The Nazis and Thalidomide: The Worst Drug Scandal of All Time

nazi-drug-fe03-main-tease
PA-AP

The girl’s head is flung back, her mouth open in a cry of pain. She doesn’t feel anything. She is a bronze sculpture symbolizing the suffering of 10,000 or more children around the world born in the ’50s and ’60s who did suffer greatly, and still do, as adults. Because their mothers ingested the notorious drug thalidomide, they were born without legs or arms or with foreshortened limbs like The Sick Child cast in bronze. Some were born deaf and blind; some with curved spines, or with heart and brain damage.

The over-the-counter tranquilizer was hailed as a wonder drug when released in the late 1950s. Its maker, Chemie Grünenthal, a small German company relatively new to pharmacology, marketed it aggressively in 46 countries with the guarantee that it could be “given with complete safety to pregnant women and nursing mothers without any adverse effect on mother and child.” During the four years it was on the market, doctors prescribed it as a nontoxic antidote to morning sickness and sleeplessness—and it sold by the millions.

For nearly half a century, the privately owned company was silent and secretive about the epic tragedy it created while earning a vast profit. Even before its release, the wife of an employee gave birth to a baby without ears, but Chemie Grünenthal ignored the warning. Within two years, an estimated million people in West Germany were taking the drug on a daily basis.

But by early 1959, reports started to surface that the drug was toxic, with scores of adults suffering from peripheral neuritis damaging the nervous system. As profits kept rolling in, however, Chemie Grünenthal suppressed that information, bribing doctors and pressuring critics and medical journals for years. Even after an Australian doctor connected thalidomide with deformed births in 1961, it took four months for the company to withdraw the drug. By then, it is estimated to have affected 100,000 pregnant women, causing at least 90,000 miscarriages and thousands of deformities to the babies who survived.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that thalidomide caused miscarriages and birth defects, Chemie Grünenthal for years fought to resist paying the necessary compensation required for a lifetime of care—and still does. Victims say the company’s payments have been derisory and far from enough to pay for the expensive care needed by those severely deformed.

In 1970 the company agreed to pay about $28 million into a fund for the victims and was given permanent legal immunity in Germany in return. When money in the fund ran out, the German government made compensation payments, and in 2009 Grünenthal replenished the fund with a one-off endowment of ?50 million—about $63 million. (Elsewhere in the world, there are still pending claims and class-action suits.)

Beyond monetary restitution, victims and their families had to wait more than five decades for an apology. But on Aug. 31 this year, the company’s new CEO, Harald Stock, stepped outside its headquarters in Stolberg to unveil the bronze sculpture of the suffering girl and to apologize to all the victims, heartbroken families, and survivors. His sincerity was manifest. “We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn’t find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being,” Stock said. “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us.”

With a go-ahead smile and close-shaven head, the Freiburg-born executive had arrived in January 2009, following the retirement of Sebastian Wirtz, the sixth generation to head the family firm. The “we” in his plea for forgiveness referred to the company. But his announcement in Stolberg brought no message from the Wirtz family—or anybody else still living who presided over thalidomide’s silent years. And victims were upset because the company’s contrition for the severely damaged who need lifelong care is still not matched in the level of compensation.

Adding to the dark shadow over the company, it is increasingly clear that, in the immediate postwar years, a rogues’ gallery of wanted and convicted Nazis, mass murderers who had practiced their science in notorious death camps, ended up working at Grünenthal, some of them directly involved in the development of thalidomide. What they had to offer was knowledge and skills developed in experiments that no civilized society would ever condone. It was in this company of men, indifferent to suffering and believers in a wretched philosophy that life is cheap, that thalidomide was developed and produced.

Stolberg is Wirtz town, a clutch of attractive buildings that sit snug in a green valley around a medieval castle on the eastern outskirts of Aachen in North Rhine–Westphalia. Its prosperous air is due in large part to the family firm founded by Andreas Augustus Wirtz in the 19th century. Devoutly Catholic, the Wirtz family has for decades been the pillar of Aachen society, and their philanthropy has included a new roof on the city’s imperial cathedral, built by Charlemagne in 786. Today the company has a global reach, with affiliates in 26 countries. It employs 4,200 people worldwide and has revenues approaching $1.3 billion, mostly from painkillers. Products from its perfume subsidiary, Mäurer & Wirtz, include brands such as 4711 and Tabac, while the Dalli-Werke subsidiary concentrates on household cleaning products.

Many who live in the town rely on the company for their livelihood; some have been employed there for many years. Men and women who worked as child slave laborers for the company during World War II carried on clocking in well into middle age, reluctant to speak about the company’s past.

nazi-drug-fe03-2nd Dr. Mückter, chief of research and production, was enriched by thalidomide sales and helped cover up the drug’s horrific effects, left, At Nuremberg, mass murderer Otto Ambros was sentenced to eight years in prison. He came to head the company’s advisory committee. Bettmann-Corbis (left); DPA-Corbis

At the outbreak of war in 1939, the family-owned company was in the hands of Hermann Wirtz, aided by his twin brother, Alfred, an engineer and fellow Nazi party member. The company benefited from Hitler’s Aryanization program by reportedly taking over two Jewish-owned companies, one of which made the Tabac range it still sells to this day.

At war’s end, the business, which until then had focused mostly on soap, perfumes, and cleaning products, found a new direction. In 1946 the Wirtz family set up Chemie Grünenthal, a small-town company that would become a haven for labor-camp scientists and doctors looking for work as it developed drugs desperately needed in the war’s aftermath.

The fact that former Nazi Party members were recruited by Grünenthal was not altogether surprising. Major American companies such as Standard Oil and Du Pont maintained commercial links with the Nazi regime during the war and afterward recruited former Nazi scientists, too.

Among those invited to Stolberg by Hermann Wirtz was Martin Staemmler, a leading proponent of the Nazi “racial hygiene” program. Following Germany’s invasion of Poland, he had worked with the SS on its population policy, deciding who should live and who shouldn’t. At Grünenthal, he was head of pathology at the time thalidomide was being sold.

Another euthanasia enthusiast was Hans Berger-Prinz, who worked with Hitler’s personal physician, the handsome Karl Brandt, the lead defendant at the so-called doctors’ trial at the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal. Brandt, Germany’s senior medical official during the war, was executed after he was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in medical experiments and procedures on prisoners and civilians. In 1968, when Grünenthal executives were put on trial and charged with negligent manslaughter and causing grievous bodily harm, deformity, and sickness through the selling of Contergan, the German brand name for thalidomide, Berger-Prinz spoke for the defense.

Dr. Ernst-Günther Schenck, portrayed in Downfall, the 2004 film about the last days of Hitler, is the only uniformed Nazi known to have found refuge at Grünenthal, though he was not involved in the thalidomide program. As the inspector of nutrition for the SS, he developed a protein sausage that was tested on 370 prisoners in concentration camps, killing many. He was barred from working as a doctor again in Germany after returning from 10 years as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union. Grünenthal gave him a job in Aachen.

Grünenthal also offered employment to Heinz Baumkötter, an SS hauptsturm-führer, the chief concentration-camp doctor in Mauthausen and Natzweiler-Struthof, and, most notoriously, from 1942 chief medical officer in Sachsenhausen. Sentenced to life imprisonment by the Soviet Union, in 1956 he was, like Schenck, returned to Germany, where he was employed by the Wirtz family at Chemie Grünenthal.

Perhaps the best known of Grünenthal’s murderous employees was Otto Ambros. He had been one of the four inventors of the nerve gas sarin. Clearly a brilliant chemist, described as charismatic, even charming, he was Hitler’s adviser on chemical warfare and had direct access to the führer—and committed crimes on a grand scale. As a senior figure in IG Farben, the giant cartel of chemical and pharmaceutical companies involved in numerous war crimes, he set up a forced labor camp at Dyhernfurth to produce nerve gases before creating the monolithic Auschwitz-Monowitz chemical factory to make synthetic rubber and oil.

In 1948 Ambros was found guilty at Nuremberg of mass murder and enslavement and sentenced to eight years in prison. But four years later, he was set free to aid the Cold War research effort, which he did, working for J. Peter Grace, Dow Chemical, and the U.S. Army Chemical Corps. Ambros was the chairman of Grünenthal’s advisory committee at the time of the development of thalidomide and was on the board of the company when Contergan was being sold. Having covered up so much of his own past, he could bring his skills to bear in attempts to cover up the trail that led from the production of thalidomide back through its hasty trials to any origins it may have had in the death camps.

The central figure at the Grünenthal trial in Aachen was Heinrich Mückter. During the war, his expertise had been anti-typhus work. Outbreaks of the disease in the Army made finding a vaccination a high priority. Because typhus culture cannot live outside a body, it was kept alive by injecting it into prisoners. Once injected with the disease, the prisoners could then be used to try out the vaccines to see if they worked, and Mückter’s experiments were reportedly carried out in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Grodno as well as at Kraków. Responsible for the deaths of hundreds of prisoners, Mückter was wanted at the end of the war by the Polish authorities, but he was lucky: caught by the Americans, he had the Iron Curtain drawn across his past. And Grünenthal offered him an opportunity to continue his work.

As the company’s chief scientist and head of research, Mückter was credited with the development of thalidomide, and given that he earned hefty bonuses on the drug, its initial popularity made him very rich.

nazi-drug-fe03-3rd Protests against the Wirtz family’s “insulting” response to the scandal. Henning Kaiser / AFP-Getty Images

The “chemical brains” behind thalidomide may have been Mückter’s mentor, Prof. Werner Schulemann of Bonn University, according to Martin Johnson, a longtime campaigner at Britain’s Thalidomide Trust. Schulemann had developed the first synthetic antimalarial drug and carried out human experiments in field hospitals and in the camps. But it was Mückter’s work on anti-typhus vaccines trialed in the camps that Johnson believes may provide the link to thalidomide, a line he is pursuing for the book he is writing on the thalidomide story, provisionally titled The Last Nazi War Crime. “I thought I would be ready for publication a long while back,” he says, “but new information keeps arriving.”

Information keeps arriving, but time may be running out in the hunt to find the hard evidence to establish that thalidomide was developed or trialed in the death camps—a hard link that would surely embarrass Grünenthal into finally giving full compensation to its victims around the world.

What is clear, though, is that the recent apology is not enough.

Trapped for eternity in her bronze confinement, the statue of the sick child is haunting, her silent scream reminding us of the pain of the thalidomide babies.

Join the Discussion