27 Jan “Life unworthy of life”: the first victims of the Nazis
Photo: A screenshot from the documentary “Aktion T4: A Doctor Under Nazism” (2017)
Today is January 27 – International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This date was chosen by the UN General Assembly on November 1, 2005, because it was on this day that Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. Did you know that the first victims of the Nazis were children and adults with disabilities who were considered “unwanted” and “unfit” elements of society? A special mass killing programme “T-4” (Aktion T-4), aimed at slaughtering people with learning and physical impairments. At first, the German National Socialists killed children under three years old and then began to massacre all age groups with disabilities. As a result, more than 300,000 disabled people were killed under the T-4 programme.
In 1920, psychiatrist Alfred Hohe and lawyer Karl Binding published their treatise on “Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life”, which became the main document for the genocide of disabled people in the Third Reich. Disabled children and adults were labelled as “lives unworthy of life”, “useless eaters” and unnecessary burden for the state budget. The first victims of the Nazis were disabled people against whom the extermination procedure in the gas chambers was first applied. Later such methods of mass killing and the Nazis who developed it were deployed to other concentration camps like Auschwitz and were used for the genocide of the Jews. Imagine what it was like at that time to be Jewish and disabled at the same time?
It should be noted that not only in Nazi Germany disabled people were perceived in this inhumane way. For example, in the United States in the 1920s, some laws required sterilisation of “unfit” people. Many Americans are still unaware of the so-called “ugly laws” that have been in force in many states since the late 1860s. According to that laws, it was considered illegal for “unsightly or obscene” individuals to appear in public. The last “ugly law” was only repealed in 1974! Therefore, it is important to be aware of the world history of disability not to repeat the mistakes of the Nazis and even Americans in the past.
I have recently watched the documentary “Aktion T4: A Doctor Under Nazism” (2017) by Catherine Bernstein. The film is about Dr Julius Hallervorden, a major brain pathologist, who contributed to the systematic murder and recovered the brains of 690 disabled children. Between 1939 and 1945, at least 200,000 disabled people were assassinated by the Nazi regime as part of the Action T4 plan. After the war, Dr Hallervorden still pursued a brilliant career, in all impunity, and died covered in honours.
The genocide of disabled children and adults in Nazi Germany should serve us all a lesson and always remind that discrimination based on disability, austerity measures and labelling disabled people as “scroungers”, “parasites” or “useless welfare dependants” makes us fascists in some sense.