The historical roots of sanitary fascism: the Warsaw Ghetto – El colectivo de Uno / The Collective of One

The “cordon sanitaire” and ghettos that the Third Reich imposed in Poland during World War II were justified by a supposed typhus epidemic. German eugenicism considered Slavs, for example, to be the natural carriers of the disease, and they should therefore be sent to concentration camps to be disinfected. In 1941, a collective work was published entitled “Epidemic Warfare. The German Sanitary Mission in the East”, in which the Third Reich claimed that an “epidemic outbreak” had broken out in Poland and needed to be treated.

Eastern Europe was populated by backward, dirty, disease-carrying peoples, while Germany was a clean land, governed by doctors and vaccines. Progress in hygiene and science had made Germany the homeland of health, always threatened by contagion from its neighbours.

Even before the construction of the apartheid walls that separated one neighbourhood from another in Warsaw, the perimeter of the future ghetto could be guessed from the signs that read in large letters “Seuchensperrgebiet” (no epidemic zone). The Germans crammed a third of Warsaw’s population, almost half a million people, into 5 percent of its area, some 160 hectares.

Naturally, there was no epidemic, but the overcrowding of thousands of people in an enclosed environment led to the intended result, typhus, the epidemic it was intended to prevent. Some 100,000 people contracted typhus in the Warsaw ghetto, with a mortality rate of nearly 40 percent. As so often in the history of medicine, it is the remedy that causes the disease.

In turn, the epidemic fuelled Nazi discriminatory policies, racial separation and public health hysteria. Health apartheid helped exterminate a significant part of the Polish population. Another served as guinea pigs for medical experiments and stimulated the production of German pharmaceutical companies, which began research into the production of typhoid vaccines.

The historical roots of sanitary fascism: the Warsaw Ghetto – El colectivo de Uno / The Collective of One