The opening movement of the Holocaust targeted infants with disabilities first, and then adults in the notorious T-4 program. Between 1939-1945, German doctors and other health care professionals willingly killed hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities—not because they were ordered to by Nazis, but because they believed in eugenics and considered their work a “healing treatment” for the killed patient, the family, and society.
Now, a grim reminder of that carnage has been found near a mental hospital where such killings may have taken place. From the story:
A hospital graveyard in Austria has been found to contain the remains of what are believed to be Nazi euthanasia victims, authorities said today. Preliminary building work on the site in Hall, the Tyrol province in western Austria, was halted as a search began to trace the identities of the victims and their families. Oliver Seifert, a historian who recently found documents relating to the graveyard, in which around 220 patients of the psychiatric institute in Hall are believed to have been buried between 1942 and 1945, told a press conference today that many questions remained unanswered. “At this stage we can’t say that all 220 people were victims of the Nazi euthanasia programme but one of the central questions we will be looking into is how they died,” he said.
He added that his discovery of the documents, during a reorganisation of the hospital archives, showed the death rate of patients at Hall went up considerably towards the end of the war, despite the fact that the institution was not officially part of the Nazis’ euthanasia programme, under which tens of thousands of people with disabilities were killed. The graves may throw light on the way in which euthanasia as a policy was decentralised and, even without orders from on high, became systematic in many psychiatric institutions across the Third Reich whose head doctors bought into the Nazi belief that people with mental disorders were unworthy of life.
Note the quote, “even without orders.” No doctor was forced to commit euthanasia under Nazi Germany (although doctors and midwives were required to report the birth of babies with disabilities). The killers were eager to do so, and indeed, the euthanasia rampage continued for a time even after the war was over.
The key lesson here lies in the overriding importance of human exceptionalism. Once we decide that some human beings have lesser value than other human beings, it ceases to become a question so much of whether we will oppress, discriminate, or even, kill them, but what form the invidiousness will take.
That was certainly the big lesson that the Nuremberg Medical Trials taught us. In 1949, Dr. Leo Alexander, the chief medical investigator wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine words prophetic words that we must never forget. From “Medical Science Under Dictatorship:”
Whatever proportions these crimes finally assumed, it became evident to all who investigated them that they had started from small beginnings. The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitudes of the physicians. It started with the acceptance of the attitude, basic to the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans
Looking at the state of the 1949 culture of American medicine, Dr. Alexander then warned:
In an increasingly utilitarian society these patients [with chronic diseases] are being looked down upon with increasing definiteness as unwanted ballast. A certain amount of rather open contempt for the people who cannot be rehabilitated with present knowledge has developed. This is probably due to a good deal of unconscious hostility, because these people for whom there seem to be no effective remedies, have become a threat to newly acquired delusions of omnipotence. . . . At this point, Americans should remember that the enormity of the euthanasia movement is present in their own midst.
That is now coming true. We see renewed advocacy for the ethical propriety of infanticide—and disabled babies are being killed today in the Netherlands. Eugenic abortion abounds. Euthansia of the sick and disabled is happening—mostly “voluntary,” but also non voluntary.
Dr. Alexander warned us. Death camps and authoritarianism are not necessary to open the door to evil—as the USA eugenics movement showed. Human exceptionalism is the padlock on that dark door. Never again.