Götz Aly. Die Belasteten: 'Euthanasie' 1939–1945. Eine Gesellschaftsgeschichte. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2013. 348 pp. EUR 22.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-10-000429-1.
Reviewed by Warren Rosenblum (Webster University)
Published on H-Disability (August, 2015)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
Official policy in Germany prohibits publishing the names of persons murdered in the Nazi euthanasia program without the consent of the closest living relatives. Since tracking down family members is difficult, if not impossible, most historians refer to these victims with pseudonyms or first names followed by a letter. Even as the names of Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust are posted to online databases and publicly declaimed at remembrance ceremonies, so-called mental defectives murdered in the cause of racial purity remain largely anonymous. According to the director of the German Federal Archives, some families might feel compromised if knowledge of mentally disabled relatives was publicly available. The stigma of “degeneracy” is, evidently, alive and well.
Goetz Aly begins his history of Nazi euthanasia with a blistering attack on this policy of anonymity. Why should we honor the dubious concerns of (some) families above the moral obligation to remember the victims? By using their full names whenever possible, Aly hopes to “restore dignity” to individuals who were stripped of their personhood, condemned in secret proceedings, and subsequently mostly forgotten--even by their own families. Aly tries to give voice to the intellectually disabled and mentally ill patients who were targeted for death. He emphasizes the ambiguous role of parents: while some fought courageously to protect their children, others collaborated with the authorities. Most parents were remarkably passive. Aly is sympathetic to the difficult choices faced by poor families in particular, but he is unsparing in his account of how parents facilitated the machinery of genocide.
As both an accomplished journalist and an academically trained historian, Aly has a good eye for detail. A mentally disabled man momentarily escaped the transport, only to be found back in the asylum, calmly washing off the number on his hand that marked him for death. A girl on her way to the killing center scratched a hole through the paint on the bus window in order to peer out at the trees and houses. A doctor lured parents into giving up their child with false promises of a dangerous procedure that might improve her condition. A distraught father urged a doctor to sanction the murder of his disabled daughter because her “chronic suffering” was driving her mother “into the ground” (p. 154). A mother, rendered catatonic by the fire-bombing of Hamburg and the death of her child, was quickly labeled “incurably ill” and selected for murder (p. 260).
Aly’s arguments about the origins and the process of euthanasia in Germany are less startling, drawing mostly on his own pathbreaking work in the 1980s and 1990s. Like most historians, he believes that Hitler and a small circle of doctors were the principal architects of the killing project. As the killing expanded, however, medical professionals and caregivers all over Germany played a crucial role. The murders were an open secret, shrouded in euphemism and rarely discussed in public but essentially known to a vast number of people. Aly follows previous accounts in describing two stages to the killing campaigns: first, a centralized program of selection, transport, and gassing in designated “killing centers;” then, in the wake of protests, a decentralized system in which local asylums selected the victims and organized the murders themselves. Even after Hitler ordered a stop to the T-4 euthanasia program in 1941, Aly shows that the killing accelerated and encompassed an ever-wider spectrum of persons deemed chronically sick and unproductive. While the gas chambers were largely dismantled, and repurposed for the killing of Jews, persons with disabilities were murdered through starvation, neglect, and deadly or debilitating injections.
The killing functioned most seamlessly when parents and family members were out of the picture. Patients who were orphaned or abandoned by their families were clearly the most vulnerable. The perpetrators sought to keep worried parents at bay through deceit, threats, and incentives. Most parents were predisposed to accept the authority of doctors and asylum directors. They rarely argued with claims that separation was in the best interests of both the family and their offspring. Decades of eugenic propaganda conditioned parents to think of their disabled child as a “burden” to themselves and society. In the Third Reich, they feared the consequences of ignoring expert advice cloaked in the language of national duty. Many parents and siblings seem to have deluded themselves about the fate of their loved ones. They accepted the blithe assurances or outright lies of officials, neglecting to investigate matters for themselves. As Aly shows, the organizers of the euthanasia campaign depended upon this passivity. Where families fought energetically to save their relatives, they frequently succeeded. Rarely were ordinary Germans punished for intervening on behalf of their family members.
Aly departs from other accounts of the euthanasia program most clearly in his emphasis on the pragmatic, rational goals of the perpetrators. At times, this book echoes Aly’s earlier, controversial work on the Holocaust and the foundations of popular support for Nazi policy. In Hitler’s Beneficiaries, Aly argued that ordinary Germans stayed loyal to Hitler’s regime because of the material benefits accrued from foreign conquests and the pillaging of Jewish wealth. Here he argues that medical professionals and the families of disabled patients had material incentives for colluding in mass murder. Aly does not deny the importance of ideology--committed Nazis and zealous eugenicists loom large in his account--but he suggests that opportunism inspired action where ideological passion was insufficient. As the war dragged on, government officials were obsessed with finding more hospital beds and other facilities for injured soldiers and civilians. Bureaucrats like Herbert Linden (1899-1945), councilor in charge of state hospitals and nursing homes, were rewarded for shifting resources from the care of permanently disabled persons to the treatment of persons with good prospects for improvement. Under Linden’s leadership, tens of thousands of beds for persons with mental disabilities were repurposed for “more worthy” patients. A number of asylums were turned into educational centers. The wartime killing program targeted not just persons with genetic disabilities, but also elderly people with dementia and patients with mental illnesses triggered by the destruction and violence of the war. The focus of the program, in short, had moved beyond supposed threats to the racial health of the nation, as defined by Nazi and international eugenic ideology, and into the mass murder of ordinary citizens, the grandparents next door, some of whom had lived long and productive lives in the service of the fatherland.
Aly’s account is highly readable, suffused with moral energy, and mostly persuasive. If translated into English, it would make an excellent teaching tool and might reach a broad readership beyond academia. The major weakness is one that is familiar to readers of Aly’s past work: his maddening tendency to ignore other historians, particularly when they have challenged his interpretations, or, in his view, stolen his ideas. Incredibly, Aly never mentions the important contributions of the British historian Michael Burleigh and the American Henry Friedlander.
Burleigh’s book powerfully argues against the popular belief that Hitler’s stop order was a response to growing protests against the euthanasia campaign. Friedlander questions the idea that euthanasia was somehow cost-effective and therefore rational. Both historians cover the same terrain as Aly, sometimes using identical source material, and have been rightly praised for breaking new ground. Aly’s selective approach to historiography undermines the book’s usefulness to historians, although it remains an eloquent and important analysis of the origins of this genocide.
. Götz Aly, Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State (New York: Picador, 2008).
. Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: 'Euthanasia' in Germany, 1900-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).
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Warren Rosenblum. Review of Aly, Götz, Die Belasteten: 'Euthanasie' 1939–1945. Eine Gesellschaftsgeschichte.
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