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Pathologising the Jewish body: Medicine and Antisemitism

Posted by Alicja Howard, Wednesday 21st June, 2017

volunteer blog

Pages from a German school textbook on 'racial science' published in 1935

Pages from a German school textbook on 'racial science' published in 1935; WL4073

I am an undergraduate history student focused on the history of science, medicine and technology. I chose this blog topic as I am interested in the roles of science and medicine in society, and how individuals use these to ground identity. The relationship between medicine and antisemitism fascinated me in particular as it highlights the complexities of the history of antisemitism - how persecution is multifaceted and far from simple. Moreover, I decided to volunteer for The Wiener Library to contribute to an important cause, to engage with relevant and important topics that should not be forgotten.

Pathologising the Jewish body: Medicine and Antisemitism

This blog has been inspired by the launch of The Wiener Library’s new exhibition Science and Suffering: Victims and Perpetrators of Nazi Human Experimentation, which runs until 29 September 2017. I wrote this blog because I wanted to shed more light on the relationship between medicine and antisemitism, and to illuminate a thread of history that established important foundations upon which the Nazi Party rested their ideology. The Nazi alienation of Jews as ‘Other’ was not new; it was strongly influenced by earlier medical and scientific notions propagated by various groups throughout history.

From Religion to Race

The term ‘antisemitism’ was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, a radical German nationalist. In his book Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum: vom nicht confessionellen Standpunkt aus betrachtet (English: The Victory of the Jewish Spirit over the German Spirit: Observed From a Non-Religious Perspective), Marr argued that the Jews had already won their struggle with Germany (Lang, 67). This work reflected a paradigm shift in the nature of antisemitism as a pre-existing undercurrent of a scientific racial discourse came to the fore. Although Marr referred to the Jews as a Stamm (English: tribe, clan), not specifically as a race, he nonetheless implied an ethnic uniqueness of Jews. His work and usage of the term ‘antisemitism’ is therefore indicative of a shift from a religiously and culturally fuelled attack on Jews to one based on race. Advancements in medical thought helped facilitate such a shift.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century biological ideas flourished. This facilitated the conception of fixed racial types and encouraged a belief that there were qualitative differences between races. Ideas of fixed racial types flourished through studies of diversity in physique, skull shape and cultural morphology. As a result, ideas about the Jewish ‘race’ were increasingly conspicuous. In 1864 Carl Vogt, naturalist and physician, published Lectures on Man in which he asserted that there were two distinct yet related branches of Jewry (Efron, 23). In 1881 Eugen Dühring drew the conclusion that the key characteristic of Jewry was not religious but common descent (Weindling, 58). This flourishing of fixed racial types and the dissemination of hereditarian biology were crucial to the radicalisation of antisemitism by marking a divide between two ‘races’. Medical thought legitimised and ‘rationalised’ Jewish prejudice.

The standardisation of hereditarian principles in medical discourse contributed to the characterisation and stereotyping of distinctive racial types. In 1914 Gustav Fischer posited in The Problem of Racial Crossing among Humans that certain racial characteristics, such as the ‘Jewish nose’, were recessive. Hereditarian biology facilitated conclusions of this nature and it was widely utilised by antisemites. In the nineteenth century Jews were increasingly characterised as a degenerate, pathological race with their outward features, such as the aforementioned Jewish nose, being held up as representative of this inherent weakness. The notion of heredity was significant because it incriminated Jews regardless of social class or religion; biological inheritance was inescapable. It made assimilation more difficult and furthered the notion of the Jew as ‘Other’. It has been argued by some historians that these ideas helped pave the way for Nazism (Weindling, 10). Hereditarian biology, and by extension, medical thought, fostered a discourse of racial purity.


The artificial construction of a Jewish race facilitated the attribution of specific medical peculiarities to Jews. This is illustrated by the identification of Jews with mental illness in particular. When Emil Kraeplin published his Psychiatrie: Ein Lehrbuch (English: Psychiatry: A Textbook) in 1883 he concluded that with Jews, race played an etiological factor in their mental illness as it was a consequence of their religious fervour (Efron, 27). Even at the height of the Enlightenment, it was said of one Prussian town official who converted from Christianity to Judaism that “in all probability he suffers from mental illness” (Mosse, 136).

The ‘mental illness’ of Jews had become an object of statistical investigation by the late nineteenth century. In a meeting of the Parisian Anthropological Society in 1880 the Prussian census became the focus of debate as statistics were used to emphasise an apparent higher frequency of mental illness among Jews (Gilman, 154). Furthermore, nervousness was often perceived as a specifically Jewish disease, leading to a high rate of insanity among Jews, as antisemites like Edouard Drumont claimed (Mosse, 136). Similarly, Maurice Fishberg’s The Jews: A Study of Race and Environment, published in 1911, stated that “The Jews, as is well known to every physician, are notorious sufferers of the functional disorders of the nervous system. Their nervous organization is constantly under strain, and the least injury will disturb its smooth workings” (Gilman in The Jew’s Body, 63). In Jean-Martin Charcot’s Tuesday Lesson for 23 October 1888 he asserted that “nervous illnesses of all types are innumerably more frequent among Jews than among other groups” (Gilman, 155). Charcot attributed this tendency to nervous diseases, such as neurasthenia and hysteria, to the inbred weakness of the Jewish people’s nervous system (Mosse, 142). By 1890 this view was commonplace in European psychiatry, and accepted in standard German textbooks of psychiatry such as those by Emil Kraepelin, Theodor Kirchkoff, and Richard Krafft-Ebing (Gilman, 155). The attribution of mental illness to Jews furthered the medicalisation of the Jewish body and helped propagate antisemitic ideas.

Increasingly the Jewish body was cast as pathological as it became an object of classification. Historian Sander Gilman has demonstrated this through his micro-analysis of the ‘Jewish foot’; an apparent propensity amongst the Jewish community to be flat-footed. He highlights how the Jewish foot became a marker for the diseased nature of the Jewish body as a whole. It became inextricably linked with certain conditions such as intermittent claudication (cramp), established by Jean-Martin Charcot in 1858 (Gilman, 54). Heinrich Singer, an Austrian law scholar, saw the relationship between intermittent claudication and the Jewish flat foot as proof of the “general nervous encumbrance born by the Jewish race” (Gilman, 57). The Jewish foot had become a symbol of the pathological difference of the Jew. Whether conscious or not, such medical rhetoric was undoubtedly antisemitic or, at least, became utilised by antisemites. Baruch Goldstein captures the complexity of the situation: “If psychiatry was not quite innocent of antisemitism, it was not quite guilty either” (Baruch Goldstein qtd. in Hacking, 119). The pathologisation of the Jewish body undoubtedly facilitated prejudice.

Nazi Policies

It is clear that medical and scientific discourse concerning the Jewish body preceded and facilitated Nazism. The pseudo-scientific designation of Jews as a separate ‘race’ made the passing of Nazi policies such as the Nuremberg Race Laws possible. At the annual Nuremberg rally in 1935, the Nazis announced new laws which excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship and prohibited them from marriage or sexual relations with persons of ‘German or related blood’. This helped to consolidate the perceived racial aspect of the Jew. The Nuremberg Laws were just one example of a series of legislative attacks against Jews, I could have chosen many others. These attacks were founded on the early pathologisation of the Jewish body that supposedly highlighted racial differences. The build-up to genocidal policies was gradual and has a long history; we should we wary of confining it to the era of Nazism. When the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, they reinvigorate a pre-existing discourse rather than inventing an entirely new one. After all, as early as 1783, Johann David Michaelis, in response to Christian Wilhelm Dohm’s call for the civil emancipation of the Jews, argued Jews could not become true citizens because they were worthless as soldiers due to their physical stature (Gilman, 40).


To conclude, Nazism did not create a new discourse but instead built upon one that has a long history. They were not doing something new but rather taking this discourse one step further. The extremities of Nazism often overshadows the pathologisation of the Jewish body that fostered it, but I nonetheless have sought to illuminate this strand of history. It is unclear whether doctors, biologists and psychologists knew what ramifications their discourse would have for the Jewish population but it is clear that the articulation of Jews as a distinct race legitimised and rationalised preconceived prejudices, regardless of their scientific credibility.

Works Cited:

Efron, John M. Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siecle Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Gilman, Sander L. Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Gilman, Sander L. The Jew’s Body. London: Routledge, 1991.

Hacking, Ian. Mad Travellers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.

Mosse, George L. Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe. New York: Howard Fertig, 1985.

Lang, Berel. Race and Racism in Theory and Practice. United States: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Weindling, Paul J. Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism, 1870-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.


Suggested Further Reading:

Visit our Reading Room to consult the many items our Collection which related to the Nazi policy regarding racial pseudo-science, eugenics and the construction of the Jewish community as an ‘other’. Some of this material is listed below:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: eugenics; racial doctrine; racism; racial persecution; medical profession; medical crimes, Nuremberg Laws

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Tuesday 4th July, 2017

I'm quite proud of my Jewish heritage, and I fail to see why one should try to deny that it is a physical one, when modern scientific all show that it is. People's primitive instincts militate against 'the other' but this works both ways. We have exactly those instincts too: Jews can be as exclusive as anyone else. I do feel that an honest attitude to this issue is needed.

Eva Lawrence

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