Jasper Johns. Sotheby's, NY.
IN HIS ACCOUNT
Walter Poller confirms that the Nazis continued to sterilize and
castrate even in the camps. People with "schizophrenia, epilepsy,
imbecility, insanity, those convicted of indecent assault were
included," he notes, and "homosexuals were castrated as a matter
of policy there."
The Nazi Murder of the Disabled
In 1999, together with the six
candles representing the estimated six million Jews who perished
in The Shoah, the annual ceremony of remembrance at the five-year-old
US Holocaust Memorial Museum included the lighting of a candle in
memory of the people with disabilities who perished. This was welcome
When the Museum was being constructed
just a few years ago, the inclusion of even part of the story of
the disabled was a point of contention, as was the inclusion of
the persecution of gays and lesbians and the Sinti and Roma peoples.
While carrying out research there, I learned that the museum's presentation
of information about what are alternately referred to as the Forgotten
or Other victim groups continues to need improvement. In exhibits
and in educational pamphlets, we are still referred to as "handicapped,"
a designation objectionable to many of us people with disabilities.
Likewise, the pamphlets about Sinti and Roma people use the word
"gypsy," and the pamphlet on the fate of gays and lesbians
is emblazoned with the word "homosexual."
This institutional failure to
grasp or attend to a changing lexicon disturbed me. On a more personal
level, however, the Holocaust survivors who volunteer to share with
visitors their stories of atrocities, deep personal loss and incredible
survival expressed sincere interest in my work. They volunteer that
they remember knowing or hearing about some of the evils inflicted
on people with disabilities, but memory is faulty. They were young,
after all, and maybe they heard about it afterward.
One quizzes her friend about whether
she knew if a fellow survivor who had spent a long time in the camps
had always had difficulties walking; was she sent there for being
handicapped or for being a Jew, she wonders. We decide that there
is no way to know anymoreso many people were so sick by the
time they were liberated from the camps that they never regained
good health. Some became disabled by reason of their incarceration.
This understandable confusion
about the identity of victims makes me realize that horrid deaths
and suffering are horrible for anybody, regardless of how we might
"classify" them. But it also strengthens my resolve to draw distinctions,
to clarify identities, for how else will the Forgotten victims,
the Other, ever be known and remembered?
Although the Nazi torture and
murder of millions of disabled Germans, Poles, and others is gaining
increasing scholarly attention, it remains nearly unknown in popular
perception. What follows is a small portion of my much larger investigation
and analysis of how this happened.
I. THE ADULT MURDER
the "excessive compassion and love of one's neighbor characteristic
of past centuries," a German psychiatrist advised his colleagues.
In September 1939,
Hitler signed a memo which directed physicians to "grant a mercy
death to patients judged incurably sick, by critical medical examination"
(Proctor, 177), a decree that authorized physicians to kill the
"incurably ill." A large-scale organization was created that included
review committees to decide who would be accorded a "mercy death."
Germany labeled people with disabilities as "useless eaters" with
"lives not worth living."
The mechanisms for mass murder
were developed initially for the killing of men, women and children
with disabilities. These methods, such as carbon monoxide poisoning
and construction of "shower rooms" to allay suspicions, were later
used upon Europe's Jewish population by many of the same personnel
that had earlier decimated the disabled population.
The German government established
an elaborate system of identifying, transporting, and murdering
disabled people that involved three semi-independent corporations.
The Foundation for the Care of Institutions in Public Interest handled
the financial aspects of the program; the Reich Association of Sanatoriums
and Nursing Homes developed selection criteria; finally, the Charitable
Patient Transport Company operated patient transport (Gallagher,
27). The program as a whole is referred to as T4 or Aktion T-4,
because the central headquarters was at 4 Tiergartenstrasse.
German doctors played a critical
role in all aspects of this process. The medical community was the
most enthusiastic supporter of Hitler. More than half of those in
the medical profession were members of the Nazi party. Eighty percent
of Germany's anthropologists joined the party, as well. Many of
them who were also physicians ruled on whether disabling conditions
were genetic. They also helped classify individuals as Aryan or
non-Aryan (Proctor 1999). Many of those involved continued to deny
that the sterilizations and murders were criminal, citing scientific
theories of genetics. Many of the doctors involved returned to their
practices after the war.
Questionnaires about all patients
in long-term hospitals, sanitoriums, and asylum were completed and
sent to the central office. By the middle of the 1930s these questionnaires
were also sent to prisons, reform schools and concentration camps.
The form included questions to determine whether the patient was
"deserving of life." The decisions were again reviewed, generally
by a department head of a medical department at a university (Gallagher,
66). Patients to be killed were transferred from mental institutions,
hospitals, and nursing homes throughout Germany to "observation
institutions." Groups of victims were gathered together before they
were taken to one of six major killing centers.
While this and subsequent programs
were conducted officially in secret, the regime could not have expected
secrecy to last long, given the large numbers of people involved
in everything from preparing questionnaires to driving buses to
the killing centers. All institutions that housed patients were
affected, including religious hospitals and asylums. Inmates of
workhouses and prisons were also designated "deviant" and killed
during this time.
It was German physicians who were
responsible for the implementation of Aktion T-4. All physicians
were mandated to report patients who met selection criteria. The
majority complied. The few who refused to go along were not punished,
or killed, however. As a result of their genetic theories, the medical
community was the driving force that selected, evaluated, judged
and murdered the victims. Doctors on committees were paid ten pfennigs
for each questionnaire they reviewed. Doctors could earn up to $70
in 1940 US dollars. An example is given of one doctor who maintained
his regular duties while passing judgment on 2,058 patients in eighteen
days (Gallagher 66). Hospital directors even made sure that they
received gasoline coupons in return for volunteering their facilities
as killing centers (Gallagher, 101). At
least three hundred and fifty physicians participated in selecting
and executing patients.
Gold teeth were removed from the
bodies and sent to Berlin to be melted down (Gallagher, 74), and
as the bodies piled up, the need for mass disposal prompted some
centers to install conveyor belts to carry bodies to incineration
chambers. For efficiency's sake, a reusable coffin was developed,
with a trapdoor through which the body would fall (Gallagher, 7).
Through the course of the war, doctors and scientists made various
requests for specimens. Professor Julius Hallervordena world-renowned
neuropathologistused over six hundred brains of victims for
his research in brain disease. He informed the killing centers of
his needs, including how the brains should be selected, removed,
preserved, and shipped (Gallagher, 76).
The killing programs were seen
as representing scientific progress. Reports of psychiatrists who
saw the murders as a "further development in psychiatry" include
the professor of psychiatry who warned his colleagues to avoid the
"excessive compassion and love of one's neighbor characteristic
of past centuries" (Gallagher, 160). So many killings were carried
out, however, that some doctors started to worry that they would
run out of patients. One chief physician wrote, "And with mental
patients being taken care of by euthanasia, who will wish to study
psychiatry when it becomes so small a field?" (Gallagher, 33).
In a meeting held before Hitler's
1939 order, psychiatrists, professors, and other members of the
medical community were informed of the program that was about to
be initiated and were invited to participate. The members almost
unanimously volunteered their services. Only one doctor who attended
this session declined to participate (Gallagher, 30). Of the few
doctors who did object, most did so because of concern about the
legality of Hitler's order, not its ethical implications. Doctors
even attempted to draft a euthanasia law to solidify the program's
legal foundation (Proctor, 193). In
a euthanasia trial in 1964, Dr. Hans Hefelmann, one of the chief
physician at the T-4 program headquarters, testified that "no doctor
was ever ordered to participate in the euthanasia program; they
came of their own volition" (Proctor, 193).
A network of workers was required
to drive the vans, dig graves, run the incinerators, clean the hospital
wards, and process forms. Detailed lists were made of patients'
belongings and double-checked when they got on the buses. Jobs in
the T-4 program were considered desirable. School textbooks asked
students to calculate the costs of maintaining people with disabilities
(Proctor, 184), and the Nazi propaganda machine turned out "documentaries"
and made popular movies extolling euthanasia of people with disabilities.
There are widespread reports that
in 1941, a staff party was held at one center to celebrate the cremation
of the ten-thousandth victim. After a body adorned with flags and
a swastika was cremated, doctors and nurses danced to a polka band
and drank beer.
Those judged "genetically inferior"
included more and more categories of people. The term was not restricted
to patients with supposed "genetic" diseases, but began to include
those with epilepsy and retardation, for example. Doctors recommended
and killed all patients with disabilities. One man who had lost
his leg in an accident was approved for extermination (Gallagher,
24). Even the temporarily disabled were often murdered.
The existence and aim of the killing
programs became widely known. The vans that transported patients
to killing centers became a familiar sight. When they passed through
town, children would call out, "There they go again for gassing"
(Gallagher 168). The thick smog from the crematorium attached to
the Hadamar killing institution was visible every day over the town
(Gallagher, 168). There are widespread reports of people with disabilities
resisting being put on the buses. In one case, people with disabilities
organized to let neighboring villagers know that they expected to
be killed. (Gallagher)
The T-4 program was officially
suspended, partly in response to protests, in August of 1941, but
the official goal for numbers killed for the initial stage of the
program had been met by then. The children's murder campaign was
II. Program for
Murder of Disabled Infants and Children
children's killing program continued even after the war had ended,
until discovered by the Allies.
The Reich Committee for Scientific
Research of Serious Illness of Hereditary and Protonic Origin was
formed to implement a children's euthanasia program. On August 18,
1939 a decree signed by the Ministry of the Interior required all
newborns and infants under the age of three to be reported when
"serious hereditary diseases" were suspected. Such diseases included
"deformities, paralysis, Down syndrome, deafness, and various others."
The objective was "to obtain possession
of these abortions and destroy them as soon as possible after they
had been brought into the world" (Gallagher, 97). Questionnaires
were filled out and sent to a committee of physicians who used a
"plus" symbol (+) to recommend "special treatment," meaning
murder, or a "minus" symbol (-), which allowed the child to live.
The children selected were transferred to one of twenty-eight official
killing centers, the majority located in wings of existing hospitals.
These children's deaths were often
slow and painful. Although infants were generally killed with a
massive lethal injection, in many cases the poison was administered
slowly over several days or weeks so that death could be attributed
to pneumonia or similar complications (Proctor, 187). Other doctors
preferred the painful approach of starvation, such as Dr. Hermann
Pfannmuller who wanted his patients to die of "natural causes."
There was popular support for the killing of children with disabilities.
Several cases were reported of families who wanted to "rid themselves
of the burden of having a defective child," and were openly supportive
of infanticide (Proctor, 194).
Some parents who did object to
"final medical assistance" for their children were allowed to take
their babies home; hospitals had no authority to hold a baby against
the parents' wishes (Gallagher, 102), but killing centers received
letters from parents requesting that their child be killed. As early
as 1920, a survey of the parents of 162 disabled children found
that a large number favored death for their own children. One hundred
nineteen said they would consent. Only four rejected euthanasia
under any circumstance (Aly, et al, 30).
Parents and insurance companies
were charged for the food, lodging and health care of the children
even while they were being starved or had poison injected. In many
cases, bills were continued after children were dead. As early as
the fall of 1941, the child-killing program, initially limited to
children under three, was expanded to include children up to the
age of 17. While the adult program was supposedly halted, older
children were simply rerouted through this program. The program
to kill children was never halted, even for appearance's sake.
This program was also a bridge
between definitions of disability and race. It was used to define
children of mixed African-German heritage as inherently degenerate,
for example, as a rationale for sterilizing them. Later, it was
through this program that selected groups of mixed- heritage Jewish-German
children were murdered.
III. The "Wild"
T-4 was officially halted, local physicians murdered patients according
to their personal standards.
During the prewar years and the
first part of the War, the killing programs were defined by the
same Nazi principles of organization that characterized the Reich's
other endeavors. As the fortunes of war turned against Germany,
the "logic" of the killing programs began to break down under the
stress of competing national goals and their implementation grew
inconsistent, a phenomenon that adds to the difficulty of historical
After T-4 was officially halted,
for example, local physicians murdered their patients according
to their own personal standards, and the SS officers who initially
shot people with disabilities in areas taken over by the Reich were
replaced with members of the medical profession using gas in vans.
Viktor Brack, head of T-4's administration, insisted that "the syringe
belongs in the hand of a physician" (Gallagher, 67).
Toward the end of the war, in
April of 1942, orders were changed in the camps because of a shortage
of workers for the Reich. Now only mentally ill and Jewish prisoners
were to be 'selected." Other prisoners were to be kept at work.
(Piper 1998:39) In some cases arrangements were made for prisoners
confined to bed to work from there.
The children's killing program
and the wild euthanasia murders continued even after the war had
ended, until discovered by Allied troops. Polish and Russian workers
who contracted tuberculosis were murdered, and Proctor (1999) discusses
the starvation of inmates in asylums and hospitals. No one knows
how many were starved; those "euthanized," i.e. gassed or injected,
numbered 200,000 by his source (178).
The doctors' trial in the early
Nuremberg cases tried individuals for these crimes. The legal opinion
was that there was no way for international bodies to try Germans
for killing other Germans.
IV. Some Conclusions
Despite the fact that information
about the killing of the disabled is incorporated in numerous scholarly
accounts, the public at large has little knowledge of this campaign
of murder, its scope or its implications. Even researchers often
remain misinformed about aspects of the Nazi's campaign, assuming,
for example, that people with disabilities were not among those
imprisoned and killed in the concentration camps. As I researched
aspects of this question at the Unites States Holocaust Memorial
Museum, the archivist who assisted me repeatedly stated that "handicapped"
people were never in the camps.
People with disabilities were
also part of the huge slave labor force necessary for running the
Reich's wartime industries. This detail is overlooked in most of
the literature, largely because scholars seem to have taken at face
value the Nazi claim that people with disabilities had to be killed
because they were sick, incurable and nonproductive.
The historical investigation of
how people with disabilities were systematically murdered continues
to be obscured by misinformation and errors of interpretation. The
under- lying ableism of most historians needs to be addressed before
we will have a clear and comprehensive account of what befell disabled
people in the Third Reich and its ongoing implications for disability
© 2000 Sandy O'Neill
account appears in slightly different form as part of Sandy O'Neill's
Ph.D. dissertation, "First They Killed the 'Crazies' and 'Cripples':
The Ableist Persecution and Murders of People with Disabilities
by Nazi Germany 1933-45, An Anthropological Perspective." BENT is
grateful for the opportunity to publish this excerpt.
(SIMCHA@aol.com), a person
with disabilities, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a
longtime social justice scholar and activist.
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