“Most sensed what was to come. Some knelt down with raised hands before the director of the institution, Dr. Lonauer, and begged him not to send them away. Nothing helped them.”Worker in the Niedernhart Mental Institute (Poore, 121)
“The poor, good fellow, who never hurt anyone, and whose biggest pleasure was giving presents to others, couldn’t even end his humble existence with a natural death…. Today they poison the rest of life for healthy people, too, because I can’t get this act out of my mind, and in Albert’s case I can’t accept the rationalizations that high-handed people throw at me.”Sister of a patient killed at the Sonnenstein Euthanasia Centre (Poore, 123)
In the ideal national community of the Third Reich, there was no room for ethnically non-German people. Only those who fit into the Aryan mold would reap the benefits of the future living space (Lebensraum) carved into the geography of Europe for German occupation alone. However, this exclusion not only extended to racial inferiors, but also those with mental and physical disabilities. As the Nazis galvanized around racial theory that stressed the importance of ethnic regeneration and utopia, they viewed disability as a threat to the productivity and well-being of the community. Thus, the regime made efforts to persecute and eventually eliminate so-called “life unworthy of life” by way of sterilization and euthanasia. This ostracization and gradual murder of the disabled was made acceptable and even respectable by reframing programs as legal and moral acts that would socially and financially relieve the Volk.
The arguments of early eugenicists laid out the foundations of violent racial doctrine and justified the Nazis’ shift from disabled individuals as second-class citizens to the victims of mass murder. While the harsh scrutiny that the disabled underwent in Germany was not unique, many leading racial hygienists prescribed particularly parasitic language to this marginalized group. Men such as Alfred Ploetz, founder of the 1905 German Society for Race Hygiene, and Ernst Haeckel contended that the economic, social, and biological future of the German race was at stake due to the perceived degeneracy of the mentally and physically ill. For instance, in his 1904 book The Riddle of Life, Haeckel stressed:
What profit does humanity derive from the thousands of cripples who are born each year… from those with incurable hereditary defects etc. who are kept alive artificially and then raised to adulthood? …what a fathomless sum of worry and grief for their families, what a loss in terms of private resources and costs to the state for the healthy! (Burleigh and Wipperman, 31)
Here, he suggested that those with illnesses burdened both their loved ones and society’s monetary reserves, implying that sources were wasted to keep them “artificially” alive. Such language further hinted that these people could never live worthwhile lives beyond their disorders and contribute to society.
These sentiments were further echoed by jurist Karl Ludwig Lorenz Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche in the 1920s. In their piece on “Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living,” they blamed Germans for prioritizing the maintenance of sick patients rather than the noble sacrifices of soldiers on the battlefield and workers in mines. Professor Mark P. Mostert notes that World War I efforts exacerbated the differences between able-bodied people and those who could not live medically unaided, which attached economic weight to persons with disabilities (156). Given these circumstances, Binding and Hoche argued that in order for the disabled to redeem themselves, they needed to be euthanized, driving home that “It can in no way be doubted that there are living human beings whose death would be a deliverance both for themselves and society, and especially for the state, which would be liberated from a burden that fulfills absolutely no purpose.” In essence, these men characterized the disabled as “lives unworthy of living” who sapped private and federal funds, and that only through their death would they contribute positively to their nation. This reasoning did not escape Nazi leadership, whose policies and programs reflected the visions of their racial theorist predecessors.
Between 1933 and 1938, the Nazis achieved a great deal of pro-natalist legislation and propaganda that underscored the significance of healthy German women. In the eyes of Nazi leadership, the low birth-rate that spanned well into WWI left Aryans vulnerable to enemies. As such, incentives for women and reproductive laws demonstrated a sense of urgency in the Third Reich to account for population shortcomings and promote racial purity. In 1933, a generous system of marriage loans encouraged a woman to devote herself to motherhood and start a family (Stibbe 40). After May of 1934, organizations like the Reich Mothers’ Service (Reichsmütterdienst or RMD) offered courses on housework and childcare, approximately 100,000 classes in which over 1.7 million women attended by 1939 (Stibbe 39). Women also received a Cross of Honour of the German Mother (Mutterehrenkreuz) in recognition of extraordinary contributions to the regime.
Furthermore, Nazi propaganda sought to highlight a woman’s “natural” domestic role as housewives and mothers, often depicting a breast-feeding German matriarch surrounded by her healthy children in a traditionally rural setting. This imagery evoked the Nazi vision of an ideal Aryan family, and underlying that theme, the ideal Nazi woman was presented as the protector of future generations. As Matthew Stibbe explains in his book Women in the Third Reich, she was “aware of her responsibilities to the race and the Volk, over and above her responsibilities to her family and herself” (43). Because private life became a state affair, women’s sex life and marriage reflected the fulfillment of one’s duty to the people’s community, even after sacrificing their careers and other interests. In fact, during a 1934 speech to the National Socialist Women’s Organization, Adolf Hitler went as far as to say that “Each child that [the German woman] brings into the world is a battle that she wages for the existence of her people” (Stackelberg and Winkle, 3.25a). The revival of the ethnic German community was viewed as an ongoing struggle against the rest of the world, and virtually, the woman’s fight to secure her people’s longevity with each strong baby.
At the same time, the Nazis implemented policies that took an aggressive stance against the livelihood of the disabled community. While healthy German women were encouraged to continue their family lines, the mentally and physically ill were not afforded the same opportunity when the regime began its attacks. According to Carol Poore in her chapter on disability in Nazi culture, “groups of disabled people were excluded from all state-financed measures intended to support procreation, as well as welfare measures such as child subsidies, education grants, housing assistance, and the Nazis’ program for evacuating children during World War II (Kinderlandverschickung or KLV)” (80). Furthermore, the 1935 Marriage Health Law prohibited marriage between partners if one person had a mental or physical impairment that would jeopardize the healthy spouse or their children. This criteria ruined prospects for disabled individuals to lead a regular life and be free to start their own families like many German women could and already had.
The most anti-natalist change for the disabled community thus far came in the form of July 1933 legislation. At the time, the Nazis launched the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Disease, which pushed compulsory sterilization if there was a “high probability that [a person’s] offspring [would] suffer from serious physical or mental defects of a hereditary nature.” The decree determined sterilization based on the nine categories and thus boxed in many disabled individuals, whose children were predetermined to be genetically harmful to the racial German body. Mostert points out that this legislation corresponded to the growing view in the public mind that disability and criminality were one and the same (156). The Nazis often dealt with the public behavior of disabled persons, which sometimes seemed inappropriate or erratic, in terms of legal action and criminal justice rather than as a health issue. As such, the Sterilization Law was no different in its treatment of people, viewed as a way to combat urgent social problems. Between 1934 and 1939, about 320,000 women and men were compulsorily sterilized against their will under the law, representing 0.5 percent of the population and including 5,000 ‘eugenic’ abortions (Stibbe 59). Women usually fell under the category of “hereditary feeble-mindedness,” whereas men were sterilized for “schizophrenia.” Furthermore, the law tended to affect the poorest sphere of society the most, suggesting class differences.
Though there was an appeals process to opt out of sterilization, the pleas of people were rarely met with positive news. In fact, Gisela Bock explains that even with abortion laws that allowed for the removal of “defective” pregnancies, “after being declared of ‘inferior value,’ [the woman] was sterilized, too, even against her will, and after 1938 she could not even decide to revoke her initial consent” (408). The state fear of producing “unworthy” children with genes that did not represent the ideal Aryan outweighed the well-being of the individual, particularly those who had little means to fight for themselves.
Not only did acts like the Sterilization Law impact the lives of the disabled, but Nazi propaganda also served to reduce them to an undesirable status that could only be rectified through death. As previously mentioned, even prior to the Nazis, eugenicists placed an emphasis on the economic value of handicapped individuals, who were seen as an unproductive menace in an otherwise flourishing society. Different kinds of media, often operating as warnings, aimed to devalue the disabled experience and victimize the average German. For instance, the slide series “Blood and Soil” reflected the concept of “life unworthy of life” and posited this group as an monetary and emotional burden to others. A healthy German family, in comparison, was shown to not only physically outnumber the ill person, but also outweigh them in terms of contributions to the state and community. These sentiments were even highlighted in a 1935 high school mathematics textbook, which asked students to calculate the annual cost of providing psychiatric care to a disabled person (Benedict and Shields, 154).
In terms of persuasion through art, documentaries such as the 1935 Das Erbe (The Inheritance) and the 1936 Erbkrank (The Hereditarily Ill) were also produced to criminalize, degrade, and dehumanize the mentally and physically ill and legitimize their euthanasia (Benedict and Shields, 150). They featured decrepit-looking characters that would strain family dynamics and not be able to provide for themselves. In contrast, the popular 1941 propaganda film Ich Klage An (I accuse) dramatized the story of a doctor, who made the decision to give his wife a “merciful death” from multiple sclerosis. During a conversation with her husband, the woman admits that “I don’t want to die away later with my body being reduced to a little more than a lump. Please, promise to help me before this moment comes.” Scenes such as this one portray euthanasia as not only the merciful end of a painful life, but also a choice the patient may make themselves. In reality, the Third Reich had no intention of giving those with disabilities such agency as they performed large-scale murder operations.
After years of sterilization and maligning the disabled, the Nazis finally proceeded with their plans of mass murder, which largely operated through the complicity of medical staff. Prior to this shift, health care professionals in Germany were required to report those who had to be sterilized, as well as data collected from the Marriage Health Law (Poore, 77). 1939 marked the year of the children’s euthanasia program, one initiative which was disguised behind front organizations with scientific names that would legitimize the operation, such as “The Reich Committee for the Scientific Registration of Serious Hereditary and Congenitally Based Illnesses” (Benedict and Shields, 157). Through this killing program, children were overdosed or starved, with an estimated three thousand to five thousand children were killed by physicians and nurses (Benedict and Shields, 159). In order to fully coerce medical personnel in the earlier stages, Hitler signed off in an October letter that year and guaranteed that they would not be liable for what he called the “merciful death” of the disabled. This license to kill would begin to manifest as the negligence of staff in the treatment of patients in hospitals and asylums, as those locations would soon become killing centers rather than remain as care-taking spaces.
As soon as euthanasia was authorized, there was little stopping the destruction of life. Once the pace began to pick up, the Nazis created six killing centers that would house the first gas chambers, prototypes of the ones featured among the death camps. In his piece on the exclusion and murder of the disabled, Henry Friedlander stresses that the euthanasia operations were the reality of the Aufartung durch Ausmerzung concept, or “physical regeneration through eradication,” and that “The result was mass murder on the assembly line, a killing technique that rapidly and efficiently moved the victims from arrival to cremation” (147, 155). Headed by Dr. Karl Brandt, Hitler’s chief physician, and Philipp Bouhler, head of the Chancellery of the Führer, the murder process started with the transportation of victims to the institutions, where they would be photographed and gassed. After, their bodies would be cremated and the families received a notification that their loved ones were safely transferred to another asylum, only to receive a letter the week later about how they had died from an unexpected illness. Stibbe details that between 1939 and 1941, the “Aktion T-4” program, after its location on Tiergarten Straße, murdered some 70,273 mentally and physically handicapped adults” (73). Eventually, public outrage at the fake condolences pushed Hitler to halt the program August 24, 1941, but he continued the killings in secrecy after transferring T-4 personnel to occupied Poland and the extermination camps. Historians estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 people were murdered (Conroy, 51). The euthanasia programs, in and of themselves, certainly contributed to the unprecedented magnitude of murder in future years, as well as the Holocaust.
As mentioned earlier, much of the success of the euphemistic “euthanasia” operations relied on the ordinary people turned perpetrators. While Hitler may have launched the process, experts like Stibbe argue that most of the staffs performed their duties willingly and without protest. He elaborates that between 1941 and 1945, nurses:
“assisted directly in the killing process, holding patients down while they were given lethal injections, or sometimes administering the injection themselves, as well as being party to the policy of systematic starvation. At no point were they forced into this; no nurses were sacked or disciplined for refusing to participate in acts of ‘euthanasia’, and those who objected could not merely apply for, but actually insist on, a transfer to another post.” (76)
The evidence suggests not only a habitual, ingrained sense of duty to the people’s community, but poses questions on what drives regular people to such lengths. What remains clear though is that Nazi leadership had done its part, and in order to fully manifest the murder of the disabled, physicians and nurses had to play that equal role of brutality. Though several doctors trials included diversional testimony and the avoidance of accountability, there are also cases such as the Hadamar Trial in which the accused her successfully punished.
In terms of general public outcry, the greatest number of protests against sterilization and euthanasia derived from Catholic and rural areas. For instance, those such as Bishop Clemens August von Galen condemned the state’s crimes against the disabled and rallied the population, which made him a considerable threat to the regime. The blind scholar and activist Rudolf Kraemer was also a shining example of a disabled individual who critiqued eugenics and published work that countered popular economic and military arguments (Conroy). Additionally, for a time, special schools for those with disabilities resisted exclusionary education, some teachers coaching their students on passing intelligence tests and openly opposing sterilization (Poore, 119). However, those mentors were considered the minority, as most continued to report their pupils and sought to convince the relatives that this measure was necessary for the betterment of the national community. The fact that are so few cases of resistance in general, though, speaks volumes of how little was being done for groups such as the disabled, who could do little to defend themselves against an onslaught of exclusion and violence.
Written by Eva Baudler, History-English Major and German Minor, LMU ’20
Benedict, Susan, and Shields, Linda, eds. Nurses and Midwives in Nazi Germany : The Euthanasia Programs. London: Routledge, 2014. Accessed May 8, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Bock, Gisela. “Racism and Sexism in Nazi Germany: Motherhood, Compulsory Sterilization, and the State.” Signs 8, no. 3 (1983): 400-21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173945.
Burleigh, Michael and Wolfgang Wipperman. The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Conroy, Melvyn. Nazi Eugenics: Precursors, Policy, Aftermath. Stuttgart: ibidem Press, 2017.
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Friedlander, Henry. “The Exclusion and Murder of the Disabled.” In Social Outsiders in Nazi Germany, edited by Robert Gellately and Nathan Soltzfus, 145-164. Princeton, NJ/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Mostert, Mark P. “Useless Eaters: Disability as Genocidal Marker in Nazi Germany.” Virginia: Regent University. The Journal of Special Education Vol. 36, no. 3, 2002. 155-168. https://www.regent.edu/acad/schedu/uselesseaters/text/2743414051_1.pdf.
Poore, Carol. “Disability and Nazi Culture.” In Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture, 67-138. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3998/mpub.223254.8.
Stackelberg, Roderick, and Sally Anne. Winkle. The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts. London: Routledge, 2004. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/lmu/reader.action?docID=170682.
Stibbe, Matthew. Women in the Third Reich. London, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.