Victoria pays tribute to the 200,000 disabled slaughtered by the Nazis

The Holocaust is normally associated with the slaughter of six million Jews, but several other sections of society were also victims of Nazi persecution including gays, Gypsies and black people. As we approach Holocaust memorial day on January 27th, I want to pay tribute to the estimated 200,000 disabled people who were killed by the Nazis.

Nazi ideology towards disability can be traced back to a distorted understanding of Darwin’s ground-breaking scientific work Origin of Species, published in 1859. The Nazis seized on Darwin’s theory of natural selection and misinterpreted it by applying it to human society.

They wanted to create a “master race” and saw disabled people as “unfit” to reproduce. Hitler was obsessed with the concept of racial purity and anyone deemed “inferior” or “weak” was believed to contaminate the “purity” of the gene pool.

The Nazis claimed that the existence of disabled people weakened society’s ability to operate efficiently and that the social and economic problems Germany suffered in the 1920s and 30s were partly caused by the burden of supporting disabled people.

Soon after coming to power the Nazis began issuing anti-disability propaganda. One poster shows images of disabled people with the caption “deformed”. Another has the words: “God cannot want the sick and ailing to reproduce”. Disabled people were often referred to as “useless eaters” and “lives unworthy of life”.

In July 1933, the Nazis passed “The law for the prevention of progeny with hereditary disease” which ordered the sterilisation of all people with conditions that the Nazis regarded as hereditary including visual and hearing impairments, physical and learning disabilities, mental illness and epilepsy. More than 17,000 deaf people alone are believed to have been sterilised during the Nazi regime. Often disabled children were handed over to the authorities by their teachers. Two years later, doctors were given the legal right to carry out forced abortions if they suspected that a foetus was disabled.

However, the compulsory sterilisation of disabled people and forced abortions were just the start. In 1939, the Nazis went one step further and set out to eradicate disabled people altogether. Newborn babies with physical or mental disabilities were removed from their parents, taken to special wards and killed by lethal injection or starvation. In most cases, the parents were told that their children had died of natural causes.

Under a policy known as the T4 Program, disabled people living in care homes were transported to six killing centres, the most notorious of which were Hartheim Castle in Austria and Hadamar near Wiesbaden in Germany. The victims were undressed, given a superficial medical examination and taken to a “shower” room, 60 at a time. Poison gas was then pumped into the room. Once the bodies had been collected, they were dissected and organs removed for medical research. The discarded corpses were incinerated.

From the outside Hadamar looked like a factory and at its height it employed more than 100 staff. It is estimated that 70,000 disabled people had been killed under the T4 Program by the end of 1941. Many ordinary doctors, administrators, lawyers, carers, teachers, religious organisations and relatives were either directly involved or complicit in the removal of disabled people.

A Nazi propaganda film from this time depicts a husband carrying out a “mercy killing” of his disabled wife and using Nazi arguments to justify his action.

In many ways, the T4 Program was a precursor and rehearsal for the even more widespread killing of Jewish people in the second half of World War Two. The poison gas installations resembling shower stalls used at Hadamar and the other killing centres were early versions of the technology later found in the major concentration camps. Evidence also suggests that staff from the T4 Program were transferred to the murder of Jews following the 1942 Wansee Conference which gave the go ahead to the “Final Solution”.

Some disabled people actively promoted Hitler’s policies. The Nazis established REGEDE (the Reich Union of the Deaf) which was led by a deaf Nazi, Fritz Albreghs. He was nicknamed the “Fuhrer of the deaf” and he used sign language as well as speech to convey Nazi beliefs. The head of REGEDE’s women’s section volunteered to be sterilised and toured Germany encouraging others to emulate her example. A deaf storm-trooper motorcycle unit was set up to patrol deaf neighbourhoods and intimidate deaf Jews.

Not all Germans supported the Nazis’ views of disability. One man who opposed the extermination of disabled people was businessman Otto Weidt. He decided to protect as many disabled people as he could by employing them in his small factory in Berlin. His company manufactured brushes and brooms and his employees avoided the T4 Program because these products were declared “vital for military purposes”.

A leading member of the Catholic Church in Germany, Cardinal Clemens von Galen, was the most prominent person to speak out against the killings. He publicly denounced the persecution of disabled people in a sermon in Munster in 1941 – “Woe unto the German people when not only can innocents be killed but their killers remain unpunished”. As pressure from the church, the public and the judiciary increased, Hitler suspended the T4 Program and the poison gas installations were dismantled. However, the killings resumed a year later.

From 1942 onwards, the T4 Program was conducted in a more secretive fashion, with disabled people dying from lethal injections or starvation rather than by poison gas. These killings continued up until the end of the war. Hadamar only stopped operating shortly before American troops reached it in March 1945.

In the aftermath of the war, many of those who had been forcibly sterilised on racial grounds were able to claim compensation. But the new government of West Germany refused to offer the same compensation to people sterilised because of their disability. Eventually the government conceded a one-off payment of 5000 marks to the Nazis’ disabled victims but they never received any official support, counselling or pension rights.

More than 60 years after VE Day, it is vital that we continue to remember and mourn the hundreds of thousands of disabled people who were killed by the Nazis. And as the years pass and the Holocaust recedes into history, it becomes ever more important that we keep asking the question: who were the real “deformed” people? Those who perished at Hadamar and the other killing centres or those who ordered and carried out the killings?

Victoria Brignell works as a radio producer with the BBC. After reading classics at Downing College, Cambridge, she undertook journalism training at Cardiff University. She lives in West London and is 30 years old and is a tetraplegic wheelchair-user.