During the Third Reich, sick people and people with physical or mental disabilities were viewed as “parasites to the nation’s body” or as “lives unworthy of life”. In accordance with the principle of racial hygiene, people suffering from a variety of illnesses and those with reduced social adaptability were eradicated. The racial doctrine adopted by the National Socialists was based on the theory of social Darwinism, which derives from Darwin’s principle of “survival of the fittest”. By extinguishing all lives unworthy of life, the Nazis looked to accelerate the natural selection process, thereby creating a true master race with pure hereditary material.
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Based on this principle, Hitler passed the Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses (Sterilisation Law) on the 14th July 1933. Because of this law, thousands of sick or disabled people were forcibly sterilised. In particular, patients diagnosed with imbecility, epilepsy, schizophrenia and psychopathy became victims of the eugenically indicated sterilisations.
# Aktion T4
At the start of the Second World War, the Nazis viewed sick and disabled people as “useless eaters”. They were deemed as wastes of space and therefore a financial burden. On the 9th October 1939, Hitler himself authorised the launch of the murder programme for all lives unworthy of living. In a letter backdated to the 1st September 1939 addressed to the physician Karl Brandt (who was also Bevollmächtigter für das Sanitäts- und Gesundheitswesen [Reich Commissioner for Sanitation and Health], SS-Gruppenführer and lieutenant general of the Waffen-SS) and the Chief of the Chancellery of the Führer Philipp Bouhler. In the letter, he allowed for the extension of all physicians’ authority to grant a Gnadentod (merciful death) to incurably ill patients. Hitler called this murder an Akt der Erlösung (act of salvation).
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The name Aktion T4 derives from the programme’s headquarters being located on Tiergartenstraße 4 in Berlin. Staff members of the Reichsgemeinschaft Heil- und Pflegeanstalten (Reich’s association for care and nursing homes) had to send out notification sheets to all nursing homes in the German Reich, Austria and the occupied territories. In these sheets, physicians had to state their patients’ medical history, duration of stay, diagnosis, prognosis and ability to work. On the basis of these factors, experts in Berlin decided whether they should live or die.
Afterwards, the Gemeinnützige Krankentransportgesellschaft (Charitable Ambulance) took those who had been sentenced to die to one of the six killing centres in Grafeneck, Brandenburg, Hartheim, Pirna, Bernburg and Hadamar. In those euthanasia centres alone, 70,000 adults and children within one year were gassed with carbon monoxide, killed by an overdose or given a lethal injection. The corpses were burnt immediately after the execution, making autopsies impossible. Their relatives received a death certificate with falsified information as to the cause and place of death.
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# Protest and wild euthanasia
Although the programme was operated in secret, its practices were soon revealed and strongly protested. The church in particular protested vehemently against the killing of sick and disabled people. They publicly condemned the Nazis’ practices, wrote to the ministers and formed committees. After a particularly fierce and highly publicised sermon by Clemens August Graf von Galen, the bishop of Münster, Hitler abandoned Aktion T4 on the 24th August 1941. From January 1940 to August 1941 alone, it is estimated that 185,000 people fell victim to the euthanasia (Greek: good death) programme. However, even after the official cancellation of the programme, the killing continued on a smaller scale. The so-called wild euthanasia claimed another 30,000 lives through secretly performed killings in concentration camps, children’s wards and institutions specialising in medicinal killings.
Those diagnosed with schizophrenia, epilepsy, senile diseases, imbecility, syphilis and meningitis, as well as mentally and/or physically disabled people, those suffering from tuberculosis and slave labourers who were incapable of work became victims of euthanasia. It was a mass murder initiated, planned, performed and justified mainly by physicians. The precise number of victims is unknown, due to the operation having been performed in secret with a lot of information missing. It is however assumed that between 200,000 and 300,000 people were killed between 1939 and 1945.
# Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (2012) „Massenmord und Holocaust“ von Michael Wildt. Abrufbar unter: http://www.bpb.de/izpb/151942/massenmord-und-holocaust?p=all (Stand 10.09.16)
# Deutsches Historisches Museum (2015) „Euthanasie“ von Mirjam Husemann. Abrufbar unter: https://www.dhm.de/lemo/kapitel/der-zweite-weltkrieg/voelkermord/euthanasie.html (Stand 10.09.16)
# Klee, E. (2004) „Euthanasie“ im NS-Staat. 11. Auflage, Fischer-Taschenbuch: Frankfurt am Main
# planet-schule.de (2006) „Wissenspool Spuren der NS-Zeit. Hintergrund: Euthanasie“ von Sven Degenhardt. Abrufbar unter: https://www.planet-schule.de/wissenspool/spuren-der-ns-zeit/inhalt/hintergrund/euthanasie.html (Stand 09.09.16)
# planet-wissen.de (2016) „Euthanasie im Dritten Reich“. Abrufbar unter: http://www.planet-wissen.de/geschichte/nationalsozialismus/nationalsozialistische_rassenlehre/pwieeuthanasieimdrittenreich100.html (Stand 09.09.16)
#Rotzoll, M.; Fuchs, P.; Richter, P.; Hohendorf, G. (2010) „Die nationalsozialistische „Euthanasieaktion T4“ – Historische Forschung, individuelle Lebensgeschichten und Erinnerungskultur“ in „Der Nervenarzt“ Nr. 81; Seiten:1326–1332. Abrufbar unter: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Paul_Richter2/publication/46394114_Nazi_Action_T4_Euthanasia_Programme_Historical_research_individual_life_stories_and_the_culture_of_remembrance/links/55f6e02508aec948c462fdb7.pdf (Stand 09.09.16)
# Schmuhl, H-W. (1992) „Rassenhygiene, Nationalsozialismus, Euthanasie. Von der Verhütung zur Vernichtung „lebensunwerten Lebens“ 1890–1945“. 2. Auflage. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: Göttingen
# WDR (2016) „Stichtag 09. Oktober 1939 – Das Euthanasie-Programm der Nazis läuft an“. Abrufbar unter: http://www1.wdr.de/stichtag/stichtag4424.html (Stand 09.09.16)
# Zukunft braucht Erinnerung (2014) „“Aktion T4“ – Systematischer Mord der Nazis an behinderten Menschen“ von Stefan Loubichi. Abrufbar unter: http://www.zukunft-braucht-erinnerung.de/aktion-t4-systematischer-mord-der-nazis-an-behinderten-menschen/ (Stand 10.09.16)