Learning from history — experience of totalitarian regimes of the 20th century

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“Euthanasia” at Bernburg: Mass Murder of the Aged and Infirm

Ute Hoffmann
Ute Hoffmann

Project description

What means “Euthanisia”?

In ancient Greece, the concept “euthanasia” was understood as the easing of the dying process through pain relief and spiritual assistance. In Germany, from the National Socialist era on, the term has been associated with the mass murder of the mentally and physically handicapped through gassing, drugs, and starvation. These people were considered “ballast” under Nazi ideology due to their reduced productivity, and their lives were considered without purpose or usefulness to society.

The exclusion of certain groups from society as a means of promoting “race hygiene” was being discussed in medical and anthropological literature before 1900 [see Visuals]. During the post-World War I economic crisis, Karl Binding, a professor of law, and Alfred Hoche, a psychiatrist, advocated the killing of the disabled by “authorizing the destruction of life unworthy of life” from 1920 on [see Documents]. Till the 1960s, this argument often served as a successful justification for the actions of the “euthanasia” perpetrators.

Nazi “euthanasia” program in today’s history education

School history textbooks do not adequately cover the subject of Nazi murder of the disabled and ill. In particular, the factory-like organization of the “euthanasia” program is not recognized as the prelude to the development of genocide in the later killing centers. The crime of “euthanasia” tends to take a marginal place in contemporary public discussion about National Socialism. This is especially because most victims are viewed even today as social outsiders, whereas the perpetrators belonged to professional groups and social classes with high social status. For this reason, the murder of the mentally and physically disabled by physicians and nurses, protected by judicial and administrative bodies, received a spurious legitimization.

Handling this subject in schools requires sensitivity to physical and mental disabilities, as well as the clarification of concepts such as “illness,” “health,” and “quality of life,” before visiting the historical sites. Confronting the gas chamber at Bernburg makes it possible to realize the terror of the victims during their last moments of life, as well as to come to terms with the motivations of the perpetrators without moralizing.

The history of the Bernburg Killing Center 

see Glossary

Teachers and students should realize that every visit to a memorial requires careful preparation and evaluation. The following model, which can be tailored to individual requirements, is designed primarily for students in the last two years of secondary school but can also be utilized by advanced 10th grade students as preparation for visiting Bernburg.

First Double Lesson: Definition of Social Outsiders and Nazi Propaganda

In the first classroom hour [see Documents], the students, who for the most part probably have very little personal contact with handicapped people, discuss “ideal” physical norms disseminated by illustrations in modern newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. Thereby they become aware:

• of the disparities between ideals and reality;

• that individual capability and special accomplishments cannot be discerned by external appearance;

• that most of human society is not homogeneous.

Next, by comparing current visual images with advertisements and propaganda from the Nazi period, the students analyze how the Nazi governmental standards and demands for achievement were conveyed and how hostile images were created. The students may do this in groups if necessary. Here one can compare Nazi images of “hereditarily sound” Germans with those of the mentally and physically handicapped that depict these individuals as alien and disgusting. From this historical illustration, students recognize how perception can be manipulated and how the majority forms its opinions about socially marginal groups.

Second Double Lesson: Involuntary Sterilization and “Euthanasia” – History of Ideas until 1933 and Implementation in the “Third Reich”

This unit [see Documents] emphasizes independent student work with sources and documents. The history of so-called race hygiene up to 1933 as well as involuntary sterilization and “euthanasia” during the Nazi regime can be prepared by different sections of the class. In doing this, the students should understand that:

• Nazi health and racial policies can be linked to origins in social Darwinism and eugenics at the end of the 19 th century.

• Social acceptance of the destruction of “unproduktiven Ballastexistenzen” [“marginal lives”] also benefited from the post-World War I economic crisis.

• The “Law to Prevent Offspring with Hereditary Defects” of July 14, 1933 [see Documents], derived from a legal text which had already been drafted during the Weimar Republic, legitimized the involuntary sterilization of more than 350,000 people.

• From 1939 on, in order to free beds, personnel and provisions for the war effort, the handicapped and ill were transferred from home care and state hospitals to be killed as “useless mouths.”

• Hitler’s authorization, retroactive to September 1, 1939, the date of the outbreak of war, provided the legal basis for the murder of part of the German populace incapable of productivity [see Documents].

• Mass murder of the handicapped can be divided into two phases and did not stop after August 1941, but continued in about 100 psychiatric institutions on German soil and in the occupied parts of Eastern Europe until 1945.

Third Double Lesson: “Euthanasia” at Bernburg

For this curriculum unit [see Documents], a visit is planned to the Bernburg memorial or to one of the other memorials to the victims of “euthanasia.” In lieu of a trip, it is possible to use documents and secondary literature to reconstruct the work of the “Operation T4” centers. Excerpts from films, such as “Healing by Killing” (Israel, 1996), “Selling Murder” (England, 1991), and “Der schöne, leichte Tod” [“A Beautiful Easy Death”] (Germany, 1994), can illustrate the arrival procedures and killing processes at the “euthanasia” institutions.

The following lesson objectives are suggested:

• The students analyze the organizational structure and function of the Berlin headquarters in regard to the way patients were registered and judged.

• They analyze the physicians’ criteria for judging patients in psychiatric institutions, leading to either long-term custody or to an assessment of being “unworthy of life” because of inability to work.