This post is dedicated to all those who lost their lives during the Holocaust, in all its guises, and to all those who have been victims of other atrocities and acts of genocide.
It was 1st September 1939, when the outbreak of World War Two was declared. The Nazi party under Adolf Hitler had been in power for a number of years and had implemented many changes to law on the domestic front as well as aggressive behavior towards her neighbours. But the day was an important one in history for another reason, in a retrospective way. In order to understand we need to come forward, just a little way, in order to go backwards in time. In October 1939 Hitler signed a new decree, the Euthanasia Decree, backdated to September 1st 1939, for a plan that was already in action. Implemented as a resolution to what he claimed was the growing burden on society of the “incurably sick”. By Spring 1940, the Euthanasia Decree had developed into the Aktion T4 plan, (names after the address of the chancellery administrative centre for the policy, at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin. But it wasn’t a new plan. Climb into the TARDIS, we’re going to step back a few years.
In the 1920s leading psychiatrist, Alfred Hoche and his legal counterpart, Karl Binding wrote a book regarding the subject of suicide and euthanasia Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (“Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living”). The book was produced in two parts, one covering the physical and psychiatric responsibilities of the act, and the other regarding the legal implications in relation to this; Each man wrote his own part. During Hitler’s rise to power, Hoche was allegedly a supporter of the Nazis however, he soon became disillusioned with their less savoury ideals and resigned his position at Freiberg im Breisgau where he was a Professor since 1902 and Director of the Psychiatric Clinic within the facility when the Nazi party took power. Hoch was married to a Jew, and wrote several publications on Eugenics, Euthanasia and suicide and defined a system for categorising various levels of mental illness. He was a strong vocal and literary opponent of the psychoanalytical methodology of Sigmund Freud. In a sad twist of fate following the death of his only son in 1915 and the deterioration of his own mental health as a result of the depression that followed, Hoche died in 1943, allegedly by his own hand. It has since been determined that the works of Hoche and Binding were heavily drawn on in the research and determination of the Nazis to implement the T4 “forced euthanasia” program.
But that’s not where the time-travel ends. Let’s come forward a few years now to 1924, and Mein Kampf. Hitler states within that racial cleansing “will appear as a deed greater than the most victorious wars…”. As part of his program to rid the world of undesirables and inferior humans who were polluting the gene pool whilst greater men went off to die for their country, Hitler later targeted many groups; Jews, political opponents, Communists, Gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses, homosexuals, criminals and others. There were several ideals at work all later to be cast under the eugenics umbrella. Eugenics was in fact a pseudo-science based on Social Darwinism – survival of the fittest. Darwin’s theory of evolution posited that nature would routinely evolve over time, and during the course of its evolution would “weed out” those living creatures, be they plant, bacteria or animal, that she herself designated as the ones with the poorest chance of survival. These would then become extinct. As a result, with these examples cast away and removed from the evolutionary plane, the remainder would be in a better position to continue. Darwin’s half-cousin Sir Francis Galton introduced the concept of Social Darwinism by his study into protection of the weak by the strong, and the resulting contradiction with nature’s natural selection. Eugenics appropriated this theory somewhat (using its literal understanding) to designate that “the fittest” meant the strongest and healthiest, best specimens of life; evolution however has shown us that sometimes it is the weakest that would be more likely to adapt and evolve, as they have the most potential for growth and change, and therefore they would be taken forward at the expense of those who had reached the pinnacle of their evolution and had no room left for further development.
But it was by no means a new concept. Eugenics and the basis of Social Darwinism had their start in the period prior to the Christianisation of Rome particularly. Plato himself had been an advocate of controlling the population and the idea of preventing the inferior members of society from procreation in favour of selective breeding of the ‘superior’. The problems however as Plato stressed were not only that the public would never agree to such measures, but that the progeny of two higher beings wouldn’t necessarily be of high intellect themselves. In Pre-Christian Rome the practice of inspecting newborns for apparent birth defects, and the various methods of “removing” them were open and common-place backed up by the Fourth Table of the Twelve Tables of Roman Law. Drowning was a popular method of euthanizing unwanted or deformed babies. Seneca wrote that “this is not the work of anger, but of reason – to separate the sound from the worthless”. The practice of selective infanticide stretched beyond Rome to Sparta and Athens. Both Hitler and German Scientist Ernst Haeckel was said to have praised Sparta for what they saw as their sensible policy assisting natural selection. Hitler was, however, under the impression that the methodology was a simple case of “execution”, not the actual practice of soaking the infants, generally in wine, and then leaving them out in the open to die of exposure or attack.
So as we can see, the practice of removing weak progeny had been in practice sporadically through time, although had seen a marked decrease with Christianisation. But the subject continued to be a theory much in debate after revival in certain circles since the late 1880s. Before T4 was sanctioned, many countries had taken steps to implement procedures to assist nature, by taking measures such as the forced sterilization programs of the mid 1930s, including Canada, USA, Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and many others. These policies generally hinged around the supposed necessity of preventing the reproductive capabilities of certain individuals, for example those with what were thought to be hereditary or infectious diseases, those with mental or physical disabilities, including low IQ, those who were alcoholics, or criminals, factors that were proposed to be genetically pre-disposed. In 1933, shortly after coming to power and the passing of the Enabling Act of 1933, Hitler announced the passing of a new ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring’ which allowed for the forced sterilisation of anybody suffering from ‘Congenital Mental Deficiency, Schizophrenia, Manic-Depressive Insanity, Hereditary Epilepsy, Hereditary Chorea (Huntington’s), Hereditary Blindness, Hereditary Deafness, Any severe hereditary deformity.’
Although done as an apparent measure to prevent the passing on of what were considered hereditary illnesses, the law was designed to prioritise race. Around 200 “Genetics Courts” were established to try the cases put forward and pass verdicts. From the approximately 4000 appeals that were presented, 3559 were turned down. In the first year over 85,000 cases were presented, with 62500 being successfully passed by the committee for enforced sterilisation. Hot on its heels was a further amendment allowing for the lawful termination of associated pregnancies. In the depths of the Nazi party, being a Jew was also considered grounds for sterilisation, yet termination of an “Aryan” foetus was strictly banned. In America, the leading Eugenics experts E.S. Gosney and Paul Popenoe publicly applauded the Germans for their forward thinking. At this time forced sterilisation was already in place in several states including California, Virginia and Indiana. Charles Davenport at the turn of the century was given the onerous title of “Father of the American Eugenics Movement” following on from the work of Alexander Graham Bell (yes the telephone man!) who had done fairly extensive research into congenital deafness on Martha’s Vineyard twenty years earlier suggesting somewhat discreetly that two congenitally deaf parents were more likely to produce a deaf child and therefore shouldn’t marry. His work however, centred mainly on livestock, leading to his appointment to David Starr Jordan’s Committee on Eugenics, under the umbrella of the American Breeder’s Association. Their thought being that the results of their study of hereditary health problems in animals could viably be transferred to humans. Davenport, allegedly also a later member of the Association, took these studies and ran with the idea, in 1904 securing financial grants for the founding of the Station for Experimental Evolution, later renamed the Carnegie Department of Genetics.
It was through this department that the first moves were made to promote “better breeding” to improve human genetic stock. The Eugenics Records Office was later established to collect and collate hundreds of thousands of medical records for American citizens, to study genetic breeding further, with a distinctly racist agenda. The studies highlighted the claim that certain mental health problems could be hereditary and on the back of these claims, laws were passed prohibiting the marriage and forcing the sterilisation of around 60,000 Americans to restrict the passing on of illnesses such as bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and depression. Indiana Supreme court overturned the ruling in 1927, however Virginia upheld the law forcing the compulsory sterilisation of patients in mental institutions across the state. Meanwhile many states, starting with Connecticut as early as 1896 has passed laws prohibiting the marriage of ‘epileptics, imbeciles and the feeble-minded’. Armed with “proof” from the ERO, Davenport, leading psychiatrist Henry Goddard and conservationist Madison, claimed the root of poor genetics was grounded in the lower classes, and immigrants. Various proposals put forward to eradicate the problem included restricted immigration, sterilisation, segregation and extermination. Is it any wonder Hitler took an active interest?
In Britain, a similar movement was pushed by our old friend Francis Galton, who claimed unequivocal proof that working class people muddied the genetics pool, and should be excluded from breeding, using the number of persons rejected for Army enlistment on medical grounds. The factor of more working class populous versus upper class attempting to enlist was overlooked. The eugenics movement never really took off in the UK, despite being supported by several high-profile figures, including HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill. A small number of private mental health clinics were able to achieve voluntary sterilisations from their mental health patients, but the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act bill for segregation of the “feeble-minded” which was hoped to lead to forced sterilisation failed to pass. A further bill to encourage voluntary sterilisation based on the same “evidence” in the hope that it would be more comfortably received, was also vetoed.
In Australia, using rudimentary flawed eugenics arguments, that highlighted the impending extinction of Aboriginals due to their being unable to sustain themselves genetically, disregarding the factor of increased disease thanks to European settler input – in other words, the white guys were the cause but the cure was to blame the victims – they instigated the policy of forcefully removing “at risk” mixed race children from aboriginal tribes, dependant on the “dominant race” gene, and attempting to assimilate them into white society. Many of the children however were transferred directly to purpose built “mixed race institutes” where they remained due to a basic lack of forward planning by the very people who had taken them away. Once reaching adulthood, they were turned loose and forced to defend for themselves in a limbo state, belonging to neither culture.
So back to Germany we go. It’s now 1933, Hitler has passed his ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring’ and many thousands are forced into giving up their right to have children. Also under the umbrella of genetic pre-disposition social deviances such as the proclivity to sexual promiscuity leading to sexually transmitted diseases and chronic alcoholism are considered worthy additions. In the following six years, an estimated 360,000 Germans were forcibly sterilised. Certain Nazi members pushed for the inclusion of the physically disabled into the program, but Joseph Goebbels was a deciding factor in the not too vocal prominence of the suggestion. By 1935, a “persuasive campaign” was launched to the public to encourage the idea of voluntary euthanasia of those who were deemed without quality of life. In 1939, this movement gained significant ground when a family with a severely disabled child came forward and asked that their son be considered for euthanasia as he was blind and both physically and mentally developmentally delayed. Hitler asked his personal physician, Karl Brandt to consider the petition and using the boy’s medical history, the petition was granted.
Gerhard Kretschmar was born outside of Leipzig in February 1939 to a farm labourer, Richard and his wife Lina. Both were ardent Nazis. Richard, in his petition described his newborn son as “a monster”. Gerhard was born blind with either one or both legs missing (original documentation is contradictory) and only one arm. He was also described as “an idiot”, although there was no way that medical diagnosis of this would have been possible at the time. Gerhard Kretschmar was euthanised in July 1939 probably by lethal injection. He was buried in a Lutheran church; his cause of death was given as heart weakness. Just a few short weeks later, the Reich Committee for the Scientific Registering of Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses was founded, to be led by Karl Brandt, with assistance from Interior Minister Herbert Linden, SS-Oberfuhrer Viktor Brack. Philipp Bouhler was to run the Committee.
There followed compulsory registration of all children born ‘sick or defective’, Aktion T4 commenced. Failure or refusal to register any newborns or small children with a birth defect was heavily punishable, and the onus to provide the records for registration was placed at the feet of the doctors. Many tried to avoid the registration, but by 1941 over 5000 infants had been euthanised. A panel comprising three officials would assess each case based on a simple questionnaire document provided and cast their agreement or dissent by making a mark in the appropriate tick box under ‘treatment’. A red plus meant death, a blue minus meant against killing. The decision to euthanise could only be based on three red crosses, a unanimous decision. Otherwise the child remained under observation until the next attempt at obtaining the warrant came around. The methods employed to carry out the action were lethal injection or gradual starvation. More often the latter as time progressed.
Following the outbreak of war, in September 1939, the procedure rapidly descended into a quick assessment based on doctors’ recommendations and was expanded to include all minors with various borderline defects. Parents were “persuaded” to hand over their children to be sent to special clinics, on the basis that they were receiving treatment, using the threat of forced labour if they didn’t comply. Many, particularly Catholics, were reluctant as the rumours quickly spread of the high numbers of these children who were dying of previously absent illnesses such as pneumonia. By the end of the year, Brandt and Bouhler made plans to expand registration once again to include all institutionalised adults – for more than five years – with physical or mental disabilities. Criteria also included the criminally insane, and crucially those who were neither German citizens or who were not ‘of German or related blood’ including Jews, Gypsies and Black people.
Meanwhile in Poland, following the September invasion, under cover of Operation Tannenberg and the following Intelligentzaktion, over 60,000 targeted Poles were murdered in a series of pre-planned mass executions. These targets were chosen from lists compiled for the purpose by German ex-pats living in Poland and comprised of those the Reich felt to be a threat; activists, scholars, social elite, teachers and so forth. 20,000 of those massacred were children. Nearly 6000 patients in a number of Polish hospitals were also murdered. Operation Tannenberg was the first instance of mobile gas chambers and a gas bunker being used as a method of extermination of these people, although most were shot.
In Germany, six killing centres were created along with experimental gas chambers, such as the one at Brandenberg, with crematoria, including the infamous Hadamar, where the fate of the arriving busloads of patients was so well known, mainly as a result of the obvious plume of odourous smoke emanating from the building, local children would gather around the gates and chant “Here comes another load to be gassed”. The procedures for reporting the deaths grew sloppy, often with random cremation ashes returned to the families, as patients were cremated en masse, not individually, and fake death certificates often arriving on the same day as the patient allegedly died. German Catholic leaders withdrew their support when it became established that the Nazis were indeed using the euthanasia program as a cover for murder of undesirables. On August 3rd 1941, Bishop Clemens von Galen delivered a very public sermon at Munster Cathedral prominently exposing and publicly denouncing the program as ‘plain murder’. German Catholics were urged by the Bishop to denounce the program and distance themselves from the party’s influence due to their ‘ungodly behaviour’. The shockwave of condemnation tore through the Nazi party. Three weeks later the euthanasia program was halted, but the repercussions swiftly followed; three priests who were charged with distributing the sermon was beheaded as punishment. The Bishop was spared for wont of making him a martyr. By this time, over 100,000 people had been murdered directly through Aktion T4.
But then the program quietly continued, without the gassing. The last victim of the Nazi euthanasia program Aktion T4 was Richard Jenne who was killed on 29th May 1945 on the children’s ward of the Kaufbeuren-Irsee State Hospital in Bavaria, three weeks AFTER American troops liberated the town.
In 1947, 23 doctors and administrative staff were tried for their parts in the program, as war crimes and crimes against humanity. 16 were found guilty, and seven of these were executed in 1948. They included Karl Brandt and Viktor Brack. In 1945 seven staff members of Hadamar were tried for war crimes, all were found guilty, three were executed. Two further members were found guilty the following year. Out of a further 20 accused, doctors and senior administrative staff, including several of the key members of the program committee, seven were found guilty and received either prison sentences – two of whom were later pardoned and one released early due to ill health – or executed, six did not face charges or were cleared. Six committed suicide, either before or after arrest including one who evaded capture for 18 years before authorities finally caught up with him. He killed himself before his arrest. And finally one who died in prison awaiting trial.
At the time of writing, several nations around the world still retain LAWFUL provision for, and carry out forced or coercive sterilisations, administer long-term birth control without patient consent or demand reproduction prevention as a condition for various criteria or as a result of a range of scenarios including but not limited to population control, including on racial or social class reasoning, disease control, financial burden, mental incapacity, transgender surgery and intersex corrective surgery. Female Genital Mutilation has been added to the list of forced sterilisation/ birth control practices.