Nazi euthanasia propaganda poster reads: "60,000 Reichsmarks is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the People's community during his lifetime. Comrade, that is your money too. Read 'New People', the monthly magazine of the Bureau for Race Politics of the NSDAP." (about 1938)
Action T4 was a program, also called Euthanasia Program, in Nazi Germany spanning October 1939 until August 1941, during which physicians killed 70,273 people specified as suffering patients - judged incurably sick by critical medical examination, and long-term inmates of mental asylums who may appear incurable.
The Nuremberg Trials found evidence that German physicians continued the extermination of patients after October 1941 and evidence that, in total, about 275,000 people were killed under T4.
The killing methods employed lethal injections, gas chambers and cremation or simple starvation.
The codename T4 was an abbreviation of "Tiergartenstraße 4", the address of a villa in the Berlin borough of Tiergarten which was the headquarters of the General Foundation for Welfare and Institutional Care. This villa no longer exists, but a plaque set in the pavement on Tiergartenstraße marks its location.
It is argued by some scholars that the T4 program developed from the Nazi Party's policy of "racial hygiene", the belief that the German people needed to be "cleansed" of "racially unsound" elements, which included people with disabilities. According to this view, the euthanasia program represents an evolution in policy toward the later Holocaust of the Jews of Europe: the historian Ian Kershaw has called it "a vital step in the descent into modern barbarism"
It may be noted however that racial hygienist ideas were far from unique to the Nazi movement. The ideas of social Darwinism were widespread in all western countries in the early 20th century, and the eugenics movement had many followers among educated people, being particularly strong in the United States. The idea of sterilising those carrying hereditary defects or exhibiting what was thought to be hereditary anti-social behaviour was widely accepted, and was put into law in the United States, Sweden, Switzerland and other countries. Between 1935 and 1975, for example, 63,000 people were sterilised on eugenic grounds in Sweden.
long before Action T4, the Nazi regime began to implement "racial hygienist" policies as soon as it came to power. The July 1933 "Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring" prescribed compulsory sterilisation for people with a range of conditions thought to be hereditary such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, Huntington's chorea and "imbecility". Sterilisation was also mandated for chronic alcoholism and other forms of social deviance. This law was administered by the Interior Ministry under Wilhelm Frick through special Hereditary Health Courts (Erbgesundheitsgerichte), which examined the inmates of nursing homes, asylums, prisons, aged care homes and special schools to select those to be sterilised.
It is estimated that 360,000 people were sterilised under this law between 1933 and 1939. After 1937 the acute shortage of labour in Germany arising from the crash rearmament program meant that anyone capable of work was deemed to be "useful" and was exempted from the law, and the rate of sterilisation declined.
Hitler and his helpers were aware from the start that a program of killing large numbers of Germans with disabilities would be unpopular with the German public.
It was impossible to keep the T4 program secret, given that thousands of doctors, nurses (including Catholic nuns) and administrators were involved in it, and given that the majority of those killed had families who were actively concerned about their welfare. Despite the strictest orders to maintain secrecy, some of the staff at the killing centres talked about what was going on there. In some cases families could tell that the causes of death notified were false, e.g. when a patient was claimed to have died of appendicitis, even though his appendix had been surgically removed some years earlier. In other cases several families in the same town would receive death certificates on the same day. In the towns where the killing centres were located, many people saw the inmates arrive in buses, saw the smoke from the crematoria chimneys, noticed that no bus-loads of inmates ever left the killing centres, and drew the correct conclusion.
The Catholic Church, which since 1933 had pursued a policy of avoiding confrontation with the Nazi regime in the hope of preserving its core institutions intact, became increasingly unable to keep silent in the face of mounting evidence about the killing of inmates of hospitals and asylums. Leading Catholic churchmen, led by Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber of Munich, wrote privately to the government protesting against the policy. In July 1941 the Church broke its silence when a pastoral letter from the bishops was read out in all churches, declaring that it was wrong to kill (except in self-defence or in a morally justified war). This emboldened Catholics to make more outspoken protests.
By August the protests had spread to Bavaria and Hitler himself was jeered by an angry crowd at Hof – the only time he was opposed in public during his 12 years of rule. Despite his private fury, Hitler knew that he could not afford a confrontation with the Church at a time when Germany was engaged in a life-and-death war, a belief which was reinforced by the advice of Goebbels, Martin Bormann, head of the Party Chancellery, and Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS.
On 24 August 1941 Hitler ordered the cancellation of the T4 program, and also issued strict instructions to the Gauleiters that there were to be no further provocations of the churches for the duration of the war.
The invasion of the Soviet Union in June had opened up new opportunities for the T4 personnel, who were soon transferred to the east to begin work on a vastly greater program of killing: the "final solution of the Jewish question". But the winding up of the T4 program did not bring the killing of people with disabilities to an end, although from the end of 1941 the killing became less systematic. But the methods reverted to those employed before the gas chambers were employed: lethal injection, or simple starvation
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