The Nazis' Forgotten Anti-Smoking Campaign

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

“Nazi officials moved aggressively in an all-out campaign against cigarette smoking in which tobacco was proclaimed ‘an enemy of the people,’” according to Proctor. Hitler frequently pointed out that he had quit smoking in 1919, and that fellow fascists Mussolini and Franco were also non-smokers, unlike Allied enemies Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt.

In true fascist fashion, warnings against smoking often featured Hitler himself, according to Proctor, with statements such as “Brother national socialist, do you know that your Fuhrer is against smoking and thinks that every German is responsible to the whole people for all his deeds and omissions, and does not have the right to damage his body with drugs?”

According to Proctor, the campaign also involved “psychological counseling, nicotine gums, methods to make cigarettes distasteful using silver nitrate mouthwash, and injections [of a chemical] that bonded with compounds in tobacco to produce a disagreeable sensation.” 

At the same time, tobacco was never outlawed in Nazi Germany. It was too important a source of revenue. According to Proctor, by 1941 tobacco taxes made up a whopping one-twelfth of the government’s income. In wartime, this was important funding.

The campaign against tobacco ended with the defeat of the Third Reich, and the research tying smoking to cancer was lumped in with the atrocities of Nazi Germany. In 1945, Astel committed suicide, fearing that his wartime crimes would catch up to him. (According to Proctor, Astel helped organize the euthanasia program that murdered 200,000 people, as well as having a hand in the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”).

The Institute for the Struggle Against Tobacco was shut down after its founder’s death. Smoking in Germany rose significantly at war’s end, with American and Swiss cigarettes flooding the black market. America even sent cigarettes to Germany as part of the Marshall Plan.

But according to Proctor, the Nazi ban did manage to do some good for a subset of the population: German women. Proctor estimates that some 20,000 German women avoided lung cancer deaths, thanks to “Nazi paternalism, which discouraged women from smoking, often with police force.”

According to Proctor’s research, the paper prepared by Schairer and Schöniger was mostly ignored by post-war scientists. It was cited only a handful of times in the years after the war. Even in Germany, Proctor writes, the paper was largely unknown.

It took nearly a decade after the end of World War II before the American Cancer Society published studies that confirmed the link between lung cancer and smoking, and the risk of second-hand smoke. In 1971 British epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll was credited with and knighted for his research making similar discoveries about cancer and tobacco use.

Although later research does indicate there was some valid practice in Nazi tobacco science, Proctor is quick to say he does not mean to argue that it should in any way be celebrated. “The fear may be that by acknowledging such a work, one might somehow give credence to Nazi ideals or policy,” he says. “My intention is not to argue that today's anti-tobacco efforts have fascist roots, or that public health measures are in principle totalitarian.” However, he does conclude that “the Nazi campaign against tobacco was as fascist as the yellow stars and the death camps.”

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Tracy Brown Hamilton is a journalist based in Amsterdam.

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