Before the most gruesome aspects of the Holocaust, Germany began to implement other ways of “cleansing” its population. One of the programs used for such purposes was called Aktion T4 (though the name was introduced at a later date), more commonly known as the Nazi’s euthanasia program.
The Merciful Death
Though some Germans called the program the “merciful death,” the involuntary euthanasia program was a direct result of the belief the German race had to be wiped of any disabilities, both physical and mental. This belief became popular almost in tandem with the idea that sterilization was necessary to eliminate behaviors that were considered to be hereditary.
In 1933, as the Nazis were gaining power, a law “for the prevention of hereditarily diseased offspring” was passed, requiring sterilization of those with disabilities such as schizophrenia and epilepsy. Anyone living in a nursing home, prison or asylum was fair game to be sterilized, and it’s estimated that more than 360,000 people were during the law’s reign until 1939. It was also suggested during the time that the law be extended to those with physical deformities, but such ideas were generally hushed, as one particularly powerful Nazi administrator had a deformed limb.
The sterilization only declined when, at the end of the 1930s, the country began to experience a labor shortage. Those with disabilities, instead of being sterilized, were put to work.
A Problem More Suited For War
During this near decade of sterilization hysteria, Hitler was quite interested in the all out killing of the ill. He told this to some trusted friends, and also mentioned that the public wouldn’t readily accept such an idea. Instead, he felt his aim to both kill the ill and wipe out the need for mental asylums was more suited for wartime.
Aktion T4 began in 1938, when Hitler asked his personal doctor, Karl Brandt, to take on a mercy killing at bequest of a family for their blind, physically and mentally challenged son. After, Hitler ordered Brandt to do the same with any other familial requests. He then quickly established the Committee for the Scientific Registering of Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses. The committee registered all sick or “defective” infants and then began killing them. It’s estimated that more than 5,000 were killed by 1941.
It didn’t take Hitler long to find many supporters for his cause. Eugenics was a hugely popular movement among many German soldiers. This was true in the 1930s, when economic troubles caused a decrease in funding to state hospitals. As mental asylums faced poverty and overcrowding, they also faced a hatred from many individuals, who viewed the residents as “degenerates.” During this time, the Nazi party also carried out a series of propaganda efforts in order to promote euthanasia. Leaflets, posters and films were created to draw attention to the large amount of German money which went to funding care for the ill and insane.
Once the war started up, the killing spree only intensified. One Nazi doctor is quoted as saying that it was simply unbearable that young and able Germans were dying in war, while the mentally disabled were living peacefully and comfortably within asylums. He therefore began to gradually decrease food rations in the asylums, as he felt this was more merciful than death by injection.
Aktion T4 in its Prime
When the Committee for the Scientific Registering of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses was formed, so were six extermination centers. These were also considered centers of science, with Nazi researchers using many of the victims’ bodies for medical examination and study.
Soon, there was no need for a guardian consent or request to euthanize children. Instead, midwives and doctors were required to report all infant disabilities to the committee. Beyond infants, children under three were also required to be reported. Disabilities that were under scrutiny included downs syndrome, microcephaly, any malformations and paralysis. Three “experts” would review the report and then decide whether or not the child would be euthanized.
To deal with parents, the officials would generally tell them their children were being sent to a special ward for improved treatment. There, the children would mysteriously die of pneumonia, which was actually a lethal injection of phenol. Some parents who resisted were told all of their children would be taken if they did not comply. Others were told they would be taken to labor camps if they did not release the child in question.
After the war began, the age limit for children was expanded to include all minors.
Expansion of the Program
Soon, it was decided that T4 would apply to adults as well. However, the first adults the Nazis killed due to their disabilities were not Germans. Rather, they were Poles. After the invasion of Poland, the Nazis emptied the hospitals and mental asylums and conducted mass shootings. It’s expected tens of thousands died this way. The spread of killings to German adults with disabilities came about near Poland, when hospital space was needed to treat soldiers. Knowing of the nearby Polish exterminations, Nazi officials conducted similar operations on German ground.
The idea of killing German adults quickly spread, and soon reports were required from all nursing homes and sanatoriums. The qualifications for death were also extended, to include those with dementia, syphilis and “general terminal neurological conditions.” Soon, the ways in which the patients were killed expanded as well, and gas chambers were implemented, much like those used in concentration camps.
The bodies of the victims would be incinerated and then dozens upon dozens of urns would be filled with the mass of ashes. Every family of a patient would receive an urn and a certificate of death stating a fake but plausible cause.
It’s expected that more than 70,000 people died as part of the Nazi Euthanasia Program.