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Kennedy Institute of Ethics

The Nazi Eugenics Programs

The economy of Germany was in shambles at the end of World War I. The population was decimated. The government—this was the Weimar Republic, which was in power from 1919 until 1933—looked to popular eugenic theories for ways to restore and improve the health and physical wellbeing of the populace.

In 1932, inspired in part by Laughlin's Model Eugenics Law and other writings in the United States, the Weimar government drafted a plan for sterilizations of individuals with "hereditary illnesses." Many people were living in institutions, and they were costly to the country. Sterilizing them would prevent them from having children; some might then also be able to leave the institution and live on their own. The plan involved those to be sterilized (or their guardians) in decisionmaking, requiring prior consent to the procedure.

The next year, the National Socialists-Nazis-took control of Germany. On July 14, 1933, the new government issued its "Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases." This law was far more directive than the Weimar government's plan. People with so-called hereditary illnesses had to be sterilized, even if they objected. And the list of persons classified as hereditarily ill included those suffering from "congenital feeble-mindedness, schizophrenia, manic depression, hereditary epilepsy, Huntington's chorea, hereditary blindness, hereditary deafness, and serious physical deformities." People with chronic alcoholism could also be sterilized. The law established some 200 Genetic Health Courts at which teams of lawyers and doctors would subpoena medical records in order to choose candidates for sterilization. The Court proceedings were secret, and the decisions could rarely be reversed.

Throughout Germany, doctors were being trained in "race hygiene." They were identifying and zealously reporting those in their communities who had any of the so-called genetic diseases and would be candidates for sterilization. The Nazis and Nazi doctors also were promoting the eugenics strategy of "selective breeding" as a way to rebuild the nation's population, specifically its Aryan population.

In the six years before World War II, the Nazi doctors sterilized some 400,000 people, mostly German citizens living in asylums. Hitler's Rassenhygiene—race hygiene—program was in full swing. "The 'racial' health of the German people took precedence over the health of any given individual."

By the late 1930s, the Nazi government was using propaganda movies to persuade the public that those who were hereditarily ill and, therefore, dangerous to the health of the nation should be exterminated rather than kept alive as "neutered beings." The targets for extermination were objectified as "beings of lesser worth," "life unworthy of life," "ballast existences," "useless eaters."

In the autumn of 1939, Hitler approved the Aktion T-4 program, which authorized specific doctors and officials to carry out mercy deaths—euthanasia—of those the state deemed unworthy of life. Fifty volunteer physicians coordinated the program from its headquarters in a villa in Berlin located at number 4 Tiergarten Street (hence the name T-4). Again, physicians at hospitals and psychiatric institutions throughout Germany identified and recommended candidates for euthanasia.

At first, in accordance with the T-4 program, the physicians murdered 5000 congenitally deformed children. The children were given lethal injections or were starved to death at six special asylums that had been remodeled to accommodate the killings. Then, the T-4 program expanded to include adults, who were taken to killing asylums as well. Death certificates were sent to families of those who were killed, falsifying the reasons for their relatives' 'sudden deaths.'

Eventually, church groups and the general public raised objections to the T-4 program. In response, Hitler called a halt to the program. But, by then, August of 1941, almost 70,000 people had been killed under T-4. And, although Aktion T-4 stopped, the killing did not.

Doctors and nurses around the country continued to select and kill people and cover up their actions. Physician historian Edzard Ernst writes that Aktion T-4 "turned out to be nothing less than a 'pilot project' for the extinction of millions in the concentration camps." Most of the health care practitioners involved in T-4 simply transferred their "technology for killing on an 'industrial scale'" to the Aktion 14f13 program. Through this next program, six million Jews were exterminated in the gas chambers of the concentration camps as well as millions of political prisoners, Gypsies, the handicapped, those too ill to work, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, Afro-Europeans, and Soviet and Polish prisoners-of-war.

Hitler's race hygiene program relied on and succeeded because of the enthusiastic collaboration of people in the medical community. Wrote Ernst: "German physicians had been involved at all levels and stages. They had developed and accepted the pseudo-science of race hygiene. They were instrumental in developing it further into applied racism. They had evolved the know-how of mass extinction. Finally, they also performed outrageously cruel and criminal experiments under the guise of scientific inquiry. The aim of generating pure Aryans had taken precedence over the most fundamental ethical issues in medicine." Under the Nazi medical system of routinized killing, writes physician historian Michael Burleigh, "no one was safe in the presence of the carers."

German physicians conducted numerous 'medical' experiments in the concentration camps between 1941 and the end of the war. Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician, suggested that the camps would be the perfect "laboratories" for their experiments. Experimentation was pivotal for race hygiene, and killing could be rationalized and "treated not as murder but as healing—as a therapeutic imperative aimed at preserving the health of the one racial community which really mattered."

The physicians considered the people in the concentration camps to be the "living dead." If they served as objects of medical research, their useless lives might have some utility. If they died, nothing was lost. They were destined for death anyway, being unworthy of life.

The concentration camp doctors perfected techniques for sterilization and euthanasia. Did high doses of radiation bring about sterilization? What about new surgical techniques? They injected people with gasoline and shocked them with electricity to see if these procedures would kill them. They took away the prisoners' food and watched to see how long it took them to starve to death.

The camp doctors used twins in many of their experiments, because twins provided a perfect built-in 'control' for each study. One twin would be injured, infected, or treated in some way and then let die. Then, the other twin was killed, so that their bodies could be compared. The Nazis also were interested in twins because, if they could figure out how to produce more twins, the population could be restored faster.

When the doctors wanted to complete a skeleton collection at the Reich University in Strasbourg, they selected 112 healthy Jewish prisoners, photographed them, measured them, and murdered them. They studied their bones and tissues and then sent the bodies to Strasbourg, where the flesh was removed and the skeletons put on display.

The eugenics-based horrors of the Holocaust were influenced by political, economic, social, and military factors. But it was the added factor of the Nazis' total disregard for the rights and dignity of human beings that made the Holocaust possible.

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