Nurses in Nazi Germany: Moral Choice in History / Edition 1

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Overview

This book tells the story of German nurses who, directly or indirectly, participated in the Nazis' "euthanasia" measures against patients with mental and physical disabilities, measures that claimed well over 100,000 victims from 1939 to 1945. How could men and women who were trained to care for their patients come to kill or assist in murder or mistreatment? This is the central question pursued by Bronwyn McFarland-Icke as she details the lives of nurses from the beginning of the Weimar Republic through the years of National Socialist rule. Rather than examine what the Party did or did not order, she looks into the hearts and minds of people whose complicity in murder is not easily explained with reference to ideological enthusiasm. Her book is a micro-history in which many of the most important ethical, social, and cultural issues at the core of Nazi genocide can be addressed from a fresh perspective.

McFarland-Icke offers gripping descriptions of the conditions and practices associated with psychiatric nursing during these years by mining such sources as nursing guides, personnel records, and postwar trial testimony. Nurses were expected to be conscientious and friendly caretakers despite job stress, low morale, and Nazi propaganda about patients' having "lives unworthy of living." While some managed to cope with this situation, others became abusive. Asylum administrators meanwhile encouraged nurses to perform with as little disruption and personal commentary as possible. So how did nurses react when ordered to participate in, or tolerate, the murder of their patients? Records suggest that some had no conflicts of conscience; others did as they were told with regret; and a few refused. The remarkable accounts of these nurses enable the author to re-create the drama taking place while sharpening her argument concerning the ability and the willingness to choose.

The book contains no figures.

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Editorial Reviews

Choice
This thoughtful, thorough, and nuanced study rejects easy answers. . . .Instead, the author seeks to explain how training, organization, and retraining under the Nazis prepared nurses to participate in murder.
Medical Humanities Review
McFarland-Icke does a superb job of remaining objective, avoiding the simplistic stereotyping of her subjects as singularly evil or morally weak-willed, without in any way compromising judgement about the evil of the acts they committed. This work is not entirely one of historiography, nor psychological analysis, nor moral appraisal. It is instead a narrative deepened and enriched by her very thoughtful analysis of context, human responses to unsolvable dilemmas, and moral vulnerability.
— Barbara J. Daly
The Lancet
In this groundbreaking book, McFarland-Icke has taken an important step in revealing how trained medical professionals killed in spite of a guilty conscience and carried out this task with precision, efficiency, and without comment.
Medical Humanities Review - Barbara J. Daly
McFarland-Icke does a superb job of remaining objective, avoiding the simplistic stereotyping of her subjects as singularly evil or morally weak-willed, without in any way compromising judgement about the evil of the acts they committed. This work is not entirely one of historiography, nor psychological analysis, nor moral appraisal. It is instead a narrative deepened and enriched by her very thoughtful analysis of context, human responses to unsolvable dilemmas, and moral vulnerability.
From the Publisher

"This thoughtful, thorough, and nuanced study rejects easy answers. . . .Instead, the author seeks to explain how training, organization, and retraining under the Nazis prepared nurses to participate in murder."--Choice

"In this groundbreaking book, McFarland-Icke has taken an important step in revealing how trained medical professionals killed in spite of a guilty conscience and carried out this task with precision, efficiency, and without comment."--The Lancet

"McFarland-Icke does a superb job of remaining objective, avoiding the simplistic stereotyping of her subjects as singularly evil or morally weak-willed, without in any way compromising judgement about the evil of the acts they committed. This work is not entirely one of historiography, nor psychological analysis, nor moral appraisal. It is instead a narrative deepened and enriched by her very thoughtful analysis of context, human responses to unsolvable dilemmas, and moral vulnerability."--Barbara J. Daly, Medical Humanities Review

Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: Beverly Kopala, PhD, RN (Loyola University Niehoff School of Nursing)
Description: Within the acknowledged limitations of historical research methodology, The author provides insight into the world of psychiatric nurses in Nazi Germany and some of the moral choices they made. Using documents such as institutional records, journal articles, texts, and post-war trial testimony, the author seeks to illuminate the professional ethics of psychiatric nurses who were direct or indirect participants in the murder of large numbers of mentally ill patients for whom they were responsible.
Purpose: The author addresses the apparent moral contradiction facing nurses who had a professional obligation to promote patient well-being yet participated in their patients' deaths through starvation, overdoses of medication, and preparation for transport to "killing centers." She notes that because patients were not viewed as objects of moral concern, even those who were opposed to such killing continued to efficiently fulfill their duties.
Audience: The nurse reader may take umbrage with the author's use of the terms professional and professional ethics in reference to these nurses and their behaviors, especially given nursing's long-sought attempts to be characterized as a profession. Otherwise, these terms convey a meaning the reader will understand. It should be noted, however, that the lives, preparation, expectations, and institutional realities of psychiatric nurses of the Nazi era were vastly different from those of psychiatric nurses today. Political, social, and economic times were vastly different as well. Yet, some overarching themes of power and politics recur with familiarity in nursing today.
Features: Readers learn about the priorities of psychiatrists, administrators, and the state, the rigors of institutional life, and the effects of the foregoing on attitudes and behaviors of psychiatric patients and nursing staff. For example, the mentally ill were characterized as persons who were unable to be reasoned with, persons who were neither good nor bad, but ones who needed help to live a life worth living. In general, patients were not viewed as objects of moral concern. Their nurses were expected to follow prescribed speech and behaviors toward patients in order to create an appearance of good will. They were to foster trust and gain their patients' cooperation but remain on guard, never lying, but withholding information to protect the patient's emotional equilibrium. While previous chapters set the stage, chapter 8, "War, Mass Murder and Moral Flight," addresses psychiatric nurses' adaptation to the everyday practices of killing adults and children, exploring factors that affected their professional morality and caused so many of them to accept, or at least tolerate, their involvement in the deaths. Although the author periodically interjects her perspective, readers can draw their own conclusions about the adequacy of the nurses' claims of lack of moral responsibility for action or inaction. The author provides extensive chapter notes, many of which provide an interesting extension to the book. Additionally, the bibliography makes printed primary and secondary resources, as well as unpublished sources, readily identifiable to the reader.
Assessment: This book would be of special interest to students of nursing history and those who would explore the context in which the moral behavior of a group, or lack thereof, occurs. The author's dissertation has found fruitful expression in this work.
Library Journal
Many scholars have examined the "euthanasia" policies that took place in Nazi Germany. While most studies look at the role of higher-level administrators and physicians, McFarland-Icke questions how the lower-level staff, the "ordinary Germans," reacted to orders to participate in these programs. The author researched personnel files, trial testimonies, and articles from German nursing journals and textbooks to analyze the training and behavior of nurses employed in mental institutions. Based on her dissertation, the book describes the history of German psychiatric nursing in the years leading up to and including the National Socialism era. This analysis shows how nurses were treated and furnishes insight into the coping strategies they developed. Prior knowledge of Nazi terminology, history, and programs is assumed. Recommended for academic and bioethics collections.--Tina Neville, Univ. of South Florida at St. Petersburg Lib. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

4 Stars! from Doody
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691006659
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Recipe

"The descent into mass murder, for ordinary Germans like psychiatric nurses, was for the most part a matter of choices avoided. How the moral senses could be and were blunted by institutions and ideologies on the one hand and by personal subterfuges on the other—this is the subject of McFarland-Icke's careful and painstaking historical recounting and analysis. This is a quiet and watchful book, devoid of the sensationalism that so easily adheres to the subject of mass murder. But for that reason it has a powerful and lasting effect that extends beyond the historic subject matter."—Michael Geyer, University of Chicago

"Thoughtful, sensitive, and revealing, this book brings something new to the discussion of the perpetrators in the Nazi era, particularly those associated with the medical profession. This is history 'from the bottom up' of the very best kind."—Robert Gellately, Strassler Professor in Holocaust History, Clark University

"Nurses in Nazi Germany is bold, meticulously researched, and insightfully argued. Its topic is an important and relatively neglected one. Attracting general readers and scholars alike, the book should have a very long shelf life—not simply as the definitive history of Nazi nursing but as a major contribution to bioethics literature and ethics more broadly."—Robert N. Proctor, Professor of the History of Science, Pennsylvania State University

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