Those with mental and physical disabilities were targeted by the Nazis Party as soon as they came to power in 1933.
The persecution of those with mental and physical disabilities by the Nazi Party began in July 1933 with the ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring’. The law enforced compulsory sterilisation for those with conditions believed to be hereditary including schizophrenia, epilepsy, Downs Syndrome and even alcoholism. The task of locating those to be sterilised was carried out by special courts called the ‘Hereditary Health Courts’. They examined institutions such as hospitals, schools and nursing homes. Between 1933 and 1939, an estimated 360,000 people were sterilised.
The first killing of a disabled child took place in July 1939. The victim was an infant named Gerhard Kretschmer, who had been born blind with physical and development disabilities. The ‘trial’ took place in 1938 after the parents asked for a ‘mercy killing’ of their son. Hitler then asked for the programme to be extended to all similar cases.
The Reich Committee for the Scientific Registering of Hereditary and Congenital Diseases was established in August 1939 by Hitler’s personal physician Karl Brandt. Its aim was to identify all infants and babies who should be ‘euthanised’. The killings of those considered lebensunwertes lebens (Life unworthy of life) began in 1939. By 1941, over 5,000 chidlren identified by the committee had been murdered. Soon, the policy extended to adults and became known as ‘Aktion T4’.
Historians estimate 250,000 to 300,000 people were killed as part of Aktion t4 due to their mental or physical disabilities.
To carry out the programme, six euthanasia centres were established at six hospitals in Germany: Bernburg, Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Hartheim and Sonnestein. There were also centres in Austria. These centres played a crucial role in the development of the Holocaust.
The gassings of those as part of Aktion T4 began in January 1940. Those chosen would be bussed to the euthanasia centres where a fake medical examination would take place before they would be sent for a ‘shower’. These were in fact the gas chambers. Most of those killed were murdered within 24 hours of their arrival at the centres. Their families would then be sent a falsified death certificate along with an urn containing ash (as the victims would be cremated as a group).
As the German army occupied Europe and began filling ghettos with Jewish citizens, the Nazis searched for the most efficient way to kill as many as possible. In the East, mass shootings of Jewish and other ‘undesirable’ people by the Einsatzgruppen was slow, expensive and stressful for those carrying out the killings. By June 1941, the Nazis began to experiment with mobile gas vans as a new, less costly method. The Einsatzgruppen proceeded to gas hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Jews, Roma and mentally ill people.
The use of gas to kill disabled people and POWs as part of Aktion T4 experiments were also carried out in Auschwitz in September 1941 with Zyklon B gas. This process was found to be the most effective and went on to kill millions of people in the Nazi death camps.
Two of the commandants of the euthanasia centres, Christian Wirth and Franz Stangl, later become commandants of the extermination centres using what they had learnt to perpetrate the Holocaust.
Prejudice regarding both mental and physical disabilities is still an issue in many societies across the world, including here in Britain. This month is UK Disability History Month, which seeks to mobilize the history of disabled persons’ persecution and struggles in order to promote better treatment and ensure equality and basic human rights in our society today.
To learn more about UK Disability History Month you can visit their website here.
To learn more about the Holocaust or visit the exhibition find more information here.
Hannah May Randall