'Life Unworthy of Life': The Nazi Euthanasia Programme
Posted by Matthew McCusker on 7 November 2013
We continue our history of the eugenics movement with consideration of the euthanasia programme implemented in Germany under the Third Reich.
The phrase Lebensunwertes Lebens, which means ‘life unworthy of life’, was coined by jurist Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche in their 1920 work Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life) which advocated that people with severe disabilities or psychiatric problems, described by the authors as ‘mentally dead’, ‘human ballast’ or ‘empty shells of human beings’, should be put to death because they were a burden on the rest of society. During the early decades of the twentienth century proposals of this kind were becoming more and more common as the ideology of eugenics took firmer roots and was ever more widely propagated through the works of men and women such as H.G. Wells, Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger. We have already seen how such ideas influenced Adolf Hitler and how, on attaining power, the Nazis immediately began to implement their eugenic ideology, beginning with the forcible sterilisation of those they deemed ‘defective.’ According to Karl Brandt (see below) Hitler told the Reich Doctor’s Leader in 1935 that if war broke out he would implement a ‘euthanasia’ programme; he thought it would be easier to carry out under cover of war because in those circumstances it would be harder for pro-life opposition to be mobilised effectively.
Plans for a euthanasia programme were drawn up in the summer of 1939; on 18th August the registration of ‘malformed’ newborns became compulsory. Doctors were to draw up reports on all ‘malformed’ infants under the age of three years which were to be forwarded to three medical ‘experts’ who would review their cases and decide if they would live or die. The programme was quickly extended to all children, and then to adults, and the earlier ‘safeguards’ abandoned. Originally six ‘clinics’ were established at which these killings would be carried out. By the end of the war the number had increased to thirty. It was also a common practice for hospitals and asylums to be ‘cleansed’ of disabled patients; the first victims of this practice were patients in occupied Poland. The programme was headed by Philip Bouhler, Chief of the Chancellory of the Führer of NSDAP, and Karl Brandt, an abortionist and Hitler’s personal physician. It is usually known as Aktion T4 after the address of its headquarters, Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin.
The creators of the programme were well aware that the large scale killing of disabled people against the will of their parents and relatives would provoke public outcry if it became known and therefore deceit was built into the system from the beginning. Family members would be told that new treatments for their child or relative were available at specialist clinics and would be provided free of charge by the Reich. The patient would then be taken to the clinic and, after a few weeks, would be killed. Parents and families would then be falsely informed that their child had died of natural causes. They were often prepared for their relative’s death by being previously informed that the new treatment methods that were being used ‘carried risks.’ The methods of killing used included starvation, overdose with sedatives, lethal injection, and, at certain centres, death in gas chambers.
As the war progressed procedures rapidly broke down and the killing became more general, more indiscriminate and more widely known. During 1941 opposition from the Catholic Church, and some Protestant pastors, intensified. Two events in August 1941 seem to have contributed to Hitler’s decision to officially suspend the programme on 23rd August 1941. On the 3rd August Clemens Graf von Galen, Archbishop of Münster, vociferously condemned the programme, and revealed details of the deceitful practices used to hide the murders. This sermon, which von Galen telegraphed directly to Hitler himself, caused shockwaves throughout Germany. Later in the month, in Hof, Hitler was jeered by a hostile crowd; probably the first time for many years that he had been so publically opposed.
Despite the ending of the official phase of Aktion T4 the eugenic killing of the disabled continued. Around 73,000 people were killed during the official phase of the programme but by the May 1945 it has been estimated that the number of victims may have reached 200,000. Even the end of the war did not bring about an end of the killings. Richard Jenne was killed on 29th May 1945 in the Kinderfachabteilung in Kaufbeuren more than three weeks after the town was occupied by American troops. We have already seen that the treatment after the war of those involved in the eugenics programme was extraordinarily lenient. The director of Kinderfachabteilung, Valentin Faltlhauser, received a prison sentence of just three years, despite sharing responsibility for the deaths of at least three hundred innocent people. One of Faltlhauser’s victim was a 15 year old boy, of supposedly gyspy ancestry, who was killed after committing theft within the asylum. The first attempt failed, the boy detected that there was something strange in his coffee (it was poisoned) but the second attempt succeeded. He was given a lethal injection after being told he was being inoculated against typhus. Faltlhauser was given a pardon in 1954 by the Bavarian secretary of justice.
The majority of those involved in the murder of disabled children and adults were never punished, or received extremely light punishments, and often went on to continue their medical careers. This fact is unremarkable if we consider that the eugenic ideology was already well established throughout Europe and America, and had long been supported by leading politicians and ‘intellectuals’. The implementation of the eugenic programme has proceeded rapidly since the end of the Second World War; today abortion is the favoured method. The United Kingdom has explicitly eugenic laws under which around 90% of infants diagnosed with spina bifida are aborted; for children diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome the figure may be as high as 92%.
The eugenic killing which began on a large scale in Germany in the late 1930s is now commonplace on all five continents.
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