Nazi Euthanasia Program


The history of the Nazi Euthanasia program must be understood in the context of the history of eugenics. Eugenics was a field of science that preceded the modern field of genetics. It was essentially concerned with “race hygiene,” and it was a highly respected field of study during the interwar years on either side of the Atlantic. In 1920, two German scholars – one jurist and one psychiatrist – authored a book entitled Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life. They argued along utilitarian lines that it was justifiable to euthanize mentally disabled persons for the sake of society. Such argumentation was not particular to the right-wing; in fact, many progressives endorsed eugenic policies, if not the practice of euthanasia. Regardless, the Nazis drew upon this legacy when they gained power in 1933, turning the philosophy behind eugenics into terrible practice.

One of the first pieces of racial legislation passed by the Nazis was the July 1933 “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring,” wherein people with certain conditions were to be compulsory sterilized. An intricate institutional and bureaucratic framework of doctors, nurses, lawyers, and administrators was set up, and about 300,000 people were forcibly sterilized during the 1930s. In late 1938, a petition from a married couple with a handicapped infant reached Adolf Hilter, asking him to euthanize their disabled child. Under this pretext, Hitler authorized his personal physician, Karl Brandt, as well as Philipp Bouhler, the Chief of the Führer’s Chancellery, and his associate, Viktor Brack, to develop a killing process for handicapped children. The administration that organized the process was housed at a building in Berlin whose address was 4 Tiergartenstrasse; eventually, this address became the codeword for the entire euthanasia program – Aktion T4. In October 1939, Hitler ordered the expansion of this program. His order, however, was backdated to September 1, 1939, the first day of World War II, because the cover of war was needed to divert attention from the public.

Schönbrunn Psychiatric Hospital, 1934. Photo by SS photographer Franz Bauer- Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

Six specialized medical centers were selected to carry out Aktion T4: Hartheim, Sonnenstein, Grafeneck, Bernburg, Brandenburg, and Hadamar. Beginning in January 1940, these centers operated in an industrial manner. Historian Henry Friedlander argues that they developed the “hardware” and the “software” that was later implemented in the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” The “hardware” referred to the technologies of murder, namely gas chambers and crematoria. The “software” was the bureaucratic and formal process that “sanitized” the work of the executioners. Aktion T4 reached its height around August 1941, at which point the program became known and widely criticized after the Catholic Bishop of Limburg petitioned the Reich Minister of Justice in opposition to the program.

“60,000 Reichsmarks is what this person suffering from a hereditary disease costs the People's community during his lifetime. Comrade, that is your money too. Read '[A] New People', the monthly magazine of the Bureau for Race Politics of the NSDAP”- Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

By this time, just months after the invasion of the Soviet Union and the escalation of the genocide against European Jewry, Hitler officially ceased Aktion T4 and transferred its personnel to the East, where they played a significant role in establishing the extermination centers used to murder European Jewry. In particular, T4 personnel and methods were used in Aktion 14f13, the codename of a program that euthanized concentration camp victims who were deemed unfit to work. At any rate, by the end of T4 in the summer of 1941, at least 70,273 people had been officially murdered under the program, but in all likelihood, more than 200,000 were killed under the banner of T4 and other euthanasia programs by the end of the war. In 1946-47, the euthanasia campaign was the subject of the so-called “Doctors’ Trial,” one of the twelve subsequent Nuremberg Trials in which Karl Brandt and his associates were accused (and mostly convicted) of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Brandt on trial, August 20, 1947- Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons