Life Unworthy of Life – The Euthanasia of the Disabled in Nazi Germany

On 1st September, 1939, Adolf Hitler signed an order authorising the mass murder of German citizens who were identified as physically or mentally disabled. It was the only such authority for enforced euthanasia that Hitler put his name to. The initial target was to be children up to the age of 3. The campaign was conducted by an organization termed ‘T4’, a name derived from the address of the main office, Tiergartenstrasse 4, Berlin. The child victims were taken into the custody of supposed pediatric clinics in both Germany and Austria and were then murdered by either a lethal overdose or by starvation. By the time the program had been extended to include youths up to the age of 17 it had been estimated to have killed some 5,000 children.

T4 expanded its campaign to include adults. They built six sites around Germany to which disabled people of all ages were sent by either bus or rail. Victims were encouraged to shower on arrival, but the wash facilities were actually disguised gas chambers. Carbon monoxide was used to kill the disabled in large numbers. Their bodies were then cremated, and an urn filled from a common pile of ash, along with a fake death certificate, were sent to the victim’s family.

Although T4 initially began work in secret the people of Germany began to protest against the killings, with even the Bishop of Munster daring to criticise the government in a sermon late in 1941. In response, Adolf Hitler publicly halted the killings, but in reality T4 continued its work. A greater effort was made to conceal the activities, however, and local authorities became responsible for deciding on how quickly the program progressed. In the absence of the gas facilities medical staff resorted to the tried and tested lethal injection or simply starved those designated as unworthy of continuing to live. Approximately half of those killed were removed from church run asylums, with the apparent approval of the Catholic or Protestant authorities.

With the success of the German army came an expansion of the government’s area of authority, which brought more populations into contact with the enforced euthanasia campaign. The SS, working in partnership with local police, murdered some 30,000 disabled patients at various institutions. It became a practice to empty hospitals of such people, either to put the buildings to other uses or to free up space for wounded soldiers.

The enforced euthanasia of the disabled predated the start of a similar campaign against the European Jewish population by two years. Many of the techniques, and even the personnel at T4 who developed them, would become active in creating the Holocaust. Despite the apparent cessation of the campaign against the disabled it was actively continued until the end of hostilities in 1945. After the war an investigation suggested that some 70,000 disabled people had died, but today the figure is believed to be closer to 300,000. The true figure will probably never be known simply because the act of killing a disabled person had become commonplace in both the medical fraternity and the military long before the war concluded. Although T4 had kept records of its killings, neither the SS nor those continuing the campaign after it was decentralised in 1941 did.

The reason for the persecution of the disabled in Germany under the Third Reich probably has many different origins. Certainly, eugenics, or rather dysgenics as the Nazi version developed into, had a part to play in promoting a negative opinion of the disabled. Racial purity was also a strong motive, the government approved of various measures designed to strengthen the Aryan race. The cost of maintaining the disabled, often seen as unproductive and a drain of then struggling social resources, was also a factor. Such people were termed as ‘life unworthy of life’ and their killing, although termed euthanasia, was seldom either a good death or of any real benefit to the German society in that the resources expended to achieve the campaign far outweighed any measurable benefit.

In 2014 a national memorial to the people with disabilities who were murdered by the Nazis was dedicated in Berlin. It stands close to the Tiergarten Park, in the vicinity of the T4 office that originated this atrocity against humanity. In comparison to other events that occurred during World War Two the mass murder of disabled people, even today, rarely gets a mention. American authorities did conduct trials against members of T4 and those who worked at the gassing facilities, but such events would be overshadowed by the Nuremberg Trials. Even in death, the disabled were to be marginalised.

Adolf Hitler’s personal edict empowering T4 to carry out a program of enforced euthanasia of disabled people in Germany

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