Mass Murder of the Aged & Infirm


place/state: Saxony-Anhalt
INSTITUTION: Gedenkstätte für Opfer der NS-"Euthanasie"
AUTHOR: Ute Hoffmann
age group: 16 years and older

learning activities
Analyzing propaganda
Creating local historical references
Field trip to a memorial site
Interpreting historical texts
Linking past and present
Preparing field trips to memorial sites

Involuntary sterilization
Operation T4
Psychiatric institutions
Race hygiene

The Bernburg memorial offers materials to teachers to help them prepare their students for a first visit to the site. More than 14,000 patients and prisoners were killed in Bernburg between 1940 and 1943 during the euthanasia program. The students read historical documents about "racial hygiene," involuntary sterilization and euthanasia. They also analyze how a majority forms its opinions about socially marginal groups.

What means "Euthanisia"?

In ancient Greece, the concept "euthanasia" was understood as the easing of the dying process through pain relief and spiritual assistance. In Germany, from the National Socialist era on, the term has been associated with the mass murder of the mentally and physically handicapped through gassing, drugs, and starvation. These people were considered "ballast" under Nazi ideology due to their reduced productivity, and their lives were considered without purpose or usefulness to society.

The exclusion of certain groups from society as a means of promoting "race hygiene" was being discussed in medical and anthropological literature before 1900 [see Visuals]. During the post-World War I economic crisis, Karl Binding, a professor of law, and Alfred Hoche, a psychiatrist, advocated the killing of the disabled by "authorizing the destruction of life unworthy of life" from 1920 on [see Documents]. Till the 1960s, this argument often served as a successful justification for the actions of the "euthanasia" perpetrators.

School history textbooks do not adequately cover the subject of Nazi murder of the disabled and ill. In particular, the factory-like organization of the "euthanasia" program is not recognized as the prelude to the development of genocide in the later killing centers. The crime of "euthanasia" tends to take a marginal place in contemporary public discussion about National Socialism. This is especially because most victims are viewed even today as social outsiders, whereas the perpetrators belonged to professional groups and social classes with high social status. For this reason, the murder of the mentally and physically disabled by physicians and nurses, protected by judicial and administrative bodies, received a spurious legitimization.

Handling this subject in schools requires sensitivity to physical and mental disabilities, as well as the clarification of concepts such as "illness," "health," and "quality of life," before visiting the historical sites. Confronting the gas chamber at Bernburg makes it possible to realize the terror of the victims during their last moments of life, as well as to come to terms with the motivations of the perpetrators without moralizing.

The history of the Bernburg Killing Center

A few weeks before the start of World War II, the Nazi government moved from compulsory sterilization to killing of the ill and disabled. From August 1939 on, disabled toddlers were transferred from home care to so-called children's wards and killed there by starvation or poison. This was followed after January 1940 by the mass murder of institutionalized handicapped patients, regardless of age, distributed by region and time among six state psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes (Brandenburg, Bernburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Sonnenstein/Pirna and Hartheim/Linz) [see Maps].

In the psychiatric hospital in Bernburg in October 1940, workmen installed a gas chamber disguised as a shower room, an autopsy room, a mortuary, and a crematorium. Patients from hospitals near and far were transferred by bus groups to Bernburg, with the first patients arriving on November 21, 1940. After arrival, they were undressed, registered, photographed, and brought before a physician, who then selected suitablefraudulent causes of death from a list of diagnoses organized by age and state of health. Nurses and aides accompanied each group of 60 to 75 patients to the basement gas chamber, where the patients were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide gas. Up to 1,400 people per month were killed in this way at Bernburg.

The family of each victim received a form letter of "condolence" as well as a death certificate, postdated two or three weeks after the actual date of death [see Documents]. Health insurance companies had to keep paying the daily costs of care for the fictional interim period, even though the person concerned was already dead. Despite these attempts at concealment, the killings did not remain secret. Public unrest in localities near the central "euthanasia" institutions and the public protest sermon delivered on August 3, 1941 by Clemens August, Count von Galen (1878-1946), Roman Catholic bishop of Münster, led the Nazi regime to halt the "euthanasia" gassings on August 24, 1941 [see Documents]. Up to this date, more than 9,000 people had been killed in Bernburg alone, with a total of about 70,000 patients murdered in the six "euthanasia" institutions. However, the killings continued until 1945 in a second, "decentralized" phase resulting in the murder of about 200,000 persons by starvation and lethal drug overdoses in about 100 institutions.

Most of the male personnel of the main "euthanasia" institutions were transferred to the Generalgouvernement [General Government] in Poland, where they contributed to the creation and operation of the killing centers at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

After the gassings ended, three of the six "euthanasia" killing centers with gas chambers, including Bernburg, remained places of murder for concentration camp prisoners who were unable to work or who were being persecuted for racial reasons under the code name "Operation 14 f 13." The "Operation T 4" physicians, who had first selected patients from the state hospitals and nursing homes, were now assigned to select prisoners from the concentration camps. Approximately 5,000 prisoners from the Buchenwald, Gross-Rosen, Flossenbürg, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, and Sachsenhausen concentration camps, of whom the overwhelming majority were Jewish men and women, died at Bernburg. The Bernburg killing facility was finally closed in the spring of 1943. Its technical facilities, which were preserved, are the core of the memorial today.

Teachers and students should realize that every visit to a memorial requires careful preparation and evaluation. The following model, which can be tailored to individual requirements, is designed primarily for students in the last two years of secondary school but can also be utilized by advanced 10
Th grade students as preparation for visiting Bernburg.

First Double Lesson: Definition of Social Outsiders and Nazi Propaganda

In the first classroom hour [see Documents], the students, who for the most part probably have very little personal contact with handicapped people, discuss "ideal" physical norms disseminated by illustrations in modern newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. Thereby they become aware:

  • of the disparities between ideals and reality;
  • that individual capability and special accomplishments cannot be discerned by external appearance;
  • that most of human society is not homogeneous.

Next, by comparing current visual images with advertisements and propaganda from the Nazi period, the students analyze how the Nazi governmental standards and demands for achievement were conveyed and how hostile images were created. The students may do this in groups if necessary. Here one can compare Nazi images of "hereditarily sound" Germans with those of the mentally and physically handicapped that depict these individuals as alien and disgusting. From this historical illustration, students recognize how perception can be manipulated and how the majority forms its opinions about socially marginal groups.

Second Double Lesson: Involuntary Sterilization and "Euthanasia" - History of Ideas until 1933 and Implementation in the "Third Reich"

This unit [see Documents] emphasizes independent student work with sources and documents. The history of so-called race hygiene up to 1933 as well as involuntary sterilization and "euthanasia" during the Nazi regime can be prepared by different sections of the class. In doing this, the students should understand that:
· Nazi health and racial policies can be linked to origins in social Darwinism and eugenics at the end of the 19 th century.

· Social acceptance of the destruction of "unproduktiven Ballastexistenzen" ["marginal lives"] also benefited from the post-World War I economic crisis.

· The "Law to Prevent Offspring with Hereditary Defects" of July 14, 1933 [see Documents], derived from a legal text which had already been drafted during the Weimar Republic, legitimized the involuntary sterilization of more than 350,000 people.
· From 1939 on, in order to free beds, personnel and provisions for the war effort, the handicapped and ill were transferred from home care and state hospitals to be killed as "useless mouths."

· Hitler's authorization, retroactive to September 1, 1939, the date of the outbreak of war, provided the legal basis for the murder of part of the German populace incapable of productivity [see Documents].

· Mass murder of the handicapped can be divided into two phases and did not stop after August 1941, but continued in about 100 psychiatric institutions on German soil and in the occupied parts of Eastern Europe until 1945.

Third Double Lesson: "Euthanasia" at Bernburg

For this curriculum unit [see Documents], a visit is planned to the Bernburg memorial or to one of the other memorials to the victims of "euthanasia." In lieu of a trip, it is possible to use documents and secondary literature to reconstruct the work of the "Operation T4" centers. Excerpts from films, such as "Healing by Killing" (Israel, 1996), "Selling Murder" (England, 1991), and "Der schöne, leichte Tod" ["A Beautiful Easy Death"] (Germany, 1994), can illustrate the arrival procedures and killing processes at the "euthanasia" institutions.

The following lesson objectives are suggested:

  • The students analyze the organizational structure and function of the Berlin headquarters in regard to the way patients were registered and judged.
  • They analyze the physicians' criteria for judging patients in psychiatric institutions, leading to either long-term custody or to an assessment of being "unworthy of life" because of inability to work.