Untold Stories of Stolen Lives; The T4 'Euthanasia' Programme
Thursday, 27 January, 2011

The town of Hadamar lies near Wiesbaden in Germany.  Tourists passing through are invited to admire the landscape, explore Hadamar’s historical buildings, admire its rose gardens and book a cruise on the river Lahn but how many of us are aware of the Untold Stories which unfolded and ended there during the Nazi era?  Hadamar played a central role in Nazi programmes of discrimination.  The sanatorium or hospital, which had been there since the nineteenth century, became an official killing centre for the Nazi regime.  Within its confines many disabled people were deliberately murdered because they did not meet Nazi requirements for the building of a master race.  How could a place built to care for the welfare of people become a site of mass murder? 

The Nazis falsely believed that some human beings were superior to others.  They saw themselves as leaders of this superior group and aimed to develop and preserve a pure Aryan master race.  They took a Social Darwinist approach towards humanity but then adapted it to suit their own purposes.  The result was a sinister system of deliberate selection and exclusion. They wanted to select those they believed to be the most ‘perfect’ human beings and through them develop what they saw as a ‘pure’ and ‘untainted’ group of people.  They used a false science of race to support their ideas.  They believed that each generation passed physical characteristics down to the next via a person’s blood.  They decided that to create their dream race they would need ‘pure’ blood.  They planned to purify Aryan blood by preventing anything they saw as ‘undesirable’ from ‘polluting’ it.  They decided that this meant those they called ‘undesirables’ could not be allowed to live normal lives, mix with the rest of the population and have children.  According to the Nazis these ‘undesirables’ included the disabled.

The Nazis thought that population growth within their ‘perfect’ community was slowing down even though the overall population was rising.  They calculated that there would eventually be a growing number of disabled people in society.  As they labelled disabled people ‘undesirable’ they did not value individual lives.  They claimed that many of the economic difficulties in Germany were caused by the ‘unfair burden’ of support for people with disabilities.  They believed that disabled people were ‘unworthy of life’ and devised terrible ways to remove them from society.

As not everyone agreed with their ideas the Nazis designed propaganda to persuade people to support their plans.  Films, posters and newsreels in cinemas presented the disabled community as incapable of productive work.  Disabled people were called ‘useless eaters’.  This was a lie.  Most disabled people were expected to work very hard.  Those who lived in institutions were even conscripted into forced labour.

The Nazi message placed great emphasis on how expensive it was to look after disabled people.  Propaganda reached everywhere, even classrooms where in maths text books students were presented with questions asking them to calculate how many wounded soldiers could be looked after, or how many houses could be built if hospital beds were vacated by those not capable of working.  A film Ich Klarge An (I Accuse) was shown in cinemas throughout Germany.  It told the story of a disabled woman; she had Multiple Sclerosis and her husband, a doctor, deliberately killed her with a lethal drug.  Subsequently the husband was tried for murder but acquitted because killing in such circumstances was declared to be ‘mercy rather than murder.’  Through the film and in books the audience was being persuaded to accept a 'euthanasia' programme without question.

Once propaganda had prepared the way for action, disabled people became targets for specific treatment.  Having argued that disabled people were less worthy of life and a potential burden on society the Nazis created a new law.  In July 1933 the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases brought in a compulsory sterilisation programme which targeted people with mental or hereditary illness.  Sterilisation for people with mental illness was not a completely new idea in Germany; voluntary sterilisation had been allowed by law in 1932 before the Nazis came to power, but now the disabled and their families had no choice. 

Those who suffered under this programme were officially described as Geisteskranke or  ‘mental patients’ however the scope of the legislation was wide, so that people with epilepsy, the blind and the deaf as well as those with physical disabilities and people regarded as alcoholics could also be forced to submit to the procedure.  The most common reason for sterilisation was simply given as ‘feeblemindedness’ a broad term which could cover almost anything.  A doctor’s diagnosis could now change a person’s quality of life.  

All medical staff were ordered to register every case of genetic disability which came to their attention and genetic health courts were set up.  Here doctors would present recommendations for sterilisation and although people selected for this operation could appeal it was often very hard to overturn the decision of the court.  In 1934 out of almost 4,000 appeals only 77 were successful[1].  Forced sterilisation leaves mental and physical scars and many victims were too traumatised to speak about their pain.  There are many Untold Stories of the anguish felt by those forced to undergo surgical operations they did not want.  It is estimated that over 350,000 forced sterilisations took place.    

Then a more drastic step was taken.  From 18 August 1939 registration of all ‘malformed’ newborn children was made compulsory.  German midwives and doctors were ordered to report any child known to them who was born deaf or blind, with paralysis or with a neurological disorder such as Down’s Syndrome, microcephaly or hydrocephaly.  The reports were sent to the Reich Committee offices in Berlin to be studied by a panel of ‘experts’.  Although these experts did not actually see or examine the children concerned they made decisions marking a plus or a minus sign on the reports.  A plus sign meant that the child was to be murdered.  The children singled out for extermination were then transferred to special wards in hospitals and clinics where they were murdered.  The sanatorium at Hadamar received such children.  A sister who worked at a children’s home, run by nuns, remembered the day Nazi officials took the children away:

Some of the patients hung on to the nuns for dear life.  They felt what was happening… They cried and they screamed.  Even the helpers and doctors cried.  It was heartbreaking.[2]

It was easier to take children who were already in institutions to the wards at Hadamar.  There were fewer people to speak up for them.  Persuading parents who cared for their children at home to part with their child was more difficult.  Some parents refused to co-operate with the authorities.  A number of officials provided families with false hopes of cures or better treatment for their disabled child whilst others used threats, telling parents that they could lose all parental rights if they refused to hand their child over to the authorities. 

In the killing wards death for many infants was through a lethal drug given in tablet form or if a child would not swallow the ‘medicine’, by an injection.  Some were simply left to starve.  When the child was dead Nazi officials lied to parents, sending them an official condolence letter which claimed the child died of natural causes or an infection.  The parents were informed that their child’s body had already been cremated or buried to prevent the spread of infection.

As the children’s killing programme continued the Nazis turned their attention to disabled adults.  Local officials were ordered to provide details of all institutions in their area which looked after ‘mental patients, epileptics and the feebleminded.’  Staff within these institutions had to fill out forms providing a description of the institution and information on individual patients.  Under a secret plan code named T4, after the address of the programme’s central office at 4 Tiergartenstrasse Berlin, records of disabled people were examined by experts who decided whether individuals should live or die.  Those selected to die were murdered by injection or by gas inhalation in ‘shower rooms’ in at least six 'euthanasia' centres.  Hadamar’s sanatorium was one of these centres.  Here, upon admission, patients were asked to undress.  Then they went through a registration process and medical examination.  They were assigned a number which was taped to or stamped on their backs.  They were photographed and then taken to be showered.  The photographs were kept so that doctors could prove that all the people who went through the 'euthanasia' programme were ‘physically inferior.’

There are thousands of Untold Stories from Hadamar.  We do not know the names of all the people who were murdered but we know that thousands of disabled people went into the sanatorium at Hadamar and did not return to the outside world.  It was all too easy to hide the fact that murders were taking place at Hadamar.  Local people were used to seeing smoke rising above the institution because Hadamar also functioned as a crematorium for members of the community who had died of natural causes.  It took time for anyone to notice anything unusual, though an increase in the death rate for the disabled began to suggest that something sinister was taking place.  People became aware that though buses full of patients were going into the sanatorium only empty buses left.  Children living nearby are reported to have shouted at arriving busloads of patients ‘here comes some more to be gassed’ and to have taunted their classmates saying ‘You’re an idiot!  You’ll be sent to bake in Hadamar.’

In 1941, as news of the T4 programme leaked out there were protests and opposition.  On 3 August 1941 a Catholic Bishop, Clemens von Galen, delivered a passionate sermon in Münster Cathedral attacking the 'euthanasia' programme, which he described as ‘plain murder.’  He spoke of a terrible future for humanity if 'euthanasia' became an acceptable for those perceived to be weak.

Under pressure from public opinion, Hitler ordered the closure of the official 'euthanasia' programme.  However this did not mean that the murders ceased.  Instead they continued in more secretive ways.  At Hadamar patients continued to die, either through drug overdose, or by being deliberately neglected until they starved to death.  The organs of many of the victims were removed for scientific research and the bodies were buried in mass graves.  Killings continued in the wards of the sanatorium until just before liberation.

In 1945 seven staff from the Hadamar sanatorium were put on trial, though not for the murder of disabled Germans but for killing Russian and Polish prisoners who had been brought to the centre from 1944.  It was during their trial that clear evidence was made public on the fate of the disabled at Hadamar’s sanatorium.  Transcripts of the trial state that

For many years before 1944 there had been operating in the town of Hadamar, Germany, a small sanatorium for the care of the mentally ill.  It was a State institution and, during the relevant time, it was under the jurisdiction of the provincial administration located in Wiesbaden. ..that between January 1941, and sometime in the middle of 1944, as many as 10,000 Germans, alleged to be mentally ill, were admitted to Hadamar and there put to death.  At first the bodies of these were cremated.  Later they were killed by means of “medications and injections” and, apparently, buried in the institution cemetery.[3]

Today there is a museum at Hadamar, which together with the graves, bears witness to the atrocities carried out there, the Untold Stories of the disabled who died with no-one to speak up for them, and to the lies which were told to cover up their murder.

It is estimated that at least 5,000 disabled children and 200,000 disabled adults were murdered under the Nazi regime.

HMD is a time to remember those who were murdered.  We do not know everyone’s name but we can pause to reflect on their suffering and remember their Untold Stories.  We can also make a clear promise to speak out against discrimination which judges some lives to be of less value than others today.

[1] Evans Suzanne E., Forgotten Crimes:  The Holocaust and people with disabilities, 2004, p110
[2] Ibid, p28
[3] Law-Reports of Trials of War Criminals, The United Nations War Crimes Commission, Volume I, London, HMSO, 1947

You can download a printable version of this case study here.

Find out more about Nazi persecution of disabled people.


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Nazi Persecution