Nazi views on public health developed within the context of German cultural traditions and the state of medical science in the early twentieth century. Many of the regime's public health priorities—such as eugenics, group exercise, and warnings against alcohol and tobacco—were first popularized during the years of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933). For example, in the 1930 film, “Born out of Necessity,” young Germans are urged to fight the negative health effects of life in modern cities by exercising together and engaging in wholesome social activities instead of drinking and smoking. These themes were later reflected in public health policies after the Nazi rise to power in 1933.
Nazi public health officials adopted many of these pre-existing traditions and ideas, but the Nazi regime’s public health policies were concerned solely with promoting the health of so-called “Aryan” Germans. According to Nazi ideology, every member of the Volksgemeinschaft (“German racial community”) was like a single cell in the larger national body, and each individual had a duty to stay healthy and strong so that the German nation could conquer other peoples and colonize their lands. These theories about individual health and national strength were influential throughout Europe and the United States in the early twentieth century. However, Nazi Germany's policies were much more extreme than those of any other nation.
To help realize the regime’s goals, Nazi public health initiatives focused on increasing the size and collective health of the “Aryan” population. For example, the SS created the Lebensborn program in late 1935 in an attempt to raise the German birthrate. A brochure for the Lebensborn program explains that only pregnant women of “good health, genetic health, and Aryan descent” would be considered for admission to the program’s maternity homes.1 Nazi theories of eugenics taught that those born with mental or physical disabilities weakened the collective genetic health and strength of the Volksgemeinschaft and were "life unworthy of life."2 The propaganda pamphlet “But Who Are You?” provides instructions for creating detailed ancestral charts in order to identify any threats to the “hereditary health” of the German nation. Health officials even urged German citizens to report sexual partners suspected of having a sexually transmitted disease, as shown in the 1938 propaganda poster, “Sexually Transmitted Disease Is an Obstacle to Marriage.”3
The Nazi regime urged Germans to adopt healthy lifestyles and personal habits. Like Weimar-era public health campaigns, Nazi health programs pushed the idea of a wholesome and “natural” lifestyle as a remedy for many of the health concerns associated with life in modern society. Nazi public health campaigns often promoted the importance of fresh air and nutritious foods, as shown in the 1941 Nazi propaganda film, “The English Disease.” A 1939 newspaper article entitled “Nazis Hit Alcohol, Tobacco” records Nazi health leaders’ declarations that rejecting tobacco and alcohol in favor of a “wholesome life” was the “national duty” of all German youth.4
Nazi public health propaganda promoted a return to “natural” living, but Nazi health officials also embraced modern medical innovations to prevent and treat diseases in the so-called “Aryan” population. For example, the Nazi regime organized mass X-ray screenings for cancer, tuberculosis, and other diseases. Nazi propaganda urged Germans to trust the advice of medical doctors over the "hocus pocus" given by unqualified quacks offering miracle cures, as seen in the 1941 propaganda film on cancer treatment, "One in Eight."5
Exercise and physical fitness were among the most important elements of the Nazi regime’s preventive approach to public health. Nazi health officials called for every member of the so-called “Aryan” community to do regular physical exercises. Focusing particular attention on developing the health and strength of German youth, the Nazi regime embraced popular German pastimes like hiking and gymnastics. Nazi youth groups organized many outdoor group exercises intended to build a sense of camaraderie, and teenage boys in the Hitler Youth often engaged in competitive athletic games and military-style exercises to prepare them to become strong soldiers. On the other hand, Nazi ideology taught that young German women should do graceful exercises designed to help them become strong healthy mothers—as shown in the 1937 propaganda film, “Healthy Woman - Healthy Nation.” The regime also organized many athletic activities under the recreational “Strength through Joy” program. A 1937 photograph of a “Strength through Joy” event at Strandbad Wannsee near Berlin shows the popularity of these public exercise programs.
Campaigns and activities to promote physical fitness in Nazi Germany were designed exclusively for members of the so-called Volksgemeinschaft. Jews, Roma and Sinti, and other so-called "non-Aryans" were gradually excluded from public spaces that hosted these events. Exercise was even used to persecute those targeted by the Nazi regime. German soldiers and concentration camp guards often used forced exercise as a form of public humiliation, physical abuse, or punishment. Taken sometime after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, a photograph of Soviet Prisoners of War forced to exercise shows how German guards used physical exercises to abuse their prisoners in violation of international law.
Nazi persecution and the beginning of World War II affected the health of German citizens as well as the health of Jews, Roma and Sinti, and all those living under German occupation. The so-called “Aryanization” of the German medical profession meant that qualified Jewish health professionals no longer could provide medical care to their so-called “Aryan” patients. Like Dr. Erwin Schattner, many Jewish physicians were forced to close their practices on short notice after the Nazi Party took control of the state. Less qualified non-Jewish doctors often replaced Jewish physicians like Schattner, and the quality of medical care in Germany declined as the Nazi regime lowered academic standards for ideologically acceptable “Aryan” medical students.
The outbreak of World War II led to greater Nazi persecution of targeted groups and the application of drastic public health measures. The war created conditions that led directly to epidemics of contagious diseases such as typhus, but Nazi propagandists and public health officials blamed Jews, Roma and Sinti, Slavic peoples, and other groups for causing such outbreaks. For example, an antisemitic Nazi propaganda poster made in 1941 for public display in German-occupied Poland asserts that “Jews Are Lice: They Cause Typhus.” German public health officials irrationally blamed Polish Jews for an outbreak of typhus in occupied Warsaw and urged authorities to construct a sealed ghetto, which cut off food supplies and caused massive starvation. As this 1941 photograph demonstrates, when typhus was discovered within the ghetto, German authorities imposed harsh quarantine measures. This oral history with Avraham Tory describes how Jewish medical providers in the Kovno ghetto were forced to treat typhus patients in secret after German police and Lithuanian collaborators burned a hospital to the ground with its staff and patients inside.
Nazi ideology taught that the health and “purity” of the German national body must be protected at all costs. The priorities of public health under Nazi rule reflected and supported Nazi racial ideology, theories of eugenics, and the regime’s goal of territorial conquest. Nazi public health campaigns were designed to improve the collective health of the German Volksgemeinschaft at the expense of other populations, but Nazi policies had negative impacts on the health of the so-called "German racial community" as well.