the clear plastic of his outstretched limbs, arms and face raised to the sky. Developed by the Hygiene Museum in the 1920s, the Nazi later used him as a symbol for their racial policies.

In the first of three sections, the exhibit shows how eugenics, which purported to improve the human species by controlling heredity, became a global movement in the scientific world starting in 1919. The second part picks up in 1933, when the Nazis began using eugenic theories to justify forced sterilization to establish a “master race.”

In it, a poster made by the Hygiene Museum for a 1934 traveling exhibit shows a man with distinctly African features and reads, “If this man had been sterilized there would not have been born ... 12 hereditarily diseased,” in the poster’s clumsy English.

“The Hygiene Museum was not a criminal institute in the sense that people were killed here,” Vogel said. But, he added, “it helped to shape the idea of which lives were worthy and which were worthless.”

Before the Nazis took it over, the museum combined what were then unprecedented lifelike displays to impart knowledge about human anatomy and proactive health care and diet.

After World War II, the museum focused on health education under the now-defunct East German regime. Since German reunification, it was reconceived as a “Museum of Man” aimed at continuing the innovative approach of its earliest years.

'Deadly Medicine'
While the “Deadly Medicine” exhibit generally mirrors the one in the U.S., which drew 700,000 visitors, there are a few subtle differences.

One is the display of artwork by people killed under the Nazi’s programs aimed at eliminating the mentally handicapped. The Germans created a separate, small gallery for the pictures.

“We wanted to present them like artists and give them the dignity they deserve,” said Antje Uhlig, who headed the project for the Dresden Museum.

The third section explores how the Nazis ultimately used science as a weapon not only to murder some 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, but hundreds of thousands of others who died under euthanasia programs and other pseudoscientific efforts aimed at eliminating the supposedly unfit.

Bachrach said the idea behind the show was not only to understand how the Holocaust happened, but to emphasize the importance of discussions today, particularly regarding bioethics and genetics.

“Science doesn’t function in a moral vacuum,” Bachrach said. “It requires critical participation of freethinking peoples. You can’t just leave it to the experts.”