The sad reality is that people will often forget human history. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I think that everyone needs to read the article, The Nazi’s First Victims Were the Disabled, that was published in the New York Times on September 13.
This excellent article is written by Kenny Fries, an author who recently published “In the Province of the Gods.” Fries is writing about his explanation to a young German neurologist of the truth about how the Nazi’s T4 euthanasia program killed as many as 300,000 people with disabilities. The killing techniques were developed in the Psychiatric hospitals and then used in the Nazi death camps. Fries takes the killing of people with disabilities personally:
I have a personal stake in making sure this history is remembered. In 1960, I was born missing bones in both legs. At the time, some thought I should not be allowed to live. Thankfully, my parents were not among them.
I first discovered that people with disabilities were sterilized and killed by the Nazis when I was a teenager, watching the TV mini-series “Holocaust” in 1978. But it would be years before I understood the connections between the killing of the disabled and the killing of Jews and other “undesirables,” all of whom were, in one way or another, deemed “unfit.”
Many facts about the Nazi T4 euthanasia program are not well known. Fries explains:
While he does know that approximately 300,000 disabled people were killed in T4 and its aftermath, he doesn’t know about the direct connection between T4 and the Holocaust. He doesn’t know that it was at Brandenburg, the first T4 site, where methods of mass killing were tested, that the first victims of Nazi mass killings were the disabled, and that its personnel went on to establish and run the extermination camps at Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.
Three years earlier, when I first arrived in Germany, I was consistently confronted with the treatment of those with disabilities under the Third Reich. But I soon realized I had to go back even farther. In the 1920s, the disabled were mistreated, sterilized, experimented on and killed in some German psychiatric institutions. In 1920, the psychiatrist Alfred Hoche and the jurist Karl Binding published their treatise, “Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life,” which became the blueprint for the exterminations of the disabled carried out by the Third Reich.
I am also Jewish. At the Karl Bonhoeffer psychiatric hospital in the Berlin suburb of Wittenau, where the exhibition “A Double Stigma: The Fate of Jewish Psychiatric Patients” was held, I learned about, as the exhibition title suggests, how Jewish patients were doubly stigmatized by being separated from other patients, denied pastoral care, and were cared for not at the expense of the Reich but by Jewish organizations. Jewish patients were singled out for early extermination; by December 1942, the destruction of the Jewish patient population at Wittenau was complete.
Fries explains why the history of the Nazi T4 euthanasia program important to us today:
Why is it important to know this history? We often say what happened in Nazi Germany couldn’t happen here. But some of it, like the mistreatment and sterilization of the disabled, did happen here.
A reading of Hoche and Binding’s “Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life” shows the similarity between what they said and what exponents of practical ethics, such as Peter Singer, say about the disabled today. As recently as 2015, Singer, talking with the radio host Aaron Klein on his show, said, “I don’t want my health insurance premiums to be higher so that infants who can experience zero quality of life can have expensive treatments.”
These philosophers talk about the drain on “resources” caused by lives lived with a disability, which eerily echoes what Hoche and Binding wrote about the “financial and moral burden” on “a person’s family, hospital, and state” caused by what they deem lives “unworthy of living.”
Many people think that these attitudes towards people with disabilities are in the past. Fries asks the question:
What kind of society do we want to be? Those of us who live with disabilities are at the forefront of the larger discussion of what constitutes a valued life. What is a life worth living? Too often, the lives of those of us who live with disabilities are not valued, and feared. At the root of this fear is misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and a lack of knowledge of disability history and, thus, disabled lives.