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 the address of its head­quarters on Berlin’s Tier­garten­strasse, had pro­voked opposi­tion from both the German public and influen­tial church leaders, partic­ularly the Bishop of Muenster, Clemens August von Galen.

Von Galen’s August 3, 1941, sermon, the last in a three-week series of verbal assaults on the Nazis’ terror tactics and racial and anti-Christian policies, caused shock­waves in Germany: “I am reliably informed,” he told parish­ioners (as recounted in Wittman and Kinney’s The Devil’s Diary, p. 326), “that in hospi­tals and homes in the pro­vince of West­phalia, lists are being pre­pared of inmates who are classi­fied as ‘unpro­ductive mem­bers of the national com­mu­nity,’ and are to be removed from these estab­lish­ments and shortly there­after killed. The first party of patients left the mental hospi­tal at Marien­thal, near Muenster, in the course of this week.” State-approved eutha­na­sia, von Galen pro­tested, was nothing short of murder, unlaw­ful by German and divine law (Fifth Com­mand­ment). Incensed leading Nazis demanded von Galen’s head. Hitler demurred, planning his revenge for later. Despite secretly sus­pending Aktion T‑4 twenty-one days after von Galen’s open attack on the eutha­nasia pro­gram, Hitler per­mitted it to operate unofficially until his own death in April 1945.

The principal architect and co-director of the T-4 pro­gram was none other than the Fuehrer’s per­sonal phy­si­cian, Dr. 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 Neues Volk (New People or New Nation), 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 Muenster,” Bishop (since 1933) 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 helped draft Pope Pius XI’s 1937 anti-Nazi encyc­lical Mit bren­nender Sorge (in English, With Burning Con­cern). He attempted to stop the Nazis’ eutha­na­sia pro­gram, eventually denouncing it in the most public of all places, from a church pulpit in early August 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 onward after his sermons critical of the Nazis began circu­lating through­out Germany, were broad­cast on the BBC, and trans­lated and reprinted as flyers, which were air-dropped by the Royal Air Force over Germany and occupied Europe. Although von Galen did not parti­ci­pate in the July 1944 assas­si­na­tion attempt on Hitler’s life, the Nazis linked him to it, finally exacting their retri­bu­tion. The bishop was whisked away and impri­soned in Sachsen­hausen concen­tration camp some 20 miles from Berlin until its liber­ation by the Red Army. He died in March 1946 from an infected appendix diagnosed too late, a few months after he was appointed cardinal by Pope Pius XII. In 2005 von Galen was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.

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!”

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

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