This week it’s exactly eighty years since my great-grandmother, Emilie Rau, was murdered in a gas chamber built into the cellar of an asylum in Hadamar, a small town close to Frankfurt. She was forty-nine and had four children, of which my grandmother was the eldest.
On the most recent Holocaust Memorial Day, I was asked whether the Holocaust still casts a large shadow over people’s lives. If you imagine a world where not only those people who were murdered were alive, but also their children and grandchildren had come into this world, our society would be very different. I write, but innumerable others do not because they were not born. Looking at history from this angle makes clear that the past is intrinsically linked to the present. We understand why this society is the way it is. It also links to the future by asking: do we want it to be different?
The Nazi so called ‘euthanasia’ program began officially on 1 September 1939 – the same day that Germany invaded Poland. Parallel to the outward declaration of war, an inward war was declared. Those who claimed to be the ‘master race’ sought to enhance that race in order to demonstrate and justify their supremacy both at home and abroad. ‘Cripples’ and ‘idiots’ had no place in the master race.
The killing of disabled people began in January 1940 as part of what was called Aktion T4. There were six killing sites: Brandenburg, Bernburg, Hartheim, Pirna-Sonnenstein, Grafeneck and Hadamar – all of those sites were asylums recently equipped with gas chambers and crematoria. Aktion T4 officially came to an end in August 1941, meaning that it lasted a bit more than one and half years. About 70,000 people were killed in that phase, including, on the 21st of February, my great-grandmother.
However, the killing continued until the end of National Socialism, and in some clinics even until the late 1940s. This second phase of the program took place in a more decentralised way in a greater number of clinics. As the late Ernst Klee writes in his groundbreaking monograph “Euthanasie” im Dritten Reich. Die “Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens” [‘“Euthanasia” in the Third Reich. The “extermination of life unworthy of life”’] The methods also changed, as patients were killed through intentional starvation and overdosing of administered medication and injections.
Over time, the circle of victims broadened. In this second phase, a further estimated 200,000 people were murdered. 5,000 children were murdered in specialised clinics and around 400,000 people were sterilised – among them not only disabled people, but also Romani people, sex workers, Afro-Germans and many other groups that faced multiple forms of discrimination.
All of the doctors who took part in the program did so voluntarily, and in most cases even enthusiastically. They were neither instrumentalised nor coerced by the Nazis. Not one of these doctors had their license to practice medicine revoked, not even those who were convicted or held criminally liable. Scientists continued to publish as experts and reviewers, often maintaining the positions they held before 8 May 1945, the day of Germany’s surrender.
Links to the Holocaust
There was a direct link between Aktion T4 and the Holocaust, as several members of the operational staff of Aktion T4 were relocated to the killing centres in the East to carry out the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’. They were accustomed to murder, knew the procedures and had shown themselves to be ‘clean’, efficient and discrete. What began as the first industrial mass murder perpetrated by the Nazis in the six killing centres in Germany found its personal, conceptual and institutional continuation and expansion on the extermination camps in the East. The mass killing began, then, in the heart of Germany and Austria, and not at the geographical margins. Here, the method of killing with gas was tried out and even some of its apparatus was directly transported to the East.
There are many intersections between Nazi ‘euthanasia’ and the Holocaust which there is no scope to discuss here, but I will touch upon one aspect. If you were ‘Aryan’ and disabled you might have gotten a red ‘plus’ in your case notes – which meant you would be killed – or a blue ‘minus’ – which meant you would be spared. If you were Jewish or Roma and disabled, you would definitely get a plus.
Romani people use the word Porajmos for the genocide on their people, while the words Holocaust and Shoah are commonly reserved to Jewish victims. Consequently, we don’t have a word for the victims of Nazi ‘euthanasia’.
While Holocaust deniers are sadly numerous, there are no Aktion T4 deniers that I’m aware of, except for the neo-Nazi Horst Jürgen Schäfer, a denier of Hadamar. This may be because the gas chambers in German psychiatric institutions never rose to the level of general awareness that the killing centres in the East achieved. It’s almost as though denial was not even necessary, since knowledge is so scant and its recognition does not seem to pose a challenge to German identity.
The murder of the people that Nazis called ‘useless eaters’ was not only advocated during the Third Reich, but it was also not regarded as a crime for a long time in post-war West Germany. Although the Allied Control Council abrogated all the laws that it believed to be infused with National Socialist ideology, the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring was not one of them. In fact, it is one of approximately seventy Nazi laws that are still not declared null and void in contemporary German law. As Jürgen Schreiber documents in an article entitled Schuld ohne Sühne [‘guilt without expiation’], out of 438 criminal proceedings carried out until 1999 concerning Nazi ‘euthanasia’, only 6.8 per cent resulted in verdicts, including numerous acquittals that were greeted by the public with applause. In the rulings well into the 1970s, even when the cases reached the German Supreme Court, the murders were partially justified as morally defensible.
The continuities are countless. I’ll just cite one more example that I find particularly repulsive: a male nurse convicted of being an accessory to the murder of patients in Hadamar was, after his release from prison, employed again in a psychiatric facility at Hadamar. And, yes, those same killing centres continue to operate as psychiatric institutions. Imagine yourself being a patient there.
Airbrushed out of existence
To the extent that people know about Nazi ’euthanasia’ at all, they usually reduce it to Aktion T4. This is a problem, as it is vitally important to speak about the second phase, and the so-called ‘child-euthanasia,’ as well as not forget those who were forcibly sterilised. There are survivors, and hardly anything is known about them. My friend Christoph Schneider just published a book about the survivors of Nazi ’euthanasia’. I believe it to be the first book of its kind.
Some of those who got forcibly sterilized are still alive today. Their number by now is approximately 100. Since they got sterilized, they do not have children to testify their lives and they were shamed so much by German society that they usually do not speak about what was done to them. Almost all of them live without rehabilitation and without any financial compensation for the injustice done to them.
As we all know, survivors and their narratives are important aspects of teaching and learning about National Socialism and the processes of memorial politics. Survivors of Nazi ‘euthanasia’ usually had no access to cultural techniques such as writing or publishing memoirs, or otherwise going public as survivors, because of poverty, impairment or other social deprivation – not to mention the lack of public awareness or interest. The dearth of reports from survivors impedes learning about, identifying and remembering those who were hunted and murdered for being ‘unworthy of life’.
The vast majority of descendants of those exterminated, like myself, have tended to avoid commemorating the lives of their murdered relatives. The perceived danger of one’s own potential stigmatisation as ‘disabled’ leads to processes of avoidance including denial of relatives, a particular fear and special caution regarding possible disabilities and so-called ’mental illnesses’ in later generations, transgenerational trauma, etc. A conscious recognition and acceptance of history in general and family history in particular remains incomplete as a result.
Additionally, up until two years ago apparatus of Holocaust archiving in Germany forbade the use of the full names of Nazi ’euthanasia’ victims, as was also the case for those persecuted for being homosexual or ‘asocial.’ The non-publication of names cements the covering up, the hiding, and the taboos surrounding people murdered as ‘unworthy of life’. Those people who were wilfully stripped of their personalities, made into numbers, gassed, and burned often have no grave and are even today officially airbrushed out of existence. There are cemeteries all over Germany where victims of Nazi ’euthanasia’ are buried without a mention of the fact that they were victims of Nazism. This is not only in contrast to the many other National Socialist victims’ groups, where the names of those murdered are searchable on the internet as a matter of course, but it also counteracts the efforts to restore dignity to those murdered, to give back their individuality and their humanity, and to create a visible space in history and in collective memory.
The scandalous rehabilitation of the perpetrators and the multifarious continuities stand in contrast to the continued humiliation, emotional injury and social ostracism of the survivors and their families. In 1987 the ‘Federation of People Aggrieved by ‘Euthanasia’ and Forced Sterilisation’ commented:
Our efforts to be recognized as people aggrieved by National Socialism and to seek reasonable restitution have not been respected, and moreover denied with injurious and insulting arguments that at times resembled the notions and justifications of the National Socialists themselves.
The struggle against these ideas and regimes of power is not only to be fought in the name of the historical record, but also of contemporary society. I not only look back into the past to remember my great-grandmother, but also to build a better present and an even better future – a future that is not ableist.
Image: Emilie Listmann before her wedding with Christian Rau