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, by which time the murder of psychiatric patients would claim 216,400 victims’ lives.

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” (“lebens­un­wertes Leben”), including those con­sidered “genet­ically inferior,” “racially defi­cient” (minder­wertige Rassen, meaning 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 that con­tinued unabated until the approach of Soviet armies in 1945. 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 posterAktion T-4 opponent: Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen, 1878–1946

Left: This circa 1938 poster reads in part: “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.” Another poster compared what an average German worker spent on his family with what tax­payers spent on caring for those in insti­tu­tions: “Every day a cripple or blind person costs 5 to 6 [Reich­marks], a mentally ill person 4, a criminal 3.50. A worker has 3 to 4 [Reich­marks] a day to spend on his family.” Many of the poli­tical ini­tia­tives of the Nazis arose from within the scien­tific and intel­lec­tual com­mu­nities, par­tic­ularly among eugen­i­cists with­in the United States as Hitler was fond of pointing out and extolling. (The Rocke­feller Foun­da­tion and the Car­negie Insti­tute, for example, directed the flow of what is equi­va­lent in today’s cur­rency to millions of dollars to hun­dreds of German eugenics researchers prior to World War II.) German medi­cal jour­nals openly dis­cussed the need, not only of finding solu­tions to mini­mizing costs of housing the insti­tu­tional­ized, but of finding solu­tions to Germany’s Jewish and gypsy “problems.”

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, himself a German.

Aktion T-4 site: Hartheim Euthanasia Center, AustriaAktion T-4 site: Hadamar Euthanasia Center, Hessen, Germany

Left: The Hartheim Euthanasia Center (German, NS-Toetungsanstalt Hartheim) near Linz in Austria was one of six eutha­na­sia insti­tutes in the Third Reich. (The others were at Grafen­eck, Bern­burg, Branden­burg, Sonnen­stein, and Hada­mar.) 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, aided by SS Gruppen­fuehrer Rein­hard Hey­drich’s Reichs­sicher­heits­hauptamt (RSHA) tech­ni­cal staff, were carried out using carbon monoxide poi­soning. RSHA tech­ni­cians gained exper­tise in mass killings that would be put to tragic use against Soviet POWs and Jewish civilians over the following years.

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. One person recalled: “The stench was so disgusting that when we returned home from work in the fields, we couldn’t hold down a single bite.” (Quoted in Bartoletti, Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, p. 96.) Local students, who like their parents observed the comings and goings of gray hospital buses loaded with patients on arrival but not depar­ture, would chant, “Here come the murder boxes,” and often taunt each other by saying, “You’ll end up in the Hada­mar ovens!” After the war the chief nurse at Hada­mar was given an eight-year prison sentence for her part in the killings at the clinic.

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”)