T4 Should Be to Disabled People What Auschwitz is for Jewish People
By Prof. David Mitchell, The George Washington University
“T4 should be to disabled people what Auschwitz is for Jewish people.”
I made this statement while leading American study abroad students through a tour of the Brandenburg Euthanasia Memorial Centre in March 2015. Brandenburg was one of the first two killing centers developed to systematically exterminate disabled people held in German psychiatric institutions in fall 1939. In January 1940 it also served as the site of a demonstration project for top Nazi medical officials to contrast which was more humane: death by lethal injection or death in a disguised shower room by gassing (Friedlander 87). The Brandenburg barn that was converted for this purpose on the grounds of the old city jail sits in the center of the complex but also in the center of town; before it was a prison, the institutional buildings served as a poor house. This transitional use scenario from charity to prison to killing center is not unusual. All of the killing centers were situated in either active psychiatric institutions or prisons or charity wards or all of the above as the worlds set aside as "provisions" for disabled people represent carceral lock-down facilities whose purpose -- from the beginning -- is to prevent disabled residents from fouling up the smooth workings of non-disabled social orders. They are, in effect, tainted spaces that cannot be used for more productive ends as the sites they occupy are in some manner always already designated as unrecuperable.
This form of spatial contamination is due to the fact that disability is recognized as an uninhabitable condition; a miscoding error in the otherwise stable program of normative biology. This assumption of a disruption in an otherwise fixed biological outcome belies the fact that species development is rife with "miscodings" -- these alternative patternings of organisms are more accurately called “mutations” and they are the messy stuff of all species diversity. Darwin remained suspicious throughout his career that human beings could ever effectively direct their own evolution, thus the theory of evolution is one of opposition to eugenics despite their common linkage in a philosophical tradition. The point of the process is that the randomness of mutation proves no reliable prophet for the future of the organism or the species; disability was thought to predict what characteristic alteration in an organism might prove inherently deleterious to its survival; yet, based on the fact that advantage remains a contingent, mutable affair, survival actually depends upon multitudes of biological, social, and environmental variables. So the key thing about disability is that human societies have relied on it to predict which organismic expression will prove most likely to succeed without the contrasting and more truthful recognition that disability is not an effective predictor of value, contribution, or longevity. Haphazardness is the only rule.
Thus, T4 and the attendant misreading of the theory of evolution as not haphazard and therefore controllable provided a foundation upon which Nazi eugenics enacted with destructive haste an outcome that was not anticipatory from a biological point of view. But not only were the bodies of disabled people designated for the most radical forms of social invisibility (i.e. death by mass killing in a medical factory adoption of the modern industrial assembly line), the space in which the killings were performed already represented the principle of radical exclusion. Whether the killing center evolved out of a former existence of charity sequester of the poor or psychiatric institution for those considered cognitively nonnormative or imprisonment for breeching social laws and norms, the space itself was already marked by the human corruption which it housed. T4 was a further perversion of a perversion that already existed in the buildings and local geography of the space given over to the project of carceral segregation for certain human beings.
All of these forms of biological, social, spatial, and cultural avoidance of interaction with those marked undesirable help to explain why the history of T4 rides two seemingly contradictory trajectories. The first is provision of assistance for those who cannot or, more commonly, are prevented from meaningful participation. Such set aside worlds always meet with resentment from others who feel excluded themselves from the “benefactor group” of the excluded. Two, the space to which the presumed benefactors of the modern are relegated to receive their "special treatment" is always a form of punishment, and the punishment arrives in the form of detention within a consciously fabricated uninhabitable location. Thus, the common descriptor of "special treatment" could be taken up in altered form by Nazi eugenicists wholesale. Aktion T4, 14f13, the decentralized killing phase, and the exponential rise in post-liberation psychiatric institution mortality rates into the late 1940s in Germany, Austria, Poland, and beyond all adopted and continued to apply the classification of "special treatment" to those receiving a form of radical exclusion intended as the benefit of death-making (Klee 82).
This kind of modernity in the labor of mortality production is not an aberration, but rather, as Zygmunt Bauman argues, part and parcel of the kind of modernity human beings have evolved (Modernity and the Holocaust 93). The bodies cannot be retrieved as we often do not even know where they've gone.
At the Bernburg Euthanasia Memorial Centre, according to Director Ute Hoffmann, they believed for years the ashes of the T4 victims had been tossed into the local river. It turned out through investigating the institution's meticulous administrative payment records that a guy on a horse drawn cart was paid to dump the ash in the local pit of a nearby town dump. Today the dump is covered by a soccer field used by residents as a privilege of their residency in Bernburg. At the Sonnenstein-Pirna Euthanasia Memorial Centre, a guide told us the sloping hill out behind the T4 building, when excavated, yielded up sediment 3-4 feet deep of human remains and victims' personal keepsakes that went undetected by the strip down cursory medical inspection of their bodies in the waiting room outside of the gas chamber. The labor of getting rid of all evidence of the human lives eradicated proved not entirely possible.
Yet, the difficulty of erasing all traces of disabled peoples' passage through this deadly process had to be accompanied by an even larger erasure: their evacuation from history. When we first visited Bernburg in the early 2000s with a former German student, Rebecca Maskos, she grew incredulous about the fact that she had never heard of T4 in all of her encounters with the Holocaust. As a disabled woman who had navigated Germany's public education system, Rebecca -- like other students -- were expected to study the Holocaust.
There was even a mandatory provision that all students visit a concentration camp or death camp memorial site. There were memorials throughout Berlin to all of the different victim groups -- Jewish, Roma/Sinti, Slovakian, Communist, Russian, etc. -- but no dedicated memorial to disabled people murdered in the T4 program. This avoidance of disability history seemed purposeful; an active form of state-sanctioned neglect of victims whose extermination continued to be defended in court by the medical perpetrators as "benign", as "a medical intervention", as a "merciful death".
T4 should be to disabled people what Auschwitz is to Jewish people: a reminder and an active refusal to forget what is "unspeakable" and "unspoken". In our time of proliferating physician suicide laws, the lowering of age of consent to request euthanasia, the pilfering of healthcare coffers to balance the ledger sheets of bankrupt nation-states, the reduction of welfare doles and personal assistance payments to disabled people, the expansion of for-profit medicine that empties the private bank accounts of disabled citizens and families, cut backs on access to life saving medical treatments, and the abandonment of states to end lifetime carceral institutionalization, we stand at a precipice where T4 can be recognized alongside other genocides as closer than we like to imagine.
The perpetrators of medical mass murder were set aside at the Nuremberg war crimes trials to be tried (if at all) in local German courts as the killings could not be imagined as tantamount to the religious and racially motivated mass murders of other "social" groups. In fact, after the Nuremberg trials the UN adopted a revised definition of genocide to exclude "political and social" rationale from religious and ethnic -- this is exactly where disability always sits: at the cusp between defective citizenry and defective biology (Applebaum). Nonnormative bodies appear to hold questions of material capacity as the basis of their devaluation, and therefore, their social and political potential is clouded by how their materiality matters or not.
This haunting question of the early 20th century as to whether or not disability represents a biological or social unfitness continues to pursue us into the 21st century. Thus, we are grateful that digital humanities projects such as gedenkort-T4 and the recently created T4 Memorial in Berlin keep these historical matters relevant to contemporary disabled lives today. The Euthanasia Memorial Centre network in Italy, Germany, and Poland that include tours of the apparatus of mass death and research archives were kept alive for many years only by local collectives and volunteers.
These grassroots memorializers protected many of these tainted spaces from being destroyed and the past further covered over. T4 should be to disabled people what Auschwitz is to Jewish people.
Applebaum, Anne. “The Worst of the Madness: A Review of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Norman M. Naimark’s Stalin’s Genocide.” New York Times Review of Books. 11 November 2017: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2010/11/11/worst-madness/
Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and the Holocaust. New York: Cornell University Press, 2001.
Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Klee, Ernst. “Those Who Honour the Perpetrators Murder Their Victims A Second Time.” The Holocaust in History and Memory Vol. 5(2012): 75-84.
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