Military history



On 22 September 1939, in occupied Poland an SS unit from a paramilitary SS and police group, some 500 to 600 strong, founded in Danzig by Kurt Eimann, a local SS leader, loaded a group of mental patients from the asylum at Conradstein (Kocborowo) into a lorry and drove them to a nearby wood, a killing field where many thousands of Poles had already been shot by the Germans. The SS made them line up, still dressed in their asylum clothing, some of them even wearing straitjackets, on the edge of a ditch, where Gestapo officers from the Old Reich shot them, one by one, in the back of the neck. The mental patients fell into the ditch as they were executed, and the paramilitaries covered their bodies with a thin layer of soil. Over the next few weeks, more lorry-loads from the asylum arrived, to suffer the same fate, until around 2,000 mental patients had been killed. Relatives were told that the victims had been transferred to other asylums, but the reverse was the case, as mentally and physically handicapped children from institutions in Silberhammer (Srebrzysk), Mewe (Gniew) and Riesenburg (Probuty) were taken to Conradstein for execution. The same thing was happening elsewhere too. In Schwetz (Swiece) and Konitz (Chojnice), German police units and ethnic German ‘Self-Protection’ squads carried out the killings, while in November 1939 patients from Stralsund, Treptow an der Rege, Lauenburg and ̈ckermünde were taken to Neustadt in West Prussia (Wejherowo) and shot.227

In the Wartheland, Regional Leader Greiser emptied three major psychiatric hospitals of their inmates and had all the Poles and Jews among them killed. Most of them were shot by members of the SS Task Force VI. A special fate, however, was reserved for the patients of the hospital at Treskau (Owi’ska). They were taken to Posen and crammed into a sealed room in the fort that served as the local headquarters of the Gestapo. Here they were poisoned with carbon monoxide gas, released from canisters. This was the first time in history that a gas chamber had been used for mass killing. Further murders took place in the fort; on one occasion in December 1939, Himmler himself came along to observe. Early in 1940 this murder campaign finished with the transportation of more asylum inmates to Kosten (Ko’cian) in the Wartheland, where they were loaded into gas chambers mounted on the back of lorries, taken out into the countryside and asphyxiated. All in all, by the time the initial action was over, in January 1940, some 7,700 inmates of psychiatric hospitals and institutions for the mentally and physically handicapped had been killed, along with a number of prostitutes from Gdingen (Gdynia) and Bromberg (Bydgoszcz), and Gypsies from Preussisch-Stargard (Starograd).228Such events could hardly be kept secret. Dr Klukowski heard of the killings in February 1940. ‘It is hard to believe anything as terrible as this,’ he wrote.229

The murders continued during the following months. In May and June 1940, 1,558 Germans and 300 or so Poles were taken from an East Prussian mental institution at Soldau and killed by mobile gas wagons in an action organized by a special unit under the command of Herbert Lange, which went on to murder many hundreds more patients in the incorporated territories in the same way. Lange’s men received a special bonus of ten Reichsmarks for every patient they killed. The killings even extended to mental patients in the L’d’ ghetto, where a German medical commission took away forty to be shot in a nearby wood in March 1940 and another batch on 29 July 1941. So terrible were the conditions in the ghetto by this time that Jewish families still begged the hospital to admit their mentally ill relatives even though they were fully aware of the risks this involved. Altogether well over 12,000 patients were killed in these various actions by Eimann, Lange and their men.230 Although these murders took place in the context of a war in which many thousands more Poles and Jews were being shot by German army units, SS Security Task Forces and local ethnic German militias, they none the less stand out in some ways as qualitatively different. In Posen the need to free up space to quarter Military SS units may have played a role, and in some cases the accommodation released by the murders was made available to Baltic German settlers. But for the most part, such practical considerations were only of secondary importance or indeed merely served as a way of justifying these actions in seemingly rational terms. The space made available by the killings stood in no relation at all to the numbers of settlers arriving from the east. The real reasons for the killings were not practical or instrumental, but ideological.231 There was no convincing justification for the murders in security terms either. Unlike Polish intellectuals, the victims could not be regarded as posing a threat to the German occupation or the long-term Germanization of the region. Significantly, those few inmates of asylums deemed capable of work were spared and taken off to Germany. The rest were ‘social ballast’, ‘life unworthy of life’, to be killed as quickly as possible.232


As Himmler’s visit to the Posen fort killings suggests, the Nazi leaders in Berlin were well aware of what was going on, and indeed provided the ideological impulse for it to begin. From the mid-twenties at the latest, influenced by the writings of radical eugenicists, Hitler had considered that it was necessary for Germany’s racial health and military effectiveness to eliminate ‘degenerates’ from the chain of heredity. ‘If Germany got a million children every year,’ he had declared at the 1929 Nuremberg Party Rally, ‘and removed 70,000 to 80,000 of the weakest, then the end result would perhaps actually be an increase in its strength.’233 On 14 July 1933 the regime had introduced compulsory sterilization for Germans considered to be suffering from hereditary weaknesses, including ‘moral feeble-mindedness’, a vague criterion that could encompass many different kinds of social deviance. Some 360,000 people had been sterilized by the time the war broke out.234 In 1935, in addition, abortion on eugenic grounds had been legalized.235 Already, however, well before this time, Hitler had begun to plan for even more radical action. According to Hans-Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery, Hitler had considered putting a provision for the killing of mental patients into the Law of 14 July 1933, but shelved it because it would be too controversial. In 1935, however, as his doctor Karl Brandt recalled, Hitler had told the Reich Doctors’ Leader Gerhard Wagner that he would implement such a measure in wartime, ‘when the whole world is gazing at acts of war and the value of human life in any case weighs less in the balance’. From 1936, SS doctors began to be appointed in growing numbers as directors of psychiatric institutions, while pressure was put on Church-run institutions to transfer their patients to secular ones. At the end of 1936 or the beginning of 1937, a secret Reich Committee for Hereditary Health Matters was established within the Chancellery of the Leader, initially with a view to drawing up legislation for a Reich Hereditary Health Court. By this time, too, the SS journal The Black Corps was openly urging the killing of ‘life unworthy of life’, while there is evidence that a number of Regional Leaders began to prepare for the murder of institutionalized patients in their areas. All of this suggests that serious preparations for the killing of the handicapped began around this time. It only needed the imminent prospect of war to put them into effect.236

Such a prospect finally became real in the summer of 1939. Already in May, as preparations for the war with Poland were under way, Hitler had set up administrative arrangements for the killing of mentally ill children under the aegis of the Reich Committee for Hereditary Health Matters, now renamed more precisely the Reich Committee for the Scientific Registering of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses. A precedent, or excuse, was found in a petition to Hitler from the father of a baby boy who was born in February 1939 lacking a leg and part of an arm and suffering from convulsions. The father wanted the infant killed, but the Leipzig hospital doctor whom he had first approached had refused to do this because it would have opened him to prosecution for murder. Presented by the Chancellery of the Leader, his personal secretariat, with a dossier on the matter, Hitler ordered Brandt to visit Leipzig and kill the child himself after confirming the diagnosis and consulting with his medical colleagues there. Soon after, Brandt reported back to Hitler that he had got the local doctors to kill the infant on 25 July 1939. Hitler now formally asked Brandt, together with the head of the Leader’s’ Chancellery, to undertake active preparation of a major programme for killing mentally or physically handicapped children. Hitler’s personal physician, Theo Morell, who was closely involved in the planning process, suggested that the parents of the murdered children would prefer it if their death was reported as resulting from natural causes. As a final phase of the planning process, the head of the Leader’s Chancellery, Philipp Bouhler, a thirty-nine-year-old long-time Nazi who had built up the office over the years and gradually extended its influence into many of the areas of government touched on by the thousands of petitions addressed to Hitler that it was its job to deal with, invited fifteen to twenty doctors, many of them heads of psychiatric institutions, to a meeting to discuss the planned programme of killing. Although it was to begin with children, Hitler, Bormann, Lammers and Leonardo Conti, the head of the Party’s Health Office and ‘Reich Health Leader’ since the death of the Reich Doctors’ Leader Gerhard Wagner on 25 March 1939, decided that Conti should be commissioned with its extension to cover adults as well. Now that the decision had been made to kill the mentally ill and handicapped, a decree dated 31 August 1939 officially brought the programme of sterilizing them to an end in all but a few exceptional cases.237

The Leader’s Chancellery was from Hitler’s point of view the ideal location for the planning and implementation of the killing programme. His own personal office, it was neither subordinate to the Party, like the Party Chancellery, nor part of the civil service, like the Reich Chancellery, so it would be far easier to keep the deliberations over ‘euthanasia’ secret than it would have been had they taken place in the more formal bureaucratic setting of either of these other two institutions. Morell submitted to Hitler a memorandum on the possibility of formally legalizing the killing of the handicapped, and Hitler gave his personal approval to the idea. Under instructions from Bouhler’s office, the Ministry of Justice’s official Commission on the Reform of the Criminal Law prepared draft legislation removing penal sanctions from the killing of people suffering from incurable mental illness and confined to institutions. Lengthy discussions within the legal, medical and eugenic bureaucracies continued for many months as the draft was amended and refined. But for Hitler these seemingly endless deliberations were too slow and too pedantic. Like all the rest of the Commission’s drafts, the proposed legislation was eventually shelved.238 Impatient with these delays, Hitler acceded to pressure from Bouhler to transfer responsibility for the killings back from Conti to the Leader’s Chancellery, and signed an order in October 1939 charging Bouhler and Brandt ‘to extend the powers of doctors to be specified by name, so that sick people who by human estimation are incurable can, on the most critical assessment of the state of their illness, be granted a merciful death’. Although not a formal decree, this order effectively possessed the force of law in a polity where leading constitutional experts had long since been arguing that even Hitler’s verbal utterances were legally binding. As a precaution, none the less, the order was shown to Reich Justice Minister G̈rtner, to forestall any possible prosecutions; but apart from being made known to a few selected individuals involved in the programme, it was otherwise kept secret. To make clear that it was being introduced as a consequence of the heightened need to purify the German race imposed by the war, Hitler antedated it to 1 September 1939, the day the war broke out.239

By the time Hitler signed the order, the murder of adult patients was already under way in Poland; but it would not have begun there had the Regional Leaders in Pomerania, Danzig-West Prussia and East Prussia not been aware of the decisions already taken in Berlin. In Germany itself, the programme was initially directed at children. The secret Reich Committee for the Scientific Registering of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses, located in Bouhler’s Chancellery, ordered the compulsory registration of all ‘malformed’ newborn children on 18 August 1939.240 These included infants suffering from Down’s syndrome, microcephaly, the absence of a limb or deformities of the head or spine, cerebral palsy and similar conditions, and vaguely defined conditions such as ‘idiocy’. Doctors and midwives were paid two Reichsmarks for each case they reported to their superiors, who sent lists of the infants in question to a postal box number in Berlin, next to Bouhler’s office. Three doctors in the Leader’s Chancellery processed the reports. They then marked the registration forms with a + if the child was to be killed, and sent them on to the nearest public health office, which would then order the child’s admission to a paediatric clinic. To begin with, four such clinics were used, but many more were established later on, bringing the eventual total up to thirty.241

This whole process of registration, transport and killing was initially directed not at infants and children who were already in hospitals or care institutions, but at those who lived at home, with their parents. The parents were informed that the children would be well looked after, or even that removal to a specialist clinic held out the promise of a cure, or at least an improvement in their condition. Given the hereditarian bias of the diagnoses, a large proportion of the families were poor and ill-educated, and a good proportion of them were already stigmatized as ‘asocial’ or ‘hereditarily inferior’. Those who raised objections to the removal of their offspring from the family home were sometimes threatened with withdrawal of benefits if they did not comply. In any case, from March 1941 onwards, child allowances were no longer paid for handicapped children, and after September 1941 the children could be compulsorily removed from parents who refused to release them. In some institutions parents were banned from visiting their children with the excuse that this would make it more difficult for them to get used to their new surroundings; others found it difficult to visit in any case, since many of the centres were located in remote areas and far from easy to get to by public transport. Once admitted by the social and medical services, the children were put in special wards, away from the other patients. Most of the killing centres carried out their task by starving the children to death or administering overdoses of the sedative Luminal in their food. After a few days the children would develop breathing problems and eventually succumb to bronchitis or pneumonia. Sometimes the doctors left these diseases untreated, sometimes they finished the children off with lethal injections of morphine.242

A teacher taken on a tour of the killing ward at the Eglfing-Haar asylum in the autumn of 1939 later testified that the director, Hermann Pfannm̈ller, a long-time Nazi and an advocate of involuntary euthanasia for many years, told him openly that he preferred to let the children die naturally rather than killing them by injections, because this might arouse hostile comment abroad if news of it ever got out:

As he spoke these words, [Pfannm̈ller] and a nurse from the ward pulled a child from its crib. Displaying the child like a dead rabbit, he pontificated with the air of a connoisseur and a cynical smirk something like this: ‘With this one, for example, it will still take two to three days.’ I can still clearly visualize the spectacle of this fat and smirking man with the whimpering skeleton in his fleshy hand, surrounded by other starving children. Furthermore, the murderer then pointed out that they did not suddenly withdraw food, but instead slowly reduced rations. 243

The programme continued for much of the rest of the war along similar lines, killing an estimated 5,000 children in total. Gradually, the upper age limit for removal and murder was raised, first to eight, then to twelve, and finally to sixteen. In practice some were even older. Many of these children and adolescents suffered from little more than developmental difficulties of one kind or another.244

A large number of health officials and doctors were involved in the scheme, whose nature and purpose thus became widely known in the medical profession. Few of them objected. Even those who did, and refused to take part, did not put forward any criticisms on grounds of principle. For many years, and not merely since 1933, the medical profession, particularly in the field of psychiatry, had been convinced that it was legitimate to identify a minority of the handicapped as living a ‘life unworthy of life’, and that it was necessary to remove them from the chain of heredity if all the many measures taken to improve the health of the German race under the Third Reich were not to be frustrated. Virtually the entire medical profession had been actively involved in the sterilization programme, and from here it was but a short step in the minds of many to involuntary euthanasia. Their views were well represented by an article that appeared in the leading German physicians’ journal in 1942 on ‘The New German Physician’, arguing that it was the task of the medical profession, particularly in wartime, when so many of Germany’s best and bravest were dying on the battlefield, ‘to come to terms with counter-selection in their own people’. ‘Infant mortality,’ it went on, ‘is a process of selection, and in the majority of cases it affects the constitutionally inferior.’ It was the doctors’ task to restore this balance of nature to its original form. Without the killing of the incurable, the healing of the maj ority of the sick and the improvement of the nation’s health would be impossible. Many of those doctors involved spoke with pride of their work even after the war, maintaining that they had been contributing to human progress.245


Hitler’s retrospective ‘euthanasia’ order of October 1939, putting a pseudo-legal gloss on a decision already taken at the end of July, applied not only to children but also to adults in hospitals and similar institutions. Planning for this extension of the killing programme also began before the war. The programme, codenamed ‘Action T-4’ after the address of the Leader’s Chancellery, Tiergartenstrasse 4, from where it was run, was put into the hands of a senior official in the Chancellery, Viktor Brack. Born in 1904, and so in his mid-thirties, Brack, the son of a doctor, was a trained agronomist who had run the estate attached to his father’s sanatorium. He joined the Nazi Party and the SS in 1929, and benefited from the fact that his father knew Heinrich Himmler and had delivered one of his children. In the early 1930s he frequently acted as Himmler’s driver, before being appointed adjutant and then chief of staff to Bouhler and moving with him to Berlin. Brack was another enthusiast for involuntary euthanasia, declaring after the war that it was based on humane considerations. Such considerations were not powerful enough at the time to overcome his awareness that what he was doing might be regarded as tantamount to murder, so he used the pseudonym ‘Jennerwein’ when he dealt with the killing programme, just as his deputy, Werner Blankenburg, who succeeded him in 1942 when Brack went off to fight at the front, also disguised his identity (with the pseudonym ‘Brenner’).246

Brack soon created a whole bureaucracy to administer Action T-4, including front organizations with harmless-sounding names to run the registration, transport, personnel and financial sides of the operation. He put Dr Werner Heyde in charge of the medical side of the programme. 247 Born in 1902, Heyde had fought in a Free Corps unit in Estonia before taking up his medical studies, graduating in 1926. He clearly enjoyed strong connections with the far right, and in 1933 it was Heyde whom Himmler had asked to carry out a psychological assessment of the later commandant of Dachau concentration camp, Theodor Eicke, after the latter’s violent quarrel with the Regional Leader of the Palatinate, Josef B̈rckel, who had committed him to an asylum. Heyde’s positive assessment had gratified Himmler, whose backing he now enjoyed. Following this encounter, Heyde had joined the Nazi Party in May 1933. He became an SS officer in 1936. During the 1930s Heyde had acted as an expert medical referee in sterilization cases and he also carried out assessments of concentration camp inmates. Appointed to the staff of Ẅrzburg University in 1932, he became an adviser to the Gestapo in psychiatric matters, lectured on hereditary diseases (or those that were supposedly hereditary) and headed the local branch of the Racial-Political Office of the Nazi Party. In 1939 he became a full professor at the university. Here was an example, then, of a medical man who had built his career in the most ideological areas of Nazi medicine rather than in a more conventional manner. He seemed ideally suited to administer the killing programme.248

Already at the key meeting with Bouhler in late July 1933, Heyde, Brandt, Conti and others involved in the planning of the adult involuntary euthanasia scheme had begun to discuss the best method of carrying it out. In view of the fact that Hitler wanted around 70,000 patients to be killed, the methods used to murder the children seemed both too slow and too much likely to arouse public suspicion. Brandt consulted Hitler on the matter, and later claimed that when the Nazi Leader had asked him what was the most humane way of killing the patients, he had suggested gassing with carbon monoxide, a method already put to him by a number of physicians and made familiar through reports of suicides and domestic accidents in the press. Such cases had been investigated in depth by the police, and so Bouhler’s office commissioned Albert Widmann, born in 1912, and an SS officer who was the top professional chemist in the Criminal-Technical (or, as we would say, Forensic Science) Institute of the Reich Criminal Police Office, to work out how best to kill large numbers of what he was told were ‘beasts in human form’. He worked out that an airtight chamber was required, and had one built in the old city prison at Brandenburg, empty since the construction of a new penitentiary at Brandenburg-G̈rden in 1932. SS construction workers built a cell 3 metres by 5, and 3 metres high, lined with tiles and made to look like a shower-room so as to dull the apprehensions of those brought into it. A gas pipe was fitted along the wall with holes to let the carbon monoxide into the chamber. And as a last touch, an airtight door was installed, with a small glass window for viewing what was happening inside.249

By the time it was finished, probably in December 1939, the gassings in Posen had already taken place, and had been personally observed by Himmler: undoubtedly the method had been suggested by Widmann or one of his associates to local SS officers in Posen, at least one of whom had a chemistry degree and was in touch with leading chemists in the Old Reich.250 Himmler’s subordinate Christian Wirth, a senior official in the Stuttgart police, was one of those who attended the first demonstration of gassing in Brandenburg, along with Bouhler, Brandt, Conti, Brack and a number of other officials and physicians from T4 headquarters in Berlin. They took their turn to watch through the window as eight patients were killed in the gas chamber by carbon monoxide administered by Widmann, who told them how to measure the correct dose. All approved. Several other patients, given supposedly lethal injections by Brandt and Conti, had failed to die immediately - they were later gassed too - and so it was concluded that Widmann’s procedure was quicker and more effective. Soon the gas chamber in Brandenburg, which now went into regular service and continued to be used for killing patients until September 1940, was joined by other gas chambers built at the asylum in Grafeneck (Ẅrttemberg), which operated from January to December 1940, Hartheim, near Linz, which opened in May 1940, and Hadamar, in Hesse, which began operating in December 1940, replacing Grafeneck. These were former hospitals taken over by T-4 for exclusive use as killing centres; other gas chambers also came into use at hospitals that continued their previous functions, at Sonnenstein, in Saxony, which opened in June 1940, and Bernburg, on the river Saale, which opened in September the same year, replacing the original facility at Brandenburg.251

Each centre was responsible for killing patients from a specific region. Local mental hospitals and institutions for the handicapped were required to send in their details to the T-4 office, together with registration forms for long-term patients, schizophrenics, epileptics, untreatable syphilitics, the senile and the criminally insane, and those suffering from encephalitis, Huntington’s disease and ‘every type of feeble-mindedness’ (a very broad and vague category indeed). At least to begin with, many physicians in these institutions were unaware of the purpose of this exercise, but before long it must have become clear enough. The forms were evaluated by politically reliable junior medical experts approved by their local Nazi Party offices - very few who were recommended to the T-4 office refused to play their allotted role - and then vetted by a team of senior officials. The key criterion was not medical but economic - was the patient capable of productive work or not? This question was to play a crucial role in future killing operations of other kinds, and it was also central to the evaluations carried out by T-4 physicians when they visited institutions that had failed to submit registration forms. Behind this economic evaluation, however, the ideological element in the programme was obvious: these were, in the view of the T-4 office, individuals who had to be eliminated from the German race for the sake of its long-term rejuvenation; and for this reason the killings also encompassed, for example, epileptics, deaf-mutes and the blind. Only decorated war veterans were exempted. In practice, however, all these criteria were to a high degree arbitrary, since the forms contained little real detail, and were processed at great speed and in huge numbers. Hermann Pfannm̈ller, for instance, evaluated over 2,000 patients between 12 November and 1 December 1940, or an average of 121 a day, while at the same time carrying out his duties as director of the state hospital at Eglfing-Haar. Another expert, Josef Schreck, completed 15,000 forms from April 1940 to the end of the year, sometimes processing up to 400 a week, also in addition to his other hospital duties. Neither man can have spent more than a few seconds to take the decision on life or death in each case.252

The forms, each marked by three junior experts with a red plus sign for death, a blue minus sign for life, or (occasionally) a question mark for further consideration, were sent to one of three senior physicians for confirmation or amendment. Their decision was final. When the completed forms were returned to the T-4 office, the names of the patients selected for killing were sent to the T-4 transport office, which notified the institutions where they were held and sent an official to make the necessary arrangements. Often the lists were so arbitrarily drawn up that they included patients valued by institution directors as good workers, so not infrequently other patients were substituted for them on the spot in order to fill the required quota. Patients who were not German citizens or not of ‘Germanic or related blood’ also had to be reported. This meant in the first place Jewish patients, who were the subject of a special order issued on 15 April 1940: some thousand Jewish patients were taken away and gassed or, later on, taken to occupied Poland and killed there, over the following two and a half years, on the grounds that Aryan staff had been complaining about them and could not be expected to treat them. Directors of psychiatric hospitals, like Hermann Pfannmüller on 20 September 1940, proudly reported at the appropriate moment that their institution was now ‘Jew-free’ after the last Jewish inmate had been killed or taken away.253

For all categories of patients selected for killing, the procedure was more or less the same. On the appointed day, large grey coaches, of the kind used by the postal service to provide public transport in rural areas, arrived to take the patients away. Although the T-4 doctors and functionaries repeatedly asserted that these patients were insane and incapable of either making decisions for themselves or of knowing what was going on, this was in no sense the case for the great majority of those selected for killing, even if they were supposedly ‘feeble-minded’. Some patients initially welcomed the diversion provided by the coaches’ arrival, believing the assurances of the staff that they were going on an outing. But many realized only too well that they were being taken to their death. Doctors and nurses were not always careful to deceive them, and rumours soon began to course through Germany’s asylums and care institutions. ‘I am again living in a state of fear,’ wrote a woman from an institution in Stettin to her family, ‘because the cars were here again . . . The cars were here again yesterday and eight days ago as well, they took many people away once more, where one would not have thought. We were all so upset that we all cried.’ As a nurse said ‘See you again!’ to a patient in Reichenau as she got on the bus, the patient turned and replied that ‘we wouldn’t be seeing each other again, she knew what lay before her with the Hitler Law’. ‘Here come the murderers!’ one patient in Emmendingen shouted as the bus arrived. Staff often injected anxious patients with heavy sedatives so that they were loaded on to the coaches in a semi-comatose state. But some patients began to refuse injections, fearing they contained poison. Others offered physical resistance when they were being loaded on to the coaches, and the brutal violence meted out to them when they did so only increased the anxieties of the others. Many wept uncontrollably as they were hauled on board.254

Once they arrived at their destination, the patients were met by staff, led to a reception room and told to undress. They were given an identity check and a perfunctory physical examination aimed mainly at gaining hints for a plausible cause of death to enter in the records; those with valuable gold fillings in their teeth were marked with a cross on the back or shoulder. An identifying number was stamped or stuck on to their body, they were photographed (to demonstrate their supposed physical and mental inferiority) and then, still naked, they were taken into a gas chamber disguised to look like a shower room. Patients still anxious about their situation were injected with tranquillizers. When they were inside the chamber, the doors were locked and staff released the gas. The patients’ death was anything but peaceful or humane. Looking through the peephole, one observer at Hadamar later reported that he had seen

some 40 to 50 men, who were pressed tightly together in the next room, and now slowly died. Some lay on the ground, others had sunk into themselves, many had their mouths open as if they could not get any more air. The way they died was so full of suffering that one cannot speak of a humane killing, the more so since many of those killed may well have had moments of clarity about what was happening. I watched the procedure for about 2-3 minutes then left, because I could not bear to look any longer and I felt sick.255

4.Killing Centre of ‘Action T-4’, 1939-45

The patients were normally killed in groups of fifteen to twenty, though on some occasions many more were crowded into the cramped chambers. After five minutes or so they lost consciousness; after twenty they were dead. The staff waited for an hour or two, then ventilated the chamber with fans. A physician entered to verify death, after which orderlies generally known as ‘stokers’ (Brenner) came in, disentangled the bodies and dragged them out to the ‘death room’. Here selected corpses were dissected, either by junior physicians who needed training in pathology, or by others who had orders to remove various organs and send them to research institutes for study. The stokers took the corpses marked with a cross and broke off the gold teeth, which were parcelled up and sent to the T-4 office in Berlin. Then the bodies were put on to metal pallets and taken to the crematorium room, where the stokers often worked through the night to reduce them to ashes.256

The families and relatives of the victims were only informed of their transfer to a killing centre after it had taken place.257 A further letter was sent by the receiving institution registering their safe arrival but warning relatives not to visit them until they had safely settled in. Of course, by the time the relatives received the letter, the patient was in fact already dead. Some time later, the families were notified that the patient had died of a heart attack, pneumonia, tuberculosis, or a similar ailment, from a list provided by the T-4 office and augmented by notes made during their examination on arrival. Aware that they were in some sense acting illegally, the physicians used false names when signing the death certificate, as well as, of course, appending a false date, to make it appear that death had occurred days or weeks after arrival, instead of merely an hour or so. Delaying the announcement of death also had the side-effect of enriching the institution, which continued to receive the benefits, pensions and family subventions paid to the victims between the time of their actual death and the time officially recorded on the certificate. Families were offered an urn containing, they were told, the ashes of their unfortunate relative; in fact, the stokers had simply shovelled them in from the ashes that had accumulated in the crematorium after a whole group of victims had been burned. As for the victims’ clothes, they were, the relatives were informed, sent to the National Socialist People’s Welfare organization, although in reality, if they were of any quality, they usually found their way into the wardrobes of the killing staff. The elaborate apparatus of deception included maps on which the staff stuck a coloured pin into the home town of each person killed, so that if too many pins appeared in any one place, the place of death could be ascribed to another institution; the killing centres, indeed, even exchanged lists of names of the dead to try to reduce suspicion. Maximum efforts were made to keep the entire process secret, with staff banned from fraternizing with the local population and sworn not to reveal what was going on to anybody apart from authorized officials. ‘Anyone who does not keep quiet,’ Christian Wirth told a group of new stokers at Hartheim, ‘will go to a concentration camp or be shot.’258

Within the killing centres, the atmosphere frequently belied the impression of cold calculation conveyed by the numerous forms and documents that it generated. Those who actually carried out the murders were frequently drunk on the special liquor rations they received. They were reported to indulge in numerous casual sexual affairs with one another to take their minds of the all-pervasive stench of death. At Hartheim the staff held a party to celebrate their ten-thousandth cremation, assembling in the crematorium around the naked body of a recently gassed victim, which was laid out on a stretcher and covered with flowers. One staff member dressed as a clergyman and performed a short ceremony, then beer was distributed to all present. Eventually no fewer than 20,000 were gassed at Hartheim, the same at Sonnenstein, 20,000 at Brandenburg and Bernburg, and another 20,000 at Grafeneck and Hadamar, making a total of 80,000 altogether.259


Despite the secrecy that surrounded it, the involuntary euthanasia programme could not long remain unnoticed in the world beyond the T-4 bureaucracy and its killing centres. People living near Hadamar noticed clouds of smoke rising from the institution’s chimneys not long after the arrival of each transport, while members of staff who went on shopping expeditions or drank in the local inns on the rare occasions on which they were allowed out inevitably talked about their work. Others noticed when the buses arrived in their locality to take mental patients away; on one occasion, early in 1941, coaches loaded up patients from an institution in Absberg not inside the gates but on the town square, in full view of the local people, who began to protest, weeping and shouting abuse, as the patients began to resist and were manhandled on board by burly orderlies.260 More widespread still were suspicions among relatives of those taken to the killing centres. Some actually welcomed the prospect of their children or dependants being killed; the less perceptive allowed their fears to be dulled by the deceptively reassuring messages that came out of the institutions themselves. But most parents and relatives had their own networks, and knew others in a similar situation to their own, having encountered them at hospital visits or, earlier on, at the doctor’s surgery. They knew instinctively what was happening when they learned that their dependants had been transferred to somewhere like Hartheim or Hadamar. Sometimes they tried to take them home before they could be put on a transport list. One mother wrote to the director of her son’s institution on hearing that he had been transferred: ‘If my son is already dead then I request his ashes, because in Munich all kinds of rumours are going around and for once I want clarity.’ Another woman wrote in the margin of the official notification of her aunt’s transfer to Grafeneck: ‘In a few days we will now receive the news of poor Ida’s death . . . I dread the next letter . . . We won’t even be able to go to Ida’s grave and one doesn’t even know whether the ashes that are sent will be Ida’s.’ With increasing frequency, fear became anger when the official death notice arrived. Why, the sister of one murdered man wrote to the director of the institution from which he had been transported, had he been taken at all if he had been so sick that he had died so soon afterwards? His illness could not ‘just have occurred yesterday’. ‘In the end,’ she told him furiously, ‘we are dealing with a poor, sick, human being in need of help, and not with a piece of livestock!!261

Some judicial officials began to notice the unusual frequency of deaths among the inmates of institutions and some prosecutors even considered asking the Gestapo to investigate the killings. However, none went so far as Lothar Kreyssig, a judge in Brandenburg who specialized in matters of wardship and adoption. A war veteran and a member of the Confessing Church, Kreyssig became suspicious when psychiatric patients who were wards of court and therefore fell within his area of responsibility began to be transferred from their institutions and were shortly afterwards reported to have died suddenly. Kreyssig wrote to Justice Minister G̈rtner to protest against what he described as an illegal and immoral programme of mass murder. The Justice Minister’s response to this and other, similar, queries from local law officers was to try once more to draft a law giving effective immunity to the murderers, only to have it vetoed by Hitler on the grounds that the publicity would give dangerous ammunition to Allied propaganda. Late in April 1941 the Justice Ministry organized a briefing of senior judges and prosecutors by Brack and Heyde, to try to set their minds at rest. In the meantime, Kreyssig was summoned to an interview with the Ministry’s top official, State Secretary Roland Freisler, who informed him that the killings were being carried out on Hitler’s orders. Refusing to accept this explanation, Kreyssig wrote to the directors of psychiatric hospitals in his district informing them that transfers to killing centres were illegal, and threatening legal action should they transport any of their patients who came within his jurisdiction. It was his legal duty, he proclaimed, to protect the interests and indeed the lives of his charges. A further interview with G̈rtner failed to persuade him that he was wrong to do this, and he was compulsorily retired in December 1941.262

Kreyssig was a lone figure in the persistence of his attempts to stop the campaign. Concerned lawyers and prosecutors had their doubts quelled by the Ministry of Justice, and no legal action ensued. More widespread, perhaps, were the concerns of religious leaders. Despite the transfer of many patients to state institutions since 1936, a very large number of the mentally and physically handicapped were still cared for in hospitals and homes run by the Churches and their lay social welfare organizations, the Inner Mission in the case of the Evangelical Church, and the Caritas Association in the case of the Catholic. Some directors of psychiatric institutions run by the Inner Mission tried to delay the registration and transfer of their patients, and one in particular, Pastor Paul Gerhard Braune, director of a group of such hospitals in Ẅrttemberg, also enlisted the aid of Pastor Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, a celebrated figure in the world of Protestant welfare organizations. Bodelschwingh ran the famous Bethel Hospital in Bielefeld and refused point-blank to allow his patients to be taken off for killing. The Regional Leader of the Party in his area refused to have him arrested, since his reputation was not only national but even worldwide; Bodelschwingh was legendary for his selfless application of Christian principles of charity. In the middle of the stand-off, shortly after midnight on 19 September 1940, an aircraft appeared over the hospital and proceeded to bomb it, killing eleven handicapped children and a nurse. Goebbels was quick to direct the press to go into overdrive against the barbarity of the British - ‘Infanticide at Bethel - Revolting Crime’, screamed the headline in the German General Paper. How, asked the state-controlled media, could the British single out such a well-known centre of Christian charity? Bodelschwingh himself was only too aware of the irony. ‘Should I,’ he asked the local state administrator, ‘condemn the deed of the English and shortly afterwards take part in an “infanticide” on a far greater scale at Bethel?’263

Two days after the attack, a German official who was one of the American correspondent William L. Shirer’s informants came to his hotel room and, after disconnecting the telephone, told him that the Gestapo were killing off the inmates of mental institutions. He hinted strongly that the Bethel Hospital had been bombed by a German plane because Bodelschwingh had refused to co-operate. By late November Shirer’s investigations had yielded results. ‘It’s an evil tale,’ he noted in his diary. The German government, he wrote, was ‘systematically putting to death the mentally deficient population of the Reich’. One informant had given the number as 100,000, which Shirer considered an exaggeration. The American reporter had found out that the killings were taking place on Hitler’s written order and were being directed through the Leader’s Chancellery. His informants had also noted a bunching of death notices of patients at Grafeneck, Hartheim and Sonnenstein, put in by relatives, sometimes in coded language that made it clear they knew what was going on: ‘We have received the unbelievable news . . . After weeks of uncertainty . . . After the cremation had taken place we received the sad news . . .’ German newspaper readers, he thought, would know how to read between the lines of such notices, which is why they had now been banned. The programme, Shirer concluded, was ‘a result of the extreme Nazis deciding to carry out their eugenic and sociological ideas’.264

Bodelschwingh and Braune went to see Brack to protest against the killings, and then, joined by the famous surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch, they lobbied Reich Justice Minster Gürtner. Neither meeting had any effect, so Braune compiled a detailed dossier on the murders and sent it to Hitler, apparently in the belief that he knew nothing about it. At the end of his long and detailed exposition, Braune asked for the programme to be brought to a halt. ‘If human life counts for so little, will that not endanger the morality of the entire people?’ he asked rhetorically. He was told that Hitler was unable to stop the programme. On 12 August 1940, Braune was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo; but he was released on 31 October 1940, after a short time, on the condition that he would stop his campaign.265 Theophil Wurm, Protestant Bishop of Ẅrttemberg, wrote to Interior Minister Frick on 19 July 1940, asking for the murders to be brought to a halt:

If so serious a matter as the care of hundreds of thousands of suffering racial comrades in need of care is dealt with merely from the point of view of transient utility and decided upon in the sense of the brutal extermination of these racial comrades, then a line has been drawn under an ominous development and Christianity finally abandoned as a power in life that determines the individual and community life of the German people . . . There is no stopping any more on this slippery slope.266

Receiving no reply, he wrote again on 5 September 1940, asking: ‘Does the Leader know about this matter? Has he approved it?’267

The trouble with such actions is that they did not amount to anything more than the intervention of a few courageous individuals in the end, and so were without effective consequences. Nor did they lead to any wider opposition to the Third Reich in general. Members of the military-conservative opposition were aware of the killings, and strongly disapproved, but they were already critical of the regime for other reasons.268 Men like Bodelschwingh were not opposed to every aspect of the Third Reich. The Confessing Church was in a parlous state by this time, after years of persecution by the regime. The majority of Protestant pastors and welfare officers either belonged to the pro-Nazi German Christians or kept their heads down in the internal struggles that had convulsed the Evangelical Church since 1933. Fully half of the murdered patients came from institutions run by the Protestant or Catholic Church, and were taken away for killing often with the approval of the people who ran them.269 The national leadership of the Inner Mission was prepared to go along with the killings so long as they were limited to ‘sick people who are no longer capable of mental arousal or human society’, a compromise which was acceptable even to Bodelschwingh so long as it was explicitly embodied in a formal public law, though he took the opportunity to build in elaborate safeguards to the selections in his own institution intended to have the effect of causing endless delays to the whole procedure. Doubt, bewilderment and despair racked the consciences of pastors as they debated whether it was right or not to raise their voices in protest against the state, whose fundamental legitimacy none of them questioned. Would it not damage the Church unless it could speak with one voice? If they protested, would this not simply lead to the Inner Mission’s institutions being taken over by the state? Many feared that a public protest would give the regime an ideal excuse to intensify its persecution of the Church still further. At one of many meetings and conferences on the matter, Pastor Ernst Wilm, a member of the Confessing Church who had worked in Bodelschwingh’s Bethel Hospital, noted: ‘We are obliged to intercede and share responsibility for our sick people . . . so that it cannot be said: I was in the murderer’s hands and you just shrugged your shoulders.’ To the few root-and-branch opponents of the killings such as himself, that was how it seemed at the end of 1940 and for most of the following year too.270


The Catholic Church had also been under fire from the regime for some years already. Many of its lay organizations had been closed down, and numbers of its clergy arrested and imprisoned. Its agreement with the regime, sealed in a Concordat with Pope Pius XI in 1933, supposedly protecting the Church’s position in Germany in return for a guarantee of clerical abstinence from political activity, was in tatters. By 1939 the leading German prelates had decided to keep their heads down for fear of something even worse happening to them.271 Nevertheless, the Catholic Church, under the leadership of the Papacy, was a far more united body than its Protestant equivalent could ever be, while there were some matters of dogma on which it was not prepared to compromise. The Papacy had already complained about the regime’s policy of sterilizing the supposedly racially unfit, and it was not likely to let the escalation of this policy into one of outright murder go unmentioned. German bishops had also condemned the sterilization programme and had issued guidelines governing the extent to which Catholic doctors, nurses and officials could participate in it, though these were in practice not implemented. By now there was a new Pope in Rome, Pius XII, elected on 2 March 1939. He was none other than Cardinal Pacelli, who had been the Vatican’s representative in Germany for much of the 1920s, read and spoke fluent German, and had played the major part in drafting Papal protests against violations of the Concordat before the war. In October 1939 his first Encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, declared that the state should not try to replace God as the arbiter of human existence. But it was not until the summer of 1940 that Catholic protests against the killing of the handicapped began, sparked initially by the controversial events at the Bethel Hospital.272

The Bethel Hospital was located in the diocese of Bishop Clemens August von Galen, whose early accommodation with the regime in 1933-4 had given way by the time of the war to a more critical stance, particularly in view of ideological attacks on Christianity by leading Nazis such as Alfred Rosenberg and Baldur von Schirach.273 Already supplied with copious information by Bodelschwingh, Galen wrote to Cardinal Adolf Bertram on 28 July 1940 with details of the murder campaign and urging the Church to take a moral position on the issue. Other bishops were also concerned. Conrad Gr̈ber, Archbishop of Freiburg, wrote to Hans-Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery, on 1 August 1940 relaying the concerns of lay Catholics whose relatives had been killed, warning that the murders would damage Germany’s reputation abroad, and offering to pay all the costs ‘that arise for the state through the care of mentally ill people intended for death’.274 Many of the institutions from which inmates were being taken away to be killed were run by the German Caritas Association, the principal Catholic welfare organization, and their directors had urgently been asking the Catholic hierarchy for advice. On 11 August 1940 the Fulda Bishops’ Conference protested against the killings in another letter to Lammers, and followed this up by commissioning Bishop Heinrich Wienken, from the Caritas Association, to make representations in person. At the Ministry of the Interior, T-4 officials attempted to justify the killings, but Wienken, citing the Fifth Commandment (‘Thou shalt not kill’), warned that the Church would go public if the murder programme was not stopped.275

At the next meeting, however, Wienken retreated, and merely asked for the assessment of patients to be made more thorough before they were selected for death. He had become afraid that his stand would undermine efforts to get Catholic priests released from Dachau. He was called to order by Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, who told him firmly that the matters that had preoccupied him were mere ‘incidentals’ to the central fact that people were being murdered. ‘If things carry on at the present pace,’ the Cardinal warned, ‘the work of execution will be completed in half a year.’276 As for the suggestion, apparently put by Wienken, that the writings of Sir Thomas More justified the killing of the unfit, Faulhaber wrote mockingly that it was ‘really difficult not to write a satire. So Englishmen and the Middle Ages have suddenly become role models. One could just as well refer to the witch-burnings and pogroms against the Jews in Strassburg.’277 Negotiations finally broke down because the Interior Ministry refused to put anything in writing. On 2 December 1940 the Vatican issued a decree declaring roundly: ‘The direct killing of an innocent person because of mental or physical defects is not allowed.’ It was ‘against natural and positive Divine law’.278 Despite this, the Church hierarchy in Germany decided that further action would be inadvisable. ‘Any incautious or precipitous action,’ warned Cardinal Bertram’s chief adviser on 2 August 1940, ‘could in practice have the most deleterious and far-reaching consequences in pastoral and ecclesiastical matters.’279The evidence was not sufficient for a protest, Bertram told Galen on 5 August 1940. It was not until 9 March 1941 that Galen printed the decree in his official newsletter. What finally prompted Galen to speak out was the Gestapo’s arrest of priests and its seizure of Jesuit property in his home city of Münster to provide accommodation for people made homeless by a bombing raid. This convinced him that the caution advised by Bertram nearly a year before had become pointless. In sermons delivered on 6, 13 and 20 July 1941, he attacked the occupation of Church properties in Münster and the surrounding area and the expulsion of monks, nuns and lay brothers and sisters by the Gestapo. In addition, he also criticized the ‘euthanasia’ action. The police attempted to intimidate Galen into silence by raiding the nunnery where his sister Helene von Galen was based, arresting her and confining her to a cellar. Undaunted, however, she escaped by climbing out of a window.280

Galen was now thoroughly roused. In a fourth sermon, on 3 August 1941, he went much further than he had done before. He was prompted to do so by a secret visit to him by Father Heinrich Lackmann, chaplain at the Marienthal Institution, who told him that patients were about to be taken away for killing, and asked him to do something about it. Galen regarded this as a potential crime, and proceeded on the basis that it was his legal duty to expose it, as indeed it was. In this sermon, he first referred once more to the arrest of priests and the confiscation of Church property, then turned to a lengthy denunciation of the entire euthanasia programme. He provided circumstantial details that he had only hinted at in his sermon of 6 July 1941, including individual cases, and added that the Reich Doctors’ Leader Dr Conti ‘made no bones about the fact that a large number of mentally ill people in Germany have actually been deliberately killed already and more are to be killed in future’. Such murders were illegal, he declared. On hearing of the transport of patients from the Marienthal Institution near M̈nster at the end of the previous month, he said, he had formally accused those responsible of murder in a letter to the public prosecutor. People, he told his congregation, were not like old horses or cows, to be slaughtered when they were of no more use. If this principle were applied to human beings, ‘then fundamentally the way is open to the murder of all unproductive people, of the incurably ill, of people invalided out of work or out of the war, then the way is open to the murder of all of us, when we become old and weak and thus unproductive’. In such circumstances, he asked rhetorically, ‘Who can trust his doctor any more?’ The facts he had recounted were firmly established. Catholics, he declared, had to avoid those who blasphemed, attacked their religion, or brought about the death of innocent men and women. Otherwise they would become involved in their guilt.281

The sensation created by the sermons, not least the last of them, was enormous. Galen had them printed as a pastoral message and read out in parish churches. The British got hold of a copy, broadcast excerpts over the BBC German service, and dropped copies as leaflets over Germany as well as translating them into several other languages and distributing them in France, Holland, Poland and other parts of Europe. Copies found their way into many households. A few people protested as a result, or talked about the killings with their work colleagues; a number were arrested and put into concentration camps, including some of the priests who had duplicated and distributed the sermons. Galen’s actions emboldened other bishops, such as Antonius Hilfrich, Bishop of Limburg, who wrote a letter of protest to Justice Minister G̈rtner (himself a Catholic) on 13 August 1941 denouncing the murders as ‘an injustice that cries out to Heaven’.282 The Bishop of Mainz, Albert Stohr, sermonized against the taking of life.283 This was the strongest, most explicit and most widespread protest movement against any Nazi policy since the beginning of the Third Reich. Galen himself remained calm, resigned to martyrdom. But nothing happened. So huge was the publicity he had generated that the Nazi leaders, enraged though they were, feared to take any action against him. Regional Leader Meyer wrote to Bormann demanding that the bishop be hanged, a view in which Bormann himself readily concurred. But both Hitler and Goebbels, when told of these events by Bormann, concluded that to make Galen a martyr would only lead to further unrest, which simply could not be contemplated in the middle of a war. He would be taken care of when the war was over, said Hitler. Ordinary Party members in M̈nster were uncomprehending: why, they asked, was the bishop not imprisoned, since he was clearly a traitor?284

The government’s response was oblique: in August 1941 it released a film entitled I Accuse!, in which a beautiful young woman stricken with multiple sclerosis expresses the wish to end her suffering, and is helped to die by her husband and another friend, after lengthy discussions of the rights and wrongs of such an action. The discussions also extended to the principle of involuntary euthanasia, justified in one passage by an elaborate lecture from a university professor. 18 million people saw the film, and many, reported the SS Security Service, regarded it as an answer to Galen’s sermons. Indeed key scenes had in fact been personally inserted by Viktor Brack from the T-4 office. Older people and especially physicians and the highly educated rejected its message, but younger doctors were more in favour, provided euthanasia was carried out on medical grounds after proper examination, a principle with which many ordinary people agreed. Lawyers were heard to opine that the kind of assisted suicide portrayed in the film needed more careful legal underpinning, while most people only approved of euthanasia if it was voluntary. If the person to be killed was ‘feeble-minded’, a category not dealt with in the film at all, then most people thought this should only happen with the consent of the relatives. The SS Security Service reported that Catholic priests had been visiting parishioners to try to persuade them not to see the film. Ordinary people had no doubt as to the film’s purpose. ‘The film is really interesting,’ said one; ‘but things are going on in it just like they are in the lunatic asylums, where they are now bumping all the crazy people off.’ The subliminal message, that the T-4 murder programme was justified, clearly did not get through.285

What did happen, however, was that the programme was halted. A direct order from Hitler to Brandt on 24 August 1941, passed on to Bouhler and Brack, suspended the gassing of adults until further notice, though Hitler also made sure that the killing of children, which was on a much smaller and therefore much less noticeable scale, continued.286 Galen’s sermon, and the widespread public reaction it had aroused, made it difficult to continue without creating even further unrest, as the Nazi leaders reluctantly conceded. Nurses and orderlies, especially in Catholic institutions for the sick and the disabled, were beginning seriously to obstruct the process of registration. The killing programme was now public knowledge, and relatives, friends and neighbours of the victims were making their disquiet publicly felt. Moreover, they associated it clearly with the Nazi leadership and its ideology; indeed, despite the naive belief of men like Bishop Wurm that Hitler did not know about it, the danger of Hitler himself taking some of the blame was very real. By mid-1941 even Himmler and Heydrich were criticizing ‘mistakes in the implementation’ of the action. And the quota set by Hitler, of 70,000 deaths, had already been met.287

Yet these considerations do not in the end diminish the significance of Galen’s actions.288 It is impossible to say with any certainty what would have happened had he not ignored the advice of his superiors in the Catholic Church and raised his voice against the killing of the mentally sick and handicapped. But given the propensity of Nazism to radicalize its policies when it met with little or no resistance to them, it is at least possible, even indeed probable, that it would have continued well beyond the original quota after August 1941; finding people to operate the gas chambers at Hadamar and elsewhere would not have been difficult even had some of the existing teams departed for Poland, as indeed they did. In the end it became clear that the Nazis had by no means abandoned their intention of ridding society of those they considered a burden to it. But from August 1941 onwards, if it was to be done at all, it had to be done slowly and secretly. The mentally handicapped, long-term psychiatric patients and others classified by the regime as leading a ‘life unworthy of life’ were simply too closely bound into the central networks of German society to be isolated and disposed of, the more so since the definitions of abnormality applied by the T-4 experts were so arbitrary and included so many people who were intelligent and active enough to know what was happening to them and tell others all about it.

The same, however, could not be said of other persecuted groups in German society such as the Gypsies or the Jews. Galen said nothing about them, nor did the other representatives of the Churches, with rare exceptions. The lesson that Hitler learned from the whole episode was not that it was inadvisable to order the wholesale murder of large groups of people, but that, just in case a future action of this kind against another minority ran into similar trouble, it was inadvisable to put such an order down in writing. And the euphemistic propaganda with which Action T-4 had been surrounded, the deceptions, the reassurances to the victims and their relatives, from the description of murder as ‘special treatment’ to the disguising of the gas chambers as showers, would be strengthened still further when it came to other, larger acts of mass murder. The involuntary euthanasia campaign had been an open secret, in which the employment of euphemisms and circumlocutions had presented people with a choice: to ignore what was really going on by accepting them at face value, or to penetrate to their actual meaning, hardly a difficult or problematical enterprise, and then to be confronted with the difficult choice of whether or not to do anything about it. By the time the main killing programme had ended, in August 1941, a large part of the medical and caring professions had been brought in to operate the machinery of murder. From an initially small group of committed physicians, the circle of those involved had grown inexorably wider, until general practitioners, psychiatrists, social workers, asylum staff, orderlies, nurses and managers, drivers and many others had become involved, through a mixture of bureaucratic routine, peer pressure, propaganda and inducements and rewards of one kind or another. The machinery of mass murder developed in the course of Action T-4, from the selection of victims to the economic exploitation of their remains, had operated with grim efficiency. Having proved itself in this context, it was now ready to be applied in others, on a far larger scale.289


The mass murders on which the Third Reich embarked in the autumn of 1939, both in Germany and in the occupied areas of Poland, were far from being a consequence of the outbreak of a war in which the Nazi leadership considered that Germany’s very existence was at stake. Still less were they the product of the ‘barbarization of warfare’, brought on by a life-and-death struggle against a ruthless enemy in harsh conditions. The invasion of Poland took place under favourable conditions, in good weather, against an enemy that was swept aside with contemptuous ease. The invading troops did not need to be convinced by political indoctrination that the enemy posed a huge threat to Germany’s future; clearly the Poles did not. Primary group loyalties in the lower ranks of the army remained intact; they did not have to be replaced by a harsh and perverted system of discipline that replaced military values with racial ideology.290 Almost everything that was to happen in the invasion of the Soviet Union from June 1941 onwards was already happening on a smaller scale in the invasion of Poland nearly two years before.291 From the very beginning, SS Security Service Task Forces entered the country, rounding up the politically undesirable and shooting them or sending them off to concentration camps, massacring Jews, arresting local men and sending them off to Germany as forced labourers, and engaging in a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing and brutally executed population transfers.

These actions were not confined to the SS. From the very beginning, too, Nazi Party officials, stormtroopers, civilian officials and especially junior army officers and ordinary soldiers joined in, to be followed in due course by German settlers moved into Poland from outside. Arrests, beatings and murders of Poles and especially Jews became commonplace, but what was even more striking was the extent of the hatred and contempt shown towards them by ordinary German troops, who lost no time in ritually humiliating Jews on the street, laughing and jeering as they tore off their beards and made them perform degrading acts in public. Just as striking was the assumption of the invading and incoming Germans that the possessions of the Poles and Jews were freely available as booty. The theft and looting of Jewish property in particular by German troops was almost universal. Sometimes they were aided and abetted by local Poles. More often than not, non-Jewish Poles themselves were robbed as well. All of these actions reflected official policy, of course, directed from the top by Hitler himself, who had declared that Poland was to be totally destroyed, its academically educated and professional classes annihilated, and its population reduced to the status of uneducated helots whose lives were worth next to nothing. The expropriation of Polish and Jewish property was explicitly ordered from Berlin, as were the Germanization of the incorporated territories, the transfers of population, and the ghettoization of the Jews. Nevertheless, the zeal with which the invading Germans, taking their cue from these centrally directed policies, acted on their own initiative, often going far beyond them in the sadistic brutality of their implementation, still requires some explanation.

Popular hatred and contempt for Poles, as for Ukrainians, Belarussians and Russians, and even more for ‘Eastern Jews’, were deeply rooted in Germany. Even before the First World War, the doctrines of human equality and emancipation inculcated into large parts of the working class by the Social Democratic labour movement had not stretched as far as including minorities such as these. The great mass of ordinary working people regarded Poles and Russians as backward, primitive and uneducated; indeed, the frequent occurrence of antisemitic pogroms in Tsarist Russia was often cited by workers as evidence in support of this view. Fear of invasion from the barbaric east played a major role in persuading the Social Democrats to vote for war credits in 1914. The advent of Communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union had only strengthened and deepened these beliefs. To most Germans, including, ironically, many educated and acculturated German Jews, the ‘Eastern Jews’ of Poland appeared even more backward and primitive. In the early 1920s they caused resentment out of all proportion to their numbers when a few of them found refuge from the violence of the Russian civil war. Nazi propaganda, ceaselessly reinforcing such stereotypes, deepened prejudice against the Slavs and the Eastern Jews during the 1930s until they appeared to many Germans, particularly in the younger generation, as less than human.292

Toughness, hardness, brutality, the use of force, the virtues of violence had been inculcated into a whole generation of young Germans from 1933 onwards, and, even if Nazi education and propaganda in these areas had met with varied success, it had clearly not been wholly without effect. Nazism taught that might was right, winners took all, and the racially inferior were free game. Not surprisingly, it was the younger generation of German soldiers whose behaviour was the most brutal and violent towards the Jews. As Wilm Hosenfeld reported in a letter from Poland to his son in November 1939, ‘Jews say: “Old soldier good, young soldier awful.” ’293 What the invading and occupying Germans did in Poland from September 1939 was not so much the product of war as of longer-term processes of indoctrination, building on a deep-rooted feeling that Slavs and Eastern Jews were subhumans and that political enemies had no rights of any kind. Typical in this respect was General Gotthard Heinrici, no Nazi fanatic but a dyed-in-the-wool professional soldier, whose letters revealed deep-seated prejudices in their casual association of Slavs, Jews, dirt and vermin. ‘Bedbugs and lice are running around here everywhere,’ he wrote to his wife from Poland on 22 April 1941, ‘also terrible Jews with the Star of David on their arm.’294 Revealingly, he also saw a historical parallel in the treatment of Jews and Poles by the German occupiers. ‘Poles & Jews are serving as slaves,’ he reported a few days later. ‘Nobody here takes any account of them. Here it’s just as it was in Ancient times, when the Romans had conquered another people.’295 He described the General Government as ‘really the rubbish-heap of Europe’, full of houses that were ‘half-fallen in, dilapidated, filthy, tattered curtains behind the windows, stiff with dirt’.296 He had evidently never been into the poorer districts of his own country. For Heinrici, as for many others, dirt was Slavic and Polish. ‘Just when you’re going through the streets,’ he reported from Poland in April 1941, ‘you already have the feeling you’ve taken lice and fleas with you. In the Jewish alleyways there’s such a stink that you have to clean and blow out your nose when you’ve been through, just to get rid of the filth you’ve breathed in.’297

Thus when the German forces took what they conceived of as retaliatory actions against the Polish resistance to the invasion, taking hostages, shooting civilians, burning people alive, razing farms to the ground, and much more, they were not acting out of military necessity, but in the service of an ideology of racial hatred and contempt that was to be largely absent in their invasion of other countries further to the west.298 Violence against racial and political enemies, real or imagined, had become commonplace in the Third Reich well before the outbreak of the war. The violence meted out to Poles and especially Jews from the beginning of September 1939 continued and intensified this line of action established by the Third Reich, as did the looting and expropriation to which they were subjected. The ultimate rationale for such policies in the minds of Hitler and the leading Nazis was to make Germany fit for war by removing the supposed threat of a Jewish presence and thus forestalling the possibility of a ‘stab-in-the-back’ from subversive elements on the Home Front such as they believed had lost Germany the First World War.299

Similar considerations were evident, among others, in the Nazi treatment of occupied Poland, which was designed from the start to be the springboard for the long-envisioned invasion of Soviet Russia. And they were obvious, too, in the mass murder of the mentally ill and handicapped begun in the summer of 1939. This too was no mere product of war, still less was it the outcome of a chance petition to Hitler by the parents of a handicapped baby, as has sometimes been suggested. On the contrary, it too was long planned, foreshadowed by the mass sterilization of nearly 400,000 ‘unfit’ Germans before the war broke out, adumbrated by Hitler ten years before, and in preparation since the mid-1930s. The violence meted out by German forces in Poland was also pre-programmed. It followed logically on from the peacetime policies of the Nazis, extending them and intensifying them in new and terrifying ways.300 In less than two years they were to be carried even further and implemented on an even larger scale. In the meantime, however great their obsession with ethnic cleansing and the quest for ‘living-space’ in the east, Hitler and the Nazis were still confronted with the fact that what had begun in September 1939 was not merely the long-dreamed-of eastward extension of Germany’s political and ethnic borders, but also, somewhat less encouragingly for them, a world war in which Germany was opposed by the combined might of Britain and France, the two European countries with the largest overseas empires, victors against Germany of the war of 1914-18. To the last, Hitler had hoped that such a conflict could be avoided, and that he would be left to destroy Poland in peace. Now, however, he was confronted with the problem of what to do with Germany’s enemies in the west.

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