In the first week of September 1942, 29-year-old Libertas Schultze-Boysen waited desperately for word of her husband Harro, an official in the Reich Aviation Ministry in Berlin. The couple had passionately espoused a cause that few Germans of the age dared even to discuss. With a small group of friends, Libertas and Harro organized a resistance group known as the Red Orchestra, and in 1941 Harro passed intelligence to a Soviet embassy official concerning Hitler’s plans to invade the Soviet Union—information that the Soviets sadly failed to act upon, at great cost to human life.
Libertas was the daughter of one of Berlin’s most famous couturiers, Otto Ludwig Haas-Heye, who also served as the head of the Arts and Crafts School in Berlin. She grew up in a world of beauty and elegance, far from the horrors that the Nazi regime began to visit upon its Jewish citizens and upon all political opponents. But the young German activist felt a deep need to do something about it.
Eight days after her husband was arrested, the Gestapo came looking for Libertas. They took her to 8 Prinz Albrechtstrasse—a building that once housed the Arts and Crafts School and that subsequently became the Gestapo headquarters. According to one document, she laughed ruefully and said “she was sitting in the art school where her father had been rector.” But her incarceration did not last long. On December 19, 1942, the Reich Military Court sentenced her to death for high treason. Three days later, she was executed by guillotine.
And there the story might have ended had it not been for the meticulous research of a group of medical researchers and ethicists, including anatomist Sabine Hildebrandt of Boston Children’s Hospital. In a new paper published in Clinical Anatomy, Hildebrandt identifies by name many of the women whose bodies became research “material” for Hermann Stieve, the head of the anatomy department at the University of Berlin.
In the early twentieth century, before the Third Reich, German anatomists struggled to find enough bodies for their studies. German law provided them only with unclaimed cadavers from hospitals, psychiatric facilities and prisons. And the latter facilities produced relatively few bodies, for only 20 individuals a year suffered the death penalty between 1907 and 1932. The supply of the dead fell far short of the demand.
That all changed, however, when the Nazis rose to power. Between 1933 and 1945, German judges condemned at least 16,000 German civilians to death, many for political crimes deemed high treason, crimes that included activities such as poking fun at Nazi officials. (Such executions, it should be said, rarely included Jews and other persecuted minorities: the government deported these individuals to death camps or concentration camps.) Under German law, those executed for high treason were shipped off to university anatomy departments.
As a last request, Libertas Schultze-Boysen asked that her body be given to her mother. If possible, she wrote her mother, “bury me in a beautiful place amidst sunny nature.” But prison authorities refused to grant her wish. At the University of Berlin, anatomist Hermann Stieve had a research program on the effects of stress on reproductive systems. In the old days of the Weimar Republic, Stieve conducted animal experiments: He stressed chickens by exposing them to caged foxes, and then dissected the birds to see what, if any, effect such fear had on their reproductive organs. But Stieve moved on to new experiments after 1933. He began studying the effects of stress–a death sentence–on the timing of ovulation in young women, specifically political prisoners such as Libertas Schultze-Boysen.
Stieve regularly dispatched one of his assistants to Plötzensee prison in Berlin to obtain medical histories and other data on condemned women before they faced the executioner. Without giving any informed consent, Libertas Schulze-Boysen became one of Stieve’s subjects: a mere 15 minutes after her death, her still warm body lay on a table in the anatomy department at the University of Berlin, ready for the dissectionist’s knife.
At least 174 women prisoners ended up in Stieve’s dissection rooms between 1933 and 1945, and, thanks to the research of Hildebrandt and others, we now know a great deal about the relationship Stieve willingly forged with a criminal regime. But Stieve wasn’t alone. According to Hildebrandt’s studies, at least ten anatomical institutes in the former Reich accepted the corpses of 3228 executed prisoners–allowing a criminal regime to secretly dispose of the remains of large numbers of executed people. In statements made after the war, many these anatomists admitted that they had refrained from asking questions about who all these people were. As two elderly Viennese anatomists recently confided to an interviewer, “Nobody cared, and why should we care?”
In Hildebrandt’s view, we cannot afford to turn away from this terrible chapter in science. Anatomists in some parts of the world continue to struggle with the temptation to use bodies from state executions. “This history,” Hildebrandt concludes in her paper, “is a reminder to modern anatomy that ethical body procurement and the anatomists’ caring about the body donor is of the utmost importance….”
Photos: Libertas Schultze-Bosyen, Gedenkstaette Deutscher Widerstand; 8 Prinz Albrechtstrasse, German Federal Archives, Photo 183-R97512