“The last German war secret” by Andrew Rule for Herald – June 27, 2011 12:00AM
IT caused the worst medical disaster in history. It destroyed more lives than were lost on 9/11. Its effects rival Chernobyl and Bhopal, the sinking of the Titanic or the Jonestown Kool-Aid cult poisoning.
It was a drug sold worldwide under a bewildering number of trade names to treat a bewildering number of ailments. Tragically, one of them was to treat morning sickness.
For pregnant women, it was no great remedy for nausea. For their unborn children, it was deadly.
It killed tens of thousands of babies, left thousands more horribly deformed.
Some midwives deliberately let limbless babies die. Some parents went mad or committed suicide or abandoned their infants to charities or the state. Others resigned themselves to lives of quiet desperation and anonymous heroism.
The drug was thalidomide. It is almost exactly 50 years since a brilliant (although later disgraced) Australian doctor called William McBride alerted the world to the monstrous side-effects its makers failed to uncover before pushing it on the market.
Now another Australian – Melbourne lawyer Peter Gordon – has taken up the thalidomide cause to fight for those whose injured bodies have been worn out by decades of over-use.
Gordon doesn’t dodge fights. As a young Footscray Football Club president, he saved the Bulldogs from extinction when the AFL pushed to amalgamate the club with the doomed Fitzroy.
As a gun plaintiff lawyer – representing victims of asbestos, tobacco, silicone breast implants and sexual abuse in the Catholic Church – he took on powerful opponents and mostly won.
When he retired two years ago as head of heavyweight law firm Slater and Gordon to be a consultant – and to improve his tennis game – he told himself he had quit fighting big class actions. He was wrong.
It all changed the day a thalidomide victim he had met by chance asked advice about signing a document. Through him, Gordon met Ken Youdale, an 86-year-old Sydney war hero dedicated to helping thalidomide victims in memory of his daughter Niki, who died from the drug’s effects years ago.
Gordon and Youdale struck up a friendship then struck a deal last year for the British distributor of the drug (Diageo, formerly Distillers) to pay $50million in extra compensation to 45 surviving Australian and New Zealand thalidomiders. This followed a similar deal for British victims.
For Gordon, the victory was not the end of a campaign. It was the start of a crusade.
The more he spoke to people who have gathered material about thalidomide for years, the more he found out. Details of the damage done have been hidden in yellowing archives never before translated into English, and in the memories of people who have stayed silent for half a century.
Through Ken Youdale, he met British and German activists investigating thalidomide’s murky origins in post-war Germany.
Four are thalidomiders – London jewellery dealer Nick Dobrik, Yorkshire businessman Guy Tweedy, Melbourne-born office manager Mikey Argy and German teacher Monika Eisenberg. Backing them is former Royal Air Force officer Dr Martin Johnson, who runs Britain’s Thalidomide Trust.
With the help of a history professor and a brilliant Brussels computer expert, they have traced uncomfortable truths behind the pharmaceutical industry’s darkest hour. The result is a thick dossier on the company that sold thalidomide to an unsuspecting world.
Martin Johnson is working on a book about their discoveries but the last chapter is still unwritten. It will probably figure Gordon, who made his name and his fortune attacking multi-national corporations with multi-million-dollar lawsuits, leading an international legal team against the German industrialists some call “The Boys from Brazil”. It could be his biggest battle yet.
THE worst horror stories can have the most beautiful settings. The horror story of thalidomide begins in the picture-book town of Stolberg, near Aachen, in western Germany.
This is the Rhineland, pretty country with an ugly past. Before and during World War II it was a fascist stronghold, where high-ranking Catholic Nazis cultivated a connection with Aachen Cathedral.
After the war, Aachen was an escape route for Nazis, who secretly crossed the border along what locals call “rat lines” into Belgium or Holland then bought their way to South America.
Even those who did not flee saw Aachen as a haven: from there, at the first sign of being investigated, they could flee, to be harboured by diehard fascists in Holland or Belgium. Political groups that covertly supported ex-SS members flourished in Aachen, now a bustling university city.
Stolberg is close by, surrounded by serene green fields and woods. To get there you drive past a former railway siding where wartime slave workers were unloaded. Further along is a car park, site of the camp where the slaves were locked up at night.
With its castle and old Teutonic houses and shops, Stolberg makes a fairytale backdrop, although the Brothers Grimm could hardly have imagined the grotesque story born here in the 1950s.
In the town square, children play, couples eat ice creams and old people walk fat dogs. The only jarring note is a banner above the town hall door that translates as “No place for neo-nazis”.
It’s a clue that the region attracts the young fascists that are modern Germany’s dirty little secret. A police car is always parked outside the synagogue in Aachen to stop born-again Nazis vandalising it.
Near Stolberg’s square is a handsome old building enclosing a cobbled courtyard. There is no sign of life after office hours but if anyone trying to photograph it gets too close, a security guard steps out and blocks the doorway, alerted by a closed-circuit camera trained on the street.
Locals call this the “mother building” of Chemie Grunenthal, the pharmaceutical firm named after the street flanking the tiny stream that gurgles past the building.
“Grunenthal” means “green valley”, but there is nothing green about the business that started here after the war, growing from an old factory down the road to a huge chemical plant on Aachen’s outskirts. At each Grunenthal site, guards watch for certain cars and people, especially thalidomiders, easy to spot because they mostly have shortened arms and deformed hands. Employees do not talk to thalidomiders — it is “verboten”.
“They know my car,” says Monika Eisenberg, who lives in Cologne but often visits Stolberg in her little black Opel.
Eisenberg, 49, is one of about 2700 surviving German thalidomiders, known as “Contergan kinder” (Contergan children) after a trade name used to label a common thalidomide-based drug. Her left arm is half normal length, the hand tiny and bent so that she wears her wedding ring on her right hand, which has five fingers but no thumb.
But the teacher turned counsellor has an agile mind — she played chess for money to get through university – and is part of the “posse” helping the international legal team build a case against Grunenthal from Australia to North America, New Zealand to Britain.
The company can’t be sued by victims in Germany because of a series of local laws, some specially enacted to protect it.
When Monika Eisenberg was a teenager, her father was killed in a rock-climbing accident. Around that time, her mother refused to sign an agreement to accept the tiny compensation on offer.
Two men visited, urging her mother to sign. When she refused, Monika recalls, one said to her mother: “Mrs Eisenberg, you have a nice house and nice children. Your husband just died. We hope nothing else happens in future.”
Monika never forgot that veiled threat – and the sense of being watched. Now she watches them.
The Grunenthal security guards know her because each time “one of us dies”, she says, she places flowers and lights a candle outside their buildings. Honouring the death of fellow thalidomide victims is harmless enough but it marks her as a troublemaker. And some German companies have ways of dealing with troublemakers.
In 1980 a Grunenthal technician called Christian Wagemann wore an anti-fascist badge to work. He was sacked – and effectively blacklisted in the German pharma industry. He is now a school cook.
Wagemann’s dismissal letter was signed by Otto Ambros, then chairman of the firm’s advisory board and until his death in 1990 a respected figure in the global pharmaceutical business. Ambros also happened to be Hitler’s chief chemical weapons expert and a convicted war criminal.
He helped invent the deadly Sarin nerve gas and ran a section of Auschwitz where thousands of slave workers died. He reputedly killed prisoners to demonstrate the gas and in 1941 wrote that his “dear friendship with the SS is proving very beneficial.” Sacking someone for anti-fascist views was no problem.
Ambros was too valuable a Nazi to be executed for war crimes. So valuable, he later briefed Britain and the United States on nerve gas – and was retained by the British firm Distillers, a relationship that might explain why it trusted hollow assurances the “new” drug was safe.
Some of Ambros’s wartime comrades hanged at Nuremberg but he served only eight years prison on charges of using slave labour before reputedly being employed by Grunenthal, which seemed not to hold a Nazi war record against anyone. Not surprisingly, given its origins.
Chemie Grunenthal was started in 1946 to exploit the post-war demand for antibiotics and other pharmaceutical lines. Its founder, the late Hermann Wirtz, came from a prosperous family that had run the successful Stolberg soap and perfume factory Maurer and Wirtz since 1845.
He apparently used Hitler’s “Aryanisation” program to take over two Jewish-owned firms in the 1930s. Despite Germany’s defeat he emerged with the cash and the contacts to catch a post-war chemical boom, swelling a fortune that would make his descendants rich and powerful.
Industry needed scientists and Germany – like the US, the Soviet Union and Britain – tended to ignore the likelihood that some valuable knowledge was based on experiments done on prisoners in concentration camps. Enter Dr Heinrich Muckter, a former Nazi doctor who had been caught by American soldiers fleeing with a truckload of stolen laboratory equipment from Krakow University in the war’s last days.
Muckter, with his mentor – eminent former Nazi, Professor Werner Schulemann – thrived with Grunenthal. They became part of a global pharmaceutical network, with friends in high places from London to Washington to Rome.
By the mid-1950s, pharmaceutical makers were kings in a borderless business where profit often trumped politics and morality. Within a decade of the war, Muckter and other ex-Nazi opportunists had stared down their pasts with the sort of arrogance that caused a dangerously-untested drug to be inflicted on the world.
The result was that thousands of innocent people suffered death and misery on a scale not seen since wartime.
Those responsible have got away with it. Until now.
THE first known thalidomide victim was born on Christmas Day, 1956, the daughter of a loyal Grunenthal worker given the new drug for his wife to try. His baby was born without ears.
It could have been worse. Babies would be born in the following years with terrible deformities – no anus, no vagina, no arms, no legs – and internal problems so awful it made infant death inevitable, if not desirable.
But missing ears were bad enough – and so close to home it should have rung alarm bells. Except no one wanted to hear. The new product was not about pushing the boundaries of medicine for the common good; it was about profits, and by the mid-1950s, Grunenthal needed profit.
The post-war demand for antibiotics had eased and competition was fierce. To prosper, Grunenthal had to have a best-seller – fast.
It lodged the first patents for thalidomide in 1954, brochures were printed in 1956 to launch it and it was on the market the following year – by which time its two supposed inventors had left the company, later washing their hands of the decision to market it.
To take only three years from patent to market was, by usual standards, a rushed job.
Historians now pose the question: Were the Germans recycling and branding a by-product left over from wartime research into antidotes for nerve gas, Otto Ambros’s specialty?
One thing seems certain. Bar a few half-baked experiments that showed it made mice and rats calm and sleepy with no apparent side-effects, there was no testing of the drug’s safety for pregnant women. A cynic might suspect its promoters saw no reason to “waste” time and money in the rush to get to market.
If so, it was a monstrous misjudgment says Monika Eisenberg, who was born at Cologne more than five years after that first earless baby at Stolberg.
It’s a view widely shared by thalidomiders and their lawyers – there are a dozen in the US alone to handle potential claimants there and in Canada. But even for veterans of complex court battles, unravelling the 50-year-old scandal keeps turning up surprises.
One is that Australia was one of many countries that readily accepted the drug – despite the fact the US (eventually) and East Germany (tellingly) banned it because it seemed too risky. Another surprise is that Grunenthal and its licensees flooded potential markets with sample tablets given free to doctors and hospitals. More than two million sample tablets arrived in the US alone.
So many American women took sample tablets that many more thalidomide babies were born there than the 10 survivors usually acknowledged. Gordon’s American lawyer colleagues have already found more than 100 potential claimants, many in Canada, where the drug was openly sold.
The likelihood that big, untraceable numbers of samples were distributed free to doctors worldwide before the drug went on sale raises a fresh possibility: there are people with birth defects that they don’t know were caused by thalidomide because they have been told all their lives they were random losers in a one-in-a-million genetic lottery.
No one, sometimes not even the victims’ guilt-ridden parents, had any motive to uncover the truth. Not doctors, not chemists, not distributors and especially not those with the best chance of knowing what really happened: the top brass at Grunenthal.
Half a century later, the truth is elusive. But there are clues buried in millions of words of archive material and fading memories.
It just takes someone of rare ability to find it. Three years ago, that person appeared.
TOMAS is not his real name. He looks younger than his 39 years, and lives in an austere converted loft in Belgium with two powerful laptops, tools of trade for a multi-lingual computer wizard straight from a Stieg Larsson novel, right down to his anti-fascist attitude and an eerily photographic memory. His laptops hold millions of words of archival material gleaned from around the world and he can find any of it in seconds.
Tomas was born in West Germany a decade after the thalidomide epidemic. He grew up seeing thalidomiders in the street but it was a controversial film called Eine einzige Tablette (“A single Tablet”) that moved him to act.
He contacted the Thalidomide Trust in Britain and offered to help. Now he is a secret weapon in the search for truth about the drug. One reason to stay anonymous is that he doesn’t trust those he is investigating, he says.
In between the contract consulting work he does for a living, Tomas unearths material showing the drug’s makers should have known better but went ahead with thalidomide anyway. As the Trust’s chief executive, Martin Johnson, says: “These weren’t hicks from the sticks. They knew everything in their field.”
Johnson deals daily with the human wreckage left by the drug. He is determined to right a wrong the British political and legal establishment entrenched in the 1960s and 1970s by backing the huge Distillers firm when it dodged its moral obligation to properly compensate thalidomide victims and their shattered families.
A framed poster in the Trust’s office in England depicts a bottle of Distillers-made gin below the heading “Mother’s ruin . . . Children’s curse”. It urged drinkers to boycott Distillers products in pubs until the company agreed to help thalidomiders.
The nation-wide poster campaign was an audacious tactic in 1972 to get around draconian sub judice laws stifling public criticism of Distillers for spending big on expensive lawyers rather than properly compensating victims of the drug it had blithely bought without checking on potential side effects.
The posters were technically illegal and police tore them down and hunted for people who put them up, but they hit Distillers’ hip-pocket at the same time as the dogged campaign by London’s The Sunday Times to expose how thalidomide children and their families were being bullied by a rich company that manipulated governments and the law.
It was Rupert Murdoch, who in 1972 already owned London’s cheeky tabloids The Sun and News of the World – and later The Sunday Times – who had secretly printed the thousands of anti-Distillers posters to push for justice for the crippled children.
Forty years on, Martin Johnson hopes the world’s biggest media tycoon has a long memory – and a soft spot for the new campaign to make Grunenthal pay.
Murdoch’s intervention showed the thalidomide cause attracted strange bedfellows. It still does.
Johnson is a former air force pilot and committed Christian with a PhD whose previous job was setting up a hospice for dying children.
Guy Tweedy, a blunt, self-made Tory billboard operator from Yorkshire, Mikey Argy, an eloquent Melbourne-born single mother, and Nick Dobrik, a Left-leaning Cambridge-educated antique jewellery dealer, all share a Jewish background but little else except the desire to help thalidomiders worse off than themselves. Monika and Tomas are Germans ashamed of their country’s role in the thalidomide disaster. And Peter Gordon barracks for the Bulldogs.
None of them are in it for money, although Mikey Argy says she could use some extra funds to educate her two girls and modify her house to better suit someone with half-length arms.
If there is a uniting symbol, it is the picture of an armless and legless woman with a big smile, hanging behind Martin Johnson’s desk. She was, he says, one of the most profoundly handicapped people in the world until she died four years ago. And one of the bravest.
She once told him “I’ve got a mouth and ears, haven’t I?” and insisted on working as a telephone counsellor to help others. Johnson’s voice falters as he tells her story. As if missing every limb wasn’t enough, he says, she was abused as a child. And she is not the only one.
Tweedy and Dobrik keep pictures of the same woman in their briefcases to remind them why they do what they do. They know who they are fighting for – and who the enemy is.
Dobrik’s grandfather Joseph lived in Antwerp until a collaborator betrayed him during a sweep for Jews by German soldiers in 1942. He was sent to Auschwitz and, against all odds, survived. Hardened, he joined the Russian Army after being liberated from Auschwitz and became even harder.
When the fighting stopped, he went back to Antwerp, found the Nazi collaborator and killed him.
It’s not a story that Dobrik’s family likes being told. Nick remembers his grandfather as a generous man but talking about the makers of thalidomide brings out the old man’s fierceness in him. “We just want to get the bastards,” he says.
THE house that thalidomide built belongs to the Wirtz family.
It is more than one house, really. There’s the historic company headquarters in Stolgren, the red-brick factory nearby, the massive new factory complex in Aachen, the luxury estate in the tax haven of Eupen across the Belgian border, and the chalet in a millionaire enclave in Switzerland.
The old family soap and perfume businesses are now international concerns, Maurer and Wirtz and Dalli-Werke. But it’s Grunenthal that pushed the Wirtzes up the European rich list. Martin Johnson’s research suggests that success was built on the back of the Jewish-owned businesses the late Hermann Wirtz took over before the war.
Far from making pariahs of the Wirtz family, the thalidomide “failure” made them and some of their employees wealthy.
In the five years that Grunenthal ignored warning signs their drug was dangerously flawed, it made huge profits selling thalidomide-based drugs around the world. Ex-Nazi Heinrich Muckter was paid a bonus of 22 times his annual executive salary of 14,400 marks in 1961 alone – more than 320,000 marks. It made him a millionaire in a year, by modern salary levels.
Here was an indicted criminal put in charge of marketing and promoting an untested drug – and offered massive wealth if it sold. The case of Heinrich Muckter is going to make for interesting evidence.
Whatever Muckter got, of course, his employers presumably stood to get more. Hermann Wirtz’s son, born in 1939 and company chief until 2005, has been made a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, an order revived under Hitler in the 1930s, and an honour usually reserved for those who can afford fat donations to the Catholic Church.
Martin Johnson’s research shows that the Wirtzes paid for a new roof for Aachen Cathedral. Johnson says the job included gilding the inner dome and that it would have cost a fortune.
But when the Wirtz home town, Stolberg, recently decided to acknowledge thalidomide victims, they seemed less generous. Grunenthal reportedly offered just 5000 marks – the price of a secondhand car – to erect a little statue in the town square.
Meanwhile, for the drug’s makers, the thalidomide money still rolls in.
Far from being shelved after the truth about it was finally revealed in late 1961, the notorious compound has been shrewdly tweaked to meet the market.
So far, it has been sold under dozens of trade names in dozens of countries. Its applications range from cold and flu preparations to treating leprosy in the Third World and cancer in the first, an application praised by some and questioned by others.
Thalidomide gets a better press these days. Stories regularly appear in the media marvelling that the formerly notorious drug now apparently saves lives. For those that make it, it’s a case of when you’re on a bad thing, stick to it.
After all, anyone with the recipe and the machinery can produce a cheap product sold at a huge mark-up to the dying and the desperate.
Making thalidomide is no more complicated “than making your own bread,” notes one activist. But regardless of whether it is effective against leprosy or cancer, it still deforms babies.
You might imagine the last thalidomide child was born in 1962, in the year after the alarm was raised. In fact, hundreds have been born since then.
The last was just six months ago in Brazil, where pregnant women sometimes still take the drug without realising the harm it can do. It will all be in Martin Johnson’s book. His working title is The Last Nazi War Crime.
The Herald Sun does not suggest any current owner or employee of Grunenthal has Nazi connections