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The Holocaust and disabled people

Ouch! Special Report
The Holocaust and disabled people

The Holocaust and disabled people: FAQ - frequently-asked questions

by Ian Cook

17th October 2008

We answer frequently-asked questions such as why the Nazis chose to kill disabled people, and how this forgotten story of the Holocaust has been highlighted since.

How did the Nazis see disabled people?

The Nazis took Darwin's ideas of natural selection, in particular the idea of survival of the fittest in the animal kingdom, and applied them to the human world and society (Darwin's Origin of the Species had been published in 1859). It was argued that allowing disabled people to live and have children, led to the "unfit" reproducing more quickly than "the fit". It was said that this weakened society's ability to function efficiently, placing an unnecessary toll on non-disabled people.

The Nazis claimed that the social and economic problems that Germany experienced in the 1920s and early 1930s were due in part to the weakening of the population created by an unfair burden.
Austrian election poster showing a Nazi flag with black swastika on red background. The German text above reads: 'Hitler our last hope'; and below: 'Therefore come to us!' © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)
Nazi propaganda in the form of posters, news-reels and cinema films portrayed disabled people as "useless eaters" and people who had "lives unworthy of living". The propaganda stressed the high cost of supporting disabled people, and suggested that there was something unhealthy or even unnatural about society paying for this. One famous Nazi propaganda film, Ich Klage An (I Accuse), told the story of a doctor who killed his disabled wife. The film put forward an argument for "mercy killings". Other propaganda, including poster campaigns, portrayed disabled people as freaks.

What was the fate of disabled people in Nazi Germany?

After the propoganda came action. On the grounds that disabled people were less worthwhile and an unfair burden on society, a widespread and compulsory sterilisation program took place. This began in 1933, as soon as the Nazis came to power.

It should be noted, however, that Nazi Germany wasn't the only regime to practise the forced sterilisation of disabled people, and it wasn't even the first. As disabled writer Jenny Morris explains in her book Pride Against Prejudice, as early as 1907 American states passed compulsory sterilisation laws covering people thought to have genetic illnesses or conditions. European states that followed suit in the 1920s and 1930s included Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary and Turkey. In Nazi Germany sterilisation was followed by an active killing program, which started in 1939.
View of Hartheim castle (euthanasia killing centre). © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)

How did the Nazis kill disabled people?

Under a secret plan called the 'T4 Program' (T4 was a reference to the address of the program's Berlin HQ - Tiergartenstrasse 4), disabled people in Germany were killed by lethal injection or poison gas. The T4 Program saw a string of six death camps - called "euthanasia centres" - set up across Germany and Austria. These centres contained gassing installations designed to look like shower stalls.
A US soldier views the cemetery at the Hadamar Institute, where victims of the T4 program were buried in mass graves. © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)
Two of the most notorious centres were at Hartheim Castle in Austria and Hadamar, which is near Wiesbaden in Germany. The latter supported a staff of approximately 100 people. To conceal its real purppose, it also operated as a normal crematorium.

Hitler ordered the suspension of the program in 1941 after opposition from groups within Germany, including Catholic churchmen. However, killings were restarted the following year in a more secretive way, and continued until the end of World War Two. (Hadamar only ceased operation shortly before liberation by American troops in March 1945). During this latter phase of the T4 Program, death was via an overdose of lethal medication or by starvation.

In total, an estimated 275,000 disabled people are believed to have been killed by the Nazis.

Was there any opposition to this?

There was some opposition from the Catholic church in Germany, although the church's overall attitude to the Nazi regime was described by author Richard Grunberger in A Social History of the Third Reich as "a policy of resistance that alternated with remarkable acquiescence". One prominent churchman, Cardinal Clemens Von Galen, publicly denounced the T4 killing program in a sermon he delivered in Munster in 1941. Von Galen is quoted in Grunberger's book as saying: "Woe unto the German people when not only can innocents be killed but their slayers remain unpublished". It is said that Von Galen's sermon led Hitler to halt the program temporarily, although the killings restarted in 1942.

Other opposition to the Nazis was inevitably of a more secretive nature. One person who resisted the Nazi persecution both of disabled people and Jews was Otto Weidt, who employed and protected blind and deaf people in his workshop in Berlin's Rosenthaler Strasse. The workers were safe because the brushes and brooms manufactured in the workshop were declared "vital for military purposes". An exhibition telling the story of Otto Weidt was held at the Jewish Museum in Berlin in 2004.
Adolf Hitler salutes his followers at a Nazi Party rally soon after his appointment as Chancellor. © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)
Interestingly, one of the most famous oppositions to Hitler's general aims came from a disabled person - an assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944 by Claus Von Stauffenberg. He had lost his right hand, three fingers of his left hand and his right eye in combat.

Von Stauffenberg had access to Hitler on a daily basis at the War Office in Berlin but, as a disabled war hero, he was above suspicion. He left a bomb under a table in the map room that Hitler was due to visit - but at the last minute an officer moved the briefcase in which the device was hidden. Although the bomb exploded, Hitler survived. His only injuries were cuts to his hands and damaged eardrums. Von Staffenberg was court-martialed and shot, along with other conspirators.

Were there any exceptions to the Nazi policies towards disabled people?

There is some evidence that the Nazis, showing a strange irrationality towards disability, killed thousands while at the same time venerating a small group of disabled war heroes to whom they offered sheltered employment. According to Richard Grunberger's A Social History of the Third Reich, the idea of helping disabled war heroes appealed to a popular Nazi idea: "the triumph of will over adversity". Clearly, to the Nazis not all disabled people were the same.
Entrance to the main camp of Auschwitz. The gate bears the motto: 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work makes one free). © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)

Did the extermination of disabled people pave the way for the larger extermination programs?

Almost certainly. Extermination centres and poison gas installations built to look like shower stalls were an eerie precursor to concentration camps, as several authors have noted. As well as transferring the basic killing procedures and technology, there is also evidence that personnel from the T4 killing program moved to other killing duties after the 1942 Wansee Conference, where 'The Final Solution' is reputed to have been planned.

What have disabled people done to highlight this forgotten story of the Holocaust?

A virtual holocaust memorial called The Chair has been launched by disabled activist Paul Darke. At the present time, the memorial - a stylised wheelchair - has no place or location and is dependent on funding from the public and other interested parties. Nevertheless, it is hoped that a series of these will commemorate disabled people and acknowledge the atrocities committed in the Holocaust.

There have also been plans for a theatrical project entitled The First To Go, about the plight of disabled people in Nazi Germany, written by writer and actor Nabil Shaban. It was all set to go ahead until Nabil - perhaps best known as a star of Doctor Who - handed back funds of nearly £25,000 given to his company Sirius Pictures by the Department of Work and Pensions.

Nabil chose to return the money last year as a protest against the Iraq war. This effectively terminated the project. In a press release he said that he felt the government money given to him was "blood money", and that it would be hypocritical to accept it. Since this move, no interest has been expressed in reviving the project. Nabil has also written a movie script, The Inheritance, based on the play. Again, it has proven impossible to get funding.

In March 2003, Nabil Shaban gave Ouch the full story behind the project, and explained in more detail why he decided to hand back the cash.

'Resistance: which way the future?' is a film-based touring installation by artist-activist Liz Crow of Roaring Girl Productions. Taking the Nazi programme of mass-murder targeting disabled people as its starting point, it explores what this history means for us today and asks 'If you could do just one thing...' Currently on its UK tour, the work has also recently toured to Washington DC's Kennedy Center.

More information - including where to see the installation, how to book it and additional resource materials - at
All photographs © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).
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