www.gedenkort-t4.eu: This T4 website curated by Robert Parzer reflects the expanding body of materials now available on the contemporary memorialization and research of medical mass murder in Nazi Germany. I came upon the digital memorial website while co-teaching an undergraduate class titled, “Disabled People and the Holocaust”, with my partner Sharon Snyder this semester (winter 2015) in the English Department at George Washington University. The class introduced students to a body of scholarship about the T4 program from the late 1970s to the present. Following publications on Action T4 by the German author Ernst Klee and the American medical historiographer of Nazi physicians, Robert J. Lifton, researchers began unearthing the elaborate system of deception implemented by National Socialist eugenicists to systematically destroy disabled German people in psychiatric institutions at the opening of World War II.
Not only did this research contribute to the foundations of understanding laid by Holocaust Studies, it also helped to make more explicit links between the T4 program and the mass murder of Jewish and Sinti people within and without the borders of Germany. New research exposed the contours of Nazi medicine as it rapidly turned from a commitment to healing individual bodies into a population-level extermination program. Many of the “patients” selected for death had already been sterilized following the passage of the 1933 sterilization law that served as one of the first state implemented policies of Hitler’s government: 400,000 disabled people were sterilized between 1933-1939 and approximately the same number of people were murdered by the end of the war. Those chosen for death by a committee of
Specifically the second generation T4 research increasingly exposed how medicine practiced at the level of the body politic rather than on behalf of individuals with medical conditions could serve as justification for murder as a benign, “medical” intervention — one that relieved individuals, families, and the nation at large of a biological and economic burden. The killing program realized its deadly ends through the voluntary participation of psychiatrists, neurologists, surgeons, general practitioners, nurses, and medical staff. The only significant resistance to the program was expressed as a concern with the lack of a formal law that would keep professional participants free from criminal and civil litigation for participating in the mass killings. For instance, at Pirna-Sonnenstein 100 physicians witnessed gassings of patients as preparation for their future work in T4 and only 2 elected not to participate. This was despite the fact that participation was not
mandatory and one could refuse without retribution by Nazi officials.
T4 researchers forwarded publications on the means by which the Nazi’s systematically corrupted the medical profession through promotion of eugenics ideologies developed in the United States and other industrialized western countries. Hitler and other lead administrators openly worried over the fact that Germany was behind in the implementation of state-authorized restrictions on disabled peoples’ public support. The research focus on the contamination of medicine can be recognized in titles such as „Murderous Medicine“ by Benno Mueller Hill, „Death and Deliverance“ by Michael Burleigh, „Action T4“ by Götz Aly, „Cleansing the Fatherland“ by Christian Pross, and „The Origins of Nazi Genocide“ by Henry Friedlander among others. All of these researchers share a belief that the mass murder of psychiatric patients laid the groundwork for the later implementation of “The Final Solution” promoted by Himmler at the Wannsee-Conference held in January, 1942. By that time psychiatric exterminations were gradually coming to an end (“the killing pause”) and the mass killing technology as well as many T4 staff were transferred to Death Camps outside of Germany’s borders such as Auschwitz, Chelmno, and Treblinka.
At the halfway point of the semester students visited Germany for 10 days and entered the terrain of the killing centers as a visceral, physical immersion into the topic of their studies. The trip included visits to 3 memorials located at the key killing centers of Brandenburg, Bernburg, and Sonnenstein-Pirna. The other three centers were too far to visit but we studied them as well: Hadamar, Grafeneck, and Hartheim Castle. In addition to investigating the history of the killing centers students also visited memorials to murdered Jews, Homosexuals, Sinti, and disabled people dispersed at key sites around the city of Berlin. A further field trip involved a visit to the former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen where inmates were worked to death, shot in the neck on measuring scales, and gassed in an experimental gas chamber that was intended to “modernize” mass killing practices in more efficient ways for the future.
Like the T4 memorial website we actively pursued a desire to understand the stories of those victimized in the T4 program (including the “wild” second phase of decentralized killings at hospitals across Germany). We pursued questions of the lack of criminal prosecution for those who participated in the killing program, the relative lack of knowledge about where victim’s remains from crematoria were disposed of, and how the memorial projects began at each of the killing centers visited. The information we uncovered proved critical to our growing understanding of medical mass murder.
For instance, at Bernburg we spoke with the director Ute Hoffman who told us how her mother, who worked as a nurse at the psychiatric hospital, showed her the gas chamber when she was 14 years old. Later Hoffman was charged with the obligation of overseeing the opening of the memorial in 1989 and continues as director to this day. It was also at Bernburg where we learned of the disposal of human ash from the crematoria ovens under a football field uncovered by a review of psychiatric hospital payments to a man who transported ash in a horse drawn wagon to a public dumping site in 1941 and 1942. Similarly at Sonnenstein we learned of crematoria ash being dumped over the hill above the town of Pirna behind the T4 building. Archeological work in the 1990s uncovered personal relics like perfume bottles, buttons, “Frozen Charlotte” dolls, combs, and charred leg braces during the exhumation. These items were displayed in a artistic glass case hung from the ceiling of the room that once housed the crematoria chimney. At Brandenburg we were told of the disappearance of a white spray painted graffiti on a brick wall that asked the haunting question: “Do you know what happened here in the summer of 1940?”
All of this information served to nuance our understanding of the overlaps and differences between T4 killing centers and the conduct of their deadly operations. Some were located in isolate castles with dungeon-like basements such as at Sonnenstein and Grafeneck, while others were located in the center of town such as in Bernburg and Brandenburg. In all cases the killing centers pursued their murderous work in full knowledge of the local residents. Children were reported to call the Gekrat Charity Transport Buses that carried the patients to their doom the “death buses” as their windows were painted dark gray so no one could see inside or outside. For our group there was a primary importance placed on making connections between the past and present with regard to disabled peoples’ lives and the utilization of the T4 memorial sites. At each memorial we asked of our guides if current medical staff were trained about the history and whether or not patients were allowed to visit the center to learn of a history that might have well included individuals such as themselves.
All of the existing memorials claimed ties to hosting training programs for medical and educational purposes. The exposure of the history of medical mass murder to patients was more haphazard. At Bernburg, for instance, we were told of patients who were addicted to drugs and happened to wander into the memorial site when their appointments were postponed or delayed.
Dr. Hauer, one of the lead tour guides and T4 historian at the Brandenburg psychiatric hospital and Psychiatriemuseum, argued that prisoners in the psychiatric penitentiary on campus were often brought over to learn about the history of medical mass murder. Likewise, the T4 memorial center at Brandenburg has connections with local universities who bring medical students in training to the memorial site. Due to the relative decentralized locations of the killing centers in less frequented parts of the country, the memorial sites are difficult to visit and one must see them as a consciously planned effort.
Thus, the T4 memorial website helps to use a digital humanities format to make the remoteness of the locations more available to those interested in understanding and studying the mass medical murders of World War II.