April 8 was the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the surrender of Germany in World War II. Celebration was muffled by the need to avoid large crowds due to COVID-19. But along with that 1945 end of the European theater of war came the revelations of terrible atrocities. The Holocaust, the extermination of six million Jews, was one example. But our history books often leave out Aktion T4.
Aktion T4 was an involuntary euthanasia program. Hitler signed a “euthanasia note” that authorized German physicians to begin a program of so-called “mercy-killing” of patients “deemed incurably sick, after most critical medical examination.” From September 1939 until the war ended in 1945, approximately 300,000 people were killed under the Aktion T4 program.
This was to some extent the next “logical” step of the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring” enacted in 1933. That law had required forced sterilization of 360,000 persons with supposedly hereditary conditions that included: epilepsy, schizophrenia, Huntington’s chorea, “imbecility” and other forms of “social deviance.” Now they could be killed.
A poster of the time announced: “60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering from a hereditary illness costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too.”
Special “Hereditary Health Courts” made cursory review of persons in asylums, special schools, nursing homes, homes for the elderly, prisons, and hospitals where some babies were born with birth defects. The policy officially resulted in 93,521 “beds emptied” by the end of 1941. While many Germans did not know of the extent of these killings, some felt that schooling was becoming better because funding could now be shifted to better schools for better students.
The discussion then moved to the elderly who no longer could contribute to society and were likewise a drag on resources. An announcement by the Catholic Holy See at the end of 1940 found that this policy was contrary to Divine law: “the direct killing of an innocent person because of mental or physical defects is not allowed.” The German Bishop of Münster, Clemens von Galen led opposition in 1941, considered the most widespread protest against any policy of the Third Reich. His speech is preserved among the great speeches of mankind:
“If you establish and apply the principle that you can kill ‘unproductive’ fellow human beings then woe betide us all when we become old and frail! If one is allowed to kill the unproductive people then woe betide the invalids who have used up, sacrificed and lost their health and strength in the productive process. If one is allowed forcibly to remove one’s unproductive fellow human beings then woe betide loyal soldiers who return to the homeland seriously disabled, as cripples, as invalids. If it is once accepted that people have the right to kill ‘unproductive’ fellow humans — and even if initially it only affects the poor defenseless mentally ill — then as a matter of principle murder is permitted for all unproductive people....”
Today, we would like to say that such ideas — that some human life is less valuable than others — are history. Yet, Nazis and fascists demonstrated in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, 2017. And we now hear arguments that pit economics against the lives of others.
Western cultures arrange political-economic philosophies along a Left-to-Right spectrum dating from the seating at the National Assembly of the French Revolution. But another spectrum that is probably more accurate here would be one of collectivist-to-individualistic communities. Collectivists emphasize the needs of the group rather than the needs of individuals. Individualists focus on themselves and care less for those outside their own family and group. Aktion T4 was individualist.
Despite a variety of governmental systems, the Asian countries of South Korea, Taiwan, China and Hong Kong are collectivist — willing to personally sacrifice to save others. You see few demands to open up prematurely. But in the individualistic countries, we hear a willingness to sacrifice our at-risk elderly (“their time is about up anyway”) and our health workers (“they chose a dangerous field”).
This is not the legalization of killing that existed with Aktion T4. But it helps us understand that this frame of mind did not end in 1945.