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HolocaustOctober 1939

Hitler authorizes killing of disabled

Adolf Hitler wanted the severely disabled to be killed
Adolf Hitler wanted the severely disabled to be killed

In October 1939 Adolf Hitler did something extremely unusual. He signed a document which linked him directly with a course of action which could reflect badly on him – the so called ‘adult euthanasia’ policy of killing selected disabled patients. The document, which allowed his physician, Dr Brandt, and one of his secretariat, Philipp Bouhler, to pursue a policy of ‘mercy killing’ was backdated – significantly – to 1 September 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Poland.

The reason Hitler signed the document was because it was proving hard for his subordinates to push forward with something as radical as the killing of the disabled without some form of authorization. For this document did not mark the start of the campaign against the disabled – the policy of ‘euthanasia’ was already in operation.

Indeed, the idea of ‘Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens’ (destruction of life not worthy of life) had been around since the 1920s and had taken additional force as an extension of the eugenics movement. Eugenics, whose prime idea was that only genetically ‘suitable’ people should be allowed to have children, had followers in many countries in the first half of the Twentieth Century, notably in America where several states – like Indiana – enacted legislation which made it legal to sterilize certain mentally ill individuals.

Not surprisingly, given his core belief in the notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’, Hitler embraced the ideas of ‘conventional’ eugenics, but wanted to take them to an extreme level.  In a propaganda film like ‘Opfer der Vergangenheit’ (Victims of the Past), shown in 1937, the Nazi vision was made clear. Patients in mental asylums were revealed as suffering in their own minds, whilst the commentary made clear the cost to the state of keeping these people in care. The implication was obvious – if these people did not exist then the Nazi state would be much better off.     

The route by which this ideological notion – that it would be better to remove the seriously disabled  – became a practical reality reveals a great deal about how policy could be made in the Nazi state. Sometime early in 1939 the father of a severely disabled child wrote a petition to Hitler asking that his son should be killed – a so called ‘mercy’ killing. The petition landed in the Fuehrer’s Chancellery, controlled by an ambitious Nazi called Philipp Bouhler and staffed by his no less ambitious underlings. The petition was chosen from thousands of others to be seen personally by Hitler. When he saw it he ordered Dr Brandt to consult with the child’s doctors and then, subsequently, the child was killed. Hitler then authorized other children to be dealt with the same way. Eventually, around 8,000 children were killed, mostly by poisonous injections.     

In the summer of 1939, Hitler let it be known that he would approve of adult patients who had severe mental illnesses being treated in the same way. Significantly he said that medical resources could be put to better use in any forthcoming war.i  Bouhler and Viktor Brack, his deputy, were keen to turn their Fuehrer’s wishes into practical policy and soon a variety of organisations with reassuring names (like ‘Community Patients’ Transport’) were established, all based in a house at Number 4 Tiergartenstrasse. Thus, the killing programme that developed was known as T4.     

It was in order to give formal legitimation to this operation that Hitler signed the document he did in October 1939. Then, over the next 20 months, the T4 team organized the killing of 70,000 to 90,000 disabled people. In order to deal with this many people a new system of murder was developed. In several asylums, like Sonnenstein in east Germany, special fake ‘shower’ rooms were built. Once the patients entered these rooms, any suspicions lulled because they thought they were about to take a shower, carbon monoxide gas was pumped into the room in order to kill them. This technique, pioneered in the killing of the disabled, was later to appear in modified form as a method of murdering the Jews.   

This so-called ‘adult euthanasia’ scheme was extended in 1941 to concentration camps in a programme known as 14f 13. Prisoners, who had been selected as too sick to work, were transported to the euthanasia killing centres. In fact, the first Auschwitz prisoners to be gassed in the summer of 1941 were not selected because they were Jews, but because – following 14f 13 – they were sick, and they were not gassed in the camp (no such facility yet existed) but transported to Sonnenstein to be murdered.ii 

Perhaps not surprisingly given Nazi ideology, German Jews in mental asylums were, from the spring of 1940, killed under the adult euthanasia scheme without selection by doctors, and in occupied Poland a similar widening of the killing criteria was made so that all the inmates in mental asylums could be killed. In Poland another new method of killing was devised, the gas van. Mental patients were put in the back of a lorry and taken for a drive. Once under way the driver would turn a switch and the carbon monoxide gas from the engine exhaust would be pumped back into the sealed area where the patients were crammed. At the end of the journey, they were dead. By May 1940 around 10,000 Polish mental patients had been killed in this way in the Germanized areas of West Prussia and the Warthegau.

Within Germany, after opposition from church leaders (notably Bishop Galen), Hitler called a halt to the euthanasia action in August 1941, but many of the T4 staff simply moved on to use their killing expertise in the murder of the Jews. Most notable was Christian Wirth, a committed Nazi and policeman in Stuggart, who had been one of the earliest members of T4 and had helped organize a gassing demonstration in a mental asylum in Brandenburg in January 1940.iii He would now go on to help build Belzec, the first killing centre for Jews which used fixed gas chambers. Then in August 1942 he was appointed to the job of Inspector of three death camps (Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka).

The Nazi euthanasia scheme developed because enthusiastic, committed underlings attempted to make real the ‘vision’ of their leader, Adolf Hitler. Something similar would happen with the development of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ – the extermination of the Jews – only this time, of course, Hitler would be careful not to leave any paper trail behind.


i Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis, Allen Lane, 2000, p. 259
ii Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, BBC Books, 2005, pp. 75-77
iii Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939 – March 1945, William Heinemann, 2004, p. 191