MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

The discussion about the value of homeopathy has recently become highly acute in Germany. Once again, it seems that German homeopaths fight for survival with all means imaginable. This can perhaps be better understood in the light of what has happened during the Third Reich. In 1995, I published a paper about this intriguing bit of homeopathic history (British Homoeopathic Journal October 1995, Vol. 84, p. 229). As it has miraculously disappeared from Medline, I take the liberty of re-publishing it here in full and without further comment:

In the early part of the 20th century, there was a strong lay movement of ‘natural health’ in Germany. It is estimated that, when the Nazis took over in 1933, the number of lay practitioners equalled that of physicians. The Nazis jumped on this bandwagon and created the Neue Deutsche Heilkunde (new German medicine)–forced integration of health care to a single body under strict political control [1].

A systematic attempt was orchestrated to scrutinize homoeopathy. The motivation was probably threefold: it fitted the Neue Deutsche Heilkunde concept, it was put forward as a ‘pure German’ line of medicine, and homoeopathy was also seen as potentially a cheap way of keeping the nation healthy, freeing resources for preparatory war efforts. The results have never been published and may be lost for ever. However, an eye- witness report was written after the war by Dr Donner, a homoeopathic physician of high standing. His report, probably not entirely objective, makes fascinating reading [2].

Dr Donner joined the Stuttgart Homoeopathic Hospital in the mid 1930s. He became involved in the German Ministry of Health’s initiatives to scrutinize homoeopathy. Following a detailed study of the literature he expressed profound doubts as to the validity of homoeopathic provings. Experiments to replicate such provings in 1939 showed the importance of the placebo phenomenon and subject/evaluator blinding. His and his colleagues’ results gave no evidence of validity.

A concept by which homoeopathy was to be scrutinized emerged. It foresaw the tests to be supervised by conventional physicians with sufficient knowledge of homoeopathy. About 60 university institutions were to participate. Each team included homoeopaths, toxicologists, pharmacologists and internists. The tests protocols were to be adapted to the special needs of homoeopathy—e.g, freedom of homoeopathic prescription. Donner argues that never before did homoeopathy have such ideal conditions for evaluation. He reports on about 300 planning meetings with staff from the ministry.

Experts were perfectly aware of problems such as the placebo effect and spontaneous remissions and therefore planned large, placebo-controlled trials. These were to be performed on patients with tuberculosis, pernicious anaemia, gonorrhoea and other diseases where homeopaths had claimed to treat successfully.

On the occasion of the 1937 Homoeopathic World Congress in Berlin, Nazi officials decided to start the trials on homoeopathy on a large scale. ‘Hundreds of millions’ of Reichsmark were available. Donner describes several provings and clinical trials in some detail. Without exception, their results yielded no indication for the validity of homoeopathy.

Although there had been previous agreement to the contrary amongst all participants, it was agreed that these negative findings should not be published at this stage, but a new experimental beginning should be sought. Further experiments were planned which could not be concluded due to the outbreak of war.

In 1947, the subject was again discussed by those who were initially involved. The original documents seem to have survived the war. They had not yet been published and are not likely to have been lost or destroyed.

Dr Donner finishes his report by urging the reader to draw the right conclusions. The ‘fiasco’, he maintains, must be blamed not on the individuals involved in these experiments but on the situation inside German homoeopathy. Future evaluations of homoeopathy should be performed to a high scientific standard and without illusions.

Dr Donner’s report is presently being published for the first time [2]. As it is in German, the above summary might be helpful for an international readership.

References

1 Ernst E. Naturheilkunde im Dritten Reich. Dtsch. Arzteblatt 1994 (accepted for publication).

2 Donner. Report to be published in issues 1 5 of Perfusion. Pia Verlag, Nuernberg.

6 Responses to Homeopathy during the Third Reich: a telling bit of history

  • Allow me to quote two anecdotes from Dr Donner’s report:

    “When H. Rabe (the then president of the Association of Homeopathic Doctors) left the hospital with me (after a discussion of the previous failures with representatives of the Reich Health Office), he surprised me with the remark that he now urgently needed to see how he could sabotage these (new envisaged) examinations. He had not yet found a valid reason, since everything had been carried out so extremely correctly and collegially towards him. Hopefully he will come up with something else, because otherwise he would have to go to the Reich Health Leader Dr. Conti and urge him to stop the homoeopathic examinations immediately, because ‘we can’t do what we say’ (literally!!). But after everything he had said with Conti, Rudolf Hess and Prof. Reiter about homeopathy, he could hardly do the latter. He then went on to say that it would be ‘bright madness’ of the RGA’s representatives to ‘take seriously what we, who are only small practitioners, say or publish in our journals’ and subject them to a scientific review […].”

    “My medication tests on about 200 doctors, which were carried out with placebo checks at the time, were met with great interest by the co-observing representatives of the Reich Health Office. Only one of the curiosities that occurred in this case should be mentioned:
    A Berlin homoeopathic doctor had such violent migraine attacks after three days of placebo (!) that she had to stop the examination. The ‘drug’ had taken her so much with it that she could no longer spend all day in her surgery and had to engage a representative for the afternoon consultations. She had never had a migraine attack before or after.”

    What Donner reported, should have been probably the ultimate failure of homeopathy. It only “got away” because it was no longer possible to systematically conclude and publish the results because of 2nd World War.
    By the way, no wonder that today apologets of homeopathy aren’t convinced of the “credibility and meaningfulness” of Donner’s report, e.g. Prof. Walach…

  • “Homeopathy. When even Nazis think you’re full of shit…”

  • The ‘Donner Report’ and also two letters he wrote on the subject of his report can be found via this link:

    https://www.kwakzalverij.nl/behandelwijzen/homeopathie/the-donner-report-and-letters/

    It contains a publication history of these documents and links to the documents itself.

    A quite extensive English summary is here:
    https://www.kwakzalverij.nl/behandelwijzen/homeopathie/a-total-disaster-for-homeopathy/

    • @Jan Willem Nienhuis
      I just read your well composed summary in English. Thank you for this important work. It contributes greatly to our understanding of how a naive fad came to be a multinational cargo-cult religion.

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