Aktion T4 was a mass murder program that killed about 300,000 disabled people. It was like a demo test for Nazi extermination camps.
Whenever we talk about the Nazi regime and the atrocities they carried out, we talk about very specific numbers. We know that the Nazis murdered six million Jews, about five million Soviets, three million Poles, five hundred thousand Romani, fifteen thousand homosexuals, and we could go on with the list, naming political rebels, war prisoners, and so on. However, as it happens with everything horrible with the world, there’s always a background, and the case of the mass extermination camps and programs is not an exception. The Nazi program we’re going to talk about today is often called the mass murder experiment or the demo test because of the horrors and atrocities they committed, however, it’s rarely brought up. It was Aktion T4, the first “legal” program that took the lives of about 300,000 people and sparked the reign of terror that changed the world.
Aktion T4, actually known at the time as Gnadentod (merciful death) or Euthanasie, was a eugenics program that consisted in removing from Germany anyone considered “socially unfit." To put it more bluntly, it was a mass murder program that killed disabled people. Now, although this program was definitely the largest to target this group of people in particular, it didn't come out of nowhere. Hitler's ideas about killing the disabled in order to ensure racial "purity" were shared by many other leaders and thinkers in Europe and beyond. The only thing that made him unique is the fact that he had the power and the resources to carry out his monstrous plans.
Letter of authorization of the euthanasia program dated September 1, 1939.
For instance, in the 1860s there were a series of laws in the US called the “Ugly Laws” that forbid people considered “unsightly” from being seen in public. Not only that, in 1920, there was a huge debate in Congress to determine whether disabled people should be sterilized to prevent more “unfit” citizens from draining the country’s resources. These ideas were also common in post-WWI Germany, where people were eager to blame anyone for their defeat in war. Hitler, who was very skillful in reading the audience and giving them what they wanted to hear, eventually made the issue of disabled people and the social benefits they had a part of his agenda. Dr. Alfred Hoche and jurist Karl Binding had published Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life in the 1920s, but in Nazi Germany, it became a sort of inspiration and blueprint for the later Aktion T4.
Here, they claimed that disabled people should be sterilized, so that in the future, the German race would be free of disabilities and could finally become a race of superhumans. When Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, they started implementing laws related to the disabled population of Germany. “Laws for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring” allowed for mandatory sterilization for the physically and mentally disabled. The thing here is that the law didn’t really establish what was considered a disability, so people who were considered social deviants, like alcoholics or even those with partial blindness, would be added to the long lists of the “socially unfit” population. By this time, around 400,000 people were sterilized, but it was all going to take an even more morbid turn a couple of years later.
Schönbrunn Psychiatric Hospital, 1934.
It’s said that what gave the Führer the ultimate idea to enact his mass murder program was the case of a little baby called Gerhard Kretschmar. In 1938, his father, a Nazi loyalist, wrote a letter to Hitler himself, asking him for legal permission to kill his newborn son, who had been born with several physical and mental disabilities. As the story goes, Hitler sent his own private physician to the Kretschmar to personally assess the medical condition of the baby, and he agreed with the father. Baby Gerhard was “mercifully” killed in 1939 when WWII started, and just three weeks after his death, the government installed the Reich Committee for the Scientific Registering of Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses, which was a fancy name for the office in charge of killing the disabled.
This office started out by sending doctors to examine patients at hospitals, prisons, homes for the elderly, psychiatric facilities, special schools, orphanages, and all those who had been already sterilized. First, they started with babies and children, and when the bureaucratic engine was running perfectly, they started going after teenagers and adults. First, they killed the patients by giving them a lethal shot of morphine and other toxic substances, but soon later, doctors in charge started coming up with their own methods. For instance, one of the top physicians in charge of Aktion T4, Hermann Pfannmüller, declared at his trial after the war, that he preferred to gradually starve his patients because he saw it as a more natural and less invasive death.
Nazi propaganda showing “how much it cost” the German state to take care of the disabled. This discourse even appeared in children's math textbooks with arithmetic problems about the subject.
However, despite most people's support of the new government, when rumors of them killing German children and vulnerable citizens, people really got angry and decided to do their best to stop it. By 1940, the news of the program had spread through churches in Germany after many parents and relatives of the victims realized they had been given the same explanations of their loved ones' deaths. Thousands received letters announcing their relative had passed away of a minor medical issue (measles, appendicitis, or another virus) and had been cremated immediately. Long story short, priests and prominent church figures started spreading the word; many disappeared after being summoned by the SS in an attempt to scare the movement, but they resisted, forcing Hitler and his aides to submit to public opinion (something unthinkable for the fascist regime) and canceled the program in 1941.
Aktion T4 became a killing machine with six different facilities around Germany in Bernburg, Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Hartheim, and Sonnenstein. When the program was over, many of the staff and officials in charge were transferred to what would become probably the worst abomination conducted in the history of humanity. Staff members from Brandenburg ran the extermination camps at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. They used the experience they had gained in Aktion T4 and adapted it to the larger flux of people that these camps would eventually “treat.”
Graveyard at Hadamar Institute. April 15, 1945.
Aktion T4 became a playground of sorts to experiment and prepare Nazi soldiers and doctors for a monstrous machinery that would take the lives of millions of people. But what this particular program shows us is that it wasn't just the Nazis who had these cruel views. As we saw, many countries, like the US, Canada, and Switzerland had conversations regarding the elimination of disabled people, who were seen as social flaws that should be eradicated.
For more on this dark episode in history, take a look at these: