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Nazi Persecution of the Disabled: Murder of the "Unfit" Browse

Patricia Heberer describes Nazi public health strategies


Very early in the Nazi dictatorship, political and medical authorities began to divide their community between its “fit” and “unfit” members, between their “valuable” and “un-valuable” members. And because so much of what it was to be “unfit” or “un-valuable” or “fit” and “valuable” rested on biomedical implications, the Nazis began relatively early during their regime to marshal a series of radical public health strategies to solve their difficulties with physically and mentally disabled persons in their communities, and also persons whom they construed to be hereditarily compromised by a variety of mental and physical afflictions. On July 14, 1933, the Hitler cabinet promulgated the Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases, the so-called sterilization law, which ordered the compulsory sterilization of individuals with certain afflictions. There were nine diseases or afflictions outlined in the law. Five of these were neurological or psychiatric disorders: hereditary epilepsy, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (what was then termed manic-depressive disorder), hereditary “feeblemindedness” (what today we might construe as mental retardation or learning disabilities, a wide range of mental problems, actually this was a very elastic, ambiguous definition for diagnosing various kinds of mental illnesses and disabilities), and finally the very rare neurological disease Huntington’s chorea. There were also four physical afflictions or disorders that were outlined in the law. Those were hereditary blindness, hereditary deafness, severe hereditary deformity, and finally chronic and severe alcoholism, which the Nazis believed had actually hereditary implications. Compulsory sterilization was in many ways the opening salvo for persons with physical and mental disabilities living in Nazi Germany. By 1935 and 1936, there was severe cost cutting across the boards for persons living in public institutions. By 1939, when the war began, voices within specifically the Nazi medical community were calling not only for the sterilization of persons with severe hereditary afflictions or living in institutional settings with mental and physical disabilities, but also to call actually for their eradication.

Patricia Heberer
Museum historian and subject matter expert [2002 interview]