The first to die was a five-month-old baby boy called Gerhard Kretschmar. Gerhard’s father, Richard Kretschmar, considered his severely disabled child to be a ‘monster’, and he soon approached his local physician with the request that the baby be ‘put to sleep’ for his own good. After the doctor refused, Kretschmar wrote directly to Adolf Hitler, asking the Führer to overrule the doctor.
Hitler, who had long been in favour of ‘mercy killing’ the severely disabled, dispatched his personal physician, Karl Brandt, to the village of Pommsen near Leipzig to examine the child. Hitler told Brandt that if the baby was as severely disabled as the father claimed, Brandt had his permission to kill the child.
Brandt duly examined Gerhard and concluded that the child was beyond help. With Hitler’s blessing, the child was killed, probably by lethal injection on the 25th of July 1939. His death would mark the start of one of the most hideous programmes of the Second World War – the mass murder of the mentally ill and the physically disabled throughout Germany and some of its occupied territories. The programme would come to be known as Aktion T4.
The death of little Gerhard Kretschmar was therefore seen as a ‘trial run’ for what would follow
The road to the mass killing of the mentally ill and the disabled began in 1933 with the passing of the ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring’. This made sterilisation compulsory for anyone suffering from conditions considered to be hereditary at the time. These conditions included schizophrenia and epilepsy – afflictions that the Nazis, obsessed with racial purity as they were, did not want passing down through the generations. By sterilising people with conditions such as Huntingdon’s chorea, the vaguely labelled ‘imbecility’ and even chronic alcoholism, the Nazis sought to remove these illnesses from the national gene pool, thus creating a stronger, purer race.
Hitler wanted to go further than merely sterilising people. As early as 1933, he was already expressing the view to both his physician Karl Brandt and the head of the Reich Chancellery, Hans Lammers, that his regime should go further and kill those in society the Nazis considered useless. The death of little Gerhard Kretschmar was therefore seen as a ‘trial run’ for what would follow. After the child’s death, Hitler told Brandt to treat all similar cases the same. It was the start of something truly monstrous.
Three weeks after Gerhard Kretschmar’s death, the Nazis set up the Reich Committee for the Scientific Registering of Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses. The committee registered the births of all babies born with defects identified by physicians. The mass killing of infants began soon after. By 1941, over 5,000 children identified by the committee had been murdered with the blessings of the state.
Of course, the state was conscious of the fact that parents wouldn’t take likely to the government killing their children. To prevent mass revolt, deception was deployed. Parents of disabled children were told that their offspring were being sent to ‘Special Sections’ where they were to receive advanced medical attention. In reality, the children were sent to extermination centres housed in psychiatric hospitals where they were killed by lethal injection. The parents would then be informed that their children had died from something else, usually pneumonia. Children sent to the Am Spiegelgrund institute in Austria were not just killed by lethal injection. Some were gassed and others died after being subjected to physical abuse. Once dead, the children’s brains were removed for further study without the parents being informed. Grotesquely, some of these preserved brains sat in private collections into the 21st Century.
Across Poland, asylums were emptied by members of the SS and the patients shot.
It wasn’t just disabled children that the Nazis decided to exterminate. The outbreak of war in September 1939 meant not only the targeting of mentally and physically disabled Germans adults; sights were set on the vulnerable of conquered territories such as Poland and Czechoslovakia as well.
Polish patients were the first to be targeted soon after the Nazi conquest of the country. Across Poland, asylums were emptied by members of the SS and the patients shot. It wasn’t long before a more cost-efficient method of killing the physically and mentally ill was being sought out, and as early as December 1939 patients were being gassed to death. Heinrich Himmler witnessed one such gassing. He liked what he saw, and gassing would later become the extermination method of choice during the Final Solution.
The programme of killing adults suffering from mental and physical disabilities quickly spread back into neighbouring Germany. Regional governors were eager to clear out their institutions to make way for wounded soldiers, and having seen what was going on in Poland, they jumped at the chance to implement similar programmes on the home front. 8,000 vulnerable Germans were murdered in the first wave of killing. They would by no means be the last.
What had begun as a regional solution to hospital overcrowding soon spread across Germany. By 1940, all Jews had been removed from German institutions and killed, and orders went out to nursing homes, mental institutions, hospitals, old people’s homes and sanatoria to register anyone who had been interned for five years or more with a range of conditions ranging from being ‘criminally insane’ to syphilis, senile dementia and epilepsy. Those who fell into these categories were removed from their institutions by special ambulances driven by SS men dressed in white coats. They would then be taken to extermination centres and usually killed within 24 hours. Death certificates with false causes of death were then drawn up and sent to relatives.
Of course, the mass killing of German adults and children didn’t go unnoticed. The deaths were hardly a state secret, and many people and doctors who objected to Aktion T4 went out of their way to remove their relatives and patients from institutions before the SS came for them. Protests broke out across Germany. Both the Protestant and Catholic churches objected to the morality of the programme. Despite these objections, patients under both churches’ care were routinely removed and murdered – often, and to these churches’ eternal shame, with priests’ consent.
The Nazi euthanasia programme was officially suspended indefinitely in 1941 in the face of both public and official protest. Sadly, the killings would continue right up to the end of the war as fanatical Nazis carried on the programme regardless. The last child to be euthanized was Richard Jenne in the town of Kaufberen in Bavaria. Incredibly, the town had already been occupied by American troops for three weeks when the boy’s murder took place.
In total, Aktion T4 killed between 275,000 and 300,000 innocent people. The method of death by gassing that was developed for the programme would later be transferred to the mass killing of Jews, Poles, Roma, homosexuals and other targeted groups in the extermination camps that sprang up across the occupied territories.
After the war, many prominent participants in the programme including Karl Brandt were tried at Nuremberg in what became known as the ‘Doctor’s Trial’. Many were hanged for their crimes against humanity. Among those sentenced to death were Viktor Brack, an enthusiastic Nazi who cut his teeth on the euthanasia programme before going on to gas thousands of Jews, and Kurt Blome, a scientist who experimented on live human subjects as well as committing euthanasia. Brandt, the man who kickstarted the programme with the death of little Gerhard Kretschmar in 1939, was hanged on the 2nd of June 1948.
Aktion T4 was but one of many appalling crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” Those were the words of the former US Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey. As with everything they did, the Nazis failed this test.