Last night, as part of the BBC’s fantastic Olympic coverage, a short documentary was shown on nature versus nurture and the triumph of black athletes in the face of racism and oppression, competing in the men’s 100 metres for the past 100 years.
I’d missed the beginning but tweeted about eugenics and the abhorrent practices of this philosophy. It was touted as science and the origins of the T4 Euthanasia project began as a way of cleansing German society of “undesirable” disabled German children. Most shocking to me is that the killing began after the parents of a severely disabled boy had written to Hitler seeking permission to kill their “defective” son and he had agreed.
Then I started receiving tweets from those who hadn’t missed the start of the film but who were shocked that this part of disability history had been overlooked.
I was able to see the film in its entirety on iPlayer. I was deeply moved by the beauty of the film, by the celebration of the athletes who struggled and who triumphed against unbelievable odds of discrimination.
Unbelievably to me though, in the section of the documentary detailing the atrocities of the Nazi Eugenics regime, disabled people had been excluded from mention. The list rightly detailed Roma, the ‘promiscuous’, gay people, communists and Jewish people but the hundreds of thousands of disabled men women and children were ignored.
This is the BBC. They have at their disposal archives and resources far in excess of mine however this untold and shameful aspect of the Holocaust isn’t often spoken about. There was no one to speak out for disabled people when their extermination was permitted, but this should make us more determined that their murders should never be forgotten, because it is from the secret legacy of the past that we gain a glimpse of the future.
As the Nazi stranglehold on Germany rolled forward, on the 14th of July 1933 the Law for the prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases made sterilization of disabled people compulsory.
The Nazis so enamoured by their myth of racial purity were also terrified by the notion that disabled people were thriving and would eventually dominate, thereby “polluting” the gene pool and exterminating their myth of perfection. Using Social Darwinism in its most sickening form they began to murder disabled children by lethal injection. This was a slow process, so they perfected a method of gassing children and the mobile gas vans began rolling up to the institutions and sanatoriums special schools and clinics. Parents whose disabled children lived at home were lied to. They were told their children were going to receive dedicated treatment to help them.
Estimates suggest that 5000 disabled children were murdered in total.
Later doctors and midwives were instructed that all new disabled babies had to be registered. With a tick chart doctors would decide which babies would live and which would die. This was expanded to adults and encompassed those considered to be “feebleminded”. Originally meant to describe mental illness the criteria was further expanded.
Some records show that more than 200,000 disabled people were murdered in the Holocaust but the official record keeping halted when Hitler ended the programme after it became more widely known and objected to. However the killings continued in secret.
There is however one notorious hospital which was officially sanctioned by the Nazis. Mentally ill people entered the sanatorium at Hadamar and never left. Its secret history estimates that 10,000 psychiatric patients were murdered here.
In the war trials that followed seven staff members were tried for killing Russian and Polish soldiers and the evidence that was revealed finally told the hideous truth about the “special measures” reserved for those disabled people who did not fit with societal norms.
This truth was released as deliberate propaganda being promoted in newspapers and in schools. German children were taught to hate in their lessons. A typical mathematical question posed to millions of German children would be how much it might cost for a disabled person who didn’t work and occupied a hospital bed when there wasn’t enough money for wounded soldiers or new homes to be built. Ad campaigns featuring pictures of disabled people asked “why should disabled people take bread from decent non-disabled German mouths?”
A quote from the Holocaust memorial website details the responses from the disabled children when the soldiers came for them. Children who had down syndrome, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, were blind deaf or learning disabled were terrified.
“Although these experts did not actually see or examine the children concerned they made decisions marking a plus or a minus sign on the reports. A plus sign meant that the child was to be murdered. The children singled out for extermination were then transferred to special wards in hospitals and clinics where they were murdered. The sanatorium at Hadamar received such children. A sister who worked at a children’s home, run by nuns, remembered the day Nazi officials took the children away: Some of the patients hung on to the nuns for dear life. They felt what was happening… They cried and they screamed. Even the helpers and doctors cried. It was heartbreaking.”
The truth is this secret aspect of the Holocaust needs to be remembered.
If the BBC can’t manage to accept disabled people into its commenting on eugenics, I can only assume it’s through ignorance.
To me it’s simply a case of the most potent and enduring concept of memorial made more significant by last night’s omission. The disability history of the Holocaust the murder of those deemed sub human and marked out with a black triangle and selected for death must be remembered, otherwise this type of hatred will prosper and grow and rise again.
The phrase of the presenter who introduced the ‘nature versus nurture’ documentary detailing the horror of eugenics last night can also be applied to the secret history of disabled people who the makers of the film forgot.
“It’s a subject that doesn’t get raised very often, because, well, it just doesn’t.”