The extinction of people with mental and physical disabilities by German physicians during the Nazi time

Thursday, 23rd September 2021 Historical Lecture Michael Seidel 04:45pm - 05:30pm Room: Humboldt

During the Nazi time about 270,000 German citizens with disabilities and mental disorders were compulsorily sterilized due to a Nazi law from July 1933. The haste of its implementation proves the interest of the Nazi state authorities for a biological “solution” to social problems, for purifying the “race” and for saving money for care of future offspring of sick and disabled people.

Another crime was the extermination of people with disabilities. Between 1939 and 1945, about 275,000 - 300,000 people with disabilities were killed. In October 1939 Hitler signed a euthanasia note authorizing his physician Brandt and others to start the secret killing programme (after WW II named Action T4). Selected physicians were authorized to select patients for the "mercy death". The first victims were German citizens. Later citizens of occupied countries (Poland, Bohemia, Belarus, Latvia etc.) were murdered too.

During 1940, mounting rumors of what was taking place spread. Families withdrew their relatives from institutions to care for them at home. Some doctors manipulated the diagnoses of the patients in order to avoid that they fulfill T4 criteria. Some clergymen offered opposition against the killing activities. Pastor F. von Bodelschwingh (director of the Bethel Institution at Bielefeld) and Pastor Braune (director of the Hoffnungstal Institution near Berlin) were among the protesters. Due to the rumors and protests Hitler dictated the end of the T4 killings in August 1941. The planned death total for the programme of 70,000 deaths had been reached. The formal end of the T4 programme did not stop the killing. From the end of 1941 the killing continued, albeit less systematically, until the end of the war.

1945 the allied troops liberated Germany and Europe from the Nazi regime. The German physicians and their professional organizations started soon to fool the public. They stated that only a small number of fanatic followers of the Nazi ideology were involved. It is, however, well documented that many physicians and nurses were involved. A noticeable number of high-level physicians took part actively in planning and execution of the killings. Only a few physicians opposed actively against the killings, many collaborated.

Researchers suggested various explanations for the crimes: ideological, racial, economic reasons etc. The relation to the beginning of WW II is obvious. Therefore, the economic reasons played a dominant role. In the meantime, much research has been conducted. Professional organizations and institutions commissioned investigations of their history during the Nazi time.

The historical lecture describes development of the medical crimes, reflect their background and consider the consequences for today and in the future. The most important insight is: The absolute respect for human dignity and unlimited human rights for all people may prevent that such crimes against people with disabilities may recur.

Simple and to the point:

  • During the Nazi era, 270,000 people with disabilities and mental disorders were forcibly sterilized and up to 300,000 people with disabilities were murdered
  • However, the secret killing program became known in 1940 and there was resistance among the German population
  • In 1941, the systematic killing was stopped, but the murder continued until the end of the war, for example by depriving people of food.
  • Many high-ranking doctors and medical personnel actively participated in the planning and execution of the killings
  • After the war, medical professional associations claimed that only a small number of fanatical followers of Nazi ideology were involved in the killings
  • Conclusion of the late reappraisal is that only full respect for the dignity and rights of all humans can prevent such crimes against people with disabilities