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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Anti-vaxxers try to rewrite history, but the truth about the Nazis and vaccination was not clear-cut

The Nazis would take these ideas to their horrific conclusion in the Holocaust, allowing diseases like typhus and cholera to run unchecked through concentration camps and ghettos in order to kill as many Jewish people as possible.

But while Hitler opposed vaccination for conquered peoples, the truth is he did support compulsory vaccination for his German “master race”, but shied away from enforcing it because it was already so controversial.

Vaccine scepticism is as old as vaccines themselves. The world’s first vaccine was developed against smallpox in 1798. It remains the most effective vaccine in history, eradicating a disease that once killed 400,000 people a year in Europe and was responsible for a third of cases of blindness.

But the vaccine was controversial from the start. The Kingdom of Bavaria was the first place to make it compulsory in 1807. Two years later, the policy led to an armed rebellion in the Tyrol led by Andreas Hofer, a devout Catholic who believed it was blasphemous. The scene of that uprising, which left more than 17,000 people dead, lies in modern Austria.

Despite this early opposition, smallpox vaccination caught on across Europe. Britain made it compulsory in 1853, in a law that would remain in force until 1971. The German Empire followed suit in 1874 with the precursor to the law that Hitler would eventually inherit.

But it remained controversial. In 1907 police had to break up an anti-vaxxer demonstration in Vienna – where vaccines weren’t compulsory – after it degenerated into an all-out brawl between protestors and medical students.

A news report from the time describes the protestors as a mix of “supporters of naturopathic treatment, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, and enemies of medical science”.

Long before the Nazis arrived on the scene, the anti-vaxxer movement had become embroiled in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

In 1881, Eugen Karl Dühring, a philosopher and economist considered one of the founding fathers of German anti-Semitism, claimed vaccination was a superstition promoted by Jewish doctors to lure in healthy people and create business for themselves.

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