Hitler's Contribution to "Alternative Medicine"

Muriel Fraser

By creating the profession of heilpraktikers ("practical healers"), Hitler and his Nazi colleagues played a major role in initiating what is now called "alternative medicine" in Germany. Goebbels did this to keep the civilians happy because as soon as a war could be arranged, the real doctors were going to be sent off to tend the troops. The Nazis conducted tests and actually realized that practical healing didn't work. Goebbels' law, as well as legitimizing its practitioners, was intended to prohibit further training so that their numbers would dwindle after the war ended. However, in 1957 they got a court judgment overturning this restriction.

Rusting greenhouses with broken windows stand near the electrified barbed wire fence of Hitler's death camp just north of Munich. Beds for plants are barely visible in the long grass. An old rake still leans against the oven where the medicinal herbs were dried. This was the Nazis' experimental herb garden at the concentration camp Dachau, a relic of their support for what has been successively known as holistic, alternative, complementary and integrative medicine [1]. Here, in addition to conducting grisly medical experiments on the inmates, the Nazis tested herbal remedies. 

This huge plantation was part of the Nazis attempt to cut medical costs in preparation for the war they were intending to start. Its 150 hectares (370 acres) comprised the largest garden for medicinal herbs in Europe. The beds held gladioli, peppergrass, chili, blackcurrant, sage, thyme and hundreds of others [2]. By systematically testing about a thousand varieties of plants, the Nazis hoped to find remedies for minor ailments that would be cheaper than drugs. Homeopathy, with its miniscule amounts of the supposedly active ingredients, sounded like an especially promising way to cut costs. And, of course, slave labor made it cheaper still. 

Even better, these thrifty herbal cures needn't be prescribed by doctors. The low-cost workforce of traditional healers could do the job. This motley crew already prescribed plant extracts, homeopathic potions, and water cures, taking advantage of the widespread belief in alternatives to conventional medicine in Germany during the 1930s. At that time about half a million Germans were formally enrolled in health clubs devoted to spreading these questionable cures, and this was just the tip of an iceberg of believers [3]. Even today, there are about 600 clubs, with more than 160,000 members, preaching the health doctrines of just a single one of these—the treatments prescribed by the 19th-century Bavarian priest, Sebastian Kneipp [4]. Father Kneipp began his medical mission after he became convinced that he had cured his own tuberculosis by icy dips in the Danube in winter. 

These popular beliefs, if cleverly promoted, could be of use to the Nazis. And to make the Germans even more receptive to these low-cost cures, the Nazis set about to demonize scientific medicine. It was, they claimed, a plot by "Jewish doctors."  

Of course, Jews were, indeed, overrepresented in medicine. A fifth of the doctors in Germany were of Jewish origin, and in Vienna it was well over half. This was related to centuries of persecution. Historically, medicine had been the only profession open to Jews, as this placed them in the front lines in battling the plagues of the Middle Ages. Someone had to do the dangerous job, and Jews were expendable [5]. 

The Nazis' creeping restrictions on Jewish doctors began right after their rise to power in Germany in 1933. They were expelled from the universities, forbidden to practice, and finally driven out of the country or killed. After Germany annexed Austria in 1938, the process was repeated there. The Medical Faculty in Vienna was "cleansed" of three quarters of its instructors, nearly all for having Jewish ancestry. Their colleagues who remained voiced little opposition [5]. The disappearance of the Jewish doctors lessened the competition for academic posts at the university and the competition for patients in the city. 

But if the remaining doctors thought they were now freed of competition, they were mistaken. In 1937 the Nazis disbanded the doctors' professional organizations and placed them under the control of the government. The groups of folk healers faced the same fate, but for them state control was an upward step, for it was accompanied by recognition as part of the medical profession. Now the real doctors found themselves on the same footing as herbalists, homeopaths, and apostles of Father Kneipp's water cures [3]

Even in some hospitals the doctors were obliged to bow to the practices of their newly-recognized "colleagues." In Stuttgart a whole hospital was run according to homeopathic doctrines. And at the Rudolf Hess Hospital in Dresden patients were treated with diet, fasting, and water cures. But the doctors didn't dare object. In the opening ceremony in Dresden in 1934 they were given a warning: "If any colleagues, with the arrogance of scientific medicine, intend to look down upon the [alternative]. healers, these gentlemen would be well advised to seek a different profession." [3]

Though bullying could silence the skeptics, it couldn't alter the facts. For three years, from 1936 until the war broke out, the Nazis cultivated the herb garden at Dachau, but their large-scale experiment didn't yield the hoped-for alternative to the scientific pharmacy. They couldn't find any scientific basis for the herbal treatments, and when the potions were tested clinically the results were so disappointing that they were never published [3]

Despite this setback, the Nazis were determined to foster the faith of the German population in the alternative healers. These were needed to keep the civilians happy — because as soon as a war could be arranged, most of the real doctors were going to be sent away to care for the soldiers.

And so, six months before the Nazis invaded Poland, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, introduced a law to turn the folk healers into a recognized profession. He gave them a new title, "Heilpraktiker" ("practical healer") and admitted them into the German health system. However, a clause in the 1939 law reveals what Goebbels really thought of the profession he had created. After victory had been achieved and the real doctors returned from the front, Goebbels didn't want this swarm of incompetents underfoot. So the law forbade the training of any new heilpraktikers [6]. This was meant to ensure that after the war they would fade away. Goebbels is claimed to have said, "This law is both their cradle and their grave."[7].

In East Germany, they did indeed dwindle away after the war, exactly as Goebbels had intended. However, in West Germany the new political system came to their rescue. A Führer can do things by fiat, but a parliament must act according to law. This saved the heilpraktikers, who in 1957 were able to argue successfully before the West German Supreme Court that in a democracy you cannot forbid people to train for a perfectly legal profession.

This ruling ensured their continued existence and the New Age movement that followed ensured their growth. To those searching for spirituality the heilpraktikers offered treatments that were "in harmony with Nature and the Cosmos." Between 1970 and 1989 their number in West Germany more than trebled. And after that, German reunification enabled them to expand into the eastern part of the country [8].

Once the alternative healers gained a legal foothold, their growth was pretty well assured. Unlike doctors, the heilpraktikers proselytize constantly. Even the "health" courses offered by the adult education centers in Germany today are mostly delivered by alternative healers, who use them to advertise for patients. Yet the participants still pay fees to attend these courses and the taxpayers subsidize them, as well. 

These "education" courses give the heilpraktikers a platform from which to air their views on the virtues of alternative medicine and the vices of the evidence-based sort. They consider themselves far more knowledgeable and they feel it is their mission to spread the Truth. Theirs is a struggle against the forces of evil, in the form of science-based medicine, which some of them claim is "the leading cause of death."[9]. Added to this sense of righteousness is the heady feeling of being leaders on the scientific frontier. After all, only they understand medicine's spiritual dimension. The irony of opposing science while claiming to be on the leading edge of science is lost on them.

Alternative healers also get the chance to push their product during consultations. They can afford to spend far more time with a patient than a doctor because their time is worth considerably less. And many are, indeed, superb salespeople, appealing to vanity, exploiting hopes and fears, turning customers into salespeople and wielding a whole arsenal of clinical tricks [10]. The very nature of many illnesses helps their cause. When improvement occurs, patients fail to attribute this to the placebo effect or to the natural ups and downs of many chronic illnesses, or for a variety of other reasons [11]. 

The high demand for the services of these alternative healers and the ease of entry into this field makes it a popular profession. If you want to become a heilpraktiker the only educational requirement is graduation from primary school. After that you can try the admission test, whose written part consists of sixty multiple-choice questions. This one is my favorite: "If the patient is in a coma, can you wake him up by shouting at him? Ja or nein?"[12]. In case you have difficulty with this, don't worry, you can retake the test as often as you like. After all, you have no obligation to actually cure anyone: the stated aim of this examination is merely to ensure that you "do not pose a danger to the public health." [13]

Once you've gotten through this exam—if necessary, on your umpteenth try—you are then let loose to offer medical treatment to the German public. There you will encounter very few restrictions. The main constraints are that heilpraktikers can't perform surgery, deliver babies or try to treat communicable diseases [14]. (Of course, there's no assurance that they would recognize a communicable diseases if they encounter them.) 

Yet, oddly enough it's not just medical laymen who become heilpraktikers. In Germany, as in other countries, alternative medicine is now so widely accepted that sometimes even scientifically trained doctors get "converted." Those who should know better can find it profitable to ignore any doubts. A doctor who supplements his evidence-based medicine with alternative treatments is seen by many patients as having an additional specialty. This easy-to-acquire additional "qualification" is often used to burnish the credentials of women doctors returning after maternity leave and struggling to re-establish a practice. 

All of this means that when you go to a new doctor in Germany you can never be sure what awaits you. That became clear after I made an appointment with a German specialist in sports medicine, someone with at least six years of scientific medicine under his belt. I presented myself to the doctor with what I thought was an obvious problem: ever since lifting something far too heavy, my back had been hurting. But it wasn't clear to him. He was determined not to merely treat my "symptoms"—he intended to seek out the underlying cause. So after poking around a bit, Herr Doktor announced that the real problem was that my pelvis was in the wrong position. He broke the news of this major anatomical malformation with remarkable cheerfulness. No problem, he assured me—he could flip my pelvis back again. All he needed to do was perform a manipulation on my neck. Yes, this fellow wanted to perform a totally unnecessary treatment, despite the risk of injury, on a part of my body that was unrelated to my symptoms. Of course, from his point of view something "natural" like a manipulation must be risk-free. He seemed to have forgotten (along with the rest of what he had learned in medical school) that the most common serious "side effect" of a neck manipulation is damage to the artery leading to the brain—and this can lead to a stroke [15, 16]. This medical comedy routine was beginning to sound dangerous, and I shuffled out of his office as fast as I could go.

But what if I had been less skeptical and my complaint had been more serious? In Germany nearly two-thirds of the people diagnosed by doctors as having cancer turn up eventually at the door of a heilpraktiker [17]. And that doesn't count those who visit a properly accredited doctor, as I did, who turns out to be a quack. Furthermore, the face-to-face consultations with alternative healers will be only a fraction of the virtual visits made though their websites. A survey of about 30 of these sites turned up 118 different fake cancer "cures." Some of these sites even advise cancer patients to ignore standard medical advice and skip the recommended chemotherapy and radiation treatments [18]. When desperation finally drives the patients of the alternative healers back to the real doctors, it can be too late. 

Adolf Hitler is second only to Josef Stalin as the undisputed, all-time, world champion of killers. But Hitler's death at the war's end did not end his influence. His cynical promotion of alternative healers has had lasting results worldwide. Even today Hitler's legacy of quack medicine is still costing lives. 


  1. Salzberg S. Why medical schools should not teach integrative medicine. Forbes Magazine, April 21, 2011. 
  2. Himmler's Paradies. Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung 36:10, Sept 8, 2013
    Excerpts posted at http://tapferimnirgendwo.com/2013/09/08/und-du/
  3. Ernst E. Naturheilkunde im Dritten Reich. Deutsches Ärzteblatt 92:104-107, 1995.
  4. Kneipp-Bund Deutschland e.V.
  5. Ernst E. A leading medical school seriously damaged: Vienna 1938. Annals of Internal Medicine 122:789-792, 1995.
  6. Gesetz ueber die berufsmaessige Ausuebung der Heilkunde ohne Bestallung (Heilpraktikergesetz). Feb 17, 1939, # 4. Reichgesetzblatt, Berlin, Feb 20, 1939.
  7. Germann P. 60 Jahre Heilpraktikergesetz: Kleine geschichtliche Skizze. Naturheilpraxis, Sept 1999.
  8. Federspiel und Herbst 1996, Scharl 1996. Statistisches Jahrbuch 1996 und 1998. Figures quoted by Roland Ziegler. Was kann und darf ein Heilpraktiker? May 31, 2000.  
  9. Null Gary and others. Death by medicine. Life Extension Magazine, March 2004.
  10. Beyerstein L. Why bogus therapies often seem to work. Quackwatch, July 24, 2003.
  11. Barrett S, Jarvis WT. How quackery sells. Quackwatch, Jan 20, 2005.   
  12. Question # 44 (e) from the Heilpraktiker exam, Minden, 1999.
  13. Baden-Wuerttemberg: Richtlinien des Sozialministeriums zur Durchfuehrung des Gesetzes fuer die berufsmaessige Ausuebung der Heilkunde ohne Bestallung (Heilpraktikergesetz). Heilpraktiker-Richtlinien (HP-RL), December 17,1996 - Az: 55-8381.1 
  14. Richtlinien zur Durchfuehrung des Heilpraktikergesetzes vom 14.02.1997 (StAnz. 10/1997 S. 813) unter Beruecksichtigung der Aenderung vom 15.12.2000 (StAnz. 2/2001 S. 99), #2 http://www.phpt.de/pdf/heilpraktikergesetz.pdf (p. 2)
  15. Ernst E. Adverse effects of spinal manipulation: a systematic review. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 100:330-338, 2007.  
  16. Barrett, S.. Chiropractic's dirty secret: Neck manipulation and strokes. Quackwatch, Jan 16, 2009.
  17. Associated Press. Es gibt keinen Zauber gegen Krebs, Donau Bliz Aktuell, March 25, 2001, p. 9. This summarizes the findings of the Work Group for Biological Cancer Therapy led by Professor Walter Gallmeier of the Institute for Medical Oncology, Hematology and Bone-marrow Transplantation at the Nuremburg Clinic. 
  18. Schmidt K, Ernst E. Assessing websites on complementary and alternative medicine for cancer. Annals of Oncology 15(5), May 2004, pp 733-742.

Muriel Fraser is the editor of Concordat Watch.

This article was posted on February 17, 2014.

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