Today, January 27, is commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day to remember the innocent people murdered by the Nazi regime—mostly Jews, but also Roma, Germans with disabilities, Slavic peoples, and others. Among those the Nazis targeted for extermination were the most vulnerable in society, through a vile program often neglected by our history books—Aktion T4.
On the fourth floor of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, there is a small exhibit featuring an old hospital bed, hospital gown, and straps used to hold patients down in their beds.
An image behind the exhibit depicts a psychiatric clinic in a residential area. From the clinic rises pitch-black smoke normally associated with the Nazi death camp crematoriums that disposed of the murdered victims of the “Final Solution.” This clinic was not an extermination camp, but a place where the sick would go seeking help and healing. However, a horror similar to that of the camps was unfolding at this clinic.
Rather than receive medical care, hundreds of thousands of patients who visited institutions like this one in Nazi Germany were murdered. Designed to eliminate what eugenicists considered “life unworthy of life,” the Nazi euthanasia program targeted both children and adults with psychiatric, neurological, or physical disabilities. The Nazi’s vision to create an Aryan “master race” required the removal of “undesirable” individuals—those they callously determined to be burdens on German society.
Codenamed “T4” after Tiergartenstrasse 4, the location of its Berlin office, an immense bureaucracy involving doctors, nurses, social workers, professors, and others was established to quietly murder approximately 250,000 people with disabilities. Beginning in October 1939, the program was in effect until May 29, 1945, when 4-year-old Richard Jenne became its last victim.
The euthanasia program targeted institutionalized patients with disabilities or mental illness. Questionnaires asked if such patients had non-Aryan blood, regularly received visitors, or had the capacity to work. Three-physician panels determined whether the patients would live or die based on the answers.
Gassing was used to kill the victims until the Nazis changed tactics and either gave purposeful overdoses or allowed victims to starve or die of neglect. Physicians oversaw the killings, lending the veneer of medical procedures.
The program’s large scale made it impossible to hide from the German people and attempts at concealment were often clumsy. Officials might write to inform loved ones that their institutionalized family member had died of appendicitis, despite their appendix having already been removed years prior. Such tragic accounts often made their way to Catholic and Protestant leaders, who spoke out against the brutality on several occasions.
Notably, Cardinal August von Galen, Bishop of Munster, gave an exceptionally bold sermon condemning the euthanasia program on August 3, 1941.
If it is once admitted that men have the right to kill “unproductive” fellow-men—even though it is at present applied only to poor and defenseless mentally ill patients—then the way is open for the murder of all “unproductive” men and women: the incurably ill, the handicapped who are unable to work, those disabled in industry or war. The way is open, indeed, for the murder of all of us when we become old and infirm and therefore “unproductive”…
Woe betide mankind, woe betide our German people, if the divine commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” which the Lord proclaimed on Sinai amid thunder and lightning, which God our Creator wrote into man’s conscience from the beginning, if this commandment is not merely violated but the violation is tolerated and remains unpunished!
Thought to be too popular to punish harshly, the Cardinal was placed under virtual house arrest. Yet, his sermon was widely distributed across Germany to the outrage of Nazi officials.
By pursuing a “perfect” society, Nazis destroyed something infinitely valuable—human life. Such a society could never have been ideal—it would have lacked the value that would have been added by the individuals they worked to destroy. For those who have family members with disabilities, it is often easy to see how they make the lives of those around them better.
Humans are flawed, and a utopian society cannot be forged by human willpower in a world corrupted by sin. As Cardinal Galen suggested, if we were to eliminate all imperfect people, everyone would be a target because we are all imperfect. At the same time, every person is made in the image of God—inherently valuable and deserving of love and care. Members of society who need more assistance ought to be protected and empowered, not eliminated.