Ludwig Guttman – Father of the Paralympics

Tomorrow is the opening day of the Paralympic Games, following on from the thoroughly successful Olympic Games in London.The Paralympics began as the Stoke-Mandeville Games when Dr Ludwig Guttman, a pre-eminent German neurosurgeon was invited to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke-Mandeville Hospital.

Dr Ludwig Guttman

One of Germany’s leading pre-World War II neurosurgeons at the Jewish Hospital in Breslau, Guttmann was forced to flee to England in 1939. The Paralympics became an international event in 1952 and is held every four years, usually following and in the same city as the quadrennial Olympic Games.(1)  This year, as London is the venue for both games, it can be said that the Paralympics is truly ‘coming home’ to the place of its birth.

The Telegraph’s article on the BBC production of the story of Guttman and the Paralympics, ‘The Best of Men’ includes a wonderful story about Guttman’s reaction to Kristallnacht, as told by his daughter.

It was on November 9 1938, the Kristallnacht in Germany, when Jewish property was destroyed wholesale and some 30,000 Jews arrested, beaten, murdered or dragged off to concentration camps, that Ludwig Guttmann, medical director of the Jewish Hospital in Breslau, instructed his staff to admit without question anyone arriving that night.

“The next day the Gestapo came to see my father, wanting to know why so many admissions had happened overnight,” Guttmann’s daughter, Eva Loeffler, recalls. Guttmann took them round all the new “patients”, inventing diagnoses. “My father was adamant that all the men were sick… He took the Gestapo from bed to bed, justifying each man’s medical condition.” In his unfinished memoirs, Guttmann recalls that 60 of the 64 admissions from the previous night were saved from the concentration camps. Fully expecting to be hauled off himself, he had donned boots and a coat before setting off to the hospital the next morning.

The incident was one of several in which Guttmann risked his life for his compatriots, as the noose tightened around Germany’s Jewish population. It illustrates the qualities of this formidable neurosurgeon, according to those who knew him: compassion, a strong sense of justice, and immense courage. They were qualities that would help transform the lives of thousands in the years to come – first in Britain where he, his wife Else and two children arrived as virtually penniless refugees the following year, and eventually, around the world.

In the classroom

The story of Ludwig Guttman could be examined in the context of the contributions of refugees to British society – a relevant and current addition to a Citizenship lesson (KS3). It is important to balance teaching the reasons why refugees come to Britain with creating awareness of how refugees and other immigrant groups enrich British society and shape British culture. In 2012 – the Olympic and Paralympic year – Ludwig Guttman, as well as other individuals such as Mo Farrah who came to Britain as a child from Somalia, are excellent case studies and examples.

The HMDT Case Study on Dr Guttman can be downloaded here.


The BBC’s The Best of Men will be shown again on Sunday 2nd September on BBC 2 and BBC 1HD at 10pm.

Claudia Zimmermann will be speaking about the legacy of Ludwig Guttman at the London Jewish Cultural Centre’s special German and Austrian Jewish Refugees Seminar on 13th September.



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