The Macksey Journal


Work in science studies has demonstrated that metaphors construct a cognitive framework for making sense of both disease and new scientific research. In her 1978 book, Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argued that the dominant metaphor for one disease in particular, cancer, has ultimately become one of war; cancer cells do not just “multiply,” they are invasive—cancer patients do not just “heal,” they “fight a battle.” However, this “war metaphor” for cancer was not always and everywhere so ubiquitous. In the Third Reich, for example, Nazi scientists discussed cancer in terms of independent agency. Cancer cells were viewed not on equal footing with their researchers or even the patients they plagued, but as independent degenerates or revolutionaries that threatened the unity of Nazi society as a whole. Notably, the metaphors that any society adopts are informative of aspects of their culture—and the Nazis’ cancer metaphors were no exception. After conducting a twelve-week examination of Nazi advertisements, books, and research publications at Duke University last fall, I came to understand how metaphors for cancer in Nazi Germany intriguingly reflected the lens through which Nazi professionals saw their own “diseased” world. This paper, drawing on literature from several prominent Nazi cancer scientists (originally analyzed in German), will explain the origins and utility of independence metaphors for cancer in the Third Reich—and how the greater importance of such analysis lies in its capacity to help us understand the paranoia driving (and embedded in) Nazi perceptions of society in general.