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The Nazi Persecution of Deaf People Browse

The Nazi Persecution of Deaf People—Panel: Eve Rosenhaft


First of all, I’d like to thank the JDC and the Museum for giving me the opportunity to give this talk. I’ve had a chance with the help of Simon Carmel to learn about something which I hadn’t paid much attention to before, namely, the situation of the deaf in Nazi Germany. To be deaf and Jewish in Nazi Germany was to be under a dual threat. Under Hitler, the German state was the most ruthlessly antisemitic regime in modern history, but the Nazis were not only determined to remove Jews from German society, they also presided over a comprehensive program for transforming that society. They pictured the German nation as an organic whole, using the term “national body.” The strength of this “national body” could be maintained only by controlling the bodies of every individual within it. Physical and mental health were to be promoted. All forms of disability had to be eliminated. This was the practical application of the principles known as “eugenics.” Both of these policies, antisemitism and eugenics, were embedded in a wider worldview. This view saw human history as a history of conflict between societies and it defines “societies,” using the language of biology, as races. The Nazis thought that these races of mankind were not morally equal, some were better than others. At the top stood the Nordic, or Aryan race, represented by the Germans, and they could only survive and fulfill their historical mission by multiplying, conquering new territories, and subjecting other peoples to their domination. None of these policies was invented by the Nazis. In one form or another, the ideas behind them were shared by many people in Europe and America in the early 20th century. What was unique to Germany between 1933 and 1945 was the literalness, the tenacity, with which the Nazi state tried to turn racial fantasies into reality. Patricia Heberer will be talking in detail about the persecution of disabled people, programs of compulsory abortion, sterilization, and euthanasia, or what’s known as “negative eugenics.” I will talk about the persecution of Jews, but at the same time I hope I can give you a sense of how both persecutions were related to each other and I hope I can give you a feel for the logic of policy in what has been called the Nazi “racial state.” I’ll start by looking at the history of Nazi policies. I’ve said that the Nazis didn’t invent the ideas that underlay their treatment of Jews and the disabled. They inherited the notions of race and eugenics from thinkers of the 19th century. Proponents of the science of race argued that different groups of people were inherently different from one another, and especially that some groups were permanently less developed or more primitive than others. This was an idea that helped to justify the process of imperial expansion as white Europeans came into contact with, and conquered, people who had dark skin and unfamiliar customs. It was also used to justify slavery in the United States, and after slavery was abolished, it was used to justify the denial of rights to African Americans. When anthropology became a field of study in universities in the 1860s and 1870s a large group of anthropologists spent their time measuring physical differences among people, trying to relate those physical differences to qualities like intelligence and ability to be civilized. Within white society, too, things were changing in the 1800s. As industry developed, people from different places came together. A new and strange kind of culture seemed to be developing. The big cities were full of immigrants and workers whose allegiance to the existing social and political order was uncertain. In the late 1800s cities looked like a kind of dark continent in themselves; breeding grounds for crime and disease where civilization could be swamped by the return of the primitive. Social scientists and policemen looking for ways to understand and fight crime developed the fields of biological and anthropological criminology, dominated by theories that criminals represented a kind of throwback to more primitive human types where the criminality could be inherited. The diagnosis was that the white race was in danger of degenerating. The cure was eugenics. The word “eugenics” was introduced by the English naturalist and mathematician Francis Galton in 1881. It referred to the policy of improving the physical and mental health of the population by discouraging or preventing people who were genetically weak or degenerate from having children and fostering people who had healthy characteristics. It’s clear then that Germans were not unique in embracing eugenics in the 20th century. The United States was regarded by Europeans as being in the forefront of the study and implementation of eugenics, and the negative eugenic policies of sterilizing criminals and mental “defectives” were being practiced in some American states well before Hitler came to power. After the war, the German authorities refused to compensate many victims of sterilization for their suffering and this was the argument they used: even negative eugenics was a normal policy tool everywhere in the 1920s and 1930s so it wasn’t the same as racial persecution, therefore it wasn’t a crime. Positive eugenics included measures to promote public health and to assist the creation of healthy families and this was supported by intellectuals, medical professionals, and social workers from across the whole political spectrum in the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Germany pioneered the creation of public health clinics, sex education, and the dissemination of birth control information, and most of the people involved in this movement saw themselves as working in the name of eugenics. I’ve gone into some detail about the background to racial and eugenic thinking in order to make it clear how Nazi policies could appear at first as familiar and even attractive. The first measures introduced by the Nazis looked like positive eugenics. In 1933, a system of marriage loans was introduced. Working couples who wanted to marry and start a family were offered grants of money to buy furniture on the condition that the wife gave up her job and became a full-time mother. For each child born to the couple, one-fourth of the grant would be written off. They wouldn’t have to pay it back. While it promoted large families, the Nazi regime also assisted them by expanding programs for the care of mothers and children. In order to qualify for a marriage loan, though, a couple had to undergo a medical examination which would determine whether they were genetically fit to marry and have children, and this was the beginning of the process of selection which would make those who failed the test victims of negative eugenics. The Marital Health Law of October 1935 ordered that all Germans who wanted to marry must be medically examined and it banned marriages between healthy individuals and those who were carriers of diseased, inferior, or dangerous genetic material. People who were denied the right to marry became candidates for sterilization. Even negative eugenics could be given a positive spin under National Socialism. Eugenics was always associated with the idea of national efficiency. It wasn’t for the sake of personal happiness that individuals should be made and kept healthy, but so that they could be productive and make a contribution to the social and economic well-being of the nation. Once the welfare state began, keeping the population healthy also meant keeping down public spending. Nazism gave its own emphasis to this idea. It insisted on the duty of all Germans to work, and you may remember that the slogan on the gate of many concentration camps was “Arbeit Macht Frei,” Work will make you free. Nazism also required all citizens to use their bodies in active service to the nation. Men should be soldiers. Women should be mothers. This call to duty was often combined with the glorification of physical self-sacrifice, so people who were unable to perform military service, to die on the battlefield for Germany, might convince themselves that being sterilized was a patriotic thing to do. Certainly some disabled Nazis, including deaf people, used this argument. The image of disabled people calling on other disabled people to sacrifice themselves for the good of the nation is a good illustration of the two-faced nature of the Nazi system. It held out the utopian promise of a society free of crime and deviance, in which everybody was guaranteed good health, productive work, and a secure family life. And this was a promise that people wanted to believe, but in practice the system treated people as infinitely deployable and dispensable as objects. This applied first to those who were declared unworthy, or outsiders, in one way or another. The criminal law was changed to deny the right of due process to political opponents, and even to common criminals, to legalize arbitrary arrests and preventive detention. From 1935 on, certain categories of criminals were officially treated as racially undesirable. Prostitutes, vagrants, and other so-called asocials, including Roma, or Gypsies, were taken off the streets and sent to prisons or camps indefinitely and without the right to appeal. Homosexuals, whose lifestyle contradicted both criminal law and the racial duty to produce children, were hounded and arrested. But in principle, everybody was at the mercy of the system of selection, and if they fell into the hands of the authorities, the agencies of the state—and the Nazi party—could use them pretty much as they pleased. It was from managing these thousands of ordinary captives that the concentration camp system was set up right at the beginning of the regime in 1933. Summary arrests, preventive detention, forced labor, compulsory therapy or reeducation, sterilization, deportation, human experiments, murder to order. Many people suffered one or more of these from 1933–1945, and some suffered all of them, enduring years of abuse and exploitation in a number of camps and detention centers before they died of disease or exhaustion, or were killed. Just as they had common ideological roots, policies on race and heredity, crime prevention and punishment, and the treatment of people deemed alien to the national body, had a common home within the machinery of the Nazi state. The Reich Main Security Office, under the SS leader Heinrich Himmler, coordinated police services. But it also had sections which were responsible for labor camps and concentration camps; the prosecution of habitual criminals and homosexuals; examining and categorizing people like Gypsies, who were regarded as aliens; and for developing the use of gas for killing. It was in a sub-department of the Reich Main Security Office too that Adolf Eichmann had his department for planning the “Final Solution” to the so-called Jewish question. Many, perhaps most Jewish victims who were deaf, suffered first as Jews and it’s with that aspect of the Nazi racial state that I want to end the presentation. The rise of racial thinking in the 19th century added a new dimension to what was an old idea: antisemitism. The suspicion of and discrimination against Jews had been well established in Christian Europe since the Middle Ages but by the mid-1800s Jews in western Europe came to be seen, and to see themselves, as full citizens and participants in the national cultures of their home countries. German Jews gained full civil rights under the Constitution of the Empire in 1871. But the 1880s witnessed a new wave of antisemitism all over Europe. In the new antisemitism Jews were blamed not for killing Christ, but for all the ills of industrial society, including both capitalism and socialism. Another thing that was new about this antisemitism was the explanation of why the Jews were as they were, and this was an explanation provided by racial thinking. Traditional Christian antisemitism had been based on religion, and implied the hope that Jews would convert and so stop being Jews. The new antisemitism proposed that the Jews were born different, that their qualities were in their nature or their blood, and could not be erased by any act of will or law. Jews were now the enemy not of Christianity but of the Nordic race or the German nation. A good example of the pseudo-scientific blending of racism and antisemitism is the work of Houston Stewart Chamberlain who argued, in 1899, that the Jewish people made a positive contribution to history by being the first to apply the principles of genetic purity. This was his interpretation of the Halakic rules of membership of the Jewish community. But he also described the Jews as the main competitor with the Germanic race in the struggle for domination for western civilization. Chamberlain met Adolf Hitler in 1923. He admired Hitler and Hitler was one of Chamberlain’s biggest fans. The late 19th century wave of antisemitism seemed to have died away by the outbreak of World War I, but the ideas remained, and they became the basis for Hitler’s own thinking and for the policies of the Nazi party from the 1920s on. Once Hitler was in power it became possible to put them into practice. If Jewishness was a matter of blood or genes, then intermarriage or sexual contact between Jews and non-Jews was a threat to national integrity. The blood of the national body might be diluted or polluted, and Nazi propaganda often accused Jews of deliberately trying to undermine Germany by seducing non-Jews. In 1935, shortly before the Marital Health Law brought in general restrictions on marriage, the Nuremberg Laws were introduced. The Nuremberg laws denied citizenship to Jews and at the same time prohibited marriage and sexual relations between Germans and people of alien blood. This first meant Jews, although later it was said that Roma (Gypsies) and blacks were also of alien blood. Later laws defined who counted as a Jew, a half-Jew, or a quarter-Jew, and made rules about whom people with different proportions of Jewish blood could marry. Because these rules firmly identified the bodies of Jews as a threat, they implied that Jews had to be physically removed from the national body one way or another. Even before the race laws were introduced, the Nazi state began a campaign of discrimination against Jews. In the first year of Nazi rule a boycott of Jewish businesses was ordered. Jews were removed from civil and public service and forced out of clubs and associations. The first direct experience of persecution for many deaf Jews in Germany may have been their expulsion from the German National Association for the Deaf in August 1933. In the years that followed, Jews were excluded from a wide range of professions and occupations, forbidden to attend theaters, and forced to take on the names “Israel” and “Sara.” Jewish children were forced out of public schools. The pogrom of November 9th and 10th, 1938 was the first large scale act of open violence against Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses. It also involved the first mass arrests of Jewish men and their detention in concentration camps. The pogrom led to the seizure of Jewish property on a large scale and the final exclusion of Jews from economic life. In 1939, the separation and stigmatization of Jews within German society was intensified. Unemployed Jews, denied welfare benefits, were forced to work. Jewish families were forced to move into houses and streets reserved for them. This policy of creating ghettos was applied even more ruthlessly in Poland after the outbreak of war in September 1939, and it was there that the yellow star was introduced to definitively set Jews apart from non-Jews; a visible sign of an invisible difference. German Jews were required to wear the star from September 1941 on. By that time, Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, beginning a war of destruction against the combined racial and political enemy, Jewish Bolshevism. The systematic mass murder by shooting of Jews, along with intellectuals, political enemies, and Roma, had begun, and by the end of 1941 the first of the camps designed expressly for killing were being built. Jewish emigration from Germany was stopped. Those who had not been able to emigrate, just over 200,000 of the original half million or so German Jews, were all subject to forced labor as they awaited deportation to the ghettos and camps in the east. In early 1943, the last Jews who had not been able to go underground were deported from Germany. At the end of the war about one-ninth of the original population of German Jews was still alive in Europe. As is well known, the toll of Jewish dead overall was between 5 and 6 million, and this included some 90 percent of Polish Jews. Of the Jewish victims of the Nazi racial state, at least 6,500, and probably many more, were deaf. Thank you.

The members of this panel discussed the Nazi persecution of deaf people, including Nazi policies against them, the “racial science” used by the Nazis to justify this persecution, and the experiences of deaf survivors. Each panelist made a 20-minute presentation, followed by interviews with two survivors, conducted by Dr. Simon J. Carmel, Professor of History, Rochester Institute of Technology.

Eve Rosenhaft, Reader, Department of German, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, and Charles H. Revson Foundation Fellow, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum