Autor: LeRoy Walters
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Paul Braune Confronts the National Socialists’ T4 Program

On July 16th, 1940, the leaders of the German Protestant Church (Deutsche Evangelische Kirche) sent a detailed protest against the National Socialists’ “euthanasia” program to the Chancellery of the German Reich. Paul Gerhard Braune, the author of the protest, was the director of the Hoffnungstaler Anstalten in Lobetal, near Bernau, north of Berlin. (The facility that Braune led was a branch of the much larger Bethel institution in Westphalia.) Braune’s protest memorandum revealed detailed knowledge of the T4 program, which was currently being implemented in Germany and Austria. According to Braune, more than 3,000 people with disabilities had already been killed in just one of the program’s killing centers.

When had Paul Braune received initial indications that people with disabilities were being murdered? How did he gather information about the T4 program? What did he discover? To whom did he try to communicate his findings? What were the consequences of Braune’s protest for him personally? And how did his protest affect the killing program?

Foto von Paul Gerhard Braune
Paul Gerhard Braune
left: Reproduction Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand
right: LAFIM

As vice-president of the central committee for the Protestant welfare organization in Germany, the Inner Mission, Braune had access to a network of information sources that most Reich citizens would not have had. At an executive committee meeting of Inner Mission leaders on February 13th, 1940, Pastor Wilhelm Engelmann reported that in Württemberg “feeble-minded people have already been taken away from a care facility with an unknown destination” (dass bereits Schwachsinnige aus einer Anstalt mit unbekanntem Ziel abgeholtsind). On March 30th Pastor Alfons Schosser, writing from Stuttgart, submitted a detailed report to his Inner Mission colleagues in Berlin. Schosser noted that in October 1939 the Grafeneck facility administered by the Samaritan Foundation (Samariterstiftung) had been confiscated by local authorities, and that all its patients had been sent to another home. No one knew what had happened to the Grafeneck facility until early in the following year. At the end of January, 13 male patients from the church-run Pfingstweide Home for Epileptics had been sent to the newly-christened “Landespflegeanstalt” Grafeneck by the Württemburg Interior Ministry. Within a few days the leaders of Pfingstweide began receiving news about the deaths of transported patients from their family members and guardians. By February 18th four of the 13 patients had died. In the words of Schosser, “With this, the secret that hung over Grafeneck was, in part, revealed” (Damit war das Geheimnis, das über Grafeneck schwebte, zum Teil enthüllt).

Braune must have followed the news of these killings with increasing concern. However, his personal involvement with the euthanasia question escalated dramatically when a facility under his care, the Gottesschutz Home for Young Women (Mädchenheim) in Erkner, received a transport notice dated April 25, 1940. The notice ordered the transport of 25 young women from Erkner on May 4, 1940 at mid-day. Busses would be provided by the Gemeinnützige Kranken-Transport G.m.b.H. This transport was justified on grounds of military planning.

At the meeting of the Inner Mission’s Central Committee on April 30th, Braune was assigned the task of systematically gathering information about the transport of patients from their home institutions to new facilities. From that date until July 9th Braune gathered information about the T4 program by every conceivable means. For example, on May 8th he met with Karl Bonhoeffer in the latter’s home in Grunewald. Two days later he visited Hans von Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer’s son-in-law and a member of the Abwehr resistance group, at Dohnanyi’s office. The archive of the Hoffnungstaler Anstalten, administered by Jan Cantow, contains a steady stream of correspondence with sources in many parts of the German Reich – from Saxony, Württemberg, Baden, the Rheinland, and Westphalia. Braune even traveled by auto to Brandenburg/Havel to inspect the one-time downtown penitentiary, where mysterious activities were shrouded in secrecy. In the meantime Braune also succeeded in having the planned transport from Erkner indefinitely postponed.

What did Braune’s careful research reveal? He summarized his findings in a memorandum (Denkschrift) that filled just over 10 pages in its final version. In this remarkable document, completed in early July 1940, Braune was able to name three T4 killing centers – Grafeneck, Brandenburg/Havel, and Hartheim. He had uncovered the names, addresses, and alleged death dates of more than 25 patients. In addition, he knew of group transports from three asylums that had involved 125 patients. Braune provided no overall statistics for the euthanasia program, but he noted that a recent patient number from Grafeneck – for Else Lenné from Berlin-Steglitz – was A 3111. The killing method, carbon monoxide poisoning, was unknown to Braune. He suspected malnutrition and also reported on public rumors about lethal injections. Equally important was Braune’s discovery that the letters sent to parents and guardians were mendacious from start to finish. The causes of death listed in condolence letters were total fabrications. Follow-up letters from concerned parents and guardians were answered with additional lies.

Braune’s discovery of this massive killing program caused him to recall a seemingly-routine statistical survey that had been initiated, in selected regions of the Reich, during the previous October. He introduced his memorandum by discussing this survey. The Reich Interior Ministry had asked the leaders of asylums and other closed institutions to fill out questionnaires regarding patients or residents who fell into any of several major categories:

1. People with schizophrenia, epilepsy, senile dementia, or “feeble-mindedness” who were unable to perform complex mechanical tasks;

2. People who had been confined to their institutions for at least five continuous years;

3. People who had been institutionalized as criminally insane; and

4. People who are not German citizens or who are not of German or similar ancestry (nicht deutschen oder artverwandten Blutes) (with the race and citizenship spelled out). [German original.]

According to Braune, the institutional leaders who received and filled out these questionnaires were not sure what the goal of the survey was. Some thought that Reich officials were preparing to enact a law for the protection of people in the enumerated categories. By July 1940 Braune realized that, on the contrary, the people in these four categories were the prime targets of the T4 planners.

Braune divided the empirical section of his memorandum by region. For Württemberg, he described the early events involving patients from Pfingstweide, as well as an accelerating death rate in the months between early April and late June. He also commented that the deaths of thousands of patients in a facility that contained only about 100 beds was totally inconceivable. For Saxony, Braune provided sobering statistics about increasing death rates, by institution, that had been occurring even before the start of the T4 program. He attributed the excess mortality to the deliberate withholding of food from patients (durch Entziehung der Nahrungsmittel). For Brandenburg and Berlin, Braune questioned why the newly established “Landespflegeanstalt Brandenburg” was so completely isolated from the outside world. He also noted that several of the people who had died in Brandenburg/Havel had not been patients at all. Rather, they had previously been committed to the penitentiary in Waldheim, Saxony, for criminal offences.

Within the region of Brandenburg and Berlin, Braune had particularly detailed information about the municipal asylum that was located nearest to the Hoffnungtaler Anstalten – Berlin-Buch. One of the patients there, a jurist named Günther Rottmann, was the son of Berlin Oberregierungsrat Rottmann, who had been a National Socialist party member since 1927. Shortly after a parental visit during which he appeared to be in good health, Günther Rottmann had been transported, allegedly to Hartheim, Austria, on June 10th – without his parents’ knowledge. When his parents discovered that their son was missing and inquired about his whereabouts, they were told that he was now in the facility at Hartheim. In response to a telephone call on June 27th, the parents were informed that their son had died of a middle ear infection in Hartheim on June 23rd. Thanks to the research of historian Horst-Peter Wolff, we know that, contrary to this official report, Günther Rottmann had been transported from Berlin-Buch to the killing center in Brandenburg/Havel on June 10th and gassed on the same day. To the late German theologian Gerhard Ebeling we owe our knowledge that the Rottmann family sought his assistance in their time of sorrow and that Ebeling, in turn, sent a detailed account of Günther Rottmann’s transport and death to Paul Braune.

For Pomerania, Braune noted that two large provincial facilities, Stralsund and Lauenburg, had been emptied of patients by the time he completed his memorandum. He worried about the whereabouts and the welfare of the 2,000 missing patients. Braune was also concerned about the May 1940 confiscation by Gauleiter Franz Schwede-Coburg of a large Inner Mission facility near Stettin, the Kückenmühler Anstalten. Within just a few weeks, Braune reported, 1300 of the facility’s 1500 patients had been removed from the the Kückenmühler Anstalten. Braune’s sources of information suggested that the patients had been transported primarily “to the East” – to the Warthegau, to Meseritz, and to a facility near Posen, probably Kosten. However, other patients were said to have been sent to Grafeneck. By chance, Braune already knew of at least 42 deaths among the the Kückenmühler patients. He thought that additional patients had also died but that their deaths had not yet been reported. We now know, based on individual patient records preserved at the Bundesarchiv Branch in Berlin, that at least 33 female patients were transported, in late May or early June, from the Kückenmühler Anstalten to the municipal asylum in Berlin-Buch. However, Berlin-Buch was only a way station on their final journey. On June 14th, 1940, these patients were transported a second time, to Brandenburg/Havel, where they died in the gas chamber.

After having surveyed the various regions of the Reich, Braune summarized the patterns that he had observed:

. . . [C]ompulsory transfer in mass transports; the mixing together of patients so that no one knows other patients; the withholding of food; the development of a weakened condition; the forceful administration of medicine – popular rumors also speak of injections and mean to indicate lethal injections; then in almost all cases the burning of the corpses and the burning of the [patients’] clothing, so that any possible investigation is forestalled; [and] delayed notification of the patients’ next of kin through letters, which are almost always formulated in the same way. [Add German.]

Braune added: “This is therefore a conscious, planned effort to achieve the eradication (Ausmerzung) of all those who are mentally ill or who are otherwise incapable of fitting into society (geisteskrank oder sonst gemeinschaftsunfähig). [Add German.]

Braune concluded his memorandum by raising several ethical and public-policy questions. He asked whether senile elderly patients, and even severely wounded soldiers, would be caught up in the planned extermination program. The trust of the people – toward physicians, toward asylums, and even toward government – was being undermined, in Braune’s view. Braune also asserted the inviolability of the individual human person, who deserved to enjoy the protection of the law. In a hopeful final appeal Braune wrote, “May the responsible authorities ensure that these unhealthy measures are stopped, and that the whole question is first examined from a legal and medical, but also a moral and a political standpoint – before the destiny of thousands and tens of thousands is decided. ‘May the consuls see to it, that the state suffers no harm.’”

Not content to rely on a written communication, Braune also conveyed his findings orally to several Reich officials. On July 10th, 1940, Braune and Friedrich von Bodelschwingh from the Bethel Institutions had a stormy meeting with two major T4 planners, Herbert Linden from the Interior Ministry and Viktor Brack from the Chancellery of the Führer. During this conversation Linden and Brack accused Braune and von Bodelschwingh of believing fairy tales. They also threatened to have the Gestapo become involved because the two men were revealing state secrets. Braune also held multiple conversations with State Secretary Friedrich [ ] Kritzinger in the Reich Chancellery. Perhaps with the assistance of Hans von Dohnanyi, Gürtner’s former aide, Braune, von Bodelschwingh, and surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch met with Justice Minister Franz Gürtner at Gürtner’s home in Grunewald on July 12th. In a post-war recollection, Braune described the Justice Minister’s reaction to the information he had so carefully gathered:

I reported probably for about twenty-five minutes on the factual material, on the observations we had made, and showed him some examples of the so-called “condolence letters” that were in my hands. . . . The minister was shaken by these facts and did not have the slightest hint about what was happening. The first sentence of his response remains clear in my memory: “For a Justice Minister it is a grave matter when a trustworthy source tells him: ‘In your Reich there are murders occurring continuously, and you know nothing about them!’” He then spoke out at length about the unlawfulness and godlessness of such actions.”

Braune’s hope that his memorandum and his meetings with government officials would stop the euthanasia program were dashed when Gestapo agents visited his home at daybreak on August 12th, 1940, searched the home, seized files, and transported him to downtown Berlin. There he was placed in protective detention at the Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße. Braune and his wife Berta did not know whether or when he would be released. On August 28th, with Braune still in prison, Berta Braune gave birth to the couple’s fourth child, a son, who was named Paul Jr. While in the hospital recovering from complications of childbirth, Berta was informed by women friends that her husband’s imprisonment was due solely to his memorandum on euthanasia. She was also told that her husband would be fortunate if he were not sent to a concentration camp. After having been released from the hospital, Berta Braune visited Paul in prison, where she received a small handwritten note from her spouse: “Today I received the order for my arrest: ‘Pastor Braune has been taken into protective custody because he has sabotaged measures of the state in an irresponsible way. Signed: Heydrich.’”

Friedrich von Bodelschwingh worked tirelessly for Braune’s release. Their fellow members in the Protestant Confessing Church also added Braune’s name to the list of people for whom intercessory prayers should be offered. Without warning, and for reasons that remain unclear, Braune was informed on October 31st, 1940, that he would be released from prison if he signed a declaration. The declaration specified that Braune “would not again undertake anything against the state and the party.” According to Braune, the prison official who presented the declaration to him explained that, in his view, Braune “did not need to commit himself to anything more than would be required of every citizen.” On the basis of this understanding, Braune signed the declaration.

Following his release, Braune returned to the Hoffnungstaler Anstalten in Lobetal, where he sought to protect the patients and residents entrusted to his care. In this effort he worked closely with von Bodelschwingh, the director of the Lobetal’s parent facility in Bethel. Partly because of von Bodelschwingh’s ongoing discussions with Karl Brandt, Hitler’s Leibarzt [personal physician] and another architect of the T4 program, the Bethel institution and its branches were able to shield most of their patients from the fatal transports that were occurring in the surrounding asylums. Both directors, however, were forced to surrender the few “non-Aryans,” that is, people of Jewish ancestry, who resided in Bethel and Lobetal.

In the end, Braune’s courageous resistance did not stop or even slow the T4 juggernaut. Under the cover of war with Poland and later with the Low Countries, France, and the Soviet Union, the T4 killing centers continued to asphyxiate people with disabilities through August of 1941. Stunned by Bishop Clemens August von Galen’s public denunciation of euthanasia on August 3, 1941, the T4 leadership ostensibly halted the euthanasia program. In fact, while the still-functioning killing centers were either closed or deployed for other purposes, the killing of people with disabilities continued in a more decentralized fashion through May of 1945. A recent estimate is that 300,000 people with disabilities were murdered between 1939 and 1945.

Braune’s July 1940 memorandum demonstrates what a determined opponent of the T4 program, assisted by a network of information sources, could have known about the program five months after its initiation. His advocacy for people with disabilities, even at great personal risk, provides a striking example of civil courage. One hopes that Braune’s resistance will inspire others, in all times and places, who seek to identify and then to confront injustice.

Copyright © 2011, LeRoy Walters

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