Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Lest we forget the other holocausts

About 300,000 people including many children were killed in the Nazi's euthanasia programme, Action T4.

They were murdered because they were mentally ill or disabled and considered "unworthy of life." The mass murder of the supposed physically and mentally unfit was a project central to Hitler's thinking and the ideology of National Socialism. The Nazi leader translated ideas from the international eugenics and Social Darwinist movements of the early 20th century into a homicidal campaign to cleanse the German people from ailments and weaknesses.

The Nazis began pushing their eugenic agenda almost immediately after coming to power on January 30, 1933. By July of that year, the Hitler cabinet had approved the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring. It mandated the compulsory sterilization of anyone deemed likely to have children who would suffer from a broad range of conditions, including manic depression, deafness, alcoholism and "congenital imbecility."

Imbecility, in particular, was an extremely flexible concept, and German courts were very receptive to applications made by doctors and health officials for the compulsory sterilization of others. Three-member panels at special Hereditary Health Courts approved 90 percent of such requests. 300,000 to 400,000 people, mostly from German mental institutions, were sterilized before World War II - about half on the grounds of "feeblemindedness." Some of them were later put to death. Historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler called sterilization a "dry run" for the Nazi euthanasia campaigns.

The start of World War II on September 1, 1939, added vicious momentum to an already horrendous attempt to weed out the allegedly unfit from the genetic pool. Those deemed ill no longer merely represented obstacles to the abstract idea of genetic "health." They also consumed resources potentially needed for the war effort. School mathematics textbooks began asking questions like: "The construction of a lunatic asylum costs 6 million marks. How many houses at 15,000 marks each could have been built for that amount?"

"The murder of the sick began during the war," Maike Rotzoll, Deputy Director of the Institute for the History and Ethics of Medicine in Halle, said. "That wasn't accidental. In war, human lives are worth less."

In October 1939, doctors and nurses were told to transfer children they diagnosed with serious genetic ailments to special clinics that were, in reality, killing facilities. Led by Philipp Bouhler, the director of Hitler's private chancellery, and Karl Brandt, one of Hitler's personal physicians, this initiative was soon extended to adults. 

By 1940, six euthanasia centers had been set up in various parts of Germany. 70,273 people were killed in them. The victims were poisoned, starved to death and in the later stages of Action T-4, killed in gas chambers that preceded the ones in Auschwitz and the other concentration camps. For that reason, the euthanasia program is often characterized as a "trial run" or "dress rehearsal" for the Holocaust.

In the main, physicians and others who participated in the euthanasia murders did so voluntarily, sometimes even enthusiastically. In the aftermath of World War II, many of the doctors who bore responsibility for the killings received outrageously mild punishments or none at all.  The Nazi crimes euthanasia programme was a good opportunity for scientists to get their hands on brain tissues and examine rare neurological diseases. Doctors could even order the brain of a certain patient - a patient they found interesting for research.

The brains of Nazi victims were preserved in formalin and kept for later. It was thought research would improve after the war. Even until the 1970s, researchers experimented on those brain parts to find out more about the origins of diseases and conditions, including Down syndrome. They thought this research was ethically unproblematic. They thought that if these people were dead anyway at least their brains could serve medical research. In scientific papers, the origin of the samples was often omitted.

 "It was simply disrespectful to continue using these human tissues for research. It's incompatible with today's ethical standards," says Herwig Czech, a historian at the University of Vienna.

Starting in June, an international research team from Germany, Austria, UK and the US will work together to examine the specimens and to identify the victims. The researchers will try to identify the remains so that they can be properly buried. They sift through books and archives at the Max Planck institutes, as well as at hospitals and psychiatric wards, and the archives of any offices associated with the Nazi euthanasia.