Mass sterilization at the Ravensbrück concentration camp (Abstract only)

Ira Lewe (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

Human experimentation can be described as a social practice based on the criteria of historicity, processuality and materiality (Haasis & Rieske, 2015). Experiments on human beings have existed since antiquity; they have been widely used, especially in the Occident (Pethes, Griesecke, Krause & Sabisch, 2008, p.12). In the concentration camps (KZ) of the National Socialists, medical knowledge was linked in a specific way with the ideology of the extermination of ‘unworthy life’, which led to a special form of threat within the camp system for the inmates (Sabisch, 2009, p.297).

While the methodological knowledge of specific procedures such as surgery or dealing with medical instruments could be transferred to the camp context, the human experiments in Ravensbrück exhibited a complete lack of ethics, morality, and responsibility (ibid., p. 301-303). Human experimentation, which aimed to generate new medical knowledge, became entangled with a practice of annihilation that can be placed in the biopolitical context of the Nazi regime’s racial and expanse policies. This practice resulted in the mass killing or sterilization of certain groups (Pethes, 2009, p. 329). The fact that many people died as a result of the experiments contradicts the principles of sterilisation, but it becomes understandable in this combination of the two practices of medical experiments on human beings on the one hand and the destruction of human life on the other.

In the Ravensbrück concentration camp, mass sterilisation experiments occurred from 1943 onwards on people belonging to the Jewish and Roma communities, as well as the so-called ‘Eastern peoples’. Sterilisation experiments were performed on both male and female inmates. The primary objective of forced sterilisation was to find ways to render a large number of people infertile in the shortest possible time, unbeknownst to the individual. To achieve this goal, experiments involved X-ray radiation and the injection of toxic substances into the uterus. The sterilisation experiments were also used to test different X-ray techniques and different contrast agents for X-ray examinations (Sabisch, 2009, pp.307-309).

In order to best understand forced sterilisation during the Holocaust, this paper will consider the Ravensbrück sterilisation experiments in the context of different human experiments at other concentration camps and to compare mass sterilisation at Ravensbrück to other instances of mass sterilisation. The classification of human experiments within the camp system can also be a relevant approach. To what extent, for example, are the mass sterilisation experiments connected to forced prostitution in the camp brothels? At which places in the camp were the human experiments practiced and who performed the experiments? Many secondary sources regarding life in the concentration camps and the camp system as such contain at least partial references to the mass sterilisation experiments in Ravensbrück concentration camp. This paper also will investigate how findings from these experiments have been further applied in the field of medicine after the Holocaust. For this purpose, this paper will employ both eyewitness reports and court files from the Nuremberg medical trials.


Haasis, L., and Rieske, C. 2015. Historische Praxeologie. Zur Einführung. In: L. Haasis, and C. Rieske, eds. Historische Praxeologie. Dimensionen vergangenen Handelns. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh. pp.7-54.

Pethes, N., 2009. Dokumentationsversuche. Menschenexperimente in den Konzentrationslagern
zwischen Archiv und Literatur. In: B. Griesecke, M. Krause, N. Pethes, and K. Sabisch, eds. Kulturgeschichte des Menschenversuch im 20. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag. pp.320-39.

Pethes, N., Griesecke, B., Krause, M., and Sabisch, K. eds., 2008. Menschenversuche. Eine Anthologie 1750-2000. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Sabisch, K., 2009. Die Katastrophe, krank zu werden. Medizinische Experimente in den
Krankenrevieren der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. In: B. Griesecke, M. Krause, N. Pethes, and K. Sabisch, eds. Kulturgeschichte des Menschenversuch im 20. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag. pp.297-319.

Tags: , , ,