In Cologne, students in a class on educational methods decided to delve deeper into the subject of the authoritarian character by taking an in-depth look at Friedrich Mennecke, the physician responsible for Operation T4, Vernichtung unwerten Lebens [destruction of those unworthy of living]. By analyzing documents, the students also learned about attempts to reintegrate perpetrators into postwar West German society.
Personalization ("Hitler and his criminals"), demonization ("concentration camp monsters"), inadequate analyses of social and political factors, and the minimization of the influence of socialization are, according to my observations, still characteristic of contemporary discourse about Nazi perpetrators in German schools.
For some time, perpetrator biographies have increasingly become the focus of research about the Nazi era, with the intention of passing on the available examples of individual personalities and careers of those implicated in Nazi crimes that can still be documented. The books by Ernst Klee and Götz Aly published in the 1980s and the research projects on perpetrator biographies supported by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research were groundbreaking studies on this subject. It is the task of teachers to find and use these approaches in the classroom. Only in the past few years, however,.have distinctive materials for classroom use been available on the subject of "euthanasia" in the Nazi state.
The case study of the "euthanasia" physician Mennecke offered me the possibility of becoming familiar with the biography and innermost thoughts of a mass murderer from the Nazi period with students in a Pädagogik-Grundkurs [basic course on educational studies] for the 13 th grade. Using Mennecke as an example from that time, I could simultaneously introduce the students to the topic of "euthanasia," which is largely unknown to young people.
Who was Friedrich Mennecke, M.D.?
- Born 1904, graduated academic secondary school [Abitur], apprentice salesman, medical studies (1928)
- 1932: Joined the Nazi party; medical internship
- 1934: Completed doctorate in medicine
- 1935: Received license to practice medicine; applied for a job at the Hessische Landesheilanstalt [Hessian State Mental Hospital] in Eichberg (Rheingau)
- 1937: Became Kreisamtsleiter [head of Rheingau district office] of NSDAP racial policy office
- 1938: Became Oberarzt [assistant medical director], de facto director of the institution and, formally after 1939, director of the Hessian State Mental Hospital in Eichberg; became Ortsgruppenleiter [local Nazi party group leader]. Only five years after his state licensing exams, Mennecke now headed an institution with approximately 1,000 patients.
- August 1939: Medical officer on the western front; commissioned by IG Farben to conduct genetic research and experiments
- 1940, Berlin: Attended meeting in the Reichskanzlei [Chancellery of the Führer], where he learned that "unproductive" psychiatric patients were to be systematically killed. Mennecke served as a medical expert, visiting psychiatric institutions and registering and selecting victims for the gas chamber. He inspected patients to determine their fates.
- 1941: Promoted to medical specialist. Mennecke boasted to colleagues that he was a member of physician panels that evaluated patient registration forms to be sent to Berlin. He reported that he witnessed, through a window, a gassing at Hadamar.
- Spring 1941: Mennecke was assigned to the 14 f 13 operation, "prisoners' euthanasia," where Polish, Jewish, Gypsy, and political prisoners, as well as so-called Arbeitsscheue ["the work-shy"] and criminals, were selected for killing. Mennecke began his work in Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Ravensbrück, and Buchenwald concentration camps. This followed the mass murder of the mentally and physically disabled. His written "diagnoses" are among the most heinous texts ever written by a German physician..· Mennecke considered using electric shock therapy to kill patients. However, he became embroiled in a dispute with his boss, a Nazi party official. As punishment, he was demoted from his position of Ortsgruppenleiter, was again drafted, and was then sent to a military hospital in Metz in 1943. He was briefly transferred to the eastern front, where, due to panic attacks, he was diagnosed with "Basedowian illness" and sent to a military hospital himself. He applied for positions at various gassing institutions, but then learned that he had tuberculosis.
- Summer 1945: Allied war crimes investigations and interrogations
- 1946: Indictment and trial; Mennecke claimed he had opposed "euthanasia."
- December 21, 1946: Sentenced to death
- January 27, 1947: His wife visited him in prison; he was found dead in his jail cell the next day.
Mennecke died before the appeals court heard the case. If his letters had not been saved, he would probably - like so many of his colleagues - have presented himself as a rescuer or a resistance fighter. But his correspondence reveals his innermost thoughts as a "typical" citizen, who apparently as a matter of course, and without inner struggle or hesitation, became a mass murderer.
Progression of the Unit [see Documents]
I was curious and uncertain whether my students would be interested in joining me in exploring the innermost thoughts of a bourgeois, well-behaved family man during the Weimar Republic and Nazi era and to draw the appropriate conclusions using Dr. Friedrich Mennecke as an example. Just as I had already used the case of Rudolf Höss in previous courses to show how someone could become a mass murderer in the Nazi genocide and extermination of Jews, this time I chose the example of Mennecke as a new approach. It was clear to me that I was expecting a great deal of effort from my students, especially historical knowledge and a thorough analysis of Mennecke's personality based on his correspondence. I knew from long experience that students did not always want to take the trouble necessary to formulate pedagogical questions against a backdrop of historical and socio-political knowledge. On the other hand, I promised myself to also give them some insight into the Nazi "T 4" operation, the program for the "destruction of life unworthy of existence."
In a preliminary discussion, I discovered that the students had only a vague knowledge of the "life unworthy of existence" program, in contrast to what they knew about the extermination policy of the Jews. Some attempted to ward off this subject with a statement familiar to teachers, "Another topic from the Hitler era again." Most of them, however, were willing to investigate Mennecke's petit-bourgeois prototype, possibly because I had given them detailed reasons to do so.
I repeatedly had to supply information on topics such as the post-1945 era and the policies of the Allies, especially the Americans. During the Cold War, the latter had an interest in reducing the "burdening" of the Germans [with guilt] in the war crimes trials, in order to secure their cooperation as good, dependable partners against communism and the Soviet Union.
The students were especially interested in what happened to the perpetrators after 1945. From the examples of the postwar "Doctors Trial" (case 1 of the American Nuremberg Trials) and the Hadamar Trials (American as well as German trials), they learned that the guilty were held accountable and that some were even sentenced to hang. However, the reintegration of the perpetrators into postwar West German society quickly became the main objective of postwar policy.
We listened to a school radio program of Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) on the subject, learned about the Nazi "euthanasia" program, and analyzed Mennecke's career, using the introduction to Peter Chroust's edition of Mennecke's correspondence. The students analyzed the narrow-mindedness, patriarchal behavior, and opportunism of this philistine [see Documents]. Through his letters, especially those to his wife, they recognized that the Nazis were able to use such subaltern petit-bourgeois people as foundations upon which to build their criminal system.
I was able to include material from earlier teaching units on the "authoritarian personality" in German history: the Wilhelmian Empire (Wilhelmism), jingoism, militarism, colonialism, Germany as a nation without a lengthy history of democratic traditions or experiences, and the tradition of the underling mentality as illustrated by the Heinrich Mann novel "Der Untertan" ["The Subject"] from 1914.
We compared the socialization patterns of other Nazi mass murderers, such as Eichmann and Höss, as well as those of a number of Mitläufer ["fellow-travelers"] with those of Mennecke and discussed the importance of bourgeois "primary and secondary virtues," such as punctuality, cleanliness and orderliness.
Excerpts from Mennecke's letters used in the classroom curriculum were part of the written and verbal examination questions in the final examinations [Abitur] for graduation, revealing that the students had gained important insights into this still open chapter of German history.