Sauerbruch, Ernst Ferdinand.

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Sauerbruch, Ernst Ferdinand, born 03-07-1875 in Barmen, a district (Stadtbezirk) of the German city of Wuppertal. to Wilhelm Sauerbruch  (1812–59) and Anna Christina Friederika Homberg (1810–87), was a German doctor. In 1901 Sauerbruch, who had experienced a lot of poverty in his youth, passed his medical exam in Leipzig after a difficult time as a student. He soon devoted himself to surgery and around 1905 immersed himself in the clinical picture of collapsed lung or pneumothorax, for which he developed new surgical techniques. Partly due to his expertise, he quickly made a career. In 1908, Sauerbruch, who had recently married Ada Schultz, daughter of a colleague, moved to Marburg, where he was a university professor for two years. His son Hans was born in early 1910 (he would later make some name as a painter and died in 1996). In 1910 he took up the chair of surgery in Zurich, Switzerland. In Zurich, the Sauerbruch couple had three children: Friedrich (*1911; he also became a surgeon and was among other things, his father’s assistant during the Second World War); as actually responsible for the termination of his father’s activities at the Charité (which had become too risky due to his illness) and Peter (1913-2010; he became a professional officer) and Marilen (*1917; nicknamed the cat woman; she later married a well-known publisher). The inheritance of a good friend allowed him to expand the hospital in Zurich with a children’s ward. Sauerbruch, whose wife helped him as a secretary from time to time, also had out-of-hospital patients, including members of foreign royal houses and governments. Among them were Lenin and Constantine I of Greece. During the First World War, Sauerbruch was a volunteer in the German army and carried out, among other things, operations behind the front at Ypres. During this time he focused on developing improved hand and arm prostheses and successfully treated numerous soldiers wounded at the front.

In early 1918, Sauerbruch accomplished a secret mission by order of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Under the guise of a health inspection, he handed over confidential letters from the emperor to the governments of Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. In mid-1918 Sauerbruch settled in Munich, where he had access to a modern operating room for the time. He would stay there until 1928.

On 21-02-1919, Sauerbruch saved the life of Anton von Padua Alfred Emil Hubert Georg Graf von Arco

through a successful emergency operation. That day he had murdered Kurt Eisner,

a Bavarian journalist, poet and politician and the leader of the communist Munich Council Republic, and was himself injured in that attack. Sauerbruch got himself into political trouble because of this, and because he had helped Arco, who had been arrested by the communists shortly after the operation, to escape, and was only able to escape being sentenced to death by a “revolution court” through the mediation of the son of an ex-patient. Sauerbruch was able to escape the effects of the hyperinflation of 1922-1923 thanks to wealthy patients who paid him in foreign currency. He was a celebrated man during this time; not only through successful medical treatments (e.g. on Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in 1923), but also through relationships in the business, theater and art worlds, he had become a leading member of society. In the 1920s he also started working with his important colleague and front comrade from the First World War, Rudolf Nissen .

From 1928 Sauerbruch worked in Berlin, together with Nissen, in the university hospital Charité. The Sauerbruch family became friends with the painter Max Liebermann, who portrayed Sauerbruch in 1932. This painting, entitled Der Chirurg, now hangs in the Hamburger Kunsthalle. The friendship lasted until 1935, when Liebermann died. Although Liebermann had been Jewish, and Sauerbruch supported Adolf Hitler, he accompanied his son Hans in Liebermann’s funeral procession.

Sauerbruch saw in Hitler the man who would make amends for the injustice inflicted on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. He enthusiastically supported the new regime, also in speeches and publications. Hermann Goering appointed Sauerbruch in 1934 to Staatsrat, a member of a high advisory council. He managed to get his good friend Rudolf Nissen, who was Jewish, to take over a chair at the University of Istanbul, thereby escaping the persecution of the Jews. He also continued to meet some other Jews in his circle of friends after 1933. Nevertheless, Sauerbruch probably also cooperated with professional bans for certain Jewish colleagues. In 1937 Sauerbruch was still able to travel to London for an important international conference. In the late 1930s, Sauerbruch divorced his first wife Ada and married his colleague Margot Großmann in 1939. Sauerbruch did not join the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP). By contrast, he was a member of the so-called Mittwochsgesellschaft (Wednesday’s Society), a club for public figures with a critical attitude toward National Socialism.

From 1940 to 1942 Sauerbruch was Generalarzt der Reserve. He had to supervise lazarets in, among other things, the occupied Netherlands, Belgium and France, and from 1942 also on the Eastern Front, including in the Crimea. In between, he also treated all kinds of prominent figures from the Nazi period, including major Roland von Hösslin a Hitler resistance man and hanged, minister Bernhard Rust, Joseph Goebbels and Robert Ley, founder of the Deutsche Arbeitsfront, but also Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, known for the conspiracy of 20 July 1944 against Hitler. Sauerbruch was an authoritarian chief at work, but was also, perhaps based on medical ethical principles, an opponent of Hitler’s euthanasia policy.

The tradition of the Mittwochsgesellschaft has existed in Berlin since 1863. This was an informal gathering that took place every Wednesday between 16 or 17 leading Berlin scientists and people in high-ranking public offices. The meeting always took place in the villa of one of the members, who opened the meeting with a lecture about his own field. In 1942 Sauerbruch was a member of this exclusive group, as were Karl Brandt, Ludwig Beck, a senior officer and patient of Sauerbruch, and ex-minister Eduard Johannes Popitz, and Hans Oster, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler and Friedrich Olbricht . Hitler resistance men Historians believe it possible that they discussed plans for the July 20, 1944 plot against Hitler in Sauerbruch’s house with Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg. The failure of this coup led to the ban of the Mittwochsgesellschaft. Through the intercession of the infamous SS doctor Karl Gebhardt with Hitler, Sauerbruch escaped prosecution for possible involvement in this.

In 1937, together with August Bier, he received the National German Prize for Art and Science, the “German Nobel Prize” and the associated 100,000 Reichsmark. From left to right: State secretary Theodor Lewald, Dr. August Bier, Dr. Ferdinand Sauerbruch and Dr. Carl Diem in 1932.

Death and burial ground of Sauerbruch Ernst Ferdinand.


When Berlin came under Russian fire in April 1945, Sauerbruch and his wife continued to operate and provide other medical assistance from a bunker. The Russians knew that Sauerbruch was a very capable doctor, and he operated on several Russian officers immediately after the fall of the Third Reich. After several months, he was detained by the American occupying forces on charges of complicity in Nazism, but was soon released; his denazification process was never completed. In the last years of his life Sauerbruch continued to perform operations, until in 1950 he was no longer able to do so due to dementia. Many accuse him that he still performed operations when he was already demented and that he had committed numerous serious, sometimes even fatal, medical errors. Sauerbruch died on 02-07-1951, in Berlin after a long illness, a severe vascular disease. He was interred in the Berlin-Wannsee cemetery, Lindenstraße, in der Section A.T.-58.

Shortly after Sauerbruch’s death, his memoirs were published under the title Das war mein Leben. However, these were drafted by a ghostwriter, Hans Rudolf Berndorff, and form a positively flattering biography, in which, among other things, his sympathy for Hitler is omitted. The memoir was made into a movie in 1954.

It is still disputed whether, and if so to what extent, Ferdinand Sauerbruch was partly responsible for the medical experiments carried out by Josef Mengele, the  Angel of death, among others, on prisoners in concentration camps, and was therefore directly or indirectly guilty of crimes against humanity. What is certain is that he knew Karl Gebhardt, and therefore may have been aware of his gruesome experiments with sulfonamides on political prisoners. Today many take the view that Sauerbruch knew about it, but did not dare to protest for fear of being sentenced to death for himself and his relatives.



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