Between 1933 and 1945, ten thousand mentally ill, mentally handicapped or socially conspicuous people were mutilated or murdered. There was no place for them in the so called German People’s Republic. Their need for care and support, made them “ballast existences”, which had to be eliminated. The National Socialist dictatorship provided the requirements for the legitimisation and organisation of what politicians and doctors had long called for. Traditional prejudices against ill and disabled people, and the social distribution conflicts, meant that the majority of the population remained silent.
As the first step on the way to marginalisation, the National Socialist imperial government passed the “Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases” on 14 July 1933. Due to forced sterilisation, passing on so called hereditary diseases to following generations should be prevented. People with “hereditary diseases” included for example people who suffered from physical or mental handicaps, schizophrenia, epilepsy, blindness or deafness. But the law also affected “social misfits” – special needs students, minors in public welfare, people with tuberculosis and alcoholics. Those affected not only experienced an unwanted and dangerous procedure in their body, but also extensive exclusion from the education and social area.
The start of the second world war led to a change in focus. Although only effective in following generations and administratively complex, forced sterilisation was widely restricted. Instead, the mass murder of ill, disabled, socially conspicuous and old people began. When planning this, the organisers assumed, that at least 70,000 terminally ill people and above all occupants requiring permanent care, were staying in the sanatoriums and care homes in the region of the German Empire. Their death should save costs, and at the same time create the hospital capacities they predicted would be required for injured soldiers.
The mass murder was divided into three individual actions:
1939 – 1945 Killing children and young people in domestic care, in the so called special children’s wards (child “euthanasia”);
1940 – 1941 Killing 70,273 occupants of sanatoriums and/or care homes in six central gas killing centres (Action T 4);
1942 – 1945 Killing an unknown number of patients in sanatoriums and care homes, welfare institutions and old people’s homes, decentralised in almost 100 psychiatric institutions through systematic withdrawal of food (so called E-diet (starvation diet)) or through medications (“indiscriminate” or “decentralised euthanasia”).
The perpetrators of the “Euthanasia” did not feel like murderers, but reformers, and alleged that they “killed out of pity”.
At the end of the NS regime, the German justice was faced with the problem of punishing the organised mass murder – the “euthanasia”. For a legal sentencing of the perpetrators, concrete proof of the individual acts of homicide was needed, which for the most part could not be produced. This is why, in the individual criminal proceedings, the defendants – for the most part successfully – tried to present themselves as purely recipients of orders, without any alternative course of action, and to portray the murder as salvation of “run down existences” from their suffering. The minor punishments and frequent acquittals, and the fact that doctors and nurses remained in their professional fields, show the judicial and social acceptances of these reasons.
The victims remained ostracised and continued to be stigmatised. In December 2009, an association for victims of National Socialism, which was founded in 1987, disbanded: the Bund der “Euthanasie”-Geschädigten und Zwangssterilisierten e.V. [The association for those harmed by “euthanasia” and who underwent forced sterilisation]. The members saw it as their business, to find out about the historical happenings, and fight for legal equality for those harmed by “euthanasia” and who underwent forced sterilisation, with other victims of the NS regime. However, most of them had died in the meantime. Now the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Bund der „Euthanasie“-Geschädigten und Zwangssterilisierten [The working group for those harmed by “euthanasia” and who underwent forced sterilisation] acts as a point of contact.
Today, memorials commemorate the victims at the locations of all six gas killing centres, provide information about the perpetrators and their ideology, provide knowledge about the historical happenings to visitors, and are available as contacts for relatives and historians.
Dr. Ute Hoffmann
Memorial for victims for NS “euthanasia” Bernburg