Genetically Diseased Offspring and the Euthanasia Programme in Nazi Germany

Enacted in January 1934 and drawn up in July 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, first and foremost, sought to eradicate those in direct contrast to the ideal of a ‘biologically purified German superstate’[1]. This included persons affected by one of the hereditary diseases listed, but also those who either had any disease that could tarnish the unsullied Nazi German gene pool, or those who were judged to have no value or worth to the community. The law saw Jews, Gypsies and other persecuted minorities sterilised and eventually killed. Another point of interest is that of Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Public Enlightenment Propaganda. As the driving force behind Nazi German culture and ideology, to have a serious physical deformation could be seen as hypocritical, however, it has to be taken into account that living after the war and after the release of documents, journals and diaries belonging to former Nazis, in historiographical terms, it is easy to assume false pretences. Nonetheless, taking into consideration the extreme lengths Nazis pursued to exterminate the ‘genetically’ diseased; it is relatively substantiated to assume that it was one rule for them and another for us.

There were eighteen articles that formed the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, the first ten all refer to who is deemed diseased, who has to agree to the sterilisation of the said diseased and the political process by which sterilisation must occur. It can be argued that Article 14 becomes the loophole in the law, meaning that if the life or health of the person becomes a serious danger, sterilisation can be undertaken with their consent. Just who deems the person to be a serious threat, and to whom this threat is posed to, is a different question entirely. Contrary to these guidelines however, there are many discrepancies. For example, Article 12 decisively states that force may have to be used in some circumstances. Another discrepancy is the case that led to the formation of a Children’s Euthanasia Programme involving a letter sent directly to Hitler. ‘It concerned a father of a deformed child … and asked for this child, or this creature, to be put down… The child had been born blind, appeared to be an idiot and was also lacking a leg and part of an arm’.[2] In this particular instance, the father wanted rid of the burden he felt the child posed on him, but in no way was he thought to be a threat. During a Nuremburg Rally in 1929, Hitler put forward the case that ‘as a result of our modern sentimental humanitarianism we are trying to maintain the weak at the expense of the healthy.’[3] Many agreed and the result was the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring in 1933.

From 1933, Brandt (Hitler’s personal physician) and Boehler (Head of Hitler’s personal chancellery), were instructed to ‘see to the identification of infants born with a variety of physical and mental defects… preparations were undertaken in the strictest secrecy during the spring of 1939… these infants were to die.[4] It was as simple as that. Special clinics were set up in secret to ensure the continuation of this process of elimination; extreme measures were taken, such as malnourishment seen at the asylum of Egelfing-Haar in 1940. ‘We do not carry out the action with poison injections or other measures which can be recognised … Our method is much simpler. With these words he pulled a child out of its cot. While this fat, gross man displayed the whimpering skeletal little person like a hare … he coolly remarked: naturally we don’t stop their food straight away … We gradually reduce their portions. Nature then takes care of the rest.’[5] At the time, it was believed that this process of euthanasia was resourceful; no one would really look into the case when a child died as the disease was responsible. Now however, it is hard to look past the act for what it was: cold-blooded murder. It was undertaken not only for the sake of eliminating the natural process of selection, but to release the country of the burden and cost of maintaining the care of a child. Either way, the Aryan race had to prevail.

Rules that applied to the German populace did not apply to those in the Nazi high command; the very principle of blonde hair and blue eyes was a rare sight. Goebbels, in this instance, is the anomaly. Evidence has shown that Goebbels was very secretive when it came to his disability; he managed to convince many that he limped because of a war wound from the First World War. However, he was never allowed to enlist. In one respect therefore, this deformation, although not genetic, was a hindrance. Would his parents, had the opportunity arisen, have sent Goebbels off to a clinic in order to sterilise him? Why did he not voice his opinion on this particular and personal matter? Possibly because he did not want others finding out about the real reason for his maim, or possibly because ‘It always seemed as though he were offering blind devotion to make up for his lack of all those characteristics of the racial elite which nature had denied him.’[6]  Nazism was the future, and everything it stood for was for the greater good, so his blind devotion served him exceptionally well and as a supporter of the NSDAP before they gained notoriety, he quickly obtained favour with Hitler. Nevertheless, if the 100,000+ children who had been murdered were given the chance to live, in the grand scheme of Germany, i.e. the 1000 Year Reich, could they have risen to the ranks with the likes of Goebbels?

Eventually, the Euthanasia Programme extended to adults as well as children, and was just as flawed as the latter. The sterilisation of the children implicated under this law in many circumstances were forced to undergo treatment to try to cure their impurity – the authorisation of such an act was made by a civil service physician and then from the police authorities, many of these had not even seen the child in question, and authority was just given to speed up the process. This was a reflection of the Nazi state. Decisions were made impulsively as it would either speed up the process or it was something they felt strongly about and therefore it could be categorised as a Nazi ideal, for example, anti-Semitism. The surprising fact is that many of the German population did not want to be known for having a child with a disability – this was true of any culture at the time, it was an embarrassment for such a secretive and gossip fuelled society. No matter how inhumane we believe it to be; in the context of the Nazi state, it was customary.

[1] Martin Davidson, The Perfect Nazi (London, 2011), 182.

[2] Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, Nazism: 1919-1945 (Exeter, 1997), 1005.

[3] Ibid., 1002.

[4] Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany & the Jews: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939 (London, 1997), 331.

[5] Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, Nazism: 1919-1945 (Exeter, 1997), 1008.

[6] Joachim Fest, The Face of the Third Reich (London, 1970), 87.

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