Friday 2 September 2011

A Day of Infamy

(This is the piece that should have gone up yesterday, 1st of September, and prompted my move to Blogger. I deliberately haven't changed anything to reflect the delayed post as it is talking about the specific day)

LatentExistence wrote an excellent piece yesterday for Where’s The Benefit, entitled Godwin’s Law Must Die, discussing how people’s horror at Nazism actually gets in the way when 1930s Germany really is the only historical parallel for the situation you are experiencing.

It had slipped my mind what today is the anniversary of until I was reminded by someone else’s tweet, but it is an anniversary that brings that post by LatentExistence into sharp focus and reminds me of the things we must never allow ourselves to forget, whether disabled people or not.

Today is September 1st. Although in Great Britain we usually remember the start of WWII as the 3rd of September, based on our own declaration of war in support of Poland, it was on the 1st that Germany executed Fall Weiss, the invasion of Poland, having used commandos the night before to manufacture an incident of ‘Polish’ provocation. Attacked from three sides - Slovakia invaded with Germany, while Russia stabbed Poland in the back on the 17th - organised Polish resistance soon collapsed, although many Poles slipped away, coming to Britain and France to continue the fight. The end of organised resistance did not bring an end to the killing, it just provided freedom for the massacres and the men of Einsatzkommando 16 moved through the mental hospitals of Western Poland, slaughtering the disabled patients: 7,000 at Gdansk, 10,000 at Gdynia, and hundreds at Poznan in the first example of mass gassing, a process Himmler came to see in December of 1939. The organised extermination of disabled mental patients then spread back into Germany itself, clearing the hospitals of the ‘useless’ to free them for war-wounded: 1,400 in Pomerania, 1,600 in East Prussia, 8,000 of their own people in this wave, killed for the crime of being disabled.

The organised killing of disabled Germans had actually started before this, with children, or, perhaps more precisely, a single child. Part of Nazi Party ideology, a creed which in some cases literally became a religion, was a fetishizing of racial purity, the cult of the inherent superiority of the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Aryan German, destined to rule over the untermensch, eugenics taken to its ultimate conclusion. That some Germans might be less than ‘perfect’, might actually be disabled, was problematic for the Nazi Party’s racial purity zealots, and in the confrontational politics of 1930s Germany problems were simply something to actively pour your hatred onto. They took the passive concept of racial purity and developed it into the active concept of racial hygiene, planning to purge the German Volk of undesirable elements, such as people with disabilities.

Eugenics run rampant wasn’t actually unique to Germany at that time, both the US and Sweden had programmes for sterilizing those with disabilities considered inheritable or who were judged to show anti-social behaviour, but Germany turned to sterilization with all its national fervour for efficiency and in June 1933, almost as soon as the Nazis were in power, passed the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, which mandated sterilization for disabilities such as epilepsy and ‘social deviances’ such as alcoholism. Hereditary Health Courts (Erbgesundheitsgerichte), conducted a witchhunt through the German mental hospitals, asylums and other institutions, choosing those to be sterilized, a number estimated to have run to 360,000 Germans by 1939. Perhaps the only reason the programme did not progress to physical disabilities was that the senior Nazi Joseph Goebbels had a club foot. And all the while the Nazi propaganda machine was churning out films and posters intended to portray disabled people as a drain on the state and worthy only of euthanasia.

In 1939 Hitler asked Brandt, his personal physician, and Bouhler, head of his chancellery, to look into the case of a disabled baby, Gerhard Kretschmar, whose parents wanted him killed – the father’s letter to Hitler apparently referred to his son as ‘this monster’. In July 1939 the killing was carried out and Brandt was instructed by Hitler to proceed on the same basis in other cases, leading to the systematic classification of disabled German children by the Committee for the Scientific Treatment of Severe, Genetically Determined Illness, authorised on 18th August 1939, with doctors and midwives required to report all births of disabled children and preparatory measures being made to extend the process to adults. With the outbreak of war the need to proceed cautiously diminished and in October 1939, Hitler issued the Euthanasia Decree, bypassing the Health Ministry in favour of Brandt and Bouhler, his own men:

Reich Leader Bouhler and Dr. Brandt are charged with the responsibility for expanding the authority of physicians, to be designated by name, to the end that patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health, can be granted a mercy death.

And so Aktion T4 was born, a programme that ultimately killed over 200,000 disabled Germans and started a full two years ahead of the Wannsee Conference and the decision on the extermination the Jews. But the killing had already started, and so Hitler backdated the decree to ‘legalise’ the actions that had already taken place.

The date he chose was September 1st, 1939, a day of infamy.

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