The Nazi eugenics movement

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Question:  Which country’s eugenics movement sparked the enactment of Nazi Germany’s eugenics law?

A. Germany

B. Soviet Union

C. United States

D. Spain

Answer: C. United States

When people think of Germany and the Nazi party during the period preceding and during World War II, we tend to gravitate to the atrocities committed as part of the Holocaust. These crimes against humanity often make us overlook the other horrible deeds perpetrated as part of the Third Reich, including the mass sterilization and euthanasia of persons with disabilities for the sake of the German eugenics movement.

The German eugenics movement erupted based upon ideals formulated during the US eugenics movement of the 20s. Though the push for sterilization was carried out on a large scale in the US for a period, the ideas of the movement were quickly picked up and expanded upon by Hitler and his Nazi party to go along with their desire for a “perfect Aryan race”.

German World War II Helmet
Third Reich Atrocities

The sterilization process was quickly begun with the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases” in 1933. With a population living in a down trodden state burdened by post-war reparations, the government was able to sell the idea of a movement to create the most perfect, productive citizens while eliminating “burdens to society”. To this goal, thousands of individuals were sterilized in state hospitals and similar facilities without the consent of said persons. Families were often not even informed and by the end of the sterilization period, 300,000-400,000 people had been forcibly sterilized under the law, 10-20 times the number that had fallen victim to the US movement. These procedures were often justified by a diagnosis of “feeblemindedness”, closely followed by schizophrenia and epilepsy. In addition, several thousand people died due to botched operations and post-operation complications.

Additionally, the laws set up Hereditary Health Courts, designed to register cases of hereditary disability and provide justification for the actions taken by mental hospitals and other sterilization centers. Though appeals courts were established, appeals were rarely reversed and these courts served more as a way to assuage the potential concerns of the general public.

While the sterilization of hundreds of individuals can be considered an atrocity in its own right, the German government did not stop there. Once the Nazi Party held a firmer hold over the government and public opinion, they began to take more extreme action involving euthanasia of individuals with disabilities. In 1939, Hitler personally issued a decree allowing physicians to grant a “mercy death” to those individuals they deemed “incurable”. However, this was simply a system of justification for the real goal of the movement, to eliminate those they saw as unfit to participate in society. Even with this declaration, the majority of the Nazi euthanasia programs were carried out in secret as part of “Operation T4”.

In one propaganda poster, the government showed a depiction of a person with disability, claiming that he “cost society over 60,000 Reichsmark (About a quarter million of today’s US dollars) over the course of his lifetime”. This movement was further carried out by the idea that a perfect “Aryan” race would resolve many of the social problems plaguing Germany, allowing it to become a picture of economic efficiency and social perfection. To this goal, persons with disabilities were portrayed as leeches on society who used community resources without providing value.

As the professional group under the most control by the Nazis during this period in Germany, physicians provided the perfect tools for the party to achieve their goals in a way that would cause the smallest amount of discontent among the general public. The physicians under Nazi control were all tasked with providing medical information of patients through questionnaires to “review commissions” who then reviewed the cases and marked them for either life or death. These decisions were mostly based solely off the questionnaires. Those slated for death were then brought to killing centers disguised as psychiatric hospitals, where they were “euthanized” by lethal injection and later other methods such as gas chambers.

This was most often done without the knowledge of any immediate family or friends, who found out about their deaths after being sent the remains of their loved ones along with a fabricated reason for death. Because these and other inconsistencies in the system led to widespread suspicion of the program, Hitler ordered the operation to be halted and decentralized in 1941, now run by Hitler sending secret messages to physicians and ordering the deaths of the “unfit” and “life unworthy of life”.

Though the program was finally ended by the defeat of the Nazi party in World War II, by the end over 200,000 persons with disabilities were murdered under the T4 operation and connected euthanasia programs. This serves as a reminder of the dangers that can arise from the idea of eugenics and models of “perfect” human specimens.


Primary Sources

Hitler’s original letter authorizing the T4 program, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Nazi propaganda for eugenics and euthanasia/sterilization programs, Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team

Secondary Sources

Nazi Euthanasia Program: Persecution of the Mentally & Physically Disabled, Jewish Virtual Library

Nazi Euthanasia Program, Rutgers University

Nazis, Eugenics, and the T-4 Program (1920-1950) , Disability Social History Project

Nazi Persecution of the Disabled, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum