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An Open Secret:
Remembering the Victims of Nazi Eugenics
Before the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the forced deportation of millions of Europe’s Jews, the Nazis’ plan for racial purity received a trial run at home, against Germany’s own handicapped and disabled. The idea for this operation was an outgrowth of eugenics, an applied science used by the Nazis with the aim of creating a super race, in which only those deemed “fit” would be allowed to procreate. This could be achieved through positive eugenics, which entailed promoting “fit” behavior, or negative eugenics, which meant that individuals deemed genetically inferior would be prevented from having children. By restricting births of those deemed less than human — individuals the Nazis often referred to as “life unworthy of life” — the master race could thus be progressively achieved within German society.
Initially, the Nazis approached eugenics by passing such legislation as the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Progeny and the 1935 Marriage Health Law. The former included compulsory sterilization on the basis of nine neurological and physical hereditary afflictions, such as schizophrenia and hereditary blindness, and the latter further promulgated the idea of racial inferiority by disallowing Germans with particular hereditary disorders from legally marrying.
While discussion of genocide usually centers on the killing of members of a targeted group — the first of five definitions of the crime in Article 2 of the 1948 Genocide Convention — compulsory sterilization satisfies another condition for genocide. Specifically, Article 2(d) of the convention states that genocide includes “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” as doing so would result in the eventual elimination of that particular people. In addition, given that many institutionalized individuals who were murdered by the Nazis during both its child and adult euthanasia campaigns were slowly starved to death, Article 2(c), “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” was also involved.
In short, euthanasia, an insidious plan that began under the guise of fake hospitals and the provision of allegedly legitimate medical care, swiftly evolved into the murderous campaign embodied in Operation Reinhard, and, ultimately, the totality of Holocaust extermination and death camps for Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, and all other “inferior” peoples under Nazi rule.
As part of its International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations, the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia University hosted a panel on February 7 titled “The Unfit: Disability under Nazism and Fascism,” which focused on the plight of these oft-neglected, very first victims of Nazi genocide. The discussion featured Patricia Heberer and Susan Bachrach of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), as well as the Guido and Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò Chair of Contemporary Italian Studies at New York University, David Forgacs. Each provided a different perspective on how the Nazis’ quest for racial purity — and the memory of their victims — still has relevance for us today.
The first to speak, Susan Bachrach, focused mainly on the eugenics aspect of the Nazi campaign, and often referenced the USHMM travelling exhibition for which she is curator, Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race. In tracing the evolution of eugenics, which emerged as an early 20th-century field of study supported equally by scientists and academics around the world, she summarized the utopian vision that accompanied the science as being “aimed at some kind of perfection of the human race.” Citing both Darwin and Mendel’s work as starting points, Bachrach stated that “eugenics began as a reform problem that was looking at real problems — social and other.” Essentially, countries like Germany, Britain, and the United States saw eugenics as a potential solution to other issues that had plagued their societies. For Germany, a country devastated after World War I, this included in particular poverty and inflation.
As such, the stage was set for a leader like Adolf Hitler to translate eugenics from theory into practice. Indeed, as Bachrach showed during her presentation, Hitler was propagandized as the “doctor” of the German people, and he seized the ensuing political opportunity by employing both positive and negative eugenics tactics to establish a system of racial hierarchy that would eventually culminate in his “Final Solution” to “the Jewish problem.” As such, he exalted the role of the mother by issuing an Honor Cross of German Motherhood to women who had birthed various increments of children (positive eugenics), while also approving the implementation of hereditary family history cards and such hereditary laws as those previously mentioned (negative eugenics).
Bachrach was followed by her colleague, Patricia Heberer, who complemented Bachrach’s presentation on eugenics with her own work on euthanasia, the Nazis’ initial semantic justification for their murderous campaign. Heberer explained that the practice of euthanasia “aimed to restore the ‘racial integrity’ of the German nation,” and went on to discuss the Nazis’ shift from initially targeting children to eventually developing their adult euthanasia program, Aktion T-4, in which over 70,000 mentally ill and disabled Germans were murdered in six different gassing complexes from 1940 to 1941. During the one-year halt to this program, ordered by Hitler, Heberer stated that more than 100 T-4 workers were sent east, to use their “expertise” in the eventual development of death camps like Sobibor and Treblinka.
Importantly, Heberer emphasized that while hers and others’ research on the Nazi euthanasia program has had positive implications for our understanding of history, it has also “overshadowed [the victims’] individual existence and obscured their identity.” As such, the majority of her presentation was devoted to telling individual stories of victims of a Bavarian institution called Kaufbeuren, which was notorious for the savage starvation tactics it employed on its victims. In discussing her analysis of this institution, which has included extensive review of the medical personnel’s documentation, Heberer commented on “the ability or the inability to work” as one of the strongest indicators of a patient’s chances for survival in Kaufbeuren. This emphasis on keeping people around who were able to do work draws an obvious and eerie parallel to the selection criteria later used in concentration camps throughout Europe. In simplest terms, Heberer explained, “a constant need for care was a death sentence.”
The third and final speaker, David Forgacs, brought another element to the discussion by sharing a sample of his work on photographing places of social exclusion. Focusing primarily on mental health institutions during and after the fall of fascism in Italy, Forgacs commented on how the photography charged with telling this particular story had a “way of making these people ‘other’” by persuading its audience to “[look] at the strangeness of the person.” He accompanied his presentation by evaluating the shortcomings of photographic representation of social exclusion by discussing its sensational nature that ultimately “reinforces these people as different from us.”
As each of the panelists demonstrated, the stories of Germany’s handicapped and disabled are powerful and enduring. For her part, Bachrach concluded by saying, “I hope that all of this is a warning,” referring to modern scientific advancements like the human genome project and cloning initiatives — a warning about where we could go “without . . . thinking seriously where that kind of thinking [has] led us in the past.” Even more poignantly, Heberer summed up her remarks by simply reminding us that “those victims of silence still have much to tell us.”
Photo: Michelle Eberhard