The World Wars themselves have been horrendous events of our past whose tags we might never outrun, so learning the acts of despicable evil during that time only run deeper is a hard pill to swallow. Here are some of the darkest experiments of that era which, well, let’s let them speak for themselves…
Unit 731 experiments
Location: Based in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, now Northeast China
Death toll: Over 3,000 from inside experiments and tens of thousands from field experiments
Imperial Japan is notorious for its various war crimes and the experiments of Unit 731 are perhaps some of the worst.
Officially known as the “Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department”, Unit 731 was a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that received generous support from the Japanese Government up to the end of the second world war.
Under this unit, a special project code-named Maruta (which translates to “logs” and is used in contexts such as “How many logs fell?“) was launched to experiment on human beings. This term originated as a joke on the part of the staff because the official cover story for the facility given to the local authorities was that it was a lumber mill.
However, it was internally also called Holzklotz, which is German for log. Most of the victims of these experimentations were Chinese with some exceptions of Soviet, Mongolian, Korean, and other Allied POWs. These included common criminals, captured bandits and anti-Japanese partisans, political prisoners and also people rounded up by the Kempeitai military police for alleged “suspicious activities”. Infants, the elderly, and pregnant women were also included.
Almost all of the experiments were done on live prisoners without the use of anesthesia. The limbs of subjects would be dipped into freezing water until they froze after which the area would be bludgeoned to observe the effects of various water temperatures on the body. This is the least gruesome variation of the frostbite experiments.
Prisoners would be injected with diseases disguised as vaccinations, raped and forced to have intercourse with each other so as to infect them with STDs for the purpose of performing vivisection on them to study the effects of the diseases.
This was performed on live prisoners because it was thought that death would affect the results. Various limbs would be cut off and reattached to see if the body would accept them. Organs would be removed to see how the body would react. In some cases, the limbs and organs would be reattached to a different place.
Women would be forcibly impregnated to observe the transmission of diseases, particularly syphilis, from mother to child and the survival rates of both of them. While the male prisoners were often used in single studies (so as to not let one study affect the results of another), women were sometimes subject to bacteriological, physiological and sex experiments.
In the words of a unit member that served as a guard, “One of the former researchers I located told me that one day he had a human experiment scheduled, but there was still time to kill. So he and another unit member took the keys to the cells and opened one that housed a Chinese woman. One of the unit members raped her; the other member took the keys and opened another cell. There was a Chinese woman in there who had been used in a frostbite experiment. She had several fingers missing and her bones were black, with gangrene set in. He was about to rape her anyway, then he saw that her sex organ was festering, with pus oozing to the surface. He gave up the idea, left and locked the door, then later went on to his experimental work.”
It is reported that a large number of children were raised in captivity and were used in similar experiments. They were also used to test the effectiveness of treatments against the length of infection periods. It is suspected that surviving children were killed, or the pregnancies terminated.
Other experiments included depriving subjects of food and water to see how long they could survive, injecting them with sea water and animal blood, placing them into centrifuges to spin until death, using them as target practice and burning and burying them alive.
Accountability after the war:
The offenders were secretly given immunity by the U.S. in exchange for the data they had gathered through the experiments. Victim accounts were largely ignored or dismissed in the West as communist propaganda.
Location: Concentration Camps (Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Natzweiler, Neuengamme, Sachsenhausen and elsewhere)
Duration: Early to mid-1940s
Death Toll: At least 7000
Survivors: Few; left with mutilations, permanent disabilities, weakened bodies and mental distress.
The Nazi human experimentation was a series of forceful medical experiments during WWII and the Holocaust, designed to “help German military personnel in the combat situation, develop new weapons, aid in the recovery of injured military personnel, and to advance the Nazi racial Ideology”. Subjects included Romani, Sinti, ethnic Poles, Soviet POWs, disabled Germans, and Jews from across Europe.
The experiments are categorized as follows:
a) Experiments on twins
These were experiments done on nearly 732 sets of twin children to study the similarities and differences in the genetics of twins as well as to test ways in which to unnaturally manipulate the human body.
The leader of these experiments was Josef Mengele (also nicknamed “Angel of Death” for his inhumane experiments), a German Schutzstaffel (SS) officer and physicist with a degree in anthropology. It is said his mission was to discover how to increase the birthrate of an Aryan master race.
After being taken away to Auschwitz in cattle cars that were so tightly packed that the dead were still standing, new arrivals would be sorted into weak (gassed straight away), strong (made to work) or selected by Mengele and his assistants for his studies.
Survivors’ recollections of the horrors in his camp include being kept in small wooden cages with their twin and being given painful injections which they think might have been attempts at changing their eye color. Some twins were injected with bacteria that cause Noma disease.
One of the survivors, Jona Laks, said in an interview with BBC in 2015 that Mengele removed subjects’ organs without anesthetic, and if one twin died the other would be killed. Her recount of his laboratory is as follows:
“I was looking at a whole wall of human eyes. A wall of blue eyes, brown eyes, green eyes. These eyes they were staring at me like a collection of butterflies and I fell down on the floor.”
Others remember being kept in rooms with their twin for up to 8 hours a day while naked, where they were measured and compared with their twin. They would also frequently be given up to 5 injections simultaneously, the contents of which they still do not know.
Eva Mozes Kor, another survivor, told Buzzfeed in a 2017 interview that after one of these injection sessions, she became feverish and was taken to the hospital, which was a barrack full of people who “looked more dead (to me) than alive”.
She said that all she could remember from the two weeks that followed was crawling to the faucet at the end of the room for water because she could no longer walk, and blacking in and out on the floor. When she eventually got better and rejoined her sister Miriam in the camp, she was staring blankly ahead and upon being asked what had happened, Miriam said that she could not and would not talk about it.
Eva and Miriam did not talk about Auschwitz until 1985 when Miriam revealed that she had been under Nazi surveillance 24 hours a day during the two weeks that Eva was gone, and that she had been injected multiple times. The sisters would later find out that Miriam’s kidneys had never grown larger than that of a 10-year-old’s.
Many of the victims of these experiments died due to it or were killed in order to facilitate post-mortem examination. It is estimated that about 200 people survived, many of whom never found out what happened to their twin.
b) Bone, muscle and nerve transplantation experiments
At Ravensbruck concentration camp from 1942-1943, sections of bones, muscles, and nerves were removed from and transplanted to live prisoners without the use of anesthesia to study bone, muscle and nerve regeneration and bone transplantation for the benefit of the German Armed Forces.
c) Head injury experiments
In 1942 in Baranowicze, a young boy of eleven or twelve was strapped to a chair while a mechanized hammer above him was made to come down upon his head every few seconds. He was driven insane from the torture.
d) Freezing experiments
In 1941, the Luftwaffe conducted experiments to discover means of preventing and treating hypothermia. Prisoners were placed naked in the open air for several hours at temperatures as low as -6 °C or forced to sit in tanks of freezing water for up to 3 hours.
Different methods of rewarming were tested, including throwing victims into boiling water. There were up to 300 victims, many of whom died.
e) Malaria experiments
From 1942-1945 in the Dachau concentration camp, healthy prisoners were infected with malaria by mosquitoes or injections and were treated with various drugs to study immunization. Of the 1200 people who were used, more than half died.
f) Immunization experiments
At multiple concentration camps, drugs were tested on prisoners to study the treatment of malaria, typhus, tuberculosis, and other contagious diseases.
g) Epidemic Jaundice
From 1943-1945 at the Sachsenhausen and Natzweiler concentration camps, similar experiments were conducted for jaundice treatment.
h) Mustard gas experiments
From 1939-1945, many experiments were conducted on prisoners in various concentration camps to investigate the most effective treatment of wounds caused by mustard gas.
i) Sulfonamide experiments
From 1942-1943 in Ravensbruck, experiments to investigate the effectiveness of sulfonamide were carried out for which inflicted wounds of prisoners were infected with bacteria and then treated with the sulfonamide. Infection was aggravated by forcing wood shavings and ground glass into the wounds.
j) Sea water experiments
In 1944 in Dachau, various methods of making sea water drinkable were tested on victims. They were deprived of food and only given filtered sea water.
k) Sterilization and fertility experiments
From 1941-1945, sterilization experiments were conducted in concentration camps to develop the quickest and efficient way to sterilize millions of people to encourage the growth of the Aryan race.
l) Experiments with poison
In 1943-1944 in Buchenwald, various poisons were secretly administered to prisoners through their food or shot with poisonous bullets. The intent was to study the effects of various poisons.
m) Incendiary bomb experiments
From 1943-1944 in Buchenwald, experiments were conducted to test the effect of various pharmaceutical preparations on phosphorus burns which were inflicted on victims using phosphorus material extracted from incendiary bombs.
n) High altitude experiments
In 1942 in Dachau, prisoners were contained in low-pressure chambers for a study that would aid German pilots who had to eject at high altitudes. It is rumored that Sigmund Rascher vivisections on the brains were performed on the initial survivors and the others were killed. Of the 200 subjects, none survived.
o) Blood coagulation experiments
At the same time, Sigmund Rascher experimented with Polygal, a substance that aided in blood clotting, in order to create tablets that would reduce bleeding from gunshot wounds. For testing, subjects were given Polygal tablets and shot through the neck or chest or amputated without anesthesia.
Accountability after the war:
In 1947, the doctors captured by the Allied Forces were put on a trial commonly known as the Doctors’ Trial during which several doctors defended their actions on the front that there was no international law regarding medical experimentation, and implying that the victims deserved it.
This led to the development of the Nuremberg Code of medical ethics which calls for such standards as the voluntary consent of patients, avoidance of unnecessary pain and suffering, and that there must be a belief that the experimentation will not end in death or disability.
Of the 23 defendants, 7 were acquitted and seven received death sentences. The remainder received prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment. Josef Mengele escaped to South America evading capture altogether and died in 1979.