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Historian Götz Aly: Victims of Nazi Euthanasia 'Have Been Forgotten'

Götz Aly: "We have to reformulate moral standards." Zoom
Carsten Koall/ DER SPIEGEL

Götz Aly: "We have to reformulate moral standards."

German historian Götz Aly is an expert on euthanasia during the Nazi era. In a SPIEGEL interview, he discusses why many accepted the murder of the handicapped and mentally ill, and how his own daughter has shaped his views on how the disabled should be treated today.

Some 200,000 people who were mentally ill or disabled were killed in Germany during the Nazi era. The cynical name for the extermination program was "euthanasia," which means "beautiful death" in ancient Greek. This horrific past has shaped the way Germany treats the terminally ill and the disabled. Germany's laws on assisted suicide are restrictive, and the country has stricter rules on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, a form of embryo profiling, than most other European countries.

In 2006, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Germany ratified in 2009. It calls for a so-called inclusive education system for all children, which means that children with disabilities and behavioral disorders should be allowed to attend mainstream schools. The German city-state of Bremen adopted the inclusion requirement in 2009, and other German states are in the process of implementing it.

Now a debate has unfolded on the pros and cons of inclusion. Proponents say that being different has to become normal. But opponents believe that inclusion comes at the expense of special-needs schools, that teachers are overwhelmed, that better students are short-changed, and that disabled children feel excluded in mainstream classes.

It is a debate in which some are berated as idealists and others as ideologues. But, ultimately, the real issue is how to define the moral standards of coexistence.

Berlin contemporary historian Götz Aly, 65, has a 34-year-old disabled daughter named Karline. In a SPIEGEL interview, he talks about the joys and hardships of everyday life with a disabled child. Aly has spent 32 years studying the issue of euthanasia. His book, "Die Belasteten" ("The Burdened"), was recently published by the S. Fischer publishing house.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Aly, you have studied the murders of the disabled and mentally ill in the Nazi era, or what was then referred to as "euthanasia." Didn't the issue strike a little too close to home for you?

Aly: I know, of course, that my daughter would have been one of the candidates for murder at the time. But Karline's illness 34 years ago was precisely the reason I approached the subject in the first place. Perhaps it was also a way for me to come to terms with it. That's what brought me to study the Nazis. It doesn't bother me when issues affect me personally. On the contrary, it bothers me that many Germans who write about the Nazi period behave as if they have no personal points of reference. I sometimes amuse myself by asking older colleagues: "Now what exactly did your father do in World War II?"

SPIEGEL: Your book about euthanasia is dedicated to Karline, and you also write a few sentences about her. Nevertheless, your daughter is hardly mentioned in reviews and interviews. Is there a reluctance there?

Aly: It's an academic book, and it's discussed under academic criteria. German historians cultivate so-called objectivity. They persuade themselves that they can switch off the subjective and therefore the unsettling. But there is one German history professor who regularly asks me how Karline is doing, and that's Hans Mommsen (a leading expert on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust). That sets him apart from the others.

SPIEGEL: How does the reluctance to talk about personal matters affect academic research?

Aly: I am both on the edge of the academic community and in a somewhat tense relationship with it -- a relationship from which I derive energy, inspiration and questions. A large part of this community is unthinkingly self-involved, producing reams of sterile writing -- often consuming unbelievable amounts of public funds -- and serving as an instruction manual for how to chase away readers and ignore historical insights. Much of the research on the Nazi era makes a science out of distancing oneself from it or conjuring its demons. The conceit is that people were monsters then -- as if they were completely different from people today.

SPIEGEL: Where are there commonalities?

Aly: The subtitle of my new book is: "A History of Society." I don't just look at the 500 murderers and 200,000 euthanasia victims. Instead, I try to shed light on what was going on around them. For instance, how did family members and neighbors behave? When you take this approach, you encounter reactions that are universally human. The chronically ill and the disabled can become a burden for families. No one is unfamiliar with this experience.

SPIEGEL: Hence the title of your book: "The Burdened." You demonstrate that killings on such a massive scale would not have been possible without the tacit consent of family members.

Aly: I wouldn't call it consent. The organizers of the euthanasia murders systematically asked how often a patient was visited, and by whom. If they had the impression that a family was not very close-knit, the sick person was taken away far more quickly than someone who received regular visits. After the murder, the relatives received an official death certificate with a fabricated cause of death. Most people resigned themselves to this fictitious truth, accepting the chance they were given by the government not to have to know the real cause of death. Later on, this same social phenomenon -- in which crimes were committed in semi-obscurity and a certain amount of looking the other way was required -- is what helped facilitate the Holocaust. The murderers who began the euthanasia program in 1939 were surprised at how little resistance they encountered. It had to do with the shame many family members felt.

SPIEGEL: A sense of shame that still exists today.

Aly: One in eight Germans is directly related to someone who became a victim of these murders. And if you include relatives by marriage, this would apply to almost everyone. But it was not discussed in most families. The murder victims have been forgotten.

SPIEGEL: Relatives can search the archives.

Aly: The institutions that maintain the files on the victims today usually don't publicize the names, even though there are no privacy concerns involved. I asked the president of the federal archive and the federal data protection commissioner why. Both answered: "Please have consideration for the relatives who are still alive." In the case of the Jews, we would never suppress names. But with the so-called crazy people, we're suddenly told that we want to protect their present-day relatives. Why? From what?

SPIEGEL: It's the relatives' fear that perhaps they too have something in them that isn't quite normal.

Aly: That's right. When the first memorials were created 20 years ago and relatives began sending in their first letters, their main concern was: Do we have a genetic disorder in the family?

SPIEGEL: In your book, you quote a father who, in the Nazi period, expected the director of an institution to relieve him of responsibility for his child. This extreme coldness seems disconcerting to us today.

Aly: The extreme nature of it does, but the underlying feeling of being burdened doesn't. My father had dementia for many years before he was put in a nursing home. We knew it wasn't ideal, but there was no other option. And here's another example: When a group of roommates and I parted ways 35 years ago, one of us ended up in a mental hospital. The rest of us still get together today, but we don't talk about that person. We don't even know if he's still alive. I mean, the mentally ill aren't exactly easy. When a child becomes mentally ill, there can be a lot of finger-pointing in families.

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1. Euthanasia for the disabled in Nazi Germany
princesselsbeth 04/26/2013
Here is an excerpt from Kitty Werthmann's experience in Nazi Germany & what was done with the disabled: “As time passed, letters started to dribble back saying these people died a natural, merciful death. The villagers were not fooled. We suspected what was happening. Those people left in excellent physical health and all died within 6 months. We called this euthanasia". I don't like how the disabled and handicapped are put in special classes separated from the "regular" children at schools in the USA, as if they are unacceptable- any sort of difference: blind, lame, retarded- all contained in the same class! The disabled are barely accepted, usually if in any groups, they are amongst their own kind. The physically disabled are kept with mentally disabled, this is not right. Children and adults for that matter should not be treated as animals, they should be in school classes according to their intellect, as they do in Japan. It's insulting & demeaning to hoard them in those institutions or "special classes". Imagine yourself as a child unable to walk, but told you must attend a special school with mental defectives and others with severe deformities. It's just not right. We should assimilate them all into society as others are. It's heartbreaking to a child and parent to shuffle a child off as if the child has done something wrong.
2. not only Nazi victims have been forgotten
Inglenda2 04/28/2013
Although a large number of people who were mentally ill, or disabled, were killed in Germany during the Nazi era, the actual number is not known, any more than how many Jews were murdered. The numbers often generally accepted have been assumed rather than verified. The word "euthanasia," has also been used not only for the actual victims, but includes, as does also as does the expression “holocaust,” many persons whose death was caused by other war-time horrors. The allied bombing of factories, trains and other locations where internees were herded together, led to thousands of deaths which are seldom referred to by historians. It has become a habit to treat all loss of life, or the disappearance of persons, during that time, as a crime committed by the Nazis. This deviation from the truth is dangerous in so far as it gives current rightwing radicals a basis for argumentation. They would maintain, that when some facts are incorrectly presented, there is reason to doubt everything which has been said about the Hitler regime. It is also wrong to give all Germans the blame for what happened. In free elections the Nazis never had a majority support from the population. Once power had been seized, all open opposition was destroyed. To say the left did nothing is in this respect more than cynical, their leaders were to be found under the first victims of Nazi oppression. However, it was not only Clemens August Graf von Galen, bishop of (the northern German city of) Münster who offered active Resistance against the destruction of so-called worthless life. Bishop Nathan of Branitz/Branice in Upper Silesia, who had founded one of Europe’s most modern Mental hospital facilities of the time, did all he could to avoid his patients being transferred to state hospitals, where the risk to life and health was enormous. Of course he was not able to save all in his care, but hundreds of people have him to thank for their lives. This man, like so many other innocent Germans of the former East German territories, was deported after the illegal confiscation of the area following WW2. Not for what he had done, but because he was German. The crimes committed during such deportations were no less than those committed by the Nazis, but are minimised or denied by the perpetrators, the governments of Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia, but strangely enough also by those Germans who did not suffer in this way themselves. Instead of recognition of what the Bishop and many like him did, to reduce the horrific suffering caused by the Nazis, it is largely people on the leftwing side of German politics today, who still try to put the deportees into the category of “Hitler’s Helpers.” This is no longer so in Silesia, both in the now Polish and Czech areas in which Bishop Nathan worked, local politicians respect and revere his name and admit that much of what has been done and said in the past was wrong. It is a pity that German historians still appear incapable of praising a large number of their own countrymen, when dealing with the years 1933 – 1947. The majority were no better, but certainly no worse, than the citizens of other European countries.
3. Euthanasia In Germany
mfinn 04/30/2013
#5 years ago I met a German woman who had married a young American soldier and then come here to America with him. She told me about an institution in her small town that had housed a fairly large number of what used to be called retarded people. At some point before the war, she said, all those residents simply disappeared practically over a single weekend. It was clear that they had been done away with. She said that the institution was reopened after the war and that within 2-3 years, it was full once again of the same kind of residents. She took this as a sort of proof that having a certain number of such people being here with us on Earth is part of God's will for His creation; and that they should be welcomed on that basis. I never forgot this.
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