A mass grave of disabled victims of the Holocaust was unearthed yesterday in Germany.
There are lots of important differences between Aktion T4 and what was experienced by Jewisah people and others. I think it is these differences, rather than the similarities, which provide the most important lessons about the more sinister aspects of disablism in society, as well as the ways in which we do have perhaps more power than other oppressed groups. I hate to be sensationalist about these things, and cry, "It's all going to happen again!" but it is a important part of World History and a very important part of the history of disabled people.
Meanwhile, most people I know think T4 is a Saturday Morning kids programme on Channel Four.
I’m sorry to do a list, but I wanted to write something about this, I still have only half a brain and a lot to be getting on with.
1. Disabled people went first. This was partly to do with opportunity; many disabled people, particularly those with mental ill health, intellectual or neurodevelopmental impairments, were already incarcerated in hospitals and asylums. The first victims of T4 did not need rounding up. Their location in medical institutions also provided the opportunity to experiment on efficient ways of dispossal.
2. Similar language to the language we use today around the abortion of foetuses likely to be born with impairments was employed in persuading parents to give up their disabled infant children. This is not a pro-life point, merely an acknowledgement that concepts around disability and suffering are very easily abused. Naturally, many parents fought very hard to save their children, even taking the family into hiding to keep them safe.
3. It was all above board. Hitler was usually careful not to give explicit written instructions for mass murder, but he made an exception with T4. There isn’t a nice way of saying “We’re going to kill the Jews,” but once again, terms like euthanasia and mercy killing can be wildly misinterpreted. It should be pointed out that despite this, the regime was not open about what they were doing; thousands of death certificates were forged citing natural causes of one sort or another and random ashes sent to loved-ones.
4. It could be, in a sense, relatively easy to rescue disabled people. Doctors had a great deal of power and some did save thousands simply adjusting a diagnosis, for example. Many of relatives of the disabled people in institutions removed their relations to care for them at home when it became clear that something very untoward was happening. However, the combination of disability and poverty was a pretty deadly one, as it can still be today.
5. The great thing about being disabled (and/ or gay, come to think of it) is that we are distributed fairly evenly throughout the population. Goebbels (as well as having no balls at all*) had clubfoot, which is both congenital and hereditary. Even Philipp Bouhler, the man in charge of Aktion T4 was described as ‘lame’ after injuries sustained in the First World War. I am sure there were quite a number of top Nazis who had some sort of impairment or other.
6. On a related note, the outbreak of war coincided with a curious rise in the number of disabled Germans (funny how that happens) . Since Nazi disablism was never really about genetic purity, people with acquired or non-hereditary impairments (like cerebral palsy and other forms of brain damage) had never been safe. However, the systematic killing of newly-disabled wounded soldiers would have been totally unacceptable and their existence probably contributed to the early cessation of the programme.
7. The T4 was also part of the Holocaust that was subject to significant vocal criticism within Germany at the time, particularly from the Churches, both Catholic and Protestant. When T4 was officially cancelled in 1941, four years before the end of the regime, it was Hitler’s explicit instruction to do no more to provoke the Churches. Disabled people would continue to die, but not in such a systematic way.
8. For this reason, even though disabled people were the very first victims of the Holocaust, a relatively small number of disabled people were killed just for being disabled, ‘just’ hundreds of thousands with hundreds of thousands more people forcibly sterilised. There would have been millions of disabled people in Germany and the occupied countries who escaped both sterilisation and death.
One doesn't need to point out that there were probably very many more disabled victims of the Holocaust among those targetted because of their religion, politic beliefs, ethnicity or sexuality.
9. Despite some sense that society actually saved its disabled people, there is some speculation that post-war trials were relatively lenient on those who committed crimes against disabled people as opposed to other groups, particularly where the victims were people with mental ill health, intellectual and neurodevelopmental impairments.
10. In a sense, the Nazi Regime had good reason to fear the crips, as it was two disabled people who eventually lead the Allies into victory against Nazi Germany, in the form of Winston Churchill, who had a speech impediment and depression and Roosevelt, who had post-polio syndrome and was a closet wheelchair-user.
On an only vagulely related note, the latest edition of the Disability Nation podcast features Diane Coleman, who helped to found Not Dead Yet. I still disagree with her, but it is a quite a powerful (if rather lengthy) interview.
* Goebbels did father children,thus proving that he had a pair. However there is some evidence to suggest that Hitler did indeed, only have one ball. Questionable, but not entirely inconceivable.