Content Warning: Discussion of Nazi atrocities, euthanasia
Mackie chose this topic after a summer of selecting reading material that pertained to the topic, but even before that, he had responded to a question in his high school programming: “If you could travel anywhere right now, where would you go and why?” This being at the beginning of the lock down, many other kids were keen to visit the beach, grandparents, and Disney. Mackie, on the other hand, offered that he would like to travel to the sites of concentration camps, to lay wreaths for the disabled victims of the Holocaust/Third Reich. I’d say that this is one of the moments that sums him up: deeply caring, deeply empathetic, deeply thinking.
He gave his permission for these essays to be shared, to allow people who know us to gain an insight into not only who he is, but how someone like him sees the world. I hope the next few essays will do that – goodness knows he did not shy away from writing about challenging subjects. Note – he/we forgot to title this essay.
They treasured their time that they had here on earth, but the Nazis reduced them to subhumans, or “useless eaters”.
They were human beings, though, they were disabled and mentally ill. The rethinking that the Nazis did on the subject of the topic of eugenics had not originated with so-called Nazi medicine, however. This eugenics movement took shape first in the really Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest. The eugenics movement was popularized in the United States and the Third Reich copied the methods and beliefs as treatment of the disabled and mentally ill was taking a hard turn into deadly territory (Bernstein, 2017).
Treatment took place in state run hospitals, prior to the beginning of the Third Reich in 1933. These facilities were the state having the gathering of the humans who truly could not work or really have a traditional education. These treatments took medical professionals to believe that they had the otherwise near-godlike power over life and death. The whole process started off selecting children to die. The selection was overseen by doctors, who meant to save body parts for study after death (Bernstein, 2017). The executions, however, were typically administered by nurses (Bailey, 2017). These were often lethal doses of pheno-barbitol, though a great number of children were left to starve or were exposed to illnesses such as typhus and whooping cough.
This tested the practical limits of the oath to do no harm. Really the warmth of the humanity of the doctors and nurses was fully gone, nor could they ever admit that they had committed cold-blooded murder. When the ruin of the Third Reich came, these killers simply carried on with their lives (Bernstein, 2017). Many of them truly had no regrets, either. The thinking purely focused on the great tract of the medical literature of National Socialist thinking on racial hygiene (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2017). Their feelings centered on the purity of the Nordic master race. To that end, all the theories were stating that just about any real or imagined disability, mental illness, or deviant behavior was evidence of bad genetic makeup. To the Nazis, those people truly should be eliminated. Many doctors already had felt similarly, and were happy to take on the work asked of them.
The beginning of what later became known as Aktion T4 started with children and quickly grew to include adults for both forced sterilizations and the first gassings perpetrated by the Third Reich (Bernstein, 2017). The real terror of these mass executions was enlisted heavily in the institutions to free up much-needed hospital beds for wounded soldiers (Bailey, 2017). The war had not even begun yet, but Hitler had long been aiming the Third Reich in that direction. All his goals supported the coming of war. At the same time, it was calculated how much food and reichsmarks would be saved if those determined as useless eaters were no longer alive. They were called life not worthy of life, though these condemned souls understood what awaited them at the end of a long ride to the killing centers.
Treated as no more than wastes of skin, and far less than human beings, the victims of the Third Reich Aktion T4 have often featured as an afterthought. They were torn away from the lives they had quietly led within the walls of institutions, onto the buses that took them to their deaths. Realistically in radical terms, treating them as the trash they were seen to be caused those doctors and nurses to stop thinking of them as truly anything other than human waste. Treated to these extremes, first they were selected by the use of a one-page document with only three questions (Bernstein, 2017). How long had they been there at their facility? Then, how much work could they do? Finally, was there any family to raise the alarm at all? These questions very clearly show that awareness from the Nazis about the need for secrecy. They knew that public opinion would not take kindly to the mass killing of the feeble-minded. Really, though, the only strong argument that was made was that they were Christians and not Jews.
Those taken to the killing centers arrived in grey buses with the windows painted over (Bailey, 2017). They were often with their nurses, who went along to keep them calm and thinking they were on a field trip. Was it with growing thoughts of suspicion that these people held no hope that their return to the institute would actually take place? Or really, that they were taking some trip that was supposed to treat them to a fun day? Seated there on a journey that there was no return from, one imagines that they tried to comfort one another. Really, they were going to have to teach themselves to try to go to their deaths with dignity in a short bus ride. Testing the waters with the public at first, death certificates were falsified as to causes of death. On the certificate, the typical cause of death was ill health, no matter the true reason the person had died. Then, the paperwork was held back for weeks at a time, allowing the Nazi regime to continue to take payments that were meant to care for the patients (Bernstein 2017, Bailey, 2017).
The effect of all these financial wranglings was to put more than three hundred million reichsmarks into Nazi hands. The figure is more than many of us can make in a lifetime, though this was blood money at a cost of over three hundred thousand lives (USHMM, 2020). More than that, the wanton taking of lives robbed the medical profession of its ethical standards and compassion. The tactic in the treacherous actions of the medical cortege was the ulterior argument that research was imperative to trace the origins of the congenital defects that plagued the world. They took the trash of the human race, they could claim, and put it to use serving what they laughably called the greater good.
As time passed, however, the greater percentage of the population was taking the stance that such tragic fates as the victims of the T4 program were meeting should stop at once (USHMM, 2020). They wrote letters of protest to officials, especially to Hitler himself. Traditional theological authorities were taking a stand on this issue as well, though they too were under assault by the Third Reich. The school of thought within the theology of Christianity was that Jesus had wanted great compassion toward the ill and infirm, and that meant wanting to watch over and protect the vulnerable of society.
Really, this public pressure that took hold came from within the Third Reich, as well as from the outside world media. This was deeply embarrassing to the Nazi regime and its desire to appear friendly to foreign powers such as America. The official side of the T4 program was dismantled in 1941 and its medical staff were then reassigned to concentration camps where their newfound skills were put to use again as purveyors of suffering and death. That taking the waste people, in the Nazi point of view, meant that human subjects were callously tortured to death to advance the hideous war machine of the Nazis. Thankfully, these sadistic crimes ended with the defeat of the Nazi regime in 1945, though the war years saw many more deaths of disabled and mentally ill people through starvation and neglect, and continued euthanasia (USHMM, 2020). The fading memory of the tragedy and horror of these murders should be held anew into the light of the public consciousness. We forget such history at our peril, as it allows new generations to assume that those things are not possible in their safe little corners of the world. All the victims of the Nazis did wrong was to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Bailey, James. CARING CORRUPTED – The Killing Nurses of The Third Reich. Caring Corrupted – The Killing Nurses of the Third Reich, University of Texas, 2017, youtu.be/Rz8ge4aw8Ws.
Bernstein, Catherine, director. Action T4: A Doctor Under Nazism, 2017, http://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/B078JYYDZL/ref=atv_dp_share_cu_r.United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC. “Euthanasia Program.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2020, encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/euthanasia-program.