StillFromIAccuseStill from the movie I, Accuse

Creation of the T4 program was not a spontaneous idea or an irrational impulse. It was the practical application of principles written and read about then widely discussed and debated in scientific and medical circles, and indeed in society in general for more than 50 years . . .

The nineteenth century was a time of great advances in the quality of life, the rise of democracy, the Industrial Revolution, improvement in the standard of living, optimism for the future, and the enthronement of science as The Key to unlock the mysteries of the universe. All these things (and more) contributed to a better and longer quality of life for all people, including those with special needs. Improvements in medicine – things like  anesthetics, germ theory, antisepsis – increased life expectancy. Safe water, indoor plumbing, central heating greatly improved the quality of lives. At the end of the century, the rise of orthopedics as a medical speciality increased mobility issues. Growth of charitable organizations spawned by the development of a concern for social welfare channeled food, money, and resources to those in need. Though they would certainly never be mistaken for a five-star hotel, hospitals, asylums, and schools were built to house and treat those with disabilities.

But all was not so rosy. Many books were published around this time, influential books that did much to undermine the improvements and goodness of the time.

Perhaps one of the pivotal tomes that fed the mindset that eventually created the T4 program was the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.  Looking at the world through the lens of “natural selection” as Darwin called it or  “survival of the fittest,” as his follower Herbert Spencer, called it, significantly and severely altered society’s attitude towards those with special needs. Take Darwinian theory, add the Mendelian laws of heredity and genetics, and you have a convincing cocktail of thought that some saw as the way to understand any and all of nature – a way of thinking that would soon enough be applied to human society and the making of social policy.

In The Descent of Man, published in 1871, Darwin said, “We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment . . . Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”

Knowledge and insights provided by evolutionary theory and Mendelian law came together in the new field of eugenics in the early twentieth century. Eugenics, the cutting edge science of the time, was concerned with the study, evaluation, and ultimately the manipulation of human breeding practices. Eugenicists were determined to use their scientific findings to “make better” and “strengthen” the human race. Charles Davenport, a leader in the eugenic movement, explained eugenics as “the science of the improvement of the human race by a better breeding.”

Does this sound a bit arrogant to you, too?

For all their pretentiousness, the eugenicists and Darwinians made no distinctions within the ranks of the “unfit.” Crooks, prostitutes, the blind, the paralyzed, the mentally handicapped – all were products of “weak genes”; all were degenerates; all were flawed. In W. Duncan McKim’s book Heredity in Human Progress published in 1900, heredity is blamed for all sorts of things, including “insanity, idiocy, hysteria, epilepsy, alcoholism, drug addiction, imbecility, eccentricity, nervousness, diabetes, tuberculosis, cancer, deafness, blindness, deafness, color blindness, rheumatism.” Weak genes, wrote McKim, are the “fundamental cause of human wretchedness.”

Ernest Haeckel, a famed biologist and social scientist, published his book The Riddle of the Universe in 1899, a book that quickly became one of the most widely read science books of the time. More than 100,000 copies were sold in its first year of publication, and ten editions were published before 1919. By 1933, well over half a million copies had been sold. Haeckel held to the hereditary theory with great conviction. From his belief that  deformities and chronic and incurable diseases were passed down from generation to generation, Haeckel warned that prolonging lives did little more than put an unnecessary drain on the economy and a growing danger to the health of society. “The longer the diseased parents, with medical assistance, can drag on their sickly existence,” he wrote, “the more numerous are the descendants who will inherit incurable evils, and the greater will be the number of individuals again, and over the succeeding generations, thanks to that artificial ‘medical selection’ who will be infected by their parents’ lingering, hereditary disease.”  Haeckel didn’t shy away from putting forth what ought to be done. “We are not bound under all circumstances to maintain and prolong life even when it becomes utterly useless.” He went on to propose that a commission be wet up in Germany to determine which of the deformed, chronically insane, and diseased should be allowed to live and which should die. A “redemption from evil” he called it, and never one to put forth an incomplete idea, he suggested that death should be by means of a “quick and rapid poison.”

Haeckel and other authors were considered wise men by German society. Their books and their theories were not restricted to science or scholarly circles but embraced by society in general.

In Moral der Kraft, a  popular book published in 1920,  author Ernst Mann expressed his concern for the economic chaos that followed World War I. His solution? Mann called upon veterans of The Great War to perform one “last heroic deed” and kill themselves, thus sparing the state the burden of their pensions. “It’s not right to spend the millions of marks on the cripples, the diseased, and the incurable, when hundreds of thousands of the healthy blow their brains out because of the economic crisis,” he wrote. Mann’s book was a best seller when first published, and it sold quite well when republished in 1933.

The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life, a popular book published in 1920 and written by psychiatrist Alfred Hoche and lawyer Karl Binding – both professors of good reputation and considerable importance – presented a carefully reasoned argument that certain people should be exterminated for racially “hygienic” purposes. Physicians, they felt, should participate in health giving and death making. Death, the two authors believed, should be painless and expertly administered by a physician. The right to “grant death” was a natural extension of the responsibilities of physicians, they believed. Knowing what we know now, it will not surprise you to learn that Hitler read a good deal about eugenics prior to writing Mein Kampf. It may surprise you, however, to learn that Hitler allowed his name to be used in advertisements for Hoche’s books. On second thought, maybe not.

Textbooks used in Nazi classrooms encouraged the devaluation of disabled lives in subtle and not so subtle ways. This problem was found in Mathematics in the Service of National Political Education: “If the building of a lunatic asylum costs six million marks and it costs fifteen thousand marks to build each dwelling on a housing estate, how many of the latter could be built for the price of one asylum?” Another math problem asked how many marriage-allowance loans could be given to young couples for the amount of money the state spent to care for “the crippled, criminal, and insane.”

Ah, and there was a movie we should take note of that became popular about the time these books were published. (See the photo above.) I Accuse was the story of a young woman suffering from multiple sclerosis. Her husband – a doctor – engages in a little soul searching then kills his wife as a fellow physician softly plays the piano in the next room. So popular was this movie that it was often screened at gatherings of physicians  and at a Nazi Party meeting in 1935.

Considering the prevalent thought, popular books, and widespread discussions of the time, Is it any wonder that people with special needs and their families were stigmatized? Isn’t it real easy to see why they felt inferior, undesirable, and ashamed?  Does anyone find it surprising that those not deemed “perfect” were kept at home, hidden from view? These books, these theories, these discussions may have taken place in the days of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but their effects and appeal (if you want to call it that) reached far and wide and held on for a long, long time.

This is why it’s imperative that we teach critical and independent thinking skills. Encourage questions. And model compassion. It’s the best thing we can do for future generations. It is a fine legacy.


Because I don’t want to wait till I’ve exhausted every avenue available to me, I am sharing my research now, in bits and pieces, not necessarily in chronological or logical order.

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