Severely mentally and physically disabled people were targeted because of cold-blooded Nazi eugenics policy. From 1939 – 1941 the Nazis carried out their T4 programme (so called because Tiergartenstrasse 4 was the headquarters of the General Foundation for Welfare and Institutional Care in Berlin).
People with physical disabilities, mental health needs and chronic illnesses were deemed to be damaging to the common good by the Nazi party. In 1933 the ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring’ allowed for the forced sterilisation of those regarded as ‘unfit’, including people with conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and alcoholism. Prisons, nursing homes, asylums, care homes for the elderly and special schools were targeted to select people for sterilisation. It has been estimated that between 1933 and 1939, 360,000 individuals were subjected to forced sterilisation.
In 1939 the killing of disabled children and adults began. From August 1939 the Interior Ministry required doctors and midwives to report all cases of newborns with severe disabilities. All children under the age of three who were suffering from illnesses or disabilities, such as Down’s syndrome, hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy or ‘suspected idiocy’, were targeted under the T4 programme. A panel of medical experts were required to give their approval for the ‘euthanasia’ of each child.
Many parents were unaware of the fate of their children, instead being told that they were being sent for improved care. After a period of time parents were told their children had died of pneumonia and their bodies cremated to stop the spread of disease.
Following the outbreak of war in September 1939 the programme expanded with less emphasis on assessment and approval. Adults with disabilities, chronic illnesses, mental health problems and criminals who were not of German origin were included in the programme. Six killing centres were established to speed up the process, the previous methods of killing people by lethal injection or starvation being too slow to cope with large numbers of adults. The first experimental gassings took place at the killing centre in Brandenberg and thousands of disabled patients were killed in gas chambers disguised as shower rooms.
The model used for killing disabled people was later applied to the industrialised murder within Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It is estimated that close to 250,000 disabled people were murdered under the Nazi regime.
Read more about the T4 programme in our education resource: Untold Stories of Stolen Lives; The T4 'Euthanasia' Programme