Doctor Hans Sewering: Physician whose activities under the Nazis caused controversy in later years

David Childs
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:55

Hans Joachim Sewering was a German doctor whose wartime activities under the Nazis provoked much controversy in later years.

He was born in Bochum in 1916, the son of a coal miner, and studied in Munich and Vienna from 1934 to 1941. He joined the SS in 1933, the year of Hitler's takeover, and the following year joined the Nazi party. He later claimed, like many others, that he was taken in by propaganda. Many of his colleagues did join the Nazi party but did not get involved in the euthanasia programme, which aimed at the elimination of unwertes Leben [worthless life].

After the war, prosecutors had determined that Sewering had been a middle-ranking Nazi officer, and he was fined. From 1947 he had his own practice in Dachau. Sensibly, from a career point of view, he joined the CSU, Bavaria's most successful party, and was active in medical associations. By 1955 he was leading his Bavarian colleagues, remaining at their head until 1991. From 1973-78 he was President of the German Medical Association. For many years he was also a member of the permanent medical committee of the European Union.

In 1992, Sewering was designated chairman of the World Medical Association but withdrew the following January because of accusations about his wartime role. Professor Michael M. Kochen of the University of Göttingen and doctors from the US, Canada, and Israel campaigned against the appointment, while four nuns and a hospital director dismissed his claim that he had had no idea that patients he sent from the Schönbrunn tuberculosis clinic, near Dachau concentration camp, to Eglfing-Haar "healing centre", would be murdered. They testified that he knew that signing the order was tantamount to a death sentence.

Sewering repeatedly denied the allegations but in 1994 the US Department of Justice confirmed that it had placed him on its immigration "watch list", barring him from entering the country. Nevertheless, the honours continued: his 80th birthday was celebrated in das Deutsche Ärzteblatt on 26 January 1996 but the journal published a letter from Professor William E Seidelman of Toronto pointing out that the editors had ignored Sewering's membership of the SS and the Nazi party and that "in 1943, Prof Sewering worked as a physician at the Schönbrunn institution for the disabled where, on October 26 of that year, he signed an order transferring 14-year-old Babette Fröwis to the 'euthanasia' centre at Eglfing-Haar where, three weeks later, she died from the effects of starvation and a purposeful overdose of Phenobarbital".

Sewering was also accused of transferring several hundred disabled Catholic children to a "healing centre", where they died in euthanasia experiments. Sewering always insisted he knew nothing about the murders – difficult to believe, given that euthanasia was the official policy of Hitler's state. Representative Lynn Woolsey raised his case in the US Congress in November 1997, urging the German government to prosecute Sewering.

In May 2008, the 25,000-strong German Federation of Internal Medicine awarded him the Günther-Budelmann medal, its highest award, for services to the nation's health system. This, too, brought protests, led by Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The Federation defended the award on the grounds that Sewering, who had admitted to being a Party member, was not a convicted war criminal.

On his death the German medical association praised his use of his great knowledge and political skill to maintain the freedom and independence of the medical profession.

Hans Joachim Sewering, doctor: born Bochum, Germany 30 January 1916; died Dachau, Germany 18 June 2010.

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