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The Nazi Persecution of Deaf People Browse

The Nazi Persecution of Deaf People—Panel: Patricia Heberer


National Socialist Germany has been called “the racial state.” Nazi ideology identified Jews and Gypsies living inside and outside the Reich borders as foreign and parasitic elements which threatened the German body politic, while Nazi policy singled them out on biological bases for discrimination and destruction. Yet even within the German racial community there were those who were perceived to constitute a biological and economic danger: the “hereditarily compromised,” the “asocial,” and the “unproductive,” please see those words in quotes, who ostensibly made no significant contribution to society and whose existence placed a genetic and financial burden upon the state. Throughout the 12 years in which the Nazi party held power in Germany, National Socialists, political, civil, and medical authorities targeted individuals suffering from hereditary and congenital diseases, persons with disabilities, and institutionalized patients, for discrimination, anti-natal measures, and even for death. Where members of the deaf community fell within these parameters as persons with perceived hereditary disabilities, or as persons living in institutions in custodial settings, they figured as victims of radical medical and public health strategies. Targeting persons with disabilities began in the early months of the Nazi dictatorship, when a rapid synchronization of the medical and juridical communities, as well as that of the civil bureaucracy, ensured that eugenic theories, which Dr. Rosenhaft has just spoken about, embedded in National Socialist policy, or rather ideology, translated into state-sponsored measures. By early June 1933, less than six months after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, members of an Expert Advisory Council on Questions of Population and Racial Policy, formed at the invitation of the Ministry of the Interior, began to fashion a new population policy. A comprehensive strategy of gene and race cultivation was envisioned. At its core stood measures intended to advance the reproductive capacity of racially and genetically healthy Germans and to proscribe the propagation of the hereditarily compromised. On 14 July 1933 with the encouragement of the Advisory Council, the Hitler cabinet approved the Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary diseases, which ordered the compulsory sterilization of persons with certain afflictions. Five of the diseases specifically designated in the ordinance represented psychiatric or neurological disorders, including schizophrenia, manic depressive or bipolar disorder, hereditary epilepsy, Huntington’s chorea, and hereditary feeblemindedness. Physical conditions which warranted sterilization under the new legislation were congenital blindness, congenital deafness, serious physical deformity, and severe alcoholism. Medical professionals, including physicians, dentists, nurses, and midwives, were now duty-bound to report patients with these illnesses or disabilities in the exercise of their office. Directors of hospitals, mental institutions, schools, prisons, workhouses, and concentration camps also proposed candidates for sterilization. Denunciation by ordinary persons was not uncommon yet the overwhelming number of proposals dispatched to the new sterilization courts came from the state medical offices, which received and compiled information from physicians, social workers, and public welfare agencies. Once a proposal to sterilize an individual had been advanced from one of these places, the suit came before a special hereditary health court, each comprised of two physicians and one jurist. By 1936 more than 250 of these courts had been established throughout Germany. When proceedings commenced, the court could call any witness it chose, including the defendant’s physician, thus striking down the privilege of doctor-patient confidentiality. If the decision of the court were for sterilization, the potential victim had only four weeks in which to appeal the verdict. In the absence of such an appeal, or if the higher court turned down a standing appeal, the implementing decree for the 1933 law demanded execution of the sterilization procedure within two weeks time. Paragraph 12 of the law sanctioned the use of force on unwilling victims. Those who attempted to circumvent the procedure were delivered under police guard to the hospital in question. The new law took effect in January 1934, and its effect was immediate, with 388,400 proposals for sterilization advanced in the first year alone. The flood of petitions from medical authorities and other sources created an immediate backlog of active cases so that the hereditary health courts managed to adjudge only 84,000 of these suits in the first 12 months of the law’s application. Of these, the overwhelming number of cases, or 92 percent of them, were approved. Reliable statistics exist for the first years, only for the first years, of the sterilization program, yet it is clear that the number of cases brought before hereditary health courts in subsequent years closely matched 1934 figures. The most careful study of available data suggests that from 1 January 1934 until war’s end in May 1945, some 400,000 Germans were forcibly sterilized under the terms of the Nazi sterilization law. This figure does not include the number, in thousands, of Gypsies, Jews, Poles, and other victims, sterilized extra-legally in the Nazi concentration camps during the war. Who were the victims of Nazi sterilization policy? Naturally, the majority were those who suffered from illnesses or diseases outlined in the law. For the first year the measure was in place a breakdown of sterilization cases by disease is available. Such statistics illustrate that congenital feeblemindedness and schizophrenia, 52.9 percent and 25.4 percent respectively, represented the chief bases for sterilization. Those individuals suffering from hereditary epilepsy comprised another 14 percent of compulsory procedures, while manic-depressive disorder and chronic alcoholism combined to make up another 5.6 percent of sterilization victims. Those physical disorders outlined in the legislation comprised a small percentage of sterilization cases, with congenital blindness at 0.6 percent, severe physical deformity at 0.3 percent, and the rare disease Huntington’s chorea at 0.2 percent. Persons suffering from congenital or hereditary deafness account for 1 percent of compulsory sterilizations, at least in this initial period. These figures clearly indicate a preponderance of enforcement of sterilization policies in instances of mental illness. Likewise they demonstrate that those disorders whose definition implied a certain elasticity in application allowed inclusion of a broader range of victims. Nowhere was this more true than in the case of hereditary feeblemindedness, whose ambiguous definition permitted physicians and psychiatrists to include not only those diagnosed as mentally retarded or learning impaired, but also the socially aberrant, or those who National Socialist medical officials deemed asocial: vagrants, prostitutes, sexually promiscuous women, especially if these had had more than one illegitimate child, the petty criminal, the querulous neighbor, the juvenile delinquent who experienced trouble with police authorities or school authorities. Sterilization was not the only manner in which Nazi officials attempted to marginalize the hereditarily ill and disabled and to prevent their offspring. Parallel to the infamous Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, one of the so-called Nuremberg laws of 1935, the Marital Health Law of October 1935 prohibited the marriage of, quote, “diseased, inferior, or dangerous genetic material with those of superior material”, end quote. Just as the aforementioned blood protection law banned marriage or sexual contact between German Aryans and Jews, the Marital Health Law forbade marriage between consenting adults if either partner suffered from mental illness or chronic alcoholism, had an hereditary disease, such as epilepsy, hereditary or congenital deafness or blindness, or if one of the affianced stood under legal guardianship on medical grounds. Likewise, permission to marry might be denied if either party had a serious contagious disease, such as tuberculosis or venereal disease. Before marriage, German couples had to prove that no such impediment existed by obtaining a certificate of marital fitness. Individuals refused such a certificate could appeal to their local health courts but those who violated the final decision of health authorities by marrying without certification could be sentenced to prison. With the prohibition of marriage for the biologically deficient, anti-natal policies against the disabled had come full circle. On 31 August 1939, on the eve of the Polish campaign, which launched World War II, the National Socialist leadership issued a decree which effectively dismantled the bureaucratic apparatus implementing the marital health law and which limited compulsory sterilizations to cases, quote, “with particularly great danger in propagation,” end quote. In part, German authorities may have initiated a scaling back of the sterilization measure in order to secure public support for the regime in the upcoming conflict. The Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases had proven genuinely unpopular, especially in Catholic circles. Sterilization policy, and the cumbersome procedures attendant to the Marital Health Law likewise drained vital human resources—doctors, jurists, and civil officials—which were now needed for the war effort. Yet perhaps the deceleration of these efforts may have also figured as a component in the decision to achieve the same public health goals by more radical means. By diverting medical professionals and administrators from this halted sterilization campaign, the way was now clear to extend Nazi eugenic measures against the “genetically unfit” to their logical conclusion: to the killing of the institutionalized mentally and physically handicapped. The so-called “Euthanasia Program”, please see that in quotes, was the National Socialist regime’s first campaign of mass murder, preceding the “Final Solution,” or Shoah, by approximately two years. More radical, certainly, than the sterilization measure, the euthanasia effort aimed at freeing the nation’s genetic and economic resources from the drain of the severely mentally and physically ill and was thus in keeping both with Nazi racial policy as well as with its utilitarian doctrine. Institutionalized patients, especially the mentally ill, were the targets of Nazi propaganda throughout the 1930s, and drastic cuts in the care of the handicapped in state institutions preceded the wholesale murder of these individuals. In the spring months of 1939, euthanasia strategists, led by Philipp Bouhler, the director of Hitler’s private chancellery, and Karl Brandt, Hitler’s attending physician, organized a child euthanasia campaign through which at least 5,000 physically and mentally handicapped children were murdered through starvation or lethal overdose. By 1940, an adult killing operation paralleled the murder of disabled infants and toddlers. Codenamed Operation T-4, the effort took its name from the street address of its central office in Berlin’s Tiergartenstrasse. Utilizing a practice developed for the child Euthanasia Program, T-4 planners began in the autumn of 1939 to distribute carefully formulated questionnaires to all public health officials, to public and private hospitals, to mental institutions, and nursing homes for the chronically ill and aged. Limited space and wording on the form, as well as the instructions in the accompanying cover letter, combined to convey the impression that the survey was intended to gather statistical data. The form’s sinister purpose was suggested only by the emphasis which the questionnaire placed upon the person’s capacity to work and by the categories of individuals which the inquiry required health officials to identify: those suffering from schizophrenia, epilepsy, dementia, encephalitis, or other chronic psychiatric or neurological disorders; those not of German or related blood; the criminally insane; and those who had been confined to the institution for more than five years. At first, many directors and medical staff at German institutions appear to have filled out the registration forms without grasping their significance, yet it is apparent that the secret killing program quickly, as it quickly became public knowledge, most chief physicians and directors continued dutifully to fill out the paperwork even though they clearly knew the purpose of the form. The completed registration forms were reviewed by three especially appointed experts from the Euthanasia Program. In beginning, in January 1940, those persons selected for extermination, and whose names were confirmed by a central medical commission in Berlin, were transported to one of six killing centers throughout Germany and Austria. Within hours of their arrival, transports of patients selected for extermination were taken to a reception area where they were instructed to undress and received a superficial medical examination. Finally they were gassed in specially designed gas chambers. Despite elaborate efforts to conceal its deadly design, the Euthanasia Program quickly became an open secret. Fearing public unrest at a critical point in the war, Adolf Hitler himself gave orders to halt the T-4 program on 24 August 1941. According to T-4’s own internal calculations, 70,273 institutionalized mentally and physically handicapped persons perished at the six euthanasia facilities between January 1940 and August 1941. Yet Hitler’s order for the ending of the action did not mean an actual ending to the killing. The child euthanasia program continued throughout this so-called “euthanasia pause.” More significantly, a drive to reinitiate the public, excuse me, the adult euthanasia program crystallized in the summer of 1942 in a second murder phase whose perceived lack of coordinated activity led many scholars to label the period, inaccurately as it turns out, as the era of “mild euthanasia.” Although more decentralized than the initial Euthanasia Program, the renewed effort was still carefully choreographed in Berlin. There the Fuehrer Chancellery, the engine which drove the T-4 apparatus, continued to select, transport, and process its victims while local authorities determined the pace of the killings. Employing drug overdose and lethal injection as a more covert means of killing, the murderous machinery of Operation T-4 continued to claim victims at a number of custodial institutions throughout the Reich until the arrival of Allied troops in the spring of 1935. In all, historians estimate that some 200,000 to 250,000 institutionalized mentally and physically handicapped persons were murdered under the Euthanasia Program and its corollaries between 1939 and 1945. Deaf persons and persons with hearing disabilities were among those caught up in T-4’s web of destruction. The deaf were, of course, not the Euthanasia Program’s chief targets. Most deaf persons in Germany lived outside institutional settings and I would like to stress that the victims of euthanasia policies were almost exclusively institutionalized patients. An obvious exception to this rule were deaf persons who could not or would not speak. The term then, inappropriately applied, was “deaf-mute.” Although otherwise physically and mentally unimpaired and generally able to work and function normally, such individuals were often erroneously categorized as mentally retarded because of their inability or unwillingness to speak. An unknown number of deaf persons, most of them patients in resident institutions for the deaf or deaf-mute, were murdered during Operation T-4. We do know that deaf persons figured in one of the few concrete acts of resistance concerning the euthanasia effort. This incident involved Swiss-born Heinrich Hermann, director of the Institute for the Deaf and Mute in Wilhelmsdorf near Ravensburg. Hermann had refused to return the original questionnaires which would have registered his patients for the euthanasia program. In such instances, T-4 planners were able to circumvent such non-compliance by dispatching traveling physicians to institutions to complete the necessary forms. 18 of Hermann’s charges ultimately perished at the Hadamar gassing installation in 1941. Thereafter, however, Hermann defied all further attempts to select patients at his facility for murder. Heinrich Hermann was one of a small number of directors known to have successfully rebuffed T-4 officials. In doing so he maintained not only his sense of morality and civil courage but his position as well, serving as director of the Wilhelmsdorf institution until 1947. The Nazi persecution of the deaf and other disabled members of the German society based on medical grounds fit within an overarching framework of radical public health policies which aimed at proscribing hereditarily “unfit” Germans from the national community while diverting public and private monies earmarked for their maintenance to more genetically and racially deserving Germans. These genetic, or rather, eugenic strategies began with sterilization in the early years of the Nazi regime and escalated towards mass murder. The most extreme of these measures, the Euthanasia Program, was in itself a rehearsal for Nazi Germany’s genocidal policies. The ideological justification conceived by medical perpetrators for the destruction of the unfit were extended to other categories of biological enemies, most notably to Jews and Gypsies. The gas chamber and crematoria, specifically designed for the T-4 campaign, was later borrowed by the planners of the “Final Solution” to murder Jews in German-occupied territory. The camouflage techniques which lulled T-4 victims into a false sense of security before the very threshold of the gas chamber were rediscovered at Auschwitz. T-4 personnel manned the extermination camps of Sobibor and Treblinka. Compulsory sterilization, euthanasia, and the “Final Solution” were components of the same biomedical vision, which imagined a racially and genetically pure society and embraced unthinkable strategies to achieve its ends. 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.

Patricia Heberer, Historian, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum