The Nazis' Forgotten Anti-Smoking Campaign

The Third Reich viewed tobacco as a threat to the health of the "chosen folk."
Denis Defreyne/flickr

Nazi Germany’s well-known obsession with creating a master Aryan race led to many atrocities. But from these same sinister motives came research that may have had health benefits for the German people during World War II—studies on the dangers of smoking that led to the most advanced anti-tobacco campaign of its time. Unfortunately, the campaign was only concerned with protecting the health of Aryan Germans.

“Nazi Germany was governed by a health-conscious political elite bent on European conquest and genocidal extermination,” writes Stanford researcher Robert Proctor in his book, The Nazi War on Cancer, “and tobacco at the time was viewed as one among many ‘threats’ to the health of the chosen folk.”

In 1939, German scientist Franz Müller presented the first epidemiological study linking tobacco use and cancer. In 1943, a paper prepared by German scientists Eberhard Schairer and Erich Schöniger at Jena University confirmed this study, and convincingly established for the first time that cigarette smoking is a direct cause of lung cancer.

Research by German doctors also brought to light the harmful effects of secondhand smoke for the first time, and coined the term “passive smoking.” But Proctor says the findings cannot be separated from the context in which they were realized.

According to Proctor, Schairer and Schöniger’s paper needs to be seen as “a political document, a product of the Nazi ideological focus on tobacco as a corrupting force whose elimination would serve the cause of ‘racial hygiene.’” The Nazi agenda was centered on the idea of establishing and maintaining a German Aryan master race that was free of illness or impurity, and tobacco was just one of the many influences that could weaken the so-called Übermensch.

“Nazism was a movement of muscular, health-conscious young men worried about things like the influence of Jews in German culture and the evils of communism,” Proctor says, “but also about the injurious effects of white bread, asbestos, and artificial food dyes.”

According to an article in Toxicological Sciences, before 1900, lung cancer was extremely rare worldwide, but incidents of the disease increased dramatically by the 1930’s. This coincided with the growing popularity of cigarette smoking beginning toward the end of the 20th century, but a link was never identified between lung cancer and smoking until Nazi-era scientists made the connection.

Research into the harmful effects of tobacco were funded by the Institute for the Struggle Against Tobacco, which was established in 1941 and funded by Hitler’s Reich Chancellery. The Institute was led by Karl Astel, a doctor, high-ranking SS officer and fervent anti-Semite, according to Proctor.

Among other things, Astel’s institute funded and distributed pamphlets and articles about the harmful effects of tobacco, including a collection of Goethe’s views on the subject. The institute conducted research into the potential damage or mutations that nicotine could cause to the genetic material of the master race.

Astel and his scientists conducted experiments on humans and animals, and interviewed the families of smokers who died of lung cancer. But anti-smoking measures were not confined to universities and research labs.

Under Nazi rule, Germany launched the first and most broadly reaching anti-smoking campaign of modern times. Smoking was discouraged in the workplace, and banned in cinemas, and in schools. Policemen and servicemen could not smoke in uniform, and it was not permitted to sell women cigarettes in cafes and other public places. Advertising tobacco products was restricted.

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Tracy Brown Hamilton is a journalist based in Amsterdam.

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