Historian Götz Aly: Victims of Nazi Euthanasia 'Have Been Forgotten'
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.
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?
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.
- Part 1: Victims of Nazi Euthanasia 'Have Been Forgotten'
- Part 2: 'There Was No Resistance from the Left'
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