First they came for disabled people ... and no one took any notice

27th November 2012

As part of a series of features for Disability History Month, we present part one of Ian Malcolm-Walker’s harrowing look at the Nazis’ treatment of disabled people

Over 200,000 disabled people were the first victims of the Holocaust. The atrocities caused by Hitler and the Nazi regime are well known in the Jewish community. Most people think only of the great losses suffered by the Jews when the word “Holocaust” is mentioned.

But Hitler and the regime despised disabled people because an impairment of any kind was an abhorrent to the future of his dream of a perfect race. In his lunacy, Hitler believed by eradicating every disabled person, he could wipe out disability. Babies born deaf, blind or with even the slightest “imperfection” were immediately disposed of, and abortions were common if the parents’ genetic lineage was in question.

Hitler ordered the making of propaganda films to persuade the public of the necessity of eliminating people with genetic defects. The film “Victims of the Past” was made on Hitler’s explicit orders and he made sure the film was shown in Germany’s 5,300 cinemas. Special lighting effects distorted features so disabled people were portrayed as grotesque and could only survive at the expense of healthy people.

The Nazis also sterilised nearly 400,000 Germans believed to have genetic impurities. During the 1930’s, disabled people in Germany were referred to as “useless eaters”. Nazi Germany targeted disabled people and older people as a drain on public resources. Doctors, not soldiers, were put in charge of killing older people and disabled people, since they had first-hand knowledge of where they lived, and if their medical condition was temporary or not.

Those deemed “curable” were transferred to special hospitals for slave labour and experiments. Dr Josef Mengele was the most famous of these “researchers”, torturing hundreds of children, especially those of a multiple birth, i.e. twins. The lives of institutionalised children were further brutalized.  Members of the SA, SS, Hitler Youth and League of German Maidens were taken on tours of institutions. The visitors regarded these tours as “freak shows” and there were many instances of nasty and brutal behaviour towards the children who lived in the institutions. More than 20,000 visitors came to the Eglfing-Haar institution. Dr Pfannmuller, the director, took his visitors to the wards and lectured them (in front of the children) about the necessity of killing disabled for the “good of the nation”. Pfannmuller advocated killing children long before the child euthanasia program was put into effect and used starvation as his preferred method.


The “sterilisation Law” explained the importance of weeding out so-called genetic defects from the total German gene pool:

“Since the National Revolution public opinion has become increasingly preoccupied with questions of demographic policy and the continuing decline in the birthrate. However, it is not only the decline in population which is a cause for serious concern but equally the increasingly evident genetic composition of our people. Whereas the hereditarily healthy families have for the most part adopted a policy of having only one or two children, countless numbers of inferiors and those suffering from hereditary conditions are reproducing unrestrainedly while their sick and asocial offspring burden the community.”

Some scientists and physicians opposed the involuntary aspect of the law while others pointed to possible flaws. But the designation of specific conditions as inherited, and the desire to eliminate such illnesses or handicaps from the population, generally reflected the scientific and medical thinking of the day in Germany and elsewhere.

Nazi Germany was not the first or only country to sterilise people considered “abnormal.” Before Hitler, the United States led the world in forced sterilisations. Between 1907 and 1939, more than 30,000 people in twenty-nine states were sterilised, many of them unknowingly or against their will, while they were incarcerated in prisons or institutions for the mentally ill. Nearly half the operations were carried out in California. Advocates of sterilisation policies in both Germany and the United States were influenced by eugenics. This sociobiological theory took Charles Darwin’s principle of natural selection and applied it to society. Eugenicists believed the human race could be improved by controlled breeding.

Still, no nation carried sterilisation as far as Hitler’s Germany. The forced sterilisations began in January 1934, and altogether an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people were sterilised under the law. A diagnosis of “feeblemindedness” provided the grounds in the majority of cases, followed by schizophrenia and epilepsy. The usual method of sterilisation was vasectomy and ligation of ovarian tubes of women. Irradiation (x-rays or radium) was used in a small number of cases. Several thousand people died as a result of the operations, women disproportionately because of the greater risks of tubal ligation.

Most of the persons targeted by the law were patients in mental hospitals and other institutions. The majority of those sterilised were between the ages of twenty and forty, about equally divided between men and women. Most were “Aryan” Germans. The “Sterilisation Law” did not target so-called racial groups, such as Jews and Gypsies, although Gypsies were sterilised as deviant “asocials,” as were some homosexuals. Also, about 500 teenagers of mixed African and German parentage (the offspring of French colonial troops stationed in the Rhineland in the early 1920s) were sterilised because of their race, by secret order, outside the provisions of the law.

Although the “Sterilisation Law” sometimes functioned arbitrarily, the semblance of legality underpinning it was important to the Nazi regime. More than 200 Hereditary Health Courts were set up across Germany and, later, in annexed territories. Each was made up of two physicians and one district judge. Doctors were required to register with these courts every known case of hereditary illness. Appeals courts were also established, but few decisions were ever reversed. Exemptions were sometimes given artists or other talented persons afflicted with mental illnesses. The “Sterilisation Law” was followed by the Marriage Law of 1935, which required for all marriages proof that any offspring from the union would not be afflicted with a disabling hereditary disease.

Popular films such as Das Erbe (“Inheritance”) helped build public support for government policies by stigmatizing the mentally ill and disabled people and highlighting the costs of care. School mathematics books posed such questions as: “The construction of a lunatic asylum costs 6 million marks. How many houses at 15,000 marks each could have been built for that amount?”

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