Of the many millions of people enslaved, persecuted and killed as part of the Nazis’ programmes to “purify” the Aryan race, we know little about the fate of hundreds of thousands of disabled people in Germany and its occupied territories in World War II.
In recent years, the story of the genocide of disabled people by the Nazis has begun to be researched, but unlike with other groups, there have been no reparations and there has been precious little remembrance. Yet, their suffering was no less obscene than that of the Jews. Indeed, the Nazis began their racial cleansing in 1933 with disabled people and the legislation that required their sterilisation. It is estimated that at least 375,000 disabled people were sterilised, usually forcibly, with the collusion (willing and otherwise) of the medical profession and often with devastating consequences. The method of injecting carbon dioxide to scarify the fallopian tubes, for example, killed many women in the process.
At the same time, the Nazis began to exterminate the “incurably sick” through the T4 programme, including people with hereditary and genetic conditions, with mental health conditions, physical and learning disabilities and sensory impairments. The Nazis rehearsed mass extermination techniques – the first experimental gas chamber in Brandenburg was constructed for disabled people in 1939 – that were later deployed to such devastating effect in the “Final Solution”. At least 275,000 people were killed through this programme.
But the Nazis did not just target disabled adults: in 1939 a decree authorised the reporting of all children under three with a wide range of “serious hereditary diseases” which encompassed the whole spectrum of disability. Gradually, the age groups covered by the decree swept upwards to 17. Children were removed to 28 killing centres where lethal gas was injected, although some doctors allowed children to starve to death, seeing it as a more natural way to die. Because records were not kept or destroyed, no one knows how many disabled children were murdered by the Nazis. Many children – and adults – were experimented upon before and after their deaths. Indeed, some of the remains of child victims were still being used in research in Germany in the 1960s.
Disabled people were also herded into concentration camps where mass executions occurred. Others, especially those with a capacity to work, such as deaf people, became slave labourers and were worked to death, just as Jews were. As the Nazis devoured Eastern Europe, they exported the genocide and disabled people in other countries were systematically persecuted and killed. It is not known how many lost their lives but “in every way that other victims, such as the Jews, suffered and lost, people with disabilities suffered and lost.”
Similarly, the Nazi regime used racially motivated propaganda to justify its programmes of “euthanasia” against disabled people. Nazi ideology considered disability to be a signal of degeneracy and that their lives were not “worthy of life”.
But economic arguments were deployed too, summed up in the pejorative term “useless eaters”. The Nazis promulgated the idea that life had to be earned, not given as a right and promoted the cost savings to be gained from eradicating “social burdens”. Indeed, children were encouraged to problem solve the economic conundrum of “keeping” disabled people in school text books. And in 1941, the state removed the financial allowances payable to families with disabled children.
None of the stories of the Holocaust should go untold. This is the laudable theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day. Yet, it is only in the 21st Century, that we have seen research conducted to uncover the true scale of the genocide against disabled people. There are no dedicated memorials and only passing references at the internationally renowned Holocaust memorials and centres to the suffering of disabled people – and their families – at the hands of the Nazis.
However, “the suffering of the disability community also must never be excluded or minimized in the telling of the “story” of the Holocaust because, as Jewish people have long recognized, the key to “Never Again” is never forgetting. It does not diminish the agonies of the other countless victims of the Holocaust to fully recognize the atrocities committed against men, women, and children with disabilities. There is enough grief to go around.”
The continuing marginalisation, injustice and inequality that disabled people experience all around the world makes it imperative to remember. Discrimination against disabled people and their families did not end with Germany’s defeat in 1945. Here in Scotland, disabled children are much less likely to leave school with qualifications, adults much less likely to work, and families inevitably live in poverty, in communities that are neither accessible nor welcoming. Hate crime is a daily endurance for many, with the worst cases ending in serious injury and even death.
Access to social and health care is a postcode lottery. Disabled children are much more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse. Many families still report Do Not Resuscitate assumptions being made about their loved ones by medical professionals. Only in 2001 were significant strides made in ensuring that all disabled people can exercise their right to vote and it has taken to 2010 to require public houses and restaurants to provide accessible toilet facilities.
But in 2011, the need to tell the story of genocide against disabled people has become altogether more urgent and pressing.
”The economics of euthanasia for the chronically disabled were widely discussed. It was wartime, budgets were skyhigh, deficits were extraordinary, health resources were limited. It was argued that expenditures for long-term care of patients, who might never again be economically productive citizens, made little economic sense in cost/benefit terms as compared with similar expenditures on improved public health programs to keep the able-bodied healthy. Scarce health care resources were to be rationed.”
Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?
(All the quotes used in this post are lifted from Forgotten Crimes – the Holocaust and People with Disabilities, a Report by Disability Rights Advocates, September 2001. An excellent bibliography of sources and materials on the Nazis genocide against disabled people can be found on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website)