Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide Education
ReviewThe "Euthanasia" of People with Disabilities in Nazi Germany:
Harbinger of the "Final Solution"
by Rachel Young
|Berlin, 1 Sept. 1939
Reich Leader Bouhler and Dr. Med. Brandt are charged with the responsibility of enlarging the competence of certain physicians, designated by name, so that patients who, on the basis of human judgment, are considered incurable, can be granted mercy death after a discerning diagnosis.
(c.f. Friedlander, 1995, p.67)
Operation T4 and the Roots of the Final Solution
Tens of thousands of people with disabilities were murdered during the Holocaust, killed in the so-called "euthanasia" program, authorized by Hitler in the fall of 1939. The purpose of the program (otherwise known as Aktion T4 for the location of the headquarters at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Charlottenberg) was to eliminate people considered "defective" by Nazi ideals - the institutionalized elderly, the incurably ill, and people with various physical or mental disabilities.
Unlike other victims of the Holocaust - the Jews, Roma and Sinti, Gays, Lesbians, and Jehovahs Witnesses - the disabled were not killed in the death camps. Instead, they were systematically murdered in the institutions and state hospitals where they lived or were staying temporarily for health reasons. Hitler's letter (above) was written with the intent of assuring hesitant physicians and civil servants that they would not be criminally liable for murder, should they participate in the program, despite the absence of an officially enacted law authorizing the killing of disabled persons (Friedlander, 1995, pp.62-85). Those who did take part developed an elaborate scheme of deception and disguise in order to keep the killing operations secret.
Operation T4 was the Nazi's first organized mass murder, laying the groundwork for the "final solution" - the massive organized ethnic genocide that took place in the death camps in the later years of WWII. Efficient methods of killing were perfected on people with disabilities in hospitals and later applied in the death camps. Practices such as the "scientific" selection of people considered inferior, meticulous record-keeping, the use of gas chambers to kill large numbers of people at one time, and the use of crematoriums to dispose of bodies were all first used for the mass murder of people with disabilities. (Friedlander, 1995, pp.86-101). The state hospitals and mental institutions where T4 took place served as a training ground for many Nazi officials; in fact, many of the same leaders involved in T4 helped to set up the death camps at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka (Friedlander, 1995 pp.187-245; Burleigh, 1994, p.232).
Although the actual killing of people with disabilities did not begin until the start of the war, the T4 program was based on Nazi ideals developed long before. In 1920, two eminent German scholars, Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, published the book Permission for the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life, in which they argued that the law should permit the killing of the "incurably feebleminded." The authors were not clear about the criteria they considered necessary for inclusion in this category, but Binding asserted his belief that the worth of one's life is dependent on one's worth to society -and those that he considered "feebleminded" he believed unworthy to society. The authors went so far as to discuss methods of implementing the destruction of "life unworthy of life" (Binding & Hoche, 1920, c.f. Friedlander, 1995, p.14). This book put into print ideas that had previously only been contemplated by proponents of the growing German race hygiene movement. Binding and Hoche's ideas merely echoed the general attitude of the scientific community involved in the study of eugenics at the time.
The Psychometrics of Genocide
Emerging from this climate of race hygiene, it is not surprising that as early as 1935, Hitler told the Reich physician leader, Gerhard Wagner, of his plan to implement euthanasia when the war began. While Hitler remained true to his plan, the persecution of people with disabilities actually began in 1933, when the Nazi party came to power. At this time, the sterilization law was put into effect, directed at persons with possible hereditary mental or physical disabilities. Qualification for sterilization was dependent upon human judgment; mental ability was determined using an orally administered test during which examiners also judged the test-takers conduct (e.g. eye contact, pronunciation, rapidity of response). Severity of physical disabilities were also open to subjective decision-making by the examiners. In October of 1935, The Law for the Protection of the Hereditary Health of the German Nations, also known as the Marriage Health Law, was put into effect prohibiting marriages if either party was diagnosed with a mental disability, hereditary disease, (including conditions such as blindness, epilepsy, or physical deformity) contagious illness, or had a legal guardian (Friedlander, 1995, p.31; Burleigh, 1994, pp. 55-60).
Placing a Plus or Minus on a Child's Form
The euthanasia program began in 1939, with the murder of disabled children. These murders were not officially part of T4; T4 referred specifically to the adult killing program. Midwives and physicians were ordered to report all infants born with disabilities, a policy disguised as a scientific investigation to aid children with serious medical conditions. Based solely on the forms filled out by midwives and physicians,"experts" made the decision whether a child was to live or die by placing a plus or minus sign on the child's form. Three experts voted, but all knew what the others had voted - the same forms were passed between the experts (Friedlander, 1995, pp.39-61). Several children's wards where the killing occurred were established in state hospitals or similar institutions. Methods used to murder children included deliberate starvation and overdoses of medications.
Shortly after the killing of children began, the operation expanded to include adults, and became officially known as Operation T4. The gas chamber was developed when the killing of adults began, and a more efficient method of killing was needed to accommodate the much greater numbers of adults being killed (Friedlander, 1995, p.86). Six killing centers were developed in all, including Hadamar, Grafeneck, Brandenburg, Hartheim, Sonnenstein, and Bernburg (Friedlander, 1995, p.103).
In order to keep questioning relatives away, official causes of death were faked. Doctors were supplied with a list of possible causes of death which they matched with patients' age, sex, and physical condition before killing them. Before notifying a family of the death of a relative, a letter was usually sent informing them of the transfer of that patient. Shortly thereafter, a condolence letter was sent expressing sympathy at the unexpected death of the patient. The condolence letters contained false information, not only about the cause of death, but often about the date and place of death. This was done to avoid the possibility of too many families from one town receiving similar death notices from the same institution, at too close a period in time. Although families were asked if they wished to have the ashes of their deceased returned to them, those who did received ashes gathered from the crematorium ovens and randomly distributed among urns. (Burleigh, 1994, p.150; Friedlander, 1995, pp.101-107) The elaborate measures taken to disguise what was actually taking place was likely due to the fact that the doctors, nurses, and other hospitals aids were murdering a population of people comprised primarily of relatives and loved ones of their own supporters, the German, Aryan, public.
Because many of the records were destroyed during the war, an exact number of children murdered in the euthanasia program does not exist. It is estimated that at least 5000 children were killed during WWII in the children's wards (Friedlander, 1995, p.61). An estimated 80,000 adults were murdered in the T4 program (Friedlander, 1995, p.110).
This brief article barely touches the surface of this particular part of the Holocaust. For more in depth information on the tragedies known as Aktion T4 and the children's "euthanasia" program, the Friedlander (1995) and Burleigh (1994) books referenced below are two excellent resources.
Binding & Hoche, (1920) Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (Authorization for the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life.)
Burleigh, M. (1994). Death and Deliverance: 'Euthanasia' in Germany c. 1900-1945. Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge: NY.
Friedlander, H. (1995). The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. The University of North Carolina Press: London.
Copyright (c) 2000, by Rachel Young All Rights Reserved