Friday, October 06, 2006

Ten Points about T4

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.


James Medhurst said...

What is also interesting is that a lot of the techniques later used to kill Jews, such as gassing, were first tried and 'perfected' on disabled people. Without knowing this, it is impossible to understand the Holocaust, whose history should begin in 1933, not in 1940.

kethry said...

the T4 programme, if i remember correctly, wasn't just about euthanasia. "See Hear", the deaf magazine programme produced by the BBC covered this a few years ago, looking at what happened to the deaf people in those countries in that era. Although some were killed under the T4 programme, many more were sterilised, particularly if they came from deaf families.

A thoroughly nasty and unpleasant time - one that everyone should be well educated on.

thanks for blogging about this..


Attila the Mom said...

Fabulous post!

I'm taking a public speaking class, and our next assignment is a persuasive speech. In our last class, we had to announce the general purpose of our upcoming speech to the rest of the class to get feedback.

One student has decided to persuade the class that people with mental illnesses and disabilities should be forcibly sterilized.

My mind just freaking boggles....

The Goldfish said...

Thanks folks. :-)

Yes, James, one does wonder. Had they not started killing the crips, had they not learnt about gassing when lethal injections became too dear, would they have actually thought to exterminate the Jews? I mean, persecute and enslave, but if they'd had to shoot or kill millions by lethal injection, would they have considered that viable?

Keth, yes, I understand that was the case. But the word euthanasia was used in the context of the killing programme; these days it is inconceivable to imagine "euthanising" a person because they were deaf - hearing people might not wish to become deaf but it's hardly a fate worse than death. But the term was used. And yes, I believe about twice the number of people who were killed were sterilised.

I do get the impression that the Nazis had a particular downer on Deaf people - whenever this is spoken about, deafness seems to get special mention. An issue slightly confused in my mind because some people talk about "Deaf people and disabled people," whereas to me, deaf people are disabled, in my understanding of the term. I realise that's an issue of controversy, but until we have consensus it can be confusing.

Attila, that is shocking but people remain incredibly ignorant. Regardless of the massive moral question, the objective of ending disability by ellimination is totally hopeless. I hope the student learnt something from the response to their suggestion, anyway.

Mary said...

The viewpoint of Attila's classmate isn't all that unusual.

When I became ill I had the following, absolutely serious conversation with someone who had known me "before" (and who I now no longer speak to):

THEM: So much for you wanting a family then?
ME: Eh?
THEM: Well, you're not going to have kids now, are you?
ME: Not right this minute, but once I'm with a long-term partner and recovered enough to keep up with a child, I don't see why not.
THEM: That's so irresponsible.
ME: Eh?
THEM: Well, would you like it if your kid was as ill as you are? In as much pain as you? As restricted as you?
ME: But my illness isn't hereditary. And if my kid was disabled, I'd have as much chance of helping them as anyone else.
THEM: But you're ill, so there's obviously something wrong with your genes that let you get ill. If you got pregnant, your kid would just be another burden on taxpayers like me. You've got a social responsibility to put a stop to it.

I gave up. I'm not irresponsible enough to have a child I can't afford and can't look after and "assume" that the state will both pay and care for it and me. But if my partner and I together work out that we can afford it (without handouts), and can manage it, then I won't have someone else saying "you can't do that! You're defective!"

The Goldfish said...

That's truly shocking to me, Mary. I guess I've not come across that because we don't want children - it has occurred to me that folks may assume this is because I am ill.

Of course, because I don't want children, the idea of having children whilst being ill is especially scary, but people do do it and are okay. I was speaking with a young mother with ME recently (in Stowmarket, actually) who had effectively trained her two and four year olds to have "quiet times" during the day so that mother could rest - they weren't being forced into bizarre sleep patterns or anything like that, so it would have done them no harm at all. The four year old was even able to help out in simple and fun ways; I mean, no child should have the responsibility of serious care thrust upon them, but all children like to feel needed. Plus it saves a lot of grief when they get to an age where they've left home but bring home their laundry for you to do because they can't work a washing machine. ;-)

I ought to write something about this genetics thing. It really pisses me off, because it is so very, very illogical.

ben said...

at the holocaust museum in DC, the first half of the top floor (you start there and go down) ends with a bed used at one of hospitals, i think ravensbruck. it looks a little old, but could have just as easily been in any other state mental institution in the world at the time...white painted iron frame, with leather restraints.

without fail, that's where i start to cry.

BloggingMone said...

Goldfish, thanks for that post. You have mentioned in one of the comments that deaf people seemed to played a bit of a special role. That's true because deaf people are disabled, but - and to most of them that is more important - they also are a linguistic minority group. It was very suspicious for the Nazi regime to have German people around talking in a language among themselves, that nobody else could understand.
Secondly, the Jewish Deaf Schools in Germany were state of the art at that time and famous all over the world. The Jewish Deaf School of Berlin Weissensee was attended by Jewish Deaf children from all over the world. Being Jewish AND deaf, however, was about the worst that could happen.
As some of you may have read I have been working at a conference about the Deaf/Jewish Holocaust in August and there were so many impressive stories told by survivors either deaf or jewish and deaf. For us non-deaf and non-jewish weople working there it was a four days fight against tears, at least most of the time.

The Goldfish said...

It was very suspicious for the Nazi regime to have German people around talking in a language among themselves, that nobody else could understand.

That is so obvious now you've said it Bloggingmone, thanks for pointing this out. Especially in combination with the existance of the Jewish Deaf Schools...