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March of Dimes: Part 1 Prelude to the Holocaust

by Randy Engel

Eugenics then and now:
Prelude to the holocaust (Part 1, See Part 2)

While it is fashionable to think of eugenics as a remnant of Hitler's Third Reich, recent news articles on the contemporary practice of negative eugenics directed at the elimination of handicapped pre-born children demonstrate how deeply this anti-life ideology is embedded into the American psyche.

In The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Health and Science section for July 31, 1998, under the title "Bump on Fetus May Help Detect Down Syndrome," Associated Press writer Emma Ross states that London researchers have discovered an ultrasound test to detect Down syndrome in the first trimester of pregnancy. The scientists believe that by measuring the swelling under the skin at the back of the neck of a 10 to 14 week-old child in utero, they can detect affected children. Parents are then offered the "option" of early abortion. Although the new screening technique in extermination medicine offers nothing in terms of treatment for Down syndrome, it was hailed as "an important advance" by Dr. James Haddow of the Maine-based Foundation for Blood Research.

In recent years, the French government has been racked with eugenic scandals involving the illegal and immoral sterilization of intellectually disabled young women living in state-operated institutions. In Canada a national debate on so-called "mercy killing" has been rekindled from the legal fallout of the 1994 Robert Latimer Case – Latimer being twice convicted for gassing his disabled eleven-year old daughter Tracy to death. In Holland, Down syndrome newborns are murdered by injection – an act touted to be more "humane" than starving little Downy babies to death as is done here in the States.

Last April, the Manhattan Film Forum premiered the film "Healing by Killing" by Israeli filmmaker Nitzan Aviram in commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The documentary exams the "health-by-death" ethic that flourished in the Weimar Republic, before Hitler's rise to power. In an era where a premium was put on health and fitness – sickness, disease and deformity came to be despised. According to Aviram, while many German physicians thought they were helping both their patients and society by sterilizing or killing mentally and physically handicapped Germans of all ages, they were in fact laying the groundwork for genocide.

Dr. Leo Alexander, Chief U.S. Medical Consultant at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials confirmed that, "Whatever proportions these crimes finally assumed, it became evident to all who investigated them that they had started from small beginnings. The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of physicians. The infinitely small wedge-in lever from which this entire trend of mind received its impetus, was the attitude toward the non-rehabilitable sick." Once the physician or professor murdered his first innocent patient, Alexander declared, he entered the ranks of the criminal class and was bonded by blood cement to the ruling party.


Life not worth living

In pre-World War II Germany, the twin movements of eugenics (the science, or more accurately, the pseudo-science of improving the quality of human stock while weeding out unfit human stock) and euthanasia (the "painless" killing of disabled or unfit human stock) were heavily financed by powerful American-based foundations most especially the Rockefeller Foundation.

The philosophical basis for the twin evils of eugenics and euthanasia received a precipitous boost from two prominent men of their day – the psychiatrist Alfred Hoche and the jurist Karl Binding. In The Release of the Destruction of Life Devoid of Value, published in Leipsiz in 1920, Hoche and Binding argued that the killing of "worthless people" not be considered a criminal act.

A practical suggestion on how such killings might be carried out was provided by the Rockefeller Institute prot?g? and French-born medical scientist Dr. Alexis Carrel. This Nobel-prize winner proposed in his 1933 best seller Man the Unknown, that small euthanasia stations be equipped with suitable gases to "humanely and economically dispose of the mentally ill and criminal class, whom Carrel described as "useless and harmful beings."

Thus the concept of "useless eaters" was not a Nazis invention. And the first mass killers in Nazis Germany were not SS men. Rather the first mass killers in pre-war Germany were psychiatrists, physicians, pediatricians and nurses backed up by an incredibly vast and efficient government bureaucracy. Their first victims were ordinary German citizens, initially from economically disadvantaged families, who were "mentally deficient" including children with Down syndrome. According to Henry Friedlander, author of The Origins of Nazi Genocide, this group included handicapped Jewish patients who were killed (or sterilized under the compulsory sterilization law) because they were handicapped, without regard to ancestry. It was not until the spring of 1940 that the decision was made to systematically murder handicapped Jewish patients simply because they were Jews. As time went on, the category of other potential "beneficiaries" of the euthanasia program was expanded, and crippled and maimed World War I veterans, and patients with infantile paralysis (polio), Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and brain tumors were added to the extermination list.


The geranium in the window

In his 1966 classic study of the roots of human violence, A Sign for Cain, Fredric Wertham, M.D. devotes a lengthy chapter to pre-war Germany's euthanasia murders titled "The Geranium in the Window."

Wertham takes us to Eglfling-Haar, a prominent psychiatric institution outside of Munich renown for its children's division called the Kinderhaus with a capacity for about one hundred and fifty children. Within the Kinderhaus a "special department" was established with twenty-five beds and cribs and a small room – bare except for a small white tiled table and a geranium in the window. Unlike the plant that was carefully watered and nurtured, four or five times a month, handicapped children from ages six months to sixteen years were taken to this room by a psychiatrist and nurse and murdered by injection. The victims' brains were extracted, placed in carefully labeled jars and sent to a psychiatric research institution for microscopic studies via the "Charitable Transport Company." Their bodies left through the chimney.

By the time the war ended, there were only twenty children left at the Kinderhaus and a small number of the original two thousand mentally handicapped adult patients who had also been methodically and systematically murdered by deliberate starvation or lethal injection.

According to Wertham, it was characteristic of both the sterilization and killing programs that they were not carried out in secret but at bustling university-based centers by prominent members of the medical profession. Everyone there knew what was going on.

The euthanasia murders were fully organized and planned down to the last detail including who was to be killed, how the patient would be killed and the manner in which the bodies of the victims were to be disposed of. Crematory furnaces manned by university professors and medical bureaucrats were installed at numerous mental hospitals and pediatric wards. Relatives were informed that the patient had died of "pneumonia." It all went like clockwork.

Needless to say, the ability of these individuals to kill their patients depended heavily on the use of euphemistic jargon. The whole undertaking went by different designations: "help for the dying," "mercy killings," "mercy action" or merely the "action." Eventually the terms were fused together into the misleading term – "euthanasia" which the dictionary defines as "the putting of a person to death painlessly." However, as Wertham points out – this is homicide! If you put an innocent person to death, that is, deliberately kill him, you are committing murder. If it is done painlessly, it is still murder!

While the euthanasia murders were being carried out, public opinion was carefully being molded to accept these killings. Adults were propagandized by films like "I Accuse" in which a physician murders his wife who has multiple sclerosis to the accompaniment of soft piano music rendered by a sympathetic friend in the next room. School children were taught to compute the cost/benefit ratio of eliminating state care for "the crippled, the criminal and the insane." It is a sobering thought that like many Americans today, it appeared that people were more willing to tolerate the killing of the disabled for so-called humanitarian or economic reasons than for political reasons.

It was Hitler's opinion (which proved right) that resistance to the euthanasia killings on the part of the churches would, under the circumstances, not play a great role. According to Wertham, efforts were sporadic, isolated and fragmentary. It appeared that the religious leadership in Germany was willing to tolerate such killing (at that time) under certain circumstances, much the way certain churches today are willing to tolerate pre-natal killing for so-called "hard cases" which always include the elimination of mentally or physically disabled pre-born children.

There was a handful of clergy who did denounce "the action" including Bishop Von Galen of Munster in Westphalia. In March of 1941, his public sermons helped inform the people, but had no lasting effect because the condemnation was not followed up by more definitive actions.

Examining specific institutions within the killing network reveals the lack of "mercy" in the "mercy killings". In 1941, for example, the psychiatric institution of Hadamar celebrated the cremation of its 10,000th mental patient in a special ceremony in which psychiatrists, nurses, attendants and secretaries all participated. Everyone received a bottle of beer for the occasion.

As a rule, the doctors who participated in the euthanasia murders did not act under duress – they participated of their own volition. Those who refused were excused.

As Wertham states, Hitler gave permission for doctors to kill the severely disabled, but he never gave these psychiatrists or physicians the order to kill. The record is clear. The psychiatrists were not carrying out an order pronounced by someone else. They were the legislators who laid down the rules for deciding who would live and who would die. Not a few watched their patients' slow death. They played God and gloried in their power over life and death.

One of the most heartrending scenes Wertham paints in A Sign for Cain is that of a group of mental patients openly resisting being herded on to buses destined for the crematoriums. The violence with which they were forced onto the buses attracted sympathetic reactions from passersby including members of the Nazi party who openly wept at the scene. There is no mention however, that any of the attending physicians had tears in their eyes!


Schools for killing

As the killing centers perfected their operations, they soon became "schools for killing." Many of their "graduates" later manned the gas chambers at Treblinka, Auschwitz and other concentration centers in the East. The method of extracting gold fillings and teeth was tried, perfected and routinely used on mentally and physically handicapped patients destined for the gas chambers.


Courts acquit murderers

What was the fate of those members of the medical profession who willingly, and in some cases joyfully, directed and participated in the euthanasia murders? Ironically, after the war, only a small number were tried and sentenced to life imprisonment or death. Many were pardoned or acquitted or given short jail terms. Most, however remained entirely unmolested by the law and continued their professional or academic careers as if the killings had never occurred.

The rationale of the judges and juries in the euthanasia cases is equally instructive. For example, a court in Munich decided that the extermination of mental patients was not murder, but manslaughter. "Thus," says Wertham, "killing one person may be murder, but killing many is just manslaughter."

In Cologne, a court, which acquitted a physician who had conducted one of the euthanasia programs, rationalized that the patients he killed were just "burned-out human husks." Another court opinion claimed the patients were "poor miserable creatures." It was as if the question was merely a metaphysical one – to kill or not to kill.


Eugenic spirit lives on

Perhaps it would be somewhat of a consolation if these euthanasia murders had ended with the end of World War II or shortly thereafter. Sadly, this is not the case. In our next issue of the Friends of the Michael Fund Newsletter, we will examine the history of the Eugenic Movement in the United States and those organizations and foundations which continue to fuel the eugenic-euthanasia engines in our country.

[Sources: Fredric Wertham, M.D., A Sign for Cain, Warner Books, N.Y., 1969; Bernhard Schreiber, The Men Behind Hitler, La Haye-Mureaux, France, undated; Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide-From Euthanasia to the Final Solution, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill,1995]