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[Pages 202-229]

Chapter 12


The thing died at last, and the stench of it stank to the sky. It might be thought that so terrible a savour would never altogether leave the memories of men, but men's memories are unstable things. It may be that gradually these dazed dupes will gather again together, and attempt to believe their dreams and disbelieve their eyes. – G K Chesterton[1086]

When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find far more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have been committed in the name of rebellion. – C P Snow[1087]

Circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances. – Herodotus[1088]

Cursed is he who says 'Vengeance!'
Vengeance for the blood of a small child
Satan has not yet created.
- Bialik, Al Ha'shehitah [On the Slaughter][1089]

The first phase of “euthanasia” provided the paradigm for Aktion Reinhard. From the creation of gas chambers to their camouflaging as shower rooms, from the creation of the Die Schleuse, the “sluice” or “the tube”, to the use of carbon monoxide as the killing agent of choice, from the plundering of the victims' remains to the commonality of personnel, the parallels are evident. It can even be argued that the use of the “euthanasia” transit institutions such as Eichberg and Wittenau was replicated, although largely for different reasons, by the Aktion Reinhard transit ghettos like Piaski and Izbica. In both cases potential victims were “stored” until the appropriate killing site was ready to accommodate them. But what are often overlooked are the vast economic benefits common to both programmes. The need to release hospital beds, as well as medical staff and supplies, is regarded by some scholars as an excuse rather than a reason for the “euthanasia” programme. They believe that the overwhelming motivation for the killing of the mentally and physically disabled was a eugenically inspired racism:

…The object was to create a utopian society organized in accordance with the principles of race. A key concern in this endeavour was the “purification of the body of the nation” from “alien”, “hereditarily ill”, or “asocial” elements. Racial “purification” was an integral part of wider “social” policies designed to create a “healthy”, performance-oriented, “Aryan” national community.[1090]

Yet the same source defined the criteria for being a member of the “national community” as including not just “racial purity” and biological health, but also “socio-economic” performance.[1091] In other words, this was not simply a matter of eugenics. There were real economic benefits to the Nazi war machine in killing “useless eaters”. That the authorization of “euthanasia” coincided with the outbreak of hostilities was not an accident. Whilst it is true that the fog of war was a major factor in masking the activities of the killing centres, the need to make available the facilities utilised by those considered “valueless”, facilities which were now required for tending to the inevitable casualties of the new war, was of even greater importance:

The euthanasia programme for adults was very much bound up with clearing the decks in order to wage war…Mentally and physically disabled people were killed to save money and resources, or to create physical space for ethnic German repatriates and/or civilian and military casualties…In other words, these policies reflected a non-medical agenda…[1092]

The assumption that the sterilisation campaign was predominately attributable to the application of a policy of racial hygiene rather than economic issues seems justified. Yet recent research at the University of Heidelberg has produced compelling evidence in support of the proposition that the overwhelming motivation for the “euthanasia” campaign was not eugenics in any of its various manifestations, but rather the consistent application of a ruthless economic stratagem.[1093] It was only after reunification that the medical records held by the East German Staatssicherheit (Stasi, or State Security Service) of approximately 30,000 “euthanasia” victims were discovered. To date in excess of 3,000 of these files have been examined by the Heidelberg researchers, to produce a revealing picture. Although there were numerous criteria applied in deciding whether a patient should or should not be gassed, far and away the most important consideration was the individual's ability to work. The risk of being murdered was up to eight times greater for those considered incapable of productive labour than for those who were so able. Even more striking was the discovery that heredity apparently played no statistically significant part in arriving at the decision of whether or not to kill the patient being evaluated. As has been observed: “Patients in mental institutions were killed because it was cheaper than caring for them. The most important criterion for allowing them to live was their ability to work.”[1094] The evidence suggests that the second, “decentralized” phase of “euthanasia” appears to have motivated by exactly the same considerations as the first stage, namely the ability, or lack of it, to be a productive member of society, either at the time or at any point in the foreseeable future. These findings gainsay the frequently expressed assumption that the activities of T4 in particular were undertaken “to protect the health of the Aryan race”, rather than for crass commercial considerations.[1095] So far as children were concerned, the determining factor for or against selection also appears to have been fundamentally an economic one, in this case the “educability” of the child. That is to say, if allowed to live, was it probable that the child would be self-sufficient, and on reaching adulthood be of value to the state? If the answer was in the negative, the child was more likely to be murdered irrespective of any hereditary considerations.

In fact, for all the theorising and supposed medical vindication, similar post-war research into the surviving T4 files in the German Federal Archives has confirmed that there was no significant link between factors such as the “hereditary nature of the illness” or “socially conspicuous behaviour before admission to the asylum” and selection for killing. The study revealed that the most important criterion was a negative assessment of an individual's capacity to work within the hospital itself. Other decisive criteria included a similar negative appraisal of a patient's behaviour while institutionalised, and cases where the patient had been in care for more than four years. From this it would appear that the primary justification for murder rapidly became economic, if it had not been so from inception. Or as Bouhler and Brandt agreed following their meeting at Berchtesgaden on 10 March 1941, the programme would undertake “[The] elimination of all those who are unable to perform productive tasks even within the asylum, and not only those who are mentally dead.”[1096]

All of this directly contradicts earlier conclusions drawn by many eminent historians, such as:

Nor were these patients murdered to free hospital space or to save money; the killers were motivated by an ideological obsession to create a homogeneous and robust nation based on race, They wanted to purge the handicapped from the national gene pool…Heredity determined the selection of the victims.[1097]


For Hitler, typically…the economic argument used by the eugenics lobby in the medical profession and others weighed less heavily than questions of “racial hygiene” and the “future maintenance of our ethnic strength, indeed of our ethnic nationhood altogether.”[1098]

It would appear that, so far as “euthanasia” was concerned, there was a vast gulf between eugenic theory and practice, since the Nazis themselves seem to have been somewhat confused regarding the relative importance of eugenic as opposed to economic principles when applied to questions of hereditary and racial health care. In “Guidelines on the Evaluation of Hereditary Health”, issued in 1940 by the Ministry of the Interior, it was stated: “In the selection according to eugenic criteria, the evaluation of personal productivity must be of decisive importance.” Moreover, “A gifted and productive family will have to be considered valuable for the Volksgemeinschaft, even if isolated cases of hereditary defects etc. have occurred.”

It follows that, whilst it is indisputable that the killing of the Jews was primarily motivated by and inseparable from a venomous racism, the contribution made to their annihilation by economic considerations also cannot be ignored. Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of the Warthegau, had ordered that the Jews be placed in ghettos “until what they have amassed is given back in exchange for food and then they will be expelled over the border.”[1099] If at the time of making this remark expulsion was a feasible option or represented a potential future solution, Aktion Reinhard and Greiser himself were to give a deadlier meaning to the concept of expulsion “over the border”. This was the essential economic thinking behind the ghettos - press the Jews into a restricted area, steal from them what can be stolen, forbid them to practise their professions or engage in gainful employment, maintain rations at starvation level, and before they eventually die, they will be forced to exchange whatever remains of their wealth for food. Which, to a great extent, and until it was determined to accelerate the final, killing phase, is exactly what happened. At one level, the Holocaust can be viewed as nothing more than a gigantic exercise in exploitation and theft, culminating in an orgy of mass murder when there was nothing left to steal or exploit.

Nazi theology dictated that Jews, like the disabled victims of “euthanasia”, were incapable of anything except the most rudimentary labour, if even that. The Jews, cooped up in their ghettos, too, were “useless eaters”, and were therefore to be condemned a priori. On 16 July 1941, Rolf-Heinz Höppner, the SS officer responsible for the expulsion of Jews and Poles from the Warthegau to the Generalgouvernement, wrote to Adolf Eichmann from Posen setting out a proposed solution to the “Jewish problem”. Although Höppner was primarily concerned with resolving matters in the Warthegau, and not all of the suggestions contained in his letter reached fruition, one paragraph in particular provides a clear indication of the prevalent thinking – and not simply regarding those falling under Höppner's jurisdiction:

This winter there is a danger that it will not be possible to feed all the Jews. It should therefore seriously be considered whether the most humane solution would not be to eliminate those Jews unfit for work by some fast-working method. That would in any case be more agreeable than leaving them to die of starvation.[1100]

This was genocide masquerading as humanitarianism, just as “euthanasia” was depicted as somehow advancing the cause of medicine in general, and psychiatry in particular, rather than the unvarnished murder of thousands on economic grounds it had largely been in reality. The apologists of annihilation deluded nobody - including themselves.

* * *

It is an oversimplification to assume a deliberately planned concatenation in Nazi eugenic policy, a chain that led with frightening logic from sterilisation to “euthanasia” and thus to the application of continent-wide genocide. The National Socialist state was neither so organised nor so methodical. To those responsible for administering governmental policy, these were not systematic incremental increases in the intensity of a pre-ordained scheme. Each phase merged almost imperceptibly with the next. To the sibylline devotees of racial hygiene, all were logical steps on the utopian path, the ultimate aim of which was the purification of the race. So far as these enthusiasts were concerned, if this policy simultaneously provided certain economic benefits, so much the better.

Whilst each stage of this progression towards mass murder may have been an exemplar of negative eugenics, the consequences of a century's theorizing in a dozen different nations, the development of individual phases of the policy was not wholly interdependent. “Euthanasia” was not an inevitable corollary of involuntary sterilisation; in the 1930s several countries has compulsory sterilisation policies in place similar to that of Germany. In none of these other countries was “euthanasia” ever seriously contemplated. In the same way, it is unlikely that the gathering at Brandenburg for the first experimental “euthanasia” gassing in winter 1939/40 did so in anticipation of using a modified version of this technique to murder millions of Jews. Tempting though it may be to detect some kind of structured progression in these measures, they were simply representations of different facets of the same racially and economically driven ideology.

On the other hand, it is evident that in Wilhemine and post First World War Germany in particular, enthusiasm for “euthanasia” ran side by side with the desirability of compulsory sterilisation of the “inferior”, on both racial and economic grounds. Haeckel, Ploetz, Schallmayer and their many disciples were of a mind. Long before the advent of National Socialism the connection between sterilisation and the permanent elimination of the “worthless” existed as a concept in the published works of many academics and scientists, both in Germany and in other countries. Whilst there were some who coupled this to anti-Semitism of varying degrees of malevolence, it took a Hitler to provide the required extreme degree of racism to ultimately morph from these eugenic theories to full-blown genocide.

That such a hatred of the Jews would result in their exclusion from German society was inevitable under Hitler, who from his earliest days had made his intentions clear. There is reason to believe that initially this exclusion was viewed in terms of emigration, but when, in the face of an indifferent world and the outbreak of war this “voluntary” emigration became impossible, enforced deportation to one of a number of possible destinations was considered. It is apparent that this expulsion was intended to subsequently result in more than simple removal; Jews were not expected to thrive in tropical Madagascar or frozen Siberia under what was unlikely to have been a benign SS administration. What was intended was genocide “by other means”. Hitler was perfectly aware of the nature of the Turkish annihilation of Armenians in 1915-1918, an act of “ethic cleansing” that would have provided a suitable precedent. As he was reputed to have said to a gathering of SS personnel in August 1939, on instructing them to kill without mercy in the forthcoming invasion of Poland, “Who remembers now the massacres of the Armenians?”[1101] Quite when proposed expulsion to some distant location and more gradual liquidation instead became a matter of immediate extirpation within European boundaries is a subject of continuing debate. By mid-1940 Heydrich for one was talking ambiguously in terms of “a territorial Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, which, like Hitler's oft repeated threats of annihilation, could be interpreted as referring to either of those options.[1102]

Even before exile to remote regions in the Indian Ocean or the Soviet Union was under serious consideration, there briefly existed the so-called “Nisko Plan”, a scheme to deport the Reich's Jews and Gypsies to an inhospitable region of eastern Poland near Lublin on an interim basis, prior to their expulsion further eastwards. By the end of September 1939 Himmler had obtained Hitler's approval for a programme of demographic engineering which was eventually to develop into Generalplan Ost. This was eugenics on a grand scale, intended in time to involve the deracination of millions of people. By mid-October 1939 the first transports were rolling, only for the “Nisko Plan” to be abruptly abandoned on Himmler's orders. He had now also been given the responsibility for the repatriation of Volksdeutsche to the Heimat, a matter that took priority over the ejection of Jews and Gypsies from German soil, at least for the time being.[1103] Their turn would come later.

The first phase of “euthanasia”, viewed as the logical manifestation of National Socialist eugenics, should therefore be seen as an indispensable contributor to the development of a pan-European genocidal policy, paving the way in terms of both method and personnel. In summer 1941, when the hitherto nebulous concept of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem” began to take concrete form, Himmler consulted with the Chief Physician of the SS, Gruppenführer Dr Ernst Grawitz concerning the best method of implementing mass murder.[1104] Grawitz advised the use of gas chambers, doubtless based upon the experience gained by T4.[1105] Bottled carbon monoxide would be replaced by petroleum engine exhaust fumes and hydrocyanic acid, Polish killing centres were to succeed their German and Austrian counterparts, victims were to be delivered from every part of occupied Europe instead of merely from the Reich, but it was the T4 Aktion that provided the template for the industrialization of murder. However, although the scale of killing was to increase dramatically through their use, it is worth bearing in mind that gas chambers and gas vans probably accounted for no more than 50 percent of the victims of the Shoah. [1106] Nonetheless, whilst the Einsatzgruppen and their auxiliaries systematically killed an estimated 1.4 million Jews, the overwhelming majority by shooting,[1107] gassing provided an appealing alternative. It was cost effective, efficient, and required minimal staffing (there were never more than a handful of German personnel present in any of the extermination camps at any one time).[1108] Dedicated killing sites were also easier to disguise, situated as they were behind barbed wire and fencing rather than in the open-air like the killing pits of the Einsatzgruppen, and were somewhat less stressful for the perpetrators in terms of the physical act of murder. The Vernichtungslager also provided one other vital component; instead of having to transport the executioners to the victims, now the camps brought the victims to the executioners. This represented a sea change in the practice of genocide.

Still, once the decision to murder millions had been taken, method became largely a secondary consideration. The Jews were doomed, whatever the modus operandi. For example, of the 60,000 Jews estimated to have been resident in the Kolomja district of Galicia when the German invaders arrived, approximately one-third were deported to Belzec for extermination. The remaining 40,000 were shot in a series of `Aktionen' conducted mainly in the Scheparow Forest, but also at various other killing sites within the Kolomja district itself. During the course of a period of little more than the twelve months following October 1941, this once thriving Jewish community had been completely destroyed. By 1945, just 200 Jews from Kolomja had survived the slaughter.[1109]

On a national scale, some 80 percent of Lithuanian Jewry, which in spring 1941 had numbered some 250,000 souls, were killed in the six months following the German invasion of the country, the vast majority of them shot in and around the towns and villages in which they had lived.[1110] Once it had begun, the compulsion to destroy the Jews overrode all other concerns – economic, military, and political, so that when in November 1943 the gas chambers of Aktion Reinhard had all been dismantled, 42,000 Jews could be shot in the Lublin district alone during the two days of Aktion Erntefest.[1111] More than two years earlier, months before the extermination camps had even begun to function, 33,700 Jews had been killed at Babi Yar outside of Kiev in the course of another two day operation.[1112] In order to make room for Jews newly deported from the Reich, a three day shooting spree in November and December 1941 accounted for some 27,000 Jewish victims in Riga.[1113] At around this time, and for the same reason, tens of thousands of Jews, both native and foreign, were murdered in cities such as Kovno and Minsk. The daily count of those shot in these mass executions was anything between 5,000-13,000.[1114] Clearly arranging for such slaughter at short notice (as was usually the case) presented few problems for the murderers.[1115]

Nor was shooting always necessary for the implementation of genocide. It has been estimated that at least 35-40 per cent of Jewish deaths in occupied Poland were a result of the living conditions imposed by the Germans.[1116] In the Warsaw ghetto, 43,239 died during 1941, overwhelmingly from a combination of malnutrition, disease, exposure, and exhaustion brought on by the appalling working and living conditions, a mortality rate of more than 10 percent. By the time the first transports departed from Warsaw for Treblinka on 22 July 1942, the death rate in the ghetto was running at an annualised rate of more than 14 percent. This represented another example of a gradual and inevitable process of extermination “by other means”.[1117] It was a process repeated in countless eastern European ghettos. Although German realisation of the necessity to maintain a productive workforce eventually forced a marginal improvement in the lot of the ghettoised Jews, there can be no doubt that, even allowing for this amelioration, mortality rates within the ghettos would have continued to have been extraordinarily high. As Donald Bloxham has observed: “Contrary to popular conception, extermination camps complemented rather than replaced the more intimate method of murder.”[1118]

* * *

Would there then have been fewer victims of the Shoah had the gas chambers of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka not existed? Perhaps, but such was the exterminatory imperative that it is just as likely that the Nazis would have resorted to other, more conventional methods of mass murder to achieve their goal. The killing would have been less efficient, but just as inevitable. What is certain is that the extermination camps of Aktion Reinhard could not have functioned as they did without the know-how gained from the first phase of “euthanasia”. Apart from demonstrating a functional process for the rapid disposal of a large number of “undesirables”, not the least significant aspect of the “euthanasia” programme was the indication it provided to Hitler, as well as to government and Party leaders, of just how much could be achieved behind the mask of “official secrecy”, providing as that did the smokescreen necessary to furnish time enough for the desired objectives be attained. Of course the concealment could not last; eventually the truth would emerge. But it could last long enough.

Even more importantly, T4 supplied the kernel of professional killers who were to undertake Aktion Reinhard in Poland. These men were long term exponents of the physical process of murder and the disposal of corpses. Some had been recruited because they were considered ideologically reliable, or were recommended by a relative or friend. Others began their careers in the concentration camps or, particularly, in the police. Four of the six men who were to be the principal commandants of the Aktion Reinhard camps had been career policemen.[1119] All of those involved at the Polish killing centres quickly became desensitized killers (if they were not already such), rapidly descending into a criminal nightmare of sadistic brutality and death.

As already described, following the official cessation of the euthanasia programme a substantial number of T4 personnel were sent to the eastern front as part of the enigmatic Organisation Todt mission.[1120] According to the testimony of Pauline Kneissler, their duties included providing fatal injections to severely wounded members of the Wehrmacht. In his post-war report, Leo Alexander went even further, stating:

Certain classes of patients with mental diseases who were capable of performing labour, particularly members of the armed forces suffering from psychopathy or neurosis, were sent to concentration camps to be worked to death, or to be reassigned to punishment battalions and to be exterminated in the process of removal of mine fields.[1121]

More life unworthy of life.[1122] Alexander also made the somewhat startling claim that doctors serving on U-boats were ordered to use lethal injections to execute any crew members considered “troublemakers”.[1123] Given the presence on board German submarines of ex-T4 physicians like Ernst Baumhard and Günther Hennecke, this may not have been as unlikely as it sounds.

Initially 92 out of the estimated four hundred T4 operatives were made available by T4 to Odilo Globocnik in Lublin to operate the gas chambers of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.[1124] That number was swollen in the summer of 1942 as other T4 members were ordered eastwards.[1125] An analysis of 131 men known to have served at the principal Aktion Reinhard camps, indicates that just four of them had not graduated from T4.[1126] Of the 46 known SS-men who worked in Sobibor, 39 had a T4 past.[1127] The actual number of ex-T4 operatives participating in Aktion Reinhard was probably greater – not all of those assigned to the death camps have been identified, any more than the names all of those employed in some capacity by T4 are known. For all the attempted camouflage, given the size and scope of the organisation's activities it is reasonable to assume that there were many individuals who were either involved in or otherwise aware of T4's activities , but whose identities remain a mystery. The degree of knowledge would obviously have varied from person to person, but that all embroiled at any level knew something seems undeniable. Letters and reports had to be typed, deliveries made, everyday routine tasks performed. Moreover, the circle of those who knew must surely have been significantly wider than just those directly involved. For all of the threats of concentration camps and death penalties, human patterns of behaviour dictate that people will talk about their work to each other and to their families and friends. Knowledge was of course no offence in itself. However, post-war German and Austrian claims of ignorance concerning Nazi criminality have often lacked plausibility as a consequence of this avowed lack of awareness.

Whatever the precise figures regarding staffing may have been, it is certain that when, where, and how to implement the Jewish genocide had been decided, the KdF was able to draw upon the experience and know-how of T4 personnel to fulfil the demand for an experienced bunch of killers.[1128] Fritz Bleich (another to join the Organisation Todt mission to the eastern front), who was registrar at the KdF, and was thus in a better position than most to provide relevant testimony, stated that ex-T4 personnel often returned on leave from the Aktion Reinhard camps to Berlin. They would tell him of the killing of Jews and the methods used, showing off photographs of themselves beating, torturing, and murdering their victims. Friedrich Haus put together a collection of these photographs in an album for the delectation of a selected few.[1129]

The connection between T4 and Aktion Reinhard is undeniable. Why specific T4 functionaries were chosen for Aktion Reinhard is not known, although it is probable that this was a case of some men being more adept and enthusiastic killers than others, or simply because those chosen were familiar to their superiors. As Heinrich Barbl,[1130] who worked first at Hartheim, and then Belzec and Sobibor commented: “The method employed in the camps [of Aktion Reinhard] was the same as the one utilized in the castle at Hartheim, except that those killed there [in the camps] were all Jews.”[1131]

But as a number of eminent historians have pointed out, the symbiosis between “euthanasia” and the “Final Solution” went beyond these obvious connections. It is not simply a question of drawing parallels between the murder of large numbers of people in specialised killing centres by means of poison gas common to both the “euthanasia” programme, and the Aktion Reinhard and other camps. In establishing the logistics of extermination, T4 was the paradigm in terms of organisation of labour, deception, and putative secrecy.[1132] Others go further than this, suggesting that the absence of an unambiguous written order by Hitler for the “Final Solution”, a red herring so beloved of Holocaust deniers, may be attributable, at least in part, to the lessons learned from the population's eventual reaction to the “euthanasia” programme. It rapidly became apparent that however strenuous the efforts, killing on this scale simply could not be kept secret. Rather, it caused disquiet among the populace, which might have been exacerbated if the written Führer “euthanasia” authorization had become common knowledge.[1133] What might be the reaction of the citizenry if a document bearing Hitler's signature ordering the destruction of the Jews existed, and somehow became widely known? Better by far to maintain Hitler's God-like façade of plausible deniability and have nothing in writing, thereby ensuring that others could purportedly take responsibility for the excesses of the regime.

* * *

The question arises as to whether Nazi “euthanasia” can be regarded as genocidal in and of itself, whether indeed “euthanasia was not simply a prologue but the first chapter of Nazi genocide.”[1134] It has been posed with increasing frequency since the term “genocide”, a combination of the Greek word genes (race) and the Latin word cide (killing), was created by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress.[1135] The 1948 United Nations “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide”, defined genocide in the following terms:

Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;(e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Despite this wording, no entirely acceptable agreement of the term has yet been found. Perhaps the simplest and most appropriate characterization of genocide is “group destruction without regard to the means of destruction or the type of group destroyed.”[1136] If that definition is applied to the Nazi “euthanasia” programme, there can be little doubt it was indeed genocidal. However, as with many other subjects, there is a clear distinction to be made between the legal and the moral interpretations of genocide, since, even if the existence of natural law is acknowledged, it is individual national communities that in practice determine the boundaries of legality, whilst questions of morality are, of necessity, much more amorphous. Thus German doctors and others could claim that because they believed that “euthanasia” had the force of law, they were justified in murdering their patients. Not only were their actions legal, they would proudly declare, but since they were also motivated by humanitarianism, rather than being judged genocidal they should be considered morally impeccable too. In early post-war judgements, the courts refused to accept that defence, even if such an enabling law had indeed existed. Regrettably, as time passed, and in the interests of political expediency, attitudes changed. Morality, on the other hand, has a different perspective. Questions of legality may safely be left to lawyers. What is at issue here is human behaviour as a trope – or put another way, the immutable application of that natural law, defined as “unchanging moral principles common to all people by virtue of their nature as human beings”. Whatever “justice” may decide, man cannot escape the verdict of history.

The terminology of genocide may be relatively new, but the actions certainly are not. In 1648, a campaign to exterminate the Jews of eastern Europe was waged by a band of Ukrainian Cossacks (subsequently joined by Crimean Tatars and Russians) under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Over the next eight years, tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in Poland and the western Russian Empire. Massacres occurred in all of the major cities of the region – Polotsk, Vitebsk, Minsk, Vilna, and Lvov, amongst others.[1137] Not surprisingly there is no unanimity so far as the number of Khmelnytsky's victims is concerned; estimates ranging from between 6,000 and 14,000 at the lower end of the scale to a clearly impossible 500,000 at the upper. However, given the overall Jewish population of the region at the time of about 350,000, it is conceivable that Jewish fatalities were proportionately greater as a result of this genocide than in Europe as a whole during the Holocaust.[1138] Ironically, whilst Khmelnytsky (whose motives were as much economic as religious or racial – the Jews were perceived as allies of the much hated Poles) is regarded in Jewish history as being second only to Hitler as a persecutor, he is generally considered by Ukrainians to be a hero - “the father of the nation.” His portrait even appears on a Ukrainian banknote.

If not named as such at the time it was inflicted, genocide has been a common historical event, with its perpetrators often hailed as heroic for their actions.[1139] This is certainly how Odilo Globocnik saw himself in killing not less than 1.3 million Jews as part of Aktion Reinhard. Kurt Gerstein reported Globocnik's pride in his achievement:

Gentlemen, if there was ever, after us, a generation so cowardly and so soft that they could not understand our work which is so good, so necessary, then, gentlemen, all of National Socialism will have been in vain. We ought, on the contrary, to bury bronze tablets [with the corpses] stating that it was we who had the courage to carry out this gigantic task![1140]

There is no doubt that Globocnik's sentiments were shared by the bureaucrats, medical personnel, and other operatives of T4, as well as by all those other eugenic theoreticians and fellow-travellers who had preceded them. They believed their ideas and/or their work was not only justified but critical for the improvement of the treatment of sickness, both mental and physical, and the creation of the brave new world eugenics promised. The genuineness of that belief by many should not be underestimated. When the “stop order” was issued in August 1941, many physicians regarded the period of relative calm as an opportunity to “raise the reputation of psychiatry”. As far as they were concerned, the space created by the murder of “hopeless” patients and the associated economic benefits and freeing of personnel was to be utilized to develop methods of therapy and metamorphose mental hospitals into clinics.[1141] In his post-war evidence, Hans Hefelmannn stated:

Right at the beginning of the asylum operation during the Second World War, a general consensus was reached that the institutional manpower, medications, and therapeutic opportunities recovered through euthanasia should benefit the 80 percent of institutional inmates that would probably remain. To this end, a psychiatric expert, Professor [Carl] Schneider of Heidelberg, consented to be appointed to the Reich Association to further expand therapy and research. This circumstance underlined the moral justification for carrying out the euthanasia measures.[1142]

The Central Clearing Office for Mental institutions was intended to be more than the commercial arm of T4; through its financial input it was hoped to completely reform the German institutional system, standardizing legal and fiscal regulations. In due course, rather than the existing hotchpotch of state and charitable institutions and the complexities of legislation that varied from region to region, all of the components of mental health care would be gathered together in a single all-powerful entity, which Hans-Joachim Becker christened “The Reich Office for Mental Hospitals.”[1143]

It remains difficult to comprehend that individuals like Paul Nitsche or Carl Schneider could countenance “euthanasia” as part of a lifelong struggle to improve conditions in mental institutions. It is easy to assume that all Nazi eugenic policies were driven by some kind of blood lust. Whilst for a minority that may have been true in the shape of the eugenically inspired racism that resulted in the extermination of Jews, Gypsies, and others, there is also the suggestion that for men like Nitsche and many of his colleagues, “euthanasia” simply formed part of a long term strategy for the reformation of German healthcare. There is also an alternative view that this was merely an ex post facto rationalization of a literally murderous administration by men among the most guilty for the realization of its objectives. These were not modernizing idealists, it is proposed, but cold-blooded killers.[1144] Whatever interpretation is placed upon it, this attempted justification of murder is perhaps the most horrifying aspect of “euthanasia”, for to suggest that killing patients somehow advanced the cause of medical knowledge is a concept that should always have been dismissed out of hand. This was a principle that the courts of the Federal Republic in particular frequently chose to misunderstand, for few of the perpetrators were brought to justice, and even fewer expressed regret for their crimes. The great majority continued to practice their professions after the war with an apparently clear conscience and little or no fear of prosecution.[1145]

This then also raises the issue of the possible connection between modernity and Nazism, a subject which has given birth to almost as many differing opinions as an acceptable definition of genocide.[1146] Modernity has been defined as …

a shorthand term for modern society or industrial civilization. Portrayed in more detail, it is associated with (1) a certain set of attitudes towards the world, the idea of the world as open to transformation by human intervention; (2) a complex of economic institutions, especially industrial production and a market economy; (3) a certain range of political institutions, including the nation-state and mass democracy. Largely as a result of these characteristics, modernity is vastly more dynamic than any previous type of social order. It is a society—more technically, a complex of institutions—which unlike any preceding culture lives in the future rather than the past.[1147]

Some consider the Third Reich to have been a prime example of modernity based upon one interpretation of Nazi social policy - that this was revolutionary in both conception and practice. This view predicates that Hitler's introduction of social benefits such as child allowances, public housing, better educational opportunities for all and the like, are representations of modernity in action. It is opposed by others who suggest that, far from being a modern political and sociological movement, National Socialism represented a reversion to barbarism, that in fact there was little, if anything “modern” about it, and that the benefits introduced by the Nazi regime were motivated solely by racial rather than altruistic considerations.[1148] And finally, there are those that argue that Nazism in practice was simultaneously an example of both modernity and anti-modernity.[1149] Given the “blood and soil” (Blut und Boden) views of so many leading Nazi theorists and their influential predecessors, such as Richard Wagner, it seems curious that the proposition has been subject to such debate. The National Socialists and those who inspired them regarded modernity as a Jewish trait, an influence which was poisonous to Germanism. The idea of modernity in economics, the arts, the professions or any other aspect of society was anathema to them. The virulently anti-Semitic French Catholic, Georges Bernanos, had precisely described this attitude when in 1931 he had written: “In this engineers' paradise, naked and smooth like a laboratory, the Jewish imagination is the only one able to produce these monstrous flowers.”[1150] The reasoning was straightforward; conceptually modernity was foreign, and the prime example of the foreigner was the Jew. Ergo, any example of modernity was, by definition, Jewish in origin.[1151]

There is a danger that in attempting to define the indefinable, not only does our comprehension of the true horror of this vilest of regimes disappear, but we run the risk of failing to appreciate the singularity of the manner in which National Socialism functioned. All dictatorships are not the same – nor are all genocides. In fact, each is different, although they may all have some features in common. The proponents of the theory of modernity suggest that Nazism lurks beneath the surface of every society in equal measure, but there is reason to believe that only the unique circumstances of Germany in 1933 could empower an Adolf Hitler and permit his hideous ideas to flourish.[1152]

There is also a persuasive argument that Orthodox Judaism provided many examples of practical eugenics, from dietary prohibitions and personal hygiene to fecundity and purity of the bloodline. Indeed, there was considerable support for eugenics amongst pre-war Zionists on the grounds that, by its very nature, the Diaspora was dysgenic. Intermarriage and other factors contravening Halacha, Jewish religious law, would inevitably occur in a non-Jewish state, resulting in the decline of the Jewish race (if Judaism can be so described).[1153] In 1921, Zewi Parnass, an enthusiastic Jewish supporter of eugenics, wrote: “Our religious regulations indicate that hygiene, and particularly race hygiene, is what we were aiming for in social life.”[1154] Taking this reasoning to its logical conclusion, it has been suggested that Moses can be seen as the “father of eugenics”, thousands of years before Dalton and his followers.[1155] If this view prevails, then in real terms eugenics and racial hygiene are about as far removed from modernity as it is possible to be.[1156]

* * *

The Second World War sounded the death knell for eugenics as it had been understood only a generation earlier. The public recoiled in horror as the liberation of Nazi extermination and concentration camps and other killing centres, as well as the concomitant war crimes trials, revealed the consequences of racial hygiene in practice. In a history of the eugenics movement published to coincide with his retirement as Secretary of the British Eugenics Society in 1952, Carlos Paton Blacker acknowledged that Galton's eugenic vision had, to all intents and purposes, proved no more than an illusion. The reason for this was not hard to find. Nazism had perverted Galton's message to the extent that eugenics in its entirety had been thoroughly discredited.[1157] In a post-war environment, other ways were sought to tackle the pressing social issues of the day. No longer would eugenics dominate social welfare and policy debates as it had done in the previous half-century. Politics changed the face of eugenics as geneticists attempted to distance themselves from the class- and race-based events of recent history. “Faced with the evidence of…barbarous policies, many who had once been tolerant of, if not impressed by, eugenic arguments rushed to condemn them.”[1158] Perceptions were upended. Where, to the eugenicists, the rights of the individual were to be sacrificed on the altar of racial betterment, now attention was entirely concentrated on the person. If previously eugenics, whether “positive” or “negative”, had been concerned with social issues on a national scale, now the focus was on the individual, and on personal choice. Which is not to say that eugenic ideas and principles ceased to be preached and practised after 1945. But like pupae, they had metamorphosed. If less overtly racist and discriminatory than before, most eugenicists still proffered the phantasmagoria of a perfect, man-made society, one in which the scientist would not simply replicate God, he would replace Him.[1159]

Viewed objectively, the real concern with much of eugenics as originally conceived was not its ends, elements of which – the prevention and elimination of sickness and disease rather than its cure, a massive improvement in the quality of life for an entire underclass– were commendable, but its means. Until recently, science was simply not equipped to resolve the problems it recognized. Knowledge of heredity and human behaviour was inadequate, technology non-existent. The problems were real; the solutions proffered were not. And the connection between eugenics and racism, inevitable in the political climate of the first half of the twentieth century, ensured that the practice of eugenics at that time could only lead to the charnel house. The nagging question remains, however, of how it was possible for so many of the best and the brightest of their generation to blindly follow Hitler's nihilistic path. Some differing factors are worthy of consideration.

In an otherwise excellent recently published biography of Karl Brandt, it is suggested:

The killing of thousands of handicapped people had, it seemed, completely desensitized these men [that is medical professors and physicians] over the years. Unable to distinguish between right and wrong, their moral conscience had corroded to such an extent that they were willing to commit wholesale murder as long as the operation was loosely sanctioned by the regime.[1160]

The inability to distinguish between right and wrong is the principal test applied in law by the M'Naghten Rules when determining pleas of insanity, viz:

The jurors ought to be told in all cases that every man is presumed to be sane, and to possess a sufficient degree of reason to be responsible for his crimes, until the contrary be proved to their satisfaction; and that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.[1161]

The proposition that much of the medical profession of Germany was suffering from a collective bout of insanity is surely unsustainable. Rather, the extermination of the incurably ill, according to T4 psychiatrist Friedrich Panse, put all perpetrators in a state of being “drunk with elation”. In 1973, The University Clinic of Psychiatry, Düsseldorf, published an obituary of Panse. Their eulogy culminated with the sentence. “A life in the service of the suffering people...is completed.”[1162] No suggestion of being unable to distinguish right from wrong in that statement.

Hannah Arendt also touched upon this supposed lack of a moral compass amongst the Nazi killers when she wrote:

Those few who were still able to tell right from wrong went really by their own judgements, and they did so freely; there were no rules to be abided by, under which the particular cases with which they were confronted could be subsumed. They had to decide each instance as it arose, because no rules existed for the unprecedented.[1163]

This too was a less than satisfactory analysis, for there were rules, illogical, barbaric, and by no means always observed, but rules nonetheless. What was occurring was not an inability to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, but a complete inversion of the these terms. It is circumstances that dictate how these abstract concepts are to be interpreted and the manner in which they are to be applied. As conditions change, so does the meaning we ascribe to these words. A simple example of the practical application of this is our attitude to war.

Modern society has evolved on the basis that killing your neighbour is an offence that should (a) be prohibited and (b) punished if it occurs. This is not so much a question of religious precept as of common sense. If we did not accept certain rational guidelines we would live in a state of perpetual anarchy. So, by and large, we do not murder each other. However, when war is declared, society reverses the norms. Far from prohibiting such actions, individuals are not merely permitted to kill whosoever the state declares the enemy to be (and who is often yesterday's friend) but are positively and vehemently encouraged to do so. The moral and ethical code is turned completely upside down. What was previously considered essential for all – the preservation of life – now becomes undesirable for many. Arendt considered this dichotomy in terms of a distinction between the actions of the state and those of the individual. Since the state is responsible for maintaining the very existence of a nation, it is not subject to the law in the same manner as the ordinary citizen. Commonly acknowledged crimes committed in the name of the state may be considered measures necessary for that state's continued existence. She continued:

In a normal political and legal system, such crimes occur as an exception to the rule and are not subject to legal penalty…because the existence of the state itself is at stake, and no outside political entity has the right to deny a state its existence or prescribe how it is to preserve it. However…in a state founded upon criminal principles the situation is reversed.[1164]

As has been proven in endless measure, no state in history was more criminal than Nazi Germany. Moreover, Hitler took this assumption of raison d'état one step further and applied it not only to “outside political entities”, but to the state's own citizens. Arendt consequently went on to question whether in fact one could apply the same principles of legality to a government “in which crime and violence are exceptions and borderline cases to a political order in which crime is legal and the rule.”[1165] Clearly one could not, and because one could not, the defence of an exigency to obey superior orders for acts of state-sanctioned murder was unsustainable. Or should have been. As has been seen, post-war German courts did not always fully apply this precept.

Taken to its logical extreme, if a regime was criminal then all of that regime's commands and decrees would by definition be unlawful, and obeying them was in itself an illegal act. Apart from the likely personal consequences, it would obviously be completely impractical for citizens to refuse to obey every statute introduced by such a government. Some laws have to be obeyed if a state is to function at all. But as has been demonstrated, it was possible to draw a line in the sand and say “so far and no further.” Even among the Einsatzgruppen there is no evidence to support the assertion that individuals were forced to kill innocent civilians out of the belief of subsequent imprisonment or death if they refused to do so.[1166] Nobody was compelled to kill, other than those who did so out of personal conviction. It came down to a question of choice. What is it then that provided the stimulus needed to permit the killers to behave as they did?

* * *

There has been a good deal of research into the question of individual obedience to authority. Probably the best known examples of this are Stanley Milgram's experiments conducted at Yale University in 1960-1963, in which a group of volunteers were paid a modest sum to participate in what was described as an investigation into the effects of punishment on learning. Each volunteer acted as a “teacher”, instructed to administer an electric shock of an increasing degree of intensity via an elaborate piece of equipment to a “pupil” whenever the pupil answered a question incorrectly. The pupil, out of sight of the teacher in an adjoining room, would emit screams of anguish as the severity of the electric shock increased with every incorrect answer. If the teacher refused to continue, the experimenter in charge of the supposed investigation would insist with mounting firmness that he must do so. In fact, only the teacher was genuine; there were no electric shocks, and the pupil was trained to deliberately give incorrect answers and act as if in increasing agony with every concomitant increase in the dosage of electricity, until a point was reached at which he made no sound at all, feigning unconsciousness – or worse. The issue to be determined was just how far the teacher was prepared to go in administering punishment at the command of the experimenter, that is the authority figure. The answers were disturbing. In the initial experiment, no less than 65 percent of the teachers obeyed the authority figure's order that they steadily increase the supposed shocks until they reached a potentially life-threatening maximum.

Milgram went on to conduct many further studies, varying the parameters slightly with each. Whilst the number of “teachers” who were prepared to administer the maximum shock differed, in every experiment there were at least some who were willing to do so. Moreover, in similar experiments involving scores of individuals of varying age and gender, the results have all been comparable. The conclusion reached was that obedience to authority is deeply embedded within the psyche of at least some of us.[1167] Yet Milgram himself was quick to point out the danger in reading too much into his research. “Is the obedience observed in the laboratory in any way comparable to that seen in Nazi Germany? (Is a match flame comparable to the Chicago fire of 1898?),” he questioned rhetorically.[1168] In fact, there were several areas in which the conditions relating to Milgram's experiments differed significantly from those prevailing in genocidal circumstances. Nonetheless, this research has been of great importance in at least one respect; it indicates just how easy it is to convince some people, purely on the basis of “superior orders”, to inflict excruciating pain on others for whom they bear no personal animosity. As Milgram commented:

After witnessing hundreds of people submit to the authority in our experiments, I must conclude that Arendt's conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might imagine…That is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process…While there are enormous differences of circumstance and scope, a common psychological process is centrally involved in both [my laboratory experiments and events in Nazi Germany].[1169]

Another experiment demonstrated the ease with which it is possible to inculcate prejudice. In a small American town, teacher Jane Elliott, divided her class of 8-9 year-olds between the blue-eyed (deemed the “superior”) and the brown-eyed (to be considered “inferior”), then produced fictitious “evidence” to support these categorizations. The blue-eyed children were given special privileges, whilst the brown-eyed had to obey rules that accentuated their second-class status, including the wearing of a ribbon to enable identification from a distance. Once the experiment was underway, the previously friendly “blue-eyes” refused to play with the “brown eyes”, and suggested to the school authorities that the latter might be thieves. Fights broke out between the two groups. Within a single day the “blue eyes” became arrogant and domineering, the “brown-eyes” depressed, sullen, and angry. Their “brown-eyes” schoolwork suffered as their self-esteem was dissipated. A few days later the roles were reversed. Elliott had been mistaken, she told her class – it was the brown-eyed who were superior and the blue-eyed less valuable. And, extraordinarily, the patterns of behaviour were reversed in parallel fashion, despite the “brown-eyes” having themselves already experienced the effects of discrimination. Overnight the Übermensch became the Untermensch, and vice-versa. The exercise, subsequently repeated many times with groups of different ages, indicates how simple it is to implant irrational prejudice and bigotry in the individual.[1170]

A further example of the ease with which it is possible to determine behaviour, as well as the infinite and immediate corruptibility of power, was the famous 1971 “Stanford Prison Experiment”, in which twenty-four healthy and intelligent male undergraduates were arbitrarily divided into groups of prisoners and guards. No specific instructions were given to either group about how they were to play out their roles, and there was no evident distinction between the individuals making up the two bodies, yet within an extraordinarily short period of time these otherwise normal students had divided on the one hand into guards who seemingly derived pleasure from insulting, threatening, humiliating, and dehumanizing their “prisoners”, and on the other into detainees who were passive, dependant, helpless, and depressed. So concerned became the organizers of the experiment at the evident sadism of the guards that what had been intended to last two weeks was abandoned after only six days.[1171]

One other piece of research is particularly germane to the subject under review. In a real hospital, each of twenty-two nurses received a call from a staff doctor they had never met. Completely against regulations, which required that the physician sign the order for any drug usage beforehand, the nurses were instructed to administer twice the maximum advised dosage of a particular drug to patients, solely on the basis of the physician's telephoned instructions. No less than twenty-one of the nurses had started to pour the possibly lethal prescribed dosage (which was in fact a harmless placebo), before the person conducting the research stopped them. In a survey of a large sample of registered nurses, 46 percent stated that they had at sometime carried out the orders of a doctor that the nurse felt might have had harmful consequences for the patient.[1172] Again, it is possible to read too much into such experiments when making comparisons with conditions in the “euthanasia” killing centres of Nazi Germany, but there is no gainsaying the powerful influence physicians wield over the nurses trained to obey a medical superior's orders.

In his groundbreaking work, Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning examined the activities of Reserve Police Battalion 101 in Poland. Between July 1942 and November 1943, these ordinary men shot a minimum of 38,000 Jews and dispatched at least a further 45,200 to Treblinka and death.[1173] What was these policemen's rationale, their motivation? Browning presents an absorbing, and highly disturbing account, for with it he raises the spectre of our own potential for perpetrating evil. He concludes his book with the words:

Everywhere society conditions people to respect and defer to authority, and indeed could scarcely function otherwise. Everywhere people seek career advancement. In every modern society, the complexity of life and the resulting bureaucratization and specialization attenuate the sense of personal responsibility of those implementing official policy. Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behaviour and sets moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?[1174]

Attempting to answer that question has produced both an impressive quantity and quality of scholarly debate. Certainly, everything in the above quotation can be applied equally to all of the perpetrators of “euthanasia” and the Shoah. In an earlier analysis of perpetrator motivation, Leo Alexander went some way towards endorsing Browning's view by describing the driving force in the case of members of the SS as being

…a process of reinforcement of group cohesion…called Blukitt (blood-cement)…This motivation, with which one is familiar in ordinary crimes, applies also to war crimes and to ideologically conditioned crimes against humanity - namely, that fear and cowardice, especially fear of punishment or of ostracism by the group, are often more important motives than simple ferocity or aggressiveness.[1175]

Putting the psychopaths among them to one side, however, one is bound to ask whether the actions of so many can be attributed solely or even mainly to fear of punishment or peer pressure? Was it to seek the approval of their contemporaries, or out of concern for their own well being, that Hermann Pfanmüller exhibited the emaciated body of a child he was starving to death at Eglfing-Haar “like a dead rabbit”[1176] , or that Mina Wörle was prepared to continue killing children at Kaufbeuren-Irsee for weeks after the war had ended, when even she must have realized that the regime she had previously served was no more, and that any oath she might have sworn was no longer binding? There are no satisfactory answers to such questions. In truth, the more we learn of human behaviour, the less we understand. For some, an “education” in “euthanasia” merely served as a precursor to a greatly expanded killing programme. As Franz Suchomel explained:

What is true, of course, is that the people who were involved in the actual killing process in the institutes, those who worked in the crematoria – we called them `die Brenner '– became calloused, inured to feeling. And they were the ones who were afterwards the first to be sent to Poland.[1177]

But that ambition, greed, envy, and sometimes unreasoning hatred also played a part is apparent from the biographical data contained in this manuscript. Self-justification too; as Hannah Arendt commented:

…the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all men are afflicted in the presence of human suffering…the trick…was very simple and very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around, as it were, directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: “What horrible things I did to people!” the murderers would be able to say: “What horrible things I had to watch in pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!”[1178]

Himmler used this technique to considerable effect in his infamous Posen speeches, made firstly to senior SS personnel and then to the assembled Reichsleiters and Gauleiters in October 1943, in which he openly described the ongoing policy of genocide. These speeches had been foreshadowed by another address Himmler made to SS personnel on 7 September 1940 in Metz. There he was comparing the deportation of French citizens (predominately Jewish) from Alsace and Lorraine to unoccupied France with the actions of the Einsatzgruppen following the invasion of Poland:

Exactly the same thing happened on Poland in weather 40 degrees below zero, where we had to had to haul away thousands, ten thousands, hundred thousands; where we had to have the toughness – you should hear this but also forget it immediately – to shoot thousands of leading Poles, where we had to have the toughness, otherwise they would have taken revenge on us later…[1179]

In the case of the non-medically qualified killers, those physically perpetrating murder in the institutions and camps, their lives and personalities were depressingly mundane, as has been illustrated. To commit such atrocities on a daily basis it was doubtless necessary to use such “ordinary men”, although at least some of them were perhaps better described as “ordinary psychopaths” (in Michael Burleigh's turn of phrase[1180]), if not suffering from an even more malevolent personality disorder.[1181] Primo Levi, perhaps the best known and most gifted Holocaust survivor, said this of his tormentors:

…They were made of our same cloth, they were average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked: save for exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces, but they had been reared badly. They were, for the greater part, diligent followers and functionaries: some fanatically convinced of the Nazi doctrine, many indifferent, or fearful of punishment, or desirous of a good career, or too obedient…Some, very few in truth, had changes of heart, requested transfers to the front lines, gave cautious help to prisoners or chose suicide. Let it be clear that to a greater or lesser degree all were responsible…[1182]

Others have made similar observations; “Nothing would be more mistaken than to see the SS as a sadistic horde driven to abuse and torture thousands of human beings by instinct, passion, or some thirst for pleasure. Those who acted in this way were a small minority,” recalled a former Auschwitz prisoner. An inmate of the medical experiment section at Ravensbrück commented that the staff were “not a very inspiring lot but, on the whole, not too different from what might be found in any hospital.”[1183]

* * *

Ausrottung – “extermination”, a word which frequently recurs in Hitler's writings and speeches, is important to any appreciation of his Weltanschauung. A man who saw everything in terms of absolutes, the idea of compromise was alien to him. Thus war, like every other facet of life's struggle, was seen in terms of total victory or total defeat. In this Hitler, although born an Austrian, was merely the inheritor of a traditional Prussian militarism that could be traced back to a time prior to the creation of the German nation state, and which was displayed in all of its implacable brutality in a number of colonial expeditions (particularly in Africa), as well as in the Kaiserreich's conduct of the First World War.[1184] If then the campaign against the perceived enemies of Nazism is viewed as a kind of social warfare, (and it is worth bearing in mind that Lucy Dawidowicz titled her book on the Shoah, The War Against the Jews), it becomes possible to view the actions of the perpetrators of Nazi crimes as being perfectly moral, that is “good” from a National Socialist perspective. At the same time, permitting the genetic and racial enemies of the Reich to continue to exist and propagate could be viewed as “evil”. Both of these aspects were elements necessary for the successful waging of a total “war”, the ultimate aim of which was the complete annihilation, the Ausrottung of the enemy.

If experience teaches anything, it is that some individuals are capable of rationalizing any kind of conduct, however extreme. Given suitable circumstances, it would therefore appear that all that is required to convert at least some members of society from the side of the angels is a regime dedicated to producing a sufficiently intense level of quasi-religious indoctrination. When the perceived “war” was over, and Nazism defeated, it was possible for these individuals to immediately revert to more commonly accepted standards of civilized behaviour. Those responsible for compulsory sterilisation and mass murder who escaped retribution did not continue to practice those acts in the post-war world. In general, they immediately abandoned the dogma they had so loudly championed and executed, in many cases going on to become highly regarded members of their respective professions, or sinking back into the obscurity from which they had emerged. It is noteworthy that few of them expressed any remorse for their previous espousal of Nazi ideals.

Of course, individual circumstances dictated that there were other factors contributing to the motivation of a great number of the men and women under consideration. Some retained a burning conviction regarding the verisimilitude of Nazi ideology to the end of their life. But in general, and unfortunately it is only possible to arrive at any conclusions in the most general terms, it seems more appropriate to consider the actions of at least some perpetrators as a reflection of this inversion of moral and ethical standards rather than, for example, peer pressure alone, although it is reasonable to suggest that in some instances this may also have been one of a number of contributory factors. Be that as it may, what was really at issue was not an inability to distinguish between right and wrong, the “natural law” that remains a constant, and of which the perpetrators remained fully aware, but rather the conception of what these terms had come to mean in a totalitarian state. Of even greater concern is that this behavioural rationalization is not something limited to Nazism, as is apparent from the evidence provided by pre- and post Second World War atrocities committed in places like Armenia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and elsewhere. However, the National Socialists were unique in one important respect. Genocide generally targets very specific national, religious or social elements within the Genocidaires' own community. What distinguished the Nazis was the sheer range of their perceived enemies – Jews, Slavs, the disabled, both mental and physical, the non-white, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, asocials, communists, social democrats, members of the clergy – the list was endless. Moreover, the potential victims were not restricted to those of German nationality. The Nazis killed with complete disregard to questions of citizenship. In regions under the dominion of the Third Reich, any group, any person could become a target.

In his study of the leadership cadre of the RSHA, Michael Wildt found that, not surprisingly, a significant majority (more than 75 percent) of this intellectual (in the broadest sense) elite of Nazism shared much in common. Most had been born after 1900, too late to see service in the Great War, but old enough to have lived through the turmoil and instability of the Weimar years.[1185] The products of universities and colleges which became hotbeds of nationalism and extremism in the 1920s and 1930s, they were profoundly mistrustful of parliamentary democracy, believing not in the virtues of debate and rational argument, but rather in action, ruthlessly applied, as the function and purpose of government. They regarded themselves not as part of the despised bourgeoisie, but rather as a leadership in waiting, men who would break the mould of what they regarded as a corrupt and degenerate society. Their byword was “action”; swift, decisive, merciless. In their philosophy the end would always justify the means, the deed vindicate the idea. They would achieve authority and power not through debate and reason but via the application of a fanatical determination to achieve their objective, no matter what the cost might be. As Himmler expressed their philosophy: “The word impossible must not exist and will never exist for us.”[1186] Leni Riefenstahl had summarised their Weltanschauung in the title of her film of the 1934 Nuremberg Party Congress – Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will). Academically brilliant, but morally bankrupt, such would-be leaders required only one thing – a Führer, one who shared their world view and who would empower this generation of mini- Führers to inherit what they regarded as their rightful place in society.[1187] It was to the misfortune of mankind that they found such a Führer, one with ideas even more extreme than their own.

The similarities between the RSHA leadership and the senior technical and medical staff of T4 are apparent. Of the individuals comprising the latter categories considered in the appendix to this volume, almost 60 percent had been born post-1900. Some 72 percent had received the benefit of a higher education, during the course of which those born after 1900 would undoubtedly have been exposed to the political radicalism prevalent in Germany's centres of learning in the decades following their birth. Evidently there was a commonality of background, influence, and belief among many of those who were to form the nucleus of the future Nazi administration, whether as policemen, bureaucrats, or physicians. It would be a mistake to assume that for these men (and a handful of women) there was anything other than a burning conviction that what they did was not only morally and ethically justified, but sociologically and politically essential. They became criminals out of certitude rather than convenience, and certainly not, as many of them concluded of others, as a result of some hereditary deficiency. Few of them indeed ever admitted to the error of their ways.

So far as the administrative Schreibtischtäters, the desk murderers, were concerned, there is no reason to believe that, in the great majority of cases, they were enthusiastic supporters of a eugenically inspired policy to kill the sick and disabled, any more than there is to assume that they were driven by a militant anti-Semitism in implementing the planned annihilation of Jewry. That is not to say that eugenic principle on the one hand and racist propaganda on the other did not have a part to play; however, the driving force behind the activities of these individuals was not a burning hatred of their victims, but the application of a longstanding professional routine added to complete indifference as to the consequences of their actions.[1188] Their guilt lay in precisely the post-war defence they put forward – they were “only obeying orders.”

It may be concluded from these observations that it is unlikely that there is ever any single rationale to account for the joint actions of a group of individuals. The motivation to support a particular cause is as personal as tastes in food. What delights one, disgusts another. That there were people in Germany who found Nazism and its policies abhorrent, who were opposed to “euthanasia” and the persecution of racial minorities, is beyond doubt. But in a dictatorship as ruthless as Hitler's, it required an extraordinary degree of courage to display that opposition. It would be wrong to condemn anybody for failing to exhibit such valour. Equally it is right and proper to censure those who endorsed the regime and carried out its murderous policies. It is worth repeating that none were compelled to do so, except out of personal conviction. But as Donald Bloxham has persuasively argued: “In every case, different agents worked towards the new governing norm, whether out of shared values, fear, licence, careerism, greed, sadism, weakness, or, more realistically, a combination of more than one of these.”[1189]

Between the two extremes of perpetration and dissent lay the majority of German citizens, who were neither perpetrators nor dissenters. They were bystanders, indifferent and apathetic onlookers, happy to go along with the perceived benefits that Nazism brought, and simply turn their back on its excesses. If they claimed not to know what was being done in their name, it was because they did not want to know. Assuming that there was anything to the outmoded concept of collective guilt, this related to sins of omission rather than commission. Regrettably, that was, and is, hardly an uncommon position for a preponderance of the population to adopt in any modern society. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it can be a good deal more comfortable than knowledge. Whatever may have been the case in the past, given the wealth of evidence now available none can any longer take refuge in a claimed lack of awareness of Nazi eugenics and its consequences.

* * *

What of Chesterton's vision? After seeing the practical consequences of more than a decade of eugenic theory, did men indeed “attempt to believe their dreams and disbelieve their eyes”? Sad to relate, in the years immediately following the Second World War, that seems to have been the case. A British Member of Parliament, Evan Durbin, described as “the Labour Party's most interesting thinker of the 1940s and arguably of the twentieth century”,[1190] concluded that “people were far more wicked, i.e. mentally ill, than was commonly supposed…as a whole we were all very sick and very stupid…selective breeding was probably the answer.”[1191] Durbin arrived at this conclusion four months after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the existence and eugenic policies of which state might have given him pause for thought about exactly who was going to do the selecting, the criteria to be applied, and the probable repercussions of such a policy. In September 1945 he certainly didn't have to look far to find an unhappy precedent for the approach he proposed. It seems even more extraordinary to relate that the launching of the British National Health Service in July 1948, hailed by one eminent historian as “one of the finest institutions ever built by anybody anywhere”,[1192] produced an analysis of the new creation by the Manchester Guardian which Wilhelm Schallmayer himself might have penned. The newspaper dyspeptically pronounced that taken together with the simultaneously introduced Social Security provisions, the measures aimed

… at evening up the weak with the strong, whether the weakness is inherent or accidental, [and] at eliminating selective elimination. This policy risks an increase in the proportion of the less gifted. Its logical counterpart is to take every possible step, especially in the field of child health, to prevent all accidental deficiencies and to minimise all inherent ones.[1193]

It may safely be assumed that the Manchester Guardian did not consider its readers to be among “the less gifted”. Not surprisingly, the newspaper refrained from suggesting exactly how those “accidental” and “inherent” deficiencies were to be prevented or minimised.

Nor did the countless number of Nazism's victims arouse much sympathy in certain circles. In a typical display of insensitivity, the British right-wing philosopher, social critic, admirer of Hitler, and anti-Semite, Anthony Mario Ludovici, resurrected a familiar phrase in 1961, when he wrote:

Men must learn again to feel in their hearts contempt and repugnance for biological depravity; and when this lesson has been learnt and the taste displayed in mating correspondingly chastened, there will be no need to argue over the pros and cons of a lethal chamber for human rubbish, for morbidity and defect will insensibly and inevitably diminish to the extent of ceasing to be a social problem.[1194]

Fifty years after its first appearance, George Bernard Shaw's “lethal chamber” was back in vogue. Having enjoyed a measure of repute with his earlier works, passages such as the above thankfully hastened Ludovici's rapid decline into post-war obscurity.

In many of the countries that had been occupied by Germany during the Second World War, questions of the “quality” of children resulting from the union of German fathers and native mothers were raised, based upon dubious concepts such as “blood”, “nation” and “race”. The same kind of eugenic and racially hygienic thinking common to the Nazi regime became fashionable. In Norway, the discredited concept of “feeble-mindedness” again appeared, with the suggestion that the children of such couplings were in some way mentally and morally deficient. A report written by a respected Norwegian psychiatrist as late as 1999 presumed that among the mothers of these children of mixed nationalities would be found

. . . a disproportionate number of feeble minded persons, in addition to some asocial psychopaths – partly insane. These persons have defective minds that for a great part must be considered hereditary, and there is some risk that these hereditary dispositions will become manifest in their offspring.

Supposed “feeble-mindedness” was considered a major social problem in Norway both before and after the Second World War, with the result that, just as in Nazi Germany, eugenic methods such as sterilisation and the internment of so-called “inferior” individuals were adopted as remedies for the perceived malady. It was reasoned that as a consequence of the mother's lax morals and intellectual deficiency, the child carried a fundamental hereditary flaw, which might manifest itself sometime in the future by the child adopting a Nazi mentality. This professional assessment of the children was clearly based upon eugenic ideas of both racial and mental hygiene. Being labelled “feeble-minded” became an immense burden for these children. Some were ostracised by their teachers, who seemed to assume that trying to teach them was a waste of time. No attempt at rational diagnosis was made; children simply received the impression that they were somehow intellectually inferior, and that this in one way or another related to their parentage. As a result of this application of eugenic theory, many of these children have spent the rest of their lives struggling against a deep-rooted sense of inferiority.[1195]

In Germany itself, the post-war treatment of so-called “occupation” children was another example of the continued application of the principles of racial hygiene in a non-National Socialist environment. About 5,000 children were born to German mothers and black American GI fathers. These so-called Mischlingskinder (how familiar that term sounds) presented a whole series of problems. What was their nationality? Were they really German, American, perhaps even African? Scientific expertise was needed in order to assess the biological and mental state of the children, to predict how they were likely to adapt to society in the future and how they were to be educated. An extensive testing programme was carried out, much of which simply replicated pre-war Nazi psychological and anthropological eugenic assumptions. Paradoxically, some children achieved extraordinarily high test results, leaving those conducting the tests with the task of explaining the theoretically inexplicable.

Two conflicting ideas of the manner in which these children were to be treated emerged. One suggestion was that in order to protect them from prejudice, the children be sent for adoption in some suitable foreign country – a variation on the Nazi practice of deportation of the undesirable. The other, more humane proposal, was that it was time for the German nation to come to terms with its racist past. In what was surely a supreme example of irony, just as the Nazis had used the media so extensively to promote their theories of “Aryan” supremacy, a wide-ranging public campaign was launched which sought to educate the German public about the virtues of handling the “problem” of Mischlingskinder with compassion. Unfortunately, the films, books, and pamphlets that were produced for the campaign do not appear to have served their intended purpose; instead, they may have promoted existing racial prejudice and stereotyping.[1196]

* * *

The year 2009 saw the commemoration of both the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origins of Species, events celebrated by a seemingly endless series of newspaper and magazine articles, books, films, and radio and television programmes. The Royal Mail produced a special series of colourful postage stamps illustrating Darwin's contributions to zoology, ornithology, geology, botany, and anthropology. The Royal Mint struck a commemorative two pound coin bearing the image of Darwin staring down a chimpanzee. Considered by all except the most blinkered creationists as one of the most important and influential of scientific minds, Darwin's legacy continues to impinge upon all of our lives every day, and in many different ways.

In 1909, the centenary of Darwin's birth involved commemoration in a commensurate, if naturally technologically somewhat different manner. The great and the good gathered at Cambridge University on 22-24 June of that year to honour Darwin's memory and his immense contribution to scientific knowledge. Among them was the ex-Prime Minister, Arthur James Balfour, who in a speech delivered at a celebratory banquet, said, inter alia:

…The problem of life, is the one which it is impossible for us to evade, which it may be impossible for us ultimately to solve, but in dealing with it in its larger manifestations Charles Darwin made greater strides than any man in the history of the world had made before him.

Or since, many would suggest. Notwithstanding the fulsomeness of his praise, Balfour did not overlook the consequences of Darwin's hypothesis:

From the very nature of the case his great generalisation, from the very fact of its magnitude, produced, as was inevitable, violent controversy, and human nature in 1859 and 1860 was not different from human nature in 1909, and violent controversy then, as now, was prolific, and must be prolific, in misrepresentation.

It is not hindsight alone that leads to the conclusion that so far as both human nature and misrepresentation are concerned, nothing much has changed in the one hundred years since Balfour spoke.

At the same centennial banquet, Darwin's son, William Erasmus, provided a glimpse of his father's character:

I have been thinking over the characteristics of my father which are quite apart from the qualities on which his influence and his success as a man of science depended, and I think the quality which stands out in my mind most pre-eminently is his abhorrence of anything approaching to oppression or cruelty, and especially of slavery; combined with this he had an enthusiasm for liberty of the individual and for liberal principles.[1197]

What then would Darwin make of the abuses of the 20th century carried out, in large part, in his name? If his ideas had provided the anlage from which much that followed was derived, it is safe to say he would have been appalled at the manner in which the research to which he had devoted most of his life and the science which bore his name came to be exploited by so many men who were his intellectual and moral inferiors. The mutation of Darwinism into its so-called “social” application, thence to racial hygiene, eugenics, and eventually genocide, would doubtless have been anathema to him . But once out, there was no forcing the genie of Darwinism back into the bottle. Like other groundbreaking scientific studies, it was exploited by ruthless and callous men for the greater good of a powerful few, rather than the benefit of the powerless many. The inevitable conclusion must be that if he was personally largely blameless for the subsequent excesses of those who so devalued his conclusions in the interests of racial and political dominance, and whose excrescence reached its apotheosis with the policies and actions of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, Darwin's findings laid the foundation for many of the evils of the century that followed the publication of his dissertations. For even he was not immune to making what would today be considered, at the very least, highly contentious observations of a kind that were to prove a justification for the stratagems of despots such as Hitler. “We civilized men”, Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man,

…build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.[1198]

He did not suggest the alternative to such humanitarianism. Those who came after him were not so reticent. Nor, despite his abhorrence of slavery, did Darwin refrain from endorsing the quintessential Victorian view of the inferiority of non-European races. “The breath of civilization” was “poisonous to savages,” he wrote in a note. In another passage in The Descent of Man, he described the death of natives in British colonies as the inevitable concomitant to the advance of that civilization, a consequence which endorsed his theory of natural selection. It was an attitude that did nothing to curb the growth of social Darwinism with all that pernicious myth was to entail.[1199] In short, in common with the rest of humanity, Darwin was a mass of contradictions, a man typical in many ways of his times.

* * *

Nazi eugenics sought to create a world based upon a nihilistic vision of inequality, persecution and thanatology. It made much of Europe a necropolis, and had ambition to extend that empire of death to the rest of the globe. That it ultimately failed in its objectives is a cause for rejoicing. But our celebration should be muted. For, whilst it would be comforting to end on a note of optimism, to at least hope that something of lasting value has been absorbed from the abominations of the past, that racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination and all of the other iniquities implicit in Nazi eugenics were banished with its demise, a glance at any newspaper or television bulletin shows that this is sadly not the case. We have to acknowledge that despite the nobility of the sentiment, all men (and women) are not created equal nor, despite Rousseau's famous pronouncement, are they all born free. We are not all equally intelligent, equally physically able, or equally artistically talented, whilst freedom remains a tantalising mirage for millions. It is unrealistic to think otherwise. Nazism sought to exploit many of these individual disparities in the name of eugenics. Whilst continuing to recognize the essential veracity of Darwin's findings, we should by now have learned to acknowledge and respect such differences rather than abusing them. But it is all too evident that we have not.

It goes without saying that the one undeniable equality we should all share is the equal right to live our lives in peace, to seek happiness and fulfilment as we individually characterize those otherwise indefinable objectives, free to pursue whatever talents we may possess without fear of prejudice or persecution on the grounds of race, religion, disability or any other perceived “inferiority”, still less out of any deemed “economic necessity”. If this in its own way is as Panglossian a vision as that of eugenicists like Jenõ Vámos, it is surely one that we should always keep before us.


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