Logo of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921.
This exercise contains a factsheet and images that will help you understand some of the key steps taken in the Nazi euthanasia project. By the end of this activity you will have gained a greater understanding of the importance of protecting and upholding democratic values and human rights. In addition you will have reflected on how subtle changes in society and how silence and indifference to the suffering of others can lead to horrific consequences.
The Roots of Nazi “Euthanasia” in Nazi Germany
The roots of Nazi ideology date back to the 19th century. Eugenics was one of the most important of these roots. Eugenicists from all over the world wanted to improve the human genome with the aim of restoring “natural selection” and preventing a supposed degeneration.
The eugenics movement gained influence in different countries all over the world including the USA, Great Britain, Switzerland and Sweden. In Germany “racial hygiene” – a German synonym for eugenics – would “purify” the German people from alien influences and “interbreeding”.
After the First World War, a debate about Euthanasia gained in intensity. The word comes from Greek and originally meant a “good death” from the point of view of the dying person. Many even outside of the far right deplored that so many healthy young men had died in the war while disabled people and psychiatric patients survived at home.
More and more voices advocated the killing of life “unworthy of living” as a matter of mercy. This measure also held out the prospect of ridding society from “ballast existences”. National Socialism embraced those ideas. It wanted to create a “Volksgemeinschaft” (“national community”) of strong and healthy “Aryan” individuals. “Aryans” with genetic diseases as well as Jews were seen as a danger to the racial health of the ethnic community.
Forced Sterilization in Nazi Germany
The Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring in Nazi Germany ("Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses“) was passed into act on 14 July 1933.
“This genetically ill person will cost our People’s Community 60 000 Reichsmarks over his lifetime. Comrade of the people, that’s also your money.” (1938)
After the Nazis came to power in 1933, one of the first projects to strengthen a genetically healthy society was the introduction of a program of enforced sterilization.
The Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring in Nazi Germany ("Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses“) was passed into act on 14 July 1933. From then until 1945 up to 200 000 people – most of them with disabilities or psychiatric illnesses – were sterilized.
The beginning of Nazi Euthanasia
The decision to implement a killing program was made in the early summer of 1939. A first step was the so called “Kindereuthanasie” (“children’s euthanasia”). From August 1939, the Interior Ministry registered children with disabilities, requiring doctors and midwives to report all cases of newborns with severe disabilities.
The children were brought to special departments at clinics where most of the children were killed by lethal injection. The doctors also used them for medical experiments. Between 5 000 and 10 000 children and young people were killed during the “Kindereuthanasie”.
The first adults with disabilities to be killed en masse by the Nazi regime were Poles. Preliminary first experiments involving the gassing of patients were carried out in October 1939 in Posen (Poznań, occupied Poland).
“Aktion T4” – the murder of over 70 000 people in 1940 and 1941
In October 1939 Hitler signed the “Gnadentoderlass” (“mercy death decree”). An organisation was established with six euthanasia centres (Bernburg, Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Hartheim and Pirna) and later on a headquarters located at Berlin's Tiergartenstraße 4 (“Aktion T4”).
Busses brought the condemned patients to the euthanasia centres. Upon arrival they were brought into gas chambers disguised as shower rooms. The people were killed using carbon monoxide and their bodies were burnt in specially installed crematory ovens. The relatives or families of those murdered received official death certificates containing false details.
When “Aktion T4” was stopped in August 1941, over 70 000 people had been killed. Hitler had decided to stop the process as the regime feared it would sour the mood of the population. The halting of "Aktion T4" freed up part of the staff and a number of these “experts of destruction” went on to become involved in the murder of European Jews.
Hartheim Castle with smoke coming out of the crematorium’s chimney (1941).
Wedding of perpetrators in Hartheim, September 1940. From left to right: Christian Wirth (head of the office at the Hartheim euthanasia centre, later one of the leading architects of the mass murder of Jews in occupied Poland), Franz Reichleitner (Wirth’s deputy in Hartheim, later commandant of the Sobibor extermination camp in occupied Poland), Elisabeth Vallaster (the bride, a “nurse” at Hartheim), Josef Vallaster (the groom, crematory worker at Hartheim), Gertrude Blanke (chief of the nursing staff at Hartheim).
“Aktion 14f13” – the murder of invalid and sick prisoners of concentration camps
The euthanasia centres at Bernburg, Pirna-Sonnenstein and Hartheim already had a new task when “Aktion T4” was stopped: the killing of prisoners from various concentration camps under the abbreviation “14f13”.
Those prisoners were murdered in the same way as the victims of “Aktion T4”. Up to 20 000 prisoners fell victim to this action which ended in 1944.
Decentralized euthanasia – the killing of patients in psychiatric clinics
After “Aktion T4” ended, the killing of psychiatric patients and disabled people continued among individual institutions without consultation with Berlin. Patients were killed by overdoses of medicines or died through malnutrition and mistreatment.
It is very difficult to give a total number of victims of decentralized euthanasia because of a lack of reliable sources. It is estimated that more than 100 000 patients of such homes and clinics were killed until 1945.
In addition to actions on the territory of the German Reich, around 30 000 people with disabilities or psychiatric illness were killed in occupied Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
As with most of the other actions of Nazi euthanasia, a lot of information is still missing. Further research is needed.
2.2.a Look at the picture of the logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference (1921). What reasons could there be for the supporters of the eugenics movement to show that eugenics derived from so many different sciences?
2.2.b Why did the ideas of the eugenics movement become so popular with the so-called National Socialists?
2.2.c Why was the so-called Aktion T4 stopped and what happened after the program was shut down?