PHOTOGRAPH BY DR. TONY BRAIN, SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY, CORBIS
Published January 29, 2014
Nazi scientists at the infamous Dachau concentration camp may have planned to use offensive biological warfare on Germany's World War II enemies. Newly found records suggest they made plans to release malaria-carrying mosquitoes from airplanes. (See also: "Malaria-Bedlam in the Blood.")
Biological warfare, the unleashing of disease-carrying living organisms and natural toxins on enemies, dates to antiquity. In World War II, both Allied and Japanese programs investigated and produced microbes to be used as biological weapons. (See also: "World War II Time Line.")
The recently uncovered research protocols from the Dachau concentration camp, reported by biologist Klaus Reinhardt of Germany's University of Tübingen in the December edition of the journal Endeavour, suggest that Germany also had an offensive biological research program, as long suspected.
Although Hitler issued edicts against biological weapons during the war, experts have debated for decades whether such efforts took place in the hidden corners of the Nazi regime. Complicating efforts to pierce the Nazi veil, research into how to defend against biological weapons can look a lot like-and sometimes lead to-efforts to create them. It's the central, dangerous paradox of biological weapons.
Reinhardt suggests that the Nazis did in fact run an offensive biological warfare effort under the cover of a concentration camp entomological institute headed by insect researcher Eduard May, who died in 1956. "My opinion is that May knew that he did offensive warfare research," Reinhardt says.
In the Endeavour report, Reinhardt cites German government archival reports written by May, in which he called one malaria-carrying mosquito species best for "practical execution" of air-dropping schemes. Research conducted at the institute to test how long mosquitoes could survive in an airplane showed that malaria-carrying Anopheles maculipennis survived far longer than other types in a food-deprived state.
"The idea to grow malaria-laden mosquitoes and drop them on people is not very well documented other than by the words 'growing station' and 'airdropping site,'" Reinhardt said by email. "The equipment May had at hand was actually rather pathetic."
The malarial mosquitoes were unlikely to survive in Germany, given its cold winters and lack of warm swamps.
Gregory Koblentz of George Mason University's biodefense graduate program remains unconvinced of the offensive nature of the Dachau work.
"Research to assess the threat posed by different biological agents and vectors, such as May's research on mosquitoes and malaria, is especially hard to categorize as offensive or defensive," Koblentz says. "Even if May's intent was offensive, it was very preliminary-many steps away from actually producing a viable insect-borne biological weapon."
Proving that Nazi Germany planned biological warfare is difficult, Reinhardt acknowledges, especially given the chaos in Germany at the end of the war.
"With Nazis fleeing, the Allies taking over, and the U.S. engaging in similar research after the war, employing some of the Nazi researchers," Reinhardt says, "any evidence that has remained is quite likely the least incriminating."
Most historians have concluded that the research institute at Dachau, which was founded by order of SS chief Heinrich Himmler in 1942, was defensive in nature. "Any offensive programme was barred by Hitler's interdict against [biological warfare] development," wrote Erhard Geissler in a 1999 report.
Others, such as Yale historian Frank Snowden, have suggested that Germany went so far as to flood marshes in Italy south of Rome in 1943 and then introduce malaria-carrying mosquitoes to the region. Those reports were based on Allied and Italian records.
"Why did the SS need an entomological institute?" Reinhardt asks in the study. The answer is lice. On the Eastern Front, the typhus carrier infested both SS personnel and their prisoners.
At Dachau, the site of the institute, the SS used prisoners as slave labor for arms and chemical companies. This "required a basic survival rate among concentration camp prisoners," Reinhardt writes, which meant eradicating lice and rats in the SS barracks, at the camps, and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Nazi doctor Klaus Schilling was inoculating camp prisoners with malaria, an act for which he was executed after the war. He had plenty of malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquitoes for experiments.
In 1942, May proposed studying lice, malarial mosquitoes, and houseflies, all disease-carrying insects. Much of the entomological research at Dachau was aimed at eradicating pests, Reinhardt says, but some "was clearly war-related," he concludes.
Outside experts, however, largely see the findings as continuing the debate over Nazi biowarfare plans, not settling it. UPMC Center for Health Security expert Eric Toner says that the Endeavour study "makes a good case" that biodefense research took place at Dachau.
"But I do not see the 'smoking gun' that proves that case for offensive bioweapons research," Toner says. Untangling defensive from offensive research, he suggests, remains a tough question for history to solve.
Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.
Axis and allied powers engaged in considerable research on the use of - and protection from - entomological warfare and the usual entomological hazards associated with warfare and wartime conditions. Because of their fairly delicate bodies, mosquitoes would seem particularly poor choices as weapons. They'd be difficult to package and deliver. Fleas are far more robust and would more readily survive the perils of being dropped from airborne or other platforms. But, as with any arthropod vector, you can't control whether such living weapons would target friend or foe. Hence, their use would be akin to a two-edged sword, and perhaps one without a protective handle.
Body lice were - and remain - the nemeses of armies and residents of occupied regions. They thrive on people who are subjected to poor conditions of sanitation, spread readily during periods of civil strife, and they transmit the agents of epidemic typhus, epidemic relapsing fever and trench fever. These diseases have changed the outcomes of war and the resulting political map. Extensive research has been focused by warring parties on the means to control body lice and louse-borne disease. To what extent were these efforts directed in offensive manners?
Some readers might find it insightful to appreciate the significance of body lice to major events, particularly during WWII. The Nazis applied the notion of the parasite or Schädling beyond that of small verminous creatures. Indeed, a 1937 law targeted vagrants and alcoholics with contagious diseases in concentration camps for preventive custody. Nazi theorists essentially constructed an image of the human parasite. Jews, gypsies and other undesirables were often labeled as 'lice', and the strategies and methods used to 'louse' (render clothing free of lice) became the nefarious means to pursue genocidal campaigns. For an extensive review of this topic, see: Weindling, Paul Julian. Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe 1890-1945. Oxford Univ. Press; NY. 2000
Feed the World
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.
Latest From Nat Geo
These cooing Casanovas use showstopping plumage to court females and fend off rivals.
Meet a trapper who keeps Florida's streets, sewers, and Kennedy Space Center alligator free.