Berlin, Germany · August 24, 1941

On this date in 1941 Adolf Hitler cancelled the Aktion T‑4 eutha­na­sia pro­gram that he had person­ally put in place in Septem­ber 1939. Nor­mally Hitler had a policy of not issuing written instruc­tions for poli­cies relating to what would later be called crimes against human­ity, but he made an excep­tion when he pro­vided written author­ity for the eutha­na­sia pro­gram in a confi­den­tial Octo­ber 1939 letter. In the months since its intro­duction, the eutha­na­sia pro­gram, known as T‑4 after its Berlin address at Tier­garten­strasse 4, had pro­voked strong opposi­tion from both the German public and influen­tial church leaders, partic­ularly the Bishop of Muenster, August von Galen. Von Galen’s ser­mons broke the secrecy that had hither­to sur­rounded the pro­gram, which he pro­tested was unlaw­ful by Ger­man and divine law (Fifth Com­mand­ment). Despite its can­cel­la­tion, Aktion T‑4 operated unof­fi­cially until the end of the Nazi regime in 1945. The prin­ci­pal archi­tect and co-director of the T-4 pro­gram was none other than Hitler’s per­sonal phy­si­cian, Karl Brandt. T‑4 phy­si­cians system­at­ically killed those deemed “un­worthy of life” (lebens­un­faehig), including those con­sidered “genet­ically in­ferior,” “racially defi­cient” (Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies), “mal­ad­justed” (usually teen­agers), and men­tally or physi­cally im­paired. Even German civil­ians who suffered men­tal break­downs after air raids were “selected for treat­ment.” As a result of the T-4 pro­gram, by the end of 1941 between 75,000 and 100,000 chil­dren and adults had been killed by lethal in­jec­tion, star­va­tion, or in gas­sing instal­la­tions designed to look like shower stalls (a fore­taste of Auschwitz and other death camps). Parents or relatives of those killed were typ­i­cally in­formed that the cause of death was pneu­monia or a simi­lar ail­ment, and that the body had been cre­mated. Other bodies were secretly buried. Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa, the June 1941 inva­sion of the Soviet Union two months earlier, opened up rich new opportu­nities for newly dis­placed T‑4 person­nel, and they soon set them­selves up in the con­quered eastern terri­tories working on a vastly greater killing pro­gram: the “final solu­tion of the Jewish question.” In the con­cen­tra­tion and death camps in Poland, Brandt over­saw and par­ti­ci­pated in sadis­tic “medi­cal experi­ments” on in­mates. At the post­war Nurem­berg trials, Brandt was the lead medi­cal defen­dant. Unrepen­tant to the end, he was con­victed and sen­tenced to hang, an act carried out on June 2, 1948.

Aktion T-4, the Nazis’ Euthanasia Program, 1939–1945

Circa 1938 Nazi euthanasia poster Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen, 1878–1946

Left: This circa 1938 poster reads: “60,000 Reichs­marks is what this per­son suf­fering from a heredi­tary defect costs our com­munity during his life­time. Fellow citizen, that is your money too. Read New People, the monthly magazine of the Office of Racial Policy of the NSDAP [National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party].” Many of the poli­tical ini­tia­tives of the Nazis arose from within the scien­tific com­munity, and Ger­man medi­cal jour­nals openly dis­cussed the need to find solu­tions to Ger­many’s Jewish and gypsy “problems” among others.

Right: “Lion of Münster,” Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen. Polit­ically con­ser­vative and a sup­porter of Nazi nation­alism early on, Bishop von Galen came to decry Hitler’s per­se­cu­tion of the Catholic Church. He attempted to stop the Nazis’ eutha­na­sia pro­gram, denouncing it from the pulpit in 1941. He also con­demned Nazi depor­ta­tions of Jews to the east. A ser­mon he gave in 1941 served as the inspi­ra­tion for the anti-Nazi group “The White Rose,” and the ser­mon it­self was the group’s first pam­phlet. Von Galen suf­fered virtual house arrest from 1941 on­wards. Although he did not parti­ci­pate in the July 1944 assas­si­na­tion attempt on Hitler’s life, the Nazis linked him to it, and he was sub­se­quently impri­soned in Sachsen­hausen concen­tration camp until its liber­ation. He died in 1946, the same year he was appointed cardi­nal by Pope Pius XII.

Hartheim Euthanasia Center, Austria Hadamar Euthanasia Center, Hessen, Germany

Left: The Hartheim Euthanasia Center near Linz in Aus­tria was one of six eutha­na­sia insti­tutes in the Third Reich. Over a period of 16 months between May 1940 and Septem­ber 1, 1941, 18,269 peo­ple were killed at Hart­heim. In all it is esti­mated that a total of 30,000 peo­ple were mur­dered there. Among them were the sick and the handi­capped, as well pri­soners from concen­tration camps too ill to work, such as those from nearby Maut­hausen-Gusen. The killings were carried out using car­bon monoxide poisoning.

Right: The German town of Hadamar in the state of Hessen housed a psychi­atric clinic where 10,072 men, women, and chil­dren were asphyx­iated with car­bon mon­ox­ide in a gas cham­ber designed to look like a shower in the first phase of the T‑4 killing opera­tions there (January to August 1941). Another 4,000 died through star­va­tion and by lethal injec­tion until March 1945. Hadamar citi­zens were aware of what was taking place at their clinic, espe­cially since the cre­ma­tion pro­cess was faulty. This often resulted in a cloud of stinking smoke hanging over the town. Local students would often taunt each other by saying “You’ll end up in the Hadamar ovens!”

Nuremberg Tribunal No. 1, November 1946: The United States of America vs. Karl Brandt and Twenty-Three Other Defendants (aka “The Medical Case”)