Euthanasia and the Nazis: Never Again

With euthanasia back on to the agenda thanks to the pro-death Greens, we need to recall the lessons of history. Without remembering the past we will be doomed to repeat its mistakes. And one of the biggest mistakes in human history was the complicity of the medical community in the Nazi euthanasia programs.

Numerous important books have appeared in the recent past documenting how doctors, scientists and all sort of other respected professionals became heavily involved in the Nazi death machine. I list below some key books and articles which we all need to be familiar with.

Here I simply wish to highlight in a very brief and outline form, the Nazi euthanasia program. And the first and perhaps most important fact to point out is euthanasia in Germany preceded and led relentlessly to the Final Solution. Both were part of a continuum.

Indeed, we need to trace the ideological roots of Nazism back into history, with the writings of Darwin and his cousin Galton (who coined the term ‘eugenics’) leading the way. But German thinkers closer to the time of the Nazis also played a major role.

Chief among them would be Alfred Hoche and Karl Binding who in 1920 released their influential book, Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (The Authorization of the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life). The book spoke of the “incurable feebleminded” who should be killed.

State-sponsored euthanasia was called for, with the idea that many humans had to be excluded from those deserving the right to life. Other writings appeared, with much discussion especially in the German medical community. All this helped pave the way for the Nazi programs when they came into power in the early 1930s.

As Henry Friedlander says in the opening of his important book, The Origins of Nazi Genocide, “Nazi genocide did not take place in a vacuum. Genocide was only the most radical method of excluding groups of human beings from the German national community. The policy of exclusion followed and drew upon more than fifty years of scientific opposition to the equality of man.”

His massive 400-page volume (300 pages of text with 100 pages of reference material) goes into minute detail about the Nazi euthanasia program, and the complicity of scientists and doctors. He makes it quite clear that there was a very real continuum between the German euthanasia program – aided and abetted by the medical community – and the Final Solution.

He concludes his valuable study with these words: “Auschwitz was only the last, most perfect Nazi killing center. The entire killing enterprise had started in January 1940 with the murder of the most helpless human beings, institutionalized handicapped patients, had expanded in 1941 to include Jews and Gypsies, and had by 1945 cost the lives of at least 6 million men, women, and children.”

Michael Burleigh also has written extensively on these matters. His celebrated 1994 volume, Death and Deliverance, is a very careful and detailed examination of euthanasia in Germany from 1900 to 1945. In 400 pages he makes the general case that “the ‘euthanasia’ programme and the Holocaust are intimately related”.

But more specifically his book “is an attempt to study the relationship between psychiatric reform, eugenics and government cost-cutting policies during the Weimar Republic and Nazi periods”. He documents how such eugenics programs had been widely advanced long before the Nazis came to power.

And he reminds us that Hitler did not accidentally stumble upon the euthanasia and eugenics initiatives. Instead, this program “was a carefully planned and covertly executed operation with precisely defined objectives. Those responsible believed in the necessity of what they were doing.”

And just to bring all this up to date, it is of real interest that Burleigh’s final chapter looks at one popular contemporary proponent of euthanasia, Peter Singer. He rightly points out that just as Binding and Hoche sought to relativise morality through a redefinition of the nature of personhood, so too is Singer today.

Robert Jay Lifton, writing in The Nazi Doctors (1986) carefully traces the complicity of the medical community in the Nazi program. He says that at the heart their involvement was “the transformation of the physician – of the medical enterprise itself – from healer to killer”.

He interviewed a number of these medical personnel, as well as some surviving Auschwitz prisoners. Together the information gleaned from these interviews makes for chilling reading. He discovered that for those doctors and other non-medical professionals involved, they formed a vital and necessary step to wholesale genocide.

Without the help of these individuals, and “the destruction of the boundary between healing and killing,” the Nazi death machine would have been less likely to succeed. He argues that sadism and viciousness alone cannot account for what happened – what was needed was a “bureaucracy of killing”.

Some five hundred pages are given over to documenting the Nazi doctors. “In sum,” he says, “we may say that doctors were given much of the responsibility for the murderous ecology of Auschwitz – the choosing of victims, the carrying through of the physical and psychological mechanics of killing, and the balancing of killing and work functions in the camp.”

These and other studies make it quite clear that when medicine moves from its role of healing to a role of killing, such atrocities as what took place 70 years ago are not hard to understand, and are likely to recur. And sadly we have the same temptation today. Doctors are now being asked to add killing to their job description.

As has been said so many times before, we must all learn from the lessons of history, or we will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of history. With so many calls for euthanasia now being made, more than ever we must revisit recent history so that its atrocities can be avoided.

For further reading:

Annas, George and Michael Grodin, eds., The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation. Oxford University Press, 1992.
Baumslag, Naomi, Murderous Medicine: Nazi Doctors, Human Experimentation, and Typhus. Praeger Publishers, 2005.
Brennan, William, Medical Holocaust I: Exterminative Medicine in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America. Nordland, 1980.
Burleigh, Michael, Death and Deliverance: ‘Euthanasia’ in Germany 1900-1945. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Friedlander, Henry, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Gallagher, Hugh Gregory, By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians and the License to Kill in the Third Reich. Henry Holt, 1990.
Hoedeman, Paul, Hitler or Hippocrates: Medical Experiments and Euthanasia in the Third Reich. Book Guild, 1991.
Kater, Michael, Doctors under Hitler. The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Lifton, Robert Jay, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. Basic Books, 1986.
Michalczyk, John, ed., Medicine, Ethics, and the Third Reich. Sheen & Ward, 1994.
Muller-Hill, Benno, Murderous Science. Oxford University Press, 1988.
Pichot, Andre, Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler. Verso, 2009.
Proctor, Robert, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Harvard University Press, 1988.
Sereny, Gitta, Into Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder. McGraw-Hill, 1974.
Spitz, Vivien, Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans. Sentient Publications, 2005.
Weikart, Richard, From Darwin to Hitler. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Weikart, Richard, Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Alexander, Leo, “Medical Science Under Dictatorship,” New England Journal of Medicine, 14 July 1949, pp. 39-47.
Brown, Harold O.J., “Euthanasia: Lessons from Nazism,” Human Life Review, 13, March 1987, pp. 88-99.
Burleigh, Michael, “Euthanasia and the Third Reich,” History Today, February 1990, pp. 11-16.
Neuhaus, Richard John, “The Way They Were, the Way We Are: Bioethics and the Holocaust,” First Things, March 1990, pp. 31-37.
Pellegrino, Edmund, “The Nazi Doctors and Nuremberg: Some Moral Lessons Revisited,” Annals of Internal Medicine, 15 August 1997, Vol. 127 Is. 4, pp. 307-308.

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21 Replies to “Euthanasia and the Nazis: Never Again”

  1. I have not read anywhere the opinions of contemporary Australian doctors on this matter (apart from the ones celebrated by the media whose ability to represent Australian doctors in general could be seriously questioned). It could be that I have not been looking in the right place, or it could be that doctors are understandably reticent on this subject. Bill, if you or one of your readers can point me in the right direction for such material if it exists, I would be interested.
    John Symons

  2. Thanks John

    There would be a number of pro-life, anti-euthanasia Australian doctors, if that is what you mean. David van Gend, Queensland Secretary of the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human Life, would be just one, for starters.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Hi Bill,

    I appreciate your topic in this post is euthanasia, but it’s also worth pointing out here the obvious similarities between the way in which euthanasia and abortion have been introduced into post-war western society.

    Choosing the defenceless and voiceless as easy targets; the thinly disguised encouragement of selfishness in those who stand to benefit from the deaths; the appeal to non-personhood to justify the murders; the co-opting of the medical profession to carry out the murders and lend respectability … it’s exactly the same pattern.

    Mansel Rogerson

  4. Thanks Bill

    The warped practice of eugenics does rise from the Nazi tomb. A seek-and-destroy policy kills little human beings in the womb because they might be ‘guilty’ of Down Syndrome, dwarfism, or other imperfections.

    They are deemed unfit to live for they do not come up to the standard of the ‘designer baby’ and a healthy, sport-loving race.

    It is no surprise that euthanasia is being strongly promoted today. Nor should it be a surprise that this is the policy of a political and ideological force that puts more value on wattle and the wombat than people.

    Anne van Tilburg

  5. My understanding is that the AMA as a group is opposed the euthanasia.
    David Williams

  6. Some time ago University students in the Netherlands were asked to discuss the economics of treating the elderly and babies born with disabilities verses euthanasia. Naturally they came down on the side of euthanasia.

    When one looks at the mess the Netherlands is in today, why would any country want to follow in their footsteps.

    Weary Dunlop did not hesitate to stay with the troops and in doing so saved many many lives. All politicians should be made read his story. They could learn much from him.

    Madge Fahy

  7. Excellent article Bill and a great letter from Mansel Rogerson – short but right to the point. Quite often I am asked by those who were too young to know a lot about the second world war, if I thought that the Nazis were right wingers or left wingers? I reply that in my opinion the Nazis were left wingers. After all they called their organization the National SOCIALISTS. Some people believed that because they ended up having a ding dong battle with the communists, who everybody recognises as “Lefties” then the Nazis must be the opposite. In Germany before the war, a number of people interchanged membership in both parties and of course when it suited these Godless, political criminals they combined to carve up Poland. I also believe that those in our country very active in politics and the media, who hide behind trendy “sound-great” policies (which attract voters who are the shallowist of shallow thinkers) but have more serious matters in their agenda, would feel quite comfortable if Australia were taken over by groups which reflect a mirror image of communist regimes currently running or those of the past.
    Frank Bellet, Petrie Qld

  8. Hi Bill, I had coffee with a fellow Christian worker today and he is left leaning – but he surprised me by saying that the euthanasia debate is over; him meaning that Doctors already do it by administering too much morphine or not feeding the patients and that now they need to be protected by the law! I was sure if he was joking at first, realised he wasn’t and then he went into the ’emotive arguments’ – cost and burden of care to to the medical system and loved ones, both emotional and dollars and that those ‘suffering’ from dementia would be better off shuffling their mortal coil. I didn’t reply, because he has given this a lot of thought and one of his parents suffers from dementia and he even acknowledged that this type of thinking opens one up a slippery slope that can lead to where your article has shown. So pervasive is the world thinking, that, as I believe this person is a genuine Christian – he is genuinely deceived, but like most leftist arguments, he comes from the ’emotional’ side as justification to do anything.
    Neil Innes, NT

  9. As a further addition to what I have already written, I am working and living in the Northern Territory, where Doctor Nietzchke was from and a recent newspaper poll shows 80% of Territorrians believe in euthanasia – could this possibly stem as a root cause/foundation from the renaming of Palmerston into Darwin, in honor of Charles Darwin’s visit to the territory? And as my Christian collegue pointed out, apparently the Indigenous around these parts took themselves off, gave up the ghost and willed themselves to death – something needs to explain why so many people believe in euthanasia in the NT, well out of proportion to the rest of Australia.
    Neil Innes, NT

  10. These people believe in abortion and want euthanasia. Yet the one thing the Culture of Death people don’t believe in is the Death Penalty.
    Carl Strehlow

  11. Yes, Carl Strehlow (“the one thing the Culture of Death people don’t believe in is the Death Penalty”), quite right; they believe the entirely innocent are expendable and have no right to life, and the proven murderous have a “human right” to live – which (as has been said many times) shows the inverted value-system of our rulers; as the prophet suggests: a time, we live in, when men call good evil, and evil good.
    John Thomas, UK

  12. This proves that the audacity of superiority motivated Nazi Germany. Nazi Leaders determined that the mentally challenged, Roma, homosexuals and Jews were “sub-human.” Once you walk down this path, any minority can be euthanized.

    The US National Archives contain captured German war records that prove that millions of innocent Jews and tens of thousands of innocent others were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany – mostly in gas chambers. These facts have been proven repeatedly through countless thesis and dissertation research papers (see Nuremberg Trial records, Yad Vashem, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Emory University and many other cherished academic institutions). Virtually every History PhD in the free world will stake their career on these known Holocaust facts. Despite this knowledge, Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. Deniers have a sordid agenda – to distort the truth in a way that promotes antagonism against Jews, and to deny the culpability of their ancestors and heroes.

    Deep in the hearts of Holocaust deniers, they know that thousands of thesis and dissertations were not wrong. Even if only a million Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany, would it not still remain the worst genocide against one religion in history? Yet, virtually every professional historian will agree that millions more innocent Jews were murdered. Does it matter if the real figure is 5.5 million or 6 million? Would that somehow vindicate the actions of Nazis? After thousands of post-graduate empirically-valid research projects, we do not need to “re-examine” the historical veracity of the Shoah. The real question is not whether there was a Holocaust against millions of innocent Jews; it is why anyone would want to deny it.

    We must tell the true story of the perpetrators of genocide; and reveal the abject terror, humiliation and degradation resulting from such blind loathing and prejudice. We must disclose the cruelty and horror of genocide to combat the deniers’ virulent and inaccurate historical revision. By doing this, we protect vulnerable future generations from making the same mistakes.

    Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize genocide, or those who propose euthenasia, we send a critical message to the world. As we continue to live in an age of genocide and ethnic cleansing, we must repel the broken ethics of our ancestors, or risk a dreadful repeat of past transgressions. A world that continues to allow genocide requires ethical remediation. We must show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny’s only hope. Only through such efforts can we reveal the true horror of genocide and promote the triumphant spirit of humankind.

    Charles Weinblatt
    Author, Jacob’s Courage

  13. Hi Bill, thanks for this interesting and timely articles. The Nazis also practiced what has been termed ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ eugenics. The negative side you have outlined in your article, the killing of the disabled, the mentally ill and ultimately the Jews (and Gypsies).
    The so-called ‘positive’ eugenics is shown by the lebensborn program, where ‘racially-pure’ Germans were encouraged to breed the next generation of the ‘master race’. In effect these establishments were stud farms.
    Do we see an application of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ eugenics in our own time. Pre-natal screening for conditions such as down’s syndrome is practically routine, ‘negative’ eugenics. While in this world of designer babies do we seen an application of ‘positive’ eugenics. The comparisons between our time and the 1930s and 40s is frightening.
    David Vivian

  14. The Nazis would be proud of what modern medical science has achieved today but most people cannot make the connection. For those of us who contribute to this forum it is so obvious yet most in the community fail to see this. It is frightening how so many people appear to be blind to the truth. Even more frightening are those who know but choose to look the other way. Did we not learn anything from the Nazi era?
    Peter Coventry

  15. Dear Bill, Thank you for your very informative article on the Nazis and euthanasia and for the book list which I will certainly take advantage of as the Nazi era interests me immensely. This is because my formative years were spent during world war two. At the end of the war I remember my father reading the newspaper reports on the death camps. He wouldn’t allow me to look at the pictures and this is not something you forget in a hurry so the holocaust really influenced my way of thinking and I haven’t changed. I am certainly no holocaust denier because of the Nuremberg laws but it is a hard argument to beat when you hear the anti-Zionists claim that the Zionists have used the holocaust for their own advantage. Some of them go so far as to criticise the Old Testament for its violence. The anti-American Imperialists would also quickly point out that the US were not always innocent in matters of eugenics because they also had a sterilisation programme in the thirties round about the time the Nazis were in power. I am not anti-American either because again at the end of the war when we Brits were virtually starving my American pen friend’s parents showed us great kindness by sending over food parcels and other things we couldn’t get. I remember my mother’s joy and awe at the cake mixes which were unavailable in England. Therefore I have always had a soft spot for Americans as a people and still think that there are good and bad in all nationalities and cultures.
    Patricia Halligan

  16. Further to Patricia Halligan’s interesting letter, a lot of people would not know that America gives more aid to the world in need that all the other countries in the world combined.
    Frank Bellet, Petrie Qld

  17. Yes Frank, I have heard that Americans help a lot. I have read articles and I know this to be true.
    Carl Strehlow

  18. Forget not Kristallnacht of November the 9th and 10th of 1938, when barbarous acts of violence and destruction were ferociously meted out out on a minority, who happened to be Jewish. Kristallnacht heralded overt hatred to a faith group. I believe those who will not bend the knee to secular humanism with it’s legislated Bulls of “tolerance” & “equality” for all things bad window-dressed as good will soon enough endure overt hatred.

    The horror of kerbside abductions, loud door knocking at uncivilised hours followed by interrogation, detainment, and false imprisonment in a “labour” camp (if not followed by a firing squad), is reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, yes? Something similiar may be coming to a town near you if you hold fast to the truth in John 14:6. Don’t be deluded in thinking it can’t happen again.

    Wake up! There’s going to be a shake-up to separate the wheat from chaff even here in this “tolerant society”.

    Grant Weedall

  19. Bill, this is my first comment. Someone above wondered what doctors think about this. I am a doctor: an anaesthetist and military MO.

    Most people in this debate tend to take for granted that a doctor will do the deed if they decide they want to be killed. They seem not to differentiate between suicide and euthanasia. Palliation that hastens death is an entirely different matter and should not be conflated with wilful killing.

    Most people also are very naive as to the dark side of humanity. Once as a medical student in Hobart in 1994 I was approached by an old lady’s daughter – a rather crass type; she asked if I could “just put her down”. I replied that I was not yet a doctor and certainly not a murderer. To think that any kind of euthanasia law, no matter how constrained or well-intention, won’t be abused, or the envelope stretched, is thoroughly delusional.

    Killing is not medicine. This is not only a Judeo-Christian issue; it is the reason I have a staff and snake of Asclepius on my signet (as well as a memento mori). Euthanasia has been proscribed for doctors since Hippocrates’ time.

    Just as statutory execution is not medicine, neither should any other type of killing be considered so. If the law-makers want to legalise killing, then they will have no help from me. Let them create a new profession of “mercy” killers. It’s not really that hard to work out how to kill people.

    Politicians and other social engineers who would legislate for killing should not expect others to have the courage, which they so obviously lack, to carry out the deed.

    Difficult cases make for bad law. I would therefore prefer the “solution” if it could be called that, of Harvard Law Professor Phillip Bobbitt, as it relates to torture in the event of imminent terrorism. His position is that it should remain illegal, relying on the courage of individual law enforcement officers (in the case of torture) to do it anyway, cognisant of the possible legal sanction, if they truly believe that the benefit outweighs the risk to his freedom. In Bobbitt’s view, if the case is clearly exceptional, there wouldn’t be a jury in the country who would convict him. This is of course quite unfair to the officer, a lose-lose position, but there can be no circumstance in which we sanction torture as something routine. Likewise with euthanasia.

    Of course it isn’t really a solution at all, but it does point out in a pragmatic way that there can be cases where some things have to be done. An example might be soldiers about to be captured by an uncivilised enemy, one severely wounded, sure to suffer horribly if captured, certain to die anyway.

    Exceptional cases are just that, and require exceptional consideration. To legislate to apply the management for an exceptional case to the rest of society is to imply that everyone’s case is exceptional, thus the norm itself changes.

    I firmly stand against legalising euthanasia.

    Dr Michael Ayling

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