From Euthanasia to "Final Solution"

details place/state: Berlin   INSTITUTION: Gedenk- und Bildungsstätte Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz   AUTHOR: Annegret Ehmann age group: 18 years and older   learning activities   Analyzing career experience in a historical context   Analyzing propaganda   Changing perspectives   Learning by research at memorial sites   Working with archives   topics   Discrimination   Euthanasia   Handicapped   History of a profession in Nazi Germany   Involuntary sterilization   Mass murder   Operation T4   Propaganda   Race hygiene   Wannsee Conference

Nursing education in Germany includes on-the-job training and a part-time vocational school. The memorial and educational center at the House of the Wannsee Conference offers student nurses a seminar on the history of their profession in the Nazi era. They analyze historical documents about "racial hygiene," euthanasia and how nurses took part in the mass murder of minorities. They also discuss eugenics and euthanasia today.


Since 1992, the education department of the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site [see Reference: Contact information] has developed and carried out various one- and two-day seminar projects for nurses, those who care for the elderly, and health care managers, as well as those being trained in these professions. The goal is to bring both working professionals and beginners face-to-face with the history of their own professional groups in the Nazi era.

A program enabling the participants to analyze documents about the administrative division of labor and to recognize that average public-sector employees were directly and indirectly involved in genocide was specially developed for professional groups from public administration, including health care professionals. Such a program inevitably leads to questions about how far general administrative structures and career-.specific thought and behavioral patterns were responsible for the smooth functioning of the mass collaboration needed to implement the Holocaust. At the same time, however, ideological continuities and breaches in administrative practice, as well as today's professional ethics, are also examined.

The project described here encompasses a two-day seminar for nursing students enrolled in a three-year professional nursing program for public and private hospitals. Their theoretical training includes four weeks of classroom instruction per semester alternating with on-the-job training at hospitals and clinics. Non-school project days, such as this seminar on the history of nursing in the Nazi years at the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site, have been incorporated by almost all nursing schools in Berlin as a regular part of their course work.

Prerequisites for the Project Day

A preliminary discussion with the nursing students' instructors clarifies the main points of the subject the students will explore. Information about the group, their knowledge, interests and attitudes toward learning are important aspects for developing the seminar concept. By obtaining this information, the interests of the students take precedence over teacher concerns. The project day at the memorial requires the participants' motivation to study the theme of "National Socialism" as well as their ability to work on their own in small groups.

In the case of this group of students, the subject is more closely related to their curriculum than that of students entering other professions because the study of "euthanasia" and the history of nursing in the Nazi period are mandatory parts of it. The special feature of a seminar at the memorial, in contrast to traditional classroom instruction in nursing school, is that the wider historical context - such as the racial persecution of Jews, Sinti and Roma, and other oppressed groups - can be included in a more concrete way. Moreover, current problems such as right-wing extremism and prejudice can be discussed more openly and neutrally in a non-school setting because there is no dependent student-teacher relationship between the instructor at the memorial and the students.

Course of the Project Day

The First Day

After an introduction to the historical significance of the Wannsee Conference and the history of the house [see Documents], the first day focuses on the topics of mandatory (involuntary) sterilization and euthanasia. Following this starting point is a brainstorming session: students are asked to imagine and write down their thoughts about death and situations where death is preferable to life. The second step is to formulate explanations. Usually, the students mention loss of autonomy, dependency, and "not wanting to be a burden." Starting here, they discuss social norms and personal values that influence these ideas. Using overhead projections of photographs and documents from the Nazi years and before 1933 [see Documents], they analyze the reasons for categorizing individuals (appearance, intelligence, gender, ability) and the role of anthropologists and physicians in developing racial concepts and values. The terms "eugenics," "race hygiene," and "racial anthropology" are explained.

Afterwards, the students break into small groups to analyze documents and questionnaires from the public health administration about the history of forced sterilization and its consequences in the "destruction of life unworthy of life." Excerpts from Binding/Hoche 1920, Hitler's authorization for killing the "incurably" ill as of September 1, 1939, as well as overhead projections about the elements of Nazi ideology, are used [see Documents]. The focus is on precise determination of the role of medical personnel. Various documentary film-clips [see Reference: Bibliography] are analyzed to deepen visual and emotional understanding. At the end of the first day, a blank questionnaire about human genetics from the popular weekly magazine "Der Stern" (no. 39, 1996) is introduced in order to show the connection with the current discussion of "assisted suicide" [see Documents]. These questions allow a self-test to
see whether medical personnel as a group differ from the general populace in their valuations of human life. Usually this test shows that nurses are not significantly different from the majority of the population, although one would expect greater sensibility to ethics. As it had at the start of the seminar day, when "death" was discussed, it again became clear that public norms and values have a greater influence on professional behavior than do individual socialization factors.

The Second Day

The second day emphasizes the history of the professional group. Documents about the Gleichschaltung [synchronization] and indoctrination of nursing professionals, Nazi propaganda materials (overhead projections), and parts of the permanent exhibition at the House of the Wannsee Conference are used to illustrate the specifics of Nazi ideology and values [see Documents]. Concern for the Volkskörper [racial community] had precedence over the needs of individual patients. The economics of health care - that is, not spending money on "useless lives" - was "serving the nation's health." The cost-utilization argument, which among other things was a factor in Nazi genocide, is discussed in connection with the current debate over the ideas of the contemporary Australian philosopher Peter Singer and the escalating austerity in health care spending.

Finally, a mock trial is staged based on material from the trials of perpetrators in the "euthanasia" killings. The participants are asked to confront various aspects of individual responsibility, portraying the deeds from the different points of view of defendants, prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys. The seminar ends with an open discussion evaluating the two days of study. A majority of participants in this discussion were interested in getting additional information and felt that their own professional development required increased consciousness about the historical and political dimensions of the subject.


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