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"Creutzfeldt, an exception among psychiatrists of the Third Reich!"

The famous brain scientist Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt was a professor at Kiel University from 1938 to 1953. The neurophysiologist Professor Michael Illert analysed previously unexplored sources on Creutzfeldt's activities during the Third Reich.

Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt
© Universitäts-Nervenklinik Kiel, Prof. Dr. K. Christiani

Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt is known as the first scientist to describe a rapidly progressive and fatal disease of the brain. This disease was later named Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (CJD) after him and his colleague, Alfons Jakob. With the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the 1990s, the broad public learned more about this brain disease and its discoverers. At the time, a new variant of CJD that was caused by the consumption of BSE-contaminated beef appeared, which predominantly affected young people.

Creutzfeldt was born in Hamburg-Harburg in 1885 and appointed Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at Kiel University in 1938. After World War II, the British occupation authority installed him as rector of Kiel University in July 1945. Michael Illert, who has been focusing on Creutzfeldt since he helped prepare the "University Medicine Kiel 350" exhibition told us: "After the war, Creutzfeldt's moral integrity and opposition to the Nazi rulers were undisputed." It is only in the recent past that Creutzfeldt's activities in the Third Reich have been subjected to critical scrutiny. "There were ambiguities and contradictions that prompted me to dig deeper," Illert explained. "During the Third Reich, many psychiatrists at universities and large state sanatoriums supported the regime's ‘racial hygiene' concepts. A differentiated and in-depth analysis was therefore necessary. As it turns out, Creutzfeldt was an exception among his psychiatric peers."

Illert's analysis has now been published in book form. After describing his subject's life, Illert examines the question of whether Creutzfeldt used the structures of the National Socialist system for professional or personal gain. He finds no evidence for this, nor for public statements with which he would have supported the system.

In great detail, Illert examines Creutzfeldt's activities when giving expert opinions in eugenic proceedings ("Erbgesundheitsverfahren"). Based on a law for the prevention of hereditarily diseased offspring, the National Socialists started in 1934 to establish genetic health courts ("Erbgesundheitsgerichte"). They decided on applications for forced sterilisation of, among others, mentally and physically handicapped people as well as patients of psychiatric asylums and sanatoriums. Illert evaluated a great number of expert opinions and documented that counting all proceedings in which Creutzfeldt was involved, the percentage of cases classified as "hereditary diseases" was much lower than in proceedings involving other experts. "My analysis shows," Illert added, "that Creutzfeldt – unlike many other expert witnesses – did not follow the National Socialist state's requirements for expert witnesses and focused on the individual patient rather than what was perceived as the interest of the state."

Illert further focused on the analysis of euthanasia proceedings in Schleswig-Holstein between 1939 and 1945. For this purpose, he documented the numbers and timings of patient transfers as well as Creutzfeldt's respective reactions. Illert also sheds new light on military court trials where cases were reviewed by Creutzfeldt. As a consultant psychiatrist for the German navy, he had to provide expert opinions on the soundness of mind or sanity of navy personnel. In this regard, Illert elaborates that in the Third Reich, soldiers who had been acquitted by reason of unsoundness of mind or insanity were often subjected to euthanasia. The last section is devoted to Creutzfeldt's rectorate at Kiel University and his removal as rector in May 1946.

With his richly illustrated book, the neurophysiologist Illert provides a wide range of new facts and interpretations that could lead to a re-evaluation of the medical doctor and scientist, who plays an important role for Kiel University. The four court decisions of the genetic health court "Erbgesundheitsobergericht Berlin" on sterilisation, which have been added in the appendix, are also worth reading. They provide deep insight into the inhumane and superficial ways prosecutors in such proceedings thought and argued.

Author: Kerstin Nees

Further reading:

Michael Illert: Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt (1885–1964): Nervenarzt, Wissenschaftler, erster Nachkriegsrektor der Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel. Verlag Ludwig, Kiel 2020.