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

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

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

Part 2: 'There Was No Resistance from the Left'

SPIEGEL: Many disabled fetuses are aborted. On the other hand, there is an effort to integrate the disabled, and schools are being asked to participate in this effort. In that sense, today's society differs considerably from the way it was in those days.

Aly: That's true. Karline and we, (her) parents, received a lot of help from government agencies, and we were treated very kindly by private individuals and professionals. It's often said that not enough is done, but that's not true. All I can say is: Thank you. In this respect, we live in a fortunate country. As the father of a disabled daughter, I know how important that support is for inner balance. In the Nazi era, the relatives felt the pressure of propaganda. They were seen as being very burdened themselves, most suffered material hardships and, moreover, there was a war going on. I can understand how people could falter under those circumstances.

SPIEGEL: Your daughter, Karline, was born healthy and fell ill a few days thereafter. What happened?

Aly: When she was three days old, she got a streptococcus infection and wouldn't drink. Some 30 percent of pregnant women have streptococcus B, and if it's detected early on and antibiotics are administered, everthing's fine. These tests weren't common in the 1970s. Besides, it was the era of soft births. Karline was born in a private clinic. They called the pediatrician on the phone, but he downplayed the problem, calling it thirst fever. Karline's condition worsened by the hour. She was thriving in the morning, but by the evening she looked gray, pale and wrinkly. It took too long to transfer her to the children's hospital.

SPIEGEL: Was it the doctor's mistake?

Aly: Yes, but, as the parents, we were the ones who wanted the soft birth. Still, this sort of thing will always happen, in one way or another. Disabilities are part of life; it's just that their nature changes. A case like Karline's is rarer today, and 90 percent of unborn babies with Down syndrome are aborted, but premature births cause more problems today, for example. And there are also more elderly people with serious dementia.

SPIEGEL: How did the doctors react in your case?

Aly: The head of the ICU at the university hospital took me aside after three days and said: "If your daughter survives the next night, she'll be severely disabled." I understood it as a coded question, and I remember it as if it were yesterday.

SPIEGEL: You mean as a question as to whether the doctors should make sure that Karline didn't survive the night? What did you say?

Aly: That he should do everything possible to help her survive.

SPIEGEL: Even before Karline's birth, the plan was that she would live with her mother. The mother, Morlind Tumler, has a child from another relationship, and you have three children from your marriage. How did Karline change your life?

Aly: I want to stress that Karline's mother assumed the lion's share (of the work). She took the first year off from work, but then she went back to her job as a teacher at what was an inclusive school for the time. And, of course, Karline gave me the impetus for my work.

SPIEGEL: You seem happy when you talk about Karline, and yet life with a disabled child is exhausting.

Aly: Karline is unable to speak. She's in a wheelchair, she has no control over her movements, her upper body has to be supported and she sometimes has epileptic seizures.

SPIEGEL: She has to be fed, diapered and sometimes carried?

Aly: Yes, but she's small and delicate. She only weighs 20 kilograms (44 lbs.), which is advantageous. I don't believe that life with a severely disabled child is more tedious than life with a child who isn't as limited. I even think that parents can have far more trouble coping with a moderately disabled child. They try for years and organize dozens of treatments before accepting their child for what he or she is.

SPIEGEL: And, in Karline's case, was it clear from the beginning that there would be little improvement?

Aly: After about a year. So it was easier for us to say: Okay, we'll try to make life as easy as possible for the child. It isn't unusual for parents to develop aggression toward a disabled child -- or even to wish death upon them. It's the result of feeling overburdened, abandoned and desperate. Such ambivalent feelings are a heavy burden on our conscience because they are directed against a person who is close to us and is also completely vulnerable. The Nazis' emphasis on health and fitness amplified this quite human ambivalence and set the stage for a policy of murder.

SPIEGEL: Parents hope to see themselves reflected in their children. It's one of the ways they establish a bond. When a child is gifted, parents like to believe that it's because of them. It must be more difficult to see yourself in a disabled child.

Aly: (This type of bonding) definitely works. Karline is very gentle and even-tempered, which she certainly gets from her mother. She's pretty. She laughs and cries, and she loves music, good food and company. She also drinks a beer once in a while. She looks mischievous at times, and then we say that she looks very intelligent.

SPIEGEL: Your daughter went to an alternative kindergarten and then a special school, and today she lives in a supervised group home. How do you feel about the most recent efforts to achieve inclusion, meaning that all schools should be open to all children? Critics say that when disabled children are sent to mainstream schools, they are more likely to feel different from the norm and suffer even more as a result.

Aly: There are children who recognize that they have a special role, and they enjoy it. But there are also many who sense that they can't do what the others can do, and they're happy to be placed in a protected school. It depends on their personalities. That's why it should be a matter of choice.

SPIEGEL: The call for inclusive schooling tends to come from the left-leaning part of society. You too were once a protagonist of the leftist movement, but you have now distanced yourself from some of its causes. You write in your book that the ideology that leads to euthanasia was inspired by the reform movement, which essentially came from the left. What brought you to that realization?

Aly: There was no resistance to the euthanasia murders from the leftist or secular side of society. The notion of a healthy society, of capable people who are able to enjoy life, arose in the liberal, middle-class, leftist and non-religious segments of society. The euthanasia idea came from neither the radical right-wing nor the conservative corner. It was and remains part of the modern age and progressive thought. It's just that nowhere in the world was this way of thinking put into practice quite as radically as in Nazi Germany. Assisted suicide is a very accepted practice in some European societies that are closely oriented toward modernity.

SPIEGEL: Which ones?

Aly: I recently met with a Dutch colleague. She said that she had just been on the phone with her siblings to schedule a date for the assisted suicide of their mother, who has cancer. The son of the Dutch queen has been in a coma since he had a skiing accident, and he is being cared for in England because there are almost no facilities left in the Netherlands that handle such patients.

SPIEGEL: The Netherlands was the world's first country to legalize active assisted suicide.

Aly: That's consistent with the country's history. The Dutch were the first modern bourgeois society in Europe. At an early date, they stressed self-determination, worldly happiness and prosperity.

SPIEGEL: Resistance against the destruction of so-called worthless life came from the church, specifically Clemens August Graf von Galen, who was bishop of (the northern German city of) Münster from 1933 to 1946. Galen was very conservative. This shows that euthanasia can hardly be associated with categories like left and right.

Aly: In the same sermon in which he denounced euthanasia as a serious crime, Count Galen also raged against premarital sex. The motives behind Galen's resistance are foreign to us today, and yet his singular, courageous resistance is worthy of admiration.

SPIEGEL: Most of us want to live autonomous lives and tolerate abortion and assisted suicide under certain circumstances. At the same time, we know that the model of perfection turns us into monsters. The church is losing influence, leaving a void where moral guidelines are concerned. Do we need new ethics?

Aly: Yes, we have to reformulate moral standards. Human beings have to impose limits on themselves when it comes to their actions and desires. There is a beautiful and very radical notion in the bible: Man is made in the image of God, no matter how sick, poor or damaged he is. We should try to transpose this maxim to our secular and constitutional self-image.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Aly, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Susanne Beyer, translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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princesselsbeth 04/26/2013
1. Euthanasia for the disabled in Nazi Germany
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.
Inglenda2 04/28/2013
2. not only Nazi victims have been forgotten
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.
mfinn 04/30/2013
3. Euthanasia In Germany
#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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