In the early 1900s, the eugenics movement gained popularity in many Western countries, including Germany and the United States. Eugenicists viewed the disabled as “subnormal, immoral, and criminal as well as a burden to society and a treat to civilization.” This view of disabled people made sense to many Germans at the time. Although there was a well-established disabled culture in Germany prior to the Nazi era, disabled people occupied “stigmatized, isolated, and marginalized” place in German society. (The same can be said for their place in other Western countries at that time.)
On July 14, 1933, the Nazi government passes a new law: people who are “hereditarily ill” must be compulsively sterilized. In this definition, the Nazis include anyone affected by “congenital feeble-mindedness”; schizophrenia; manic depression; hereditary epilepsy, blindness, or deafness; Huntington’s disease; “serious physical deformities”; or chronic alcoholism. This law was based on the idea that all of these conditions are genetic and that these genes cannot be allowed to pass on.
The text of the law stated: “Whereas the hereditarily healthy families have for the most part adopted a policy of having only one or two children, countless numbers of inferiors and those suffering from hereditary conditions are reproducing unrestrainedly while their sick and asocial offspring burden the community.”
The term euthanasia traditionally applies to the voluntary assisted suicide of people with painful terminal diseases. However, eugenicists changed the definition to refer to what they considered “life unworthy of life.” The Nazi euthanasia program began with the Knauer case, which took place during the winter of 1938-9. Knauer, a German citizen, wanted his hospitalized baby, born with birth defects, to be killed. He wrote a letter to Hitler asking for his assistance. Hitler sent his physician, Karl Brandt, to assess the child’s worthiness to live. Brandt found the baby unworthy of life, and killed him.
Hitler then authorized Brandt, and Philipp Bouhler (head of the Chancellery to the Fuhrer) to deal with future letters in the same way.
Brandt and Bouhler then created a committee which investigated children under care of three different pediatricians and decided whether they should live or die. All of this was done under false pretenses of scientific study. The children sentenced to die were then sent to “special clinics” and either injected or starved to death. At least 5, 200 minors were killed in this manner.
During the summer of 1939, Hitler gave orders to begin euthanizing adults as well. Another committee was created. This committee’s “experts” assessed forms sent in from German asylums and clinics, and decided who should live and die. They worked based on the guideline that a fifth of patients being treated “in residential form” should be euthanized. Adult victims were loaded onto buses and sent to killing centers, where they were gassed. Ashes were then sent to their relatives, along with fake letters which attributed the cause of death to some sudden, asymptomatic disease. However, due to clerical errors (for example, a family receiving two urns of ashes when they only had one relative in an asylum), the euthanasia program soon became an open secret.
On August 24, 1941, Hitler halted the official euthanasia program – most likely because the target figure of deaths had been surpassed. At this point, 93,251 people in total had been killed in the euthanasia program.
After 1941, euthanasia was decentralized and carried out in asylums themselves, through starvation or lethal injection.
At Hartheim, one of the killing centers, disabled people were used in experiments to perfect gassing techniques for later use in concentration camps. “Physicians with stopwatches observed the dying patients through the ‘viewing window’ in the chamber door, and the length of the death process was timed to one-tenth of a second.” They also took slow-motion pictures for later study At killing centers, the victims’ corpses were often mutilated and dissected, with brains and other organs being sold to scientific institutions. Any gold teeth found were melted down for profit.
Disabled prisoners were singled out with special markings, such as an armband which read “Blod” – the German word for feeble-minded. Deaf prisoners wore metal pins saying “deaf and dumb.” Some prisoners were forced to wear signs reading “I am a Moron!” At the camps, disabled people were often selected for medical experimentation. Josef Mengele, a chief physician at Auschwitz, killed and dissected people with dwarfism, sometimes as young as two years old, supposedly “to discover the hereditary causes of dwarfism in order to prevent its occurrence among German offspring.” In 1941, mentally ill, disabled, and sick prisoners were transferred from concentration camps to the killing centers formerly used in the euthanasia program, and gassed there. At least 20,000 people died this way.
“ For you, the word human is no longer applicable… you are guilty of a crime toward me. You abused me. You had me sterilized, killed and destroyed so I can’t have a child. You did not really understand what a human being is.”