What Aktion T4 Can Teach Us About Ourselves

By BitcoDavid

This poster (from around 1938) reads: "60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People's community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too. Read '[A] New People', the monthly magazine of the Bureau for Race Politics of the NSDAP." Image: Wikipedia
This poster (from around 1938) reads: “60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too. Read ‘[A] New People’, the monthly magazine of the Bureau for Race Politics of the NSDAP.” Image: Wikipedia
Named after the chalet in which it was drafted, Aktion T4 was officially adopted in Sept. of 1939. The law enabled the government of the 3rd Reich to commit euthanasia on those it deemed Lebensunwertes Leben – Life unworthy of life. The aged, the infirm, the birth-defected, the intellectually challenged and the Deaf. On paper, the program officially ended in August of ’41, but unofficially it continued until the end of the War. In an interesting philosophical twist, one of the groups helped by this dubious program were the Mentally Ill. And since, according to the Nazis, subversiveness was considered a form of insanity, this law allowed for the killing of anyone viewed as an enemy of the state.

It was the German people who finally put a stop to T4. Or so they were led to believe, anyway. People began to learn of the deaths of their family members, while being cared for in institutions. Primary caregivers were sent notices regarding the deaths, and many times these notices made no sense. We’re sorry to inform you of the passing of your grandfather, who fell down a flight of stairs while taking his morning walk.

But Gramps was a paraplegic!

People started asking questions, and when officials couldn’t come up with answers, the public became outraged. Hitler was forced to rescind the law. Even in the most oppressive, the most invasive and the most mechanized of Fascist dictatorships, the public could use its voice to effect change.

U.S. eugenics poster advocating for the removal of genetic "defectives" such as the insane, "feeble-minded" and criminals, and supporting the selective breeding of "high-grade" individuals, c. 1926. Image: Wikipedia
U.S. eugenics poster advocating for the removal of genetic “defectives” such as the insane, “feeble-minded” and criminals, and supporting the selective breeding of “high-grade” individuals, c. 1926. Image: Wikipedia

Nazi Germany however, wasn’t the only country with Eugenics based laws on their books.  The United States was one, among several nations, who doggedly followed policies of Social Darwinism in the search for Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Forced sterilization and euthanasia of criminals, imbeciles, and the mentally ill began in America in the 1880s. Many experts claim that the Nazi concept was in fact modeled on the American Eugenics movement. And in America, the benchmarks that determined one’s fitness – one’s worthiness to live – were physical and intellectual health, as well as social class and ethnicity. In fact, between 1934 and 1942, over 60% of Americans supported Hitler’s activities in Germany. Some of that support was due to race based and eugenics based policies. By the 1970s, when most of our forced sterilization laws were rescinded, all 50 states had participated in some form of forced sterilization or euthanasia.

The Strong and Straight Aryan carrying the weight of the genetically disabled. "You are bearing this, too." Image: Disability History
The Strong and Straight Aryan carrying the weight of the genetically disabled. “You are bearing this, too.”
Image: Disability History

The common thread amongst German and American eugenics teaching, is that the defective are a burden on the functional. German text books for school aged children, regularly posed story problems where the student was asked to decipher what the state could save by not having to support a given number of useless eaters. Propaganda posters and magazines touted the costs of caring for the feeble minded and the genetically inferior. A disability was actually an unconscious act of treason. Here in the U.S., a vast amount of money was spent, drawing scientific causality between genetics and criminality, race and criminality and social class and criminality. We were taught that the (White) rich were cultured philanthropists, held to a strict moral code, while the poor were ignorant, stupid and prone to lives of crime. The rich were genteel nobles, where the poor were abusive drunks and drug addicts. The Irish, the Blacks, the Jews and the Native Americans – all shared these genetically inherited traits. Ironically, although the Jews were believed – both here and in Germany – to control all the world’s banks and finances, they were still seen as members of the lower class. Rich meant something other than simply how much money one had.

Die Weisse Rose, Sophie Scholl. Image: Tumblr
Die Weisse Rose, Sophie Scholl. Image: Tumblr

As shocking, as tragic and as horrifying as this history is, there is a larger point that bears relevance today. Aktion T4 stands as an example of what can happen when a society goes mad, and declares war on itself. When a majority element feels threatened by a minority element and declares them, the Other. Those people. Suddenly, words loose their meaning. Labels can be affixed with no basis in fact or context. A child downloading music files can be labeled a Terrorist. A college kid looking to make a few extra bucks can be labeled a drug dealer. Bankers and stock brokers can steal the life savings of millions of people with impunity, while teenagers are executed for merely being present at a crime scene. We begin to fear everyone, and with that fear, we hand over the keys to the store. We allow armed paramilitary forces to overtake our streets, and private corporations to overtake our schools and our prisons.

Sophie Scholl was a young woman smitten by a crush on an eloquent orator. She joined an organization called Die Weisse Rose – the White Rose.  For the crime of leafleting a college campus, Ms. Scholl was labeled a terrorist, imprisoned and executed. She was 21 years old.

Aktion T4 Gedenktafel aus Stahl im Gehweg vor ...
Plaque commemorating the dead from Aktion T4, Berlin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In March of 1933, the German Reichstag burned down. Within a month, the government passed the Enabling Act, allowing Hitler to dismantle their Constitution, and assume the title of Der Fuhrer – Dictator of Germany. Although the Jews and the Communists were held to task for the fire, and although confessions were taken and criminals executed, questions as to the origin of the fire still abound.

In August of 2002, I was teaching. During a particularly boring lecture, I ambled over to an open window. I pointed out the window at a random guy on the street, and yelled, “That guy’s an Iraqi! Let’s get him!” I am sad and horrified to report that more than just a few of my students jumped up, ready to take up the cause of beating an innocent man for the crime of being an Iraqi. And these students were musicians at an art school. If they were jocks at Northeastern, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stop them.

He who cannot learn from history is doomed to repeat it. Let’s don’t repeat history. Let’s end all our wars. Those we’ve declared on other nations, and those we’ve declared on ourselves.

BitcoDavid is a blogger and a blog site consultant. In former lives, he was an audio engineer, a videographer, a teacher – even a cab driver. He is an avid health and fitness enthusiast and a Pro/Am boxer. He has spent years working with diet and exercise to combat obesity and obesity related illness.

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