Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2008

("If inferior people have 4 children while higher-quality people have 2, this is what will happen." [1])

January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day (the similar Yom HaShoah falls on May 2 this year). The 2006 entry covered book and film recommendations (feel free to pass on any more), while the 2007 entry centered on the poetry of Charlotte Delbo. (In December, we also tackled Holocaust denial.)

Dave Neiwert has helpfully compiled all his posts on Jonah Goldberg's Newspeak tract, Liberal Fascism, with more on the way. Considering Goldberg's goal of "muddying the waters" on fascism, and considering that the mainstream media and Goldberg's fellow conservatives haven't eviscerated, debunked and mocked him and his work as they should, it seems especially important to recollect the truth.

This year, I wanted to take a look at the Nazi's T4 "euthanasia" program, which, starting in the summer of 1939, focused on killing the mentally and physically disabled. Taking its name from the building where the program's offices resided, T4 was in many ways a precursor of the larger scale death camps and "the Final Solution." T4 in turn grew out of a program of forced sterilization for those deemed "incurable" or otherwise undesirable. It's a chilling example of an attempt to earn radical ideas mainstream acceptance through gradual steps. (The Overton Window relates to this.) This post is by no means definitive, but may still be useful.

The Wiki entries for "Action T4" and Nazi Eugenics aren't bad for a basic framework. The lecture page for "Eugenics and Euthanasia" by Professor Harold Marcuse of UCSB provides a good overview, as does the article "Euthanasia in the Third Reich: Lessons for Today?" by J. A. Emerson Vermaat for Ethics & Medicine. A number of books focus on the subject, including "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," and that's without even delving into the eugenics and sterilization movements of Sweden, Great Britain, America and other countries. The film Europa, Europa has a memorable, funny scene on these issues. I'll also recommend once again Conspiracy, a superbly cast film about the Wannsee Conference, where the details of the Final Solution were disseminated.

Best of all on the T4 program may be a 45-min 1993 Discovery Channel piece, Selling Murder: The Killing Films of the Third Reich, that I've mentioned before. Sadly, this doesn't seem to be commercially available currently (but at some point in the future, perhaps I can post clips). The special, apparently repackaged from the U.K.'s Channel Four, focuses on a half-dozen propaganda films made by the Nazis to sell murder of the "unfit."

Most estimates I've read put the number of people the Nazis sterilized at roughly 350,000, while estimates of the T4 victims murdered range from 75,000 to 250,000. Selling Murder interviews Klara Nowak, who was labeled as schizophrenic (she wasn't) and offered the choice of sterilization or confinement in a mental home. She chose the former, and although she went on to become a successful nurse, was tormented by the consequences of the Nazi policy, lamenting her lack of children and grandchildren. Perhaps most chilling is that the decision to force this on her was made by her town's "Public Health" officer, who did not even bother to examine her. (On that aspect, I can't help but think of some of the current abuses of our justice system.)

As the Nazis pushed from a policy of sterilization to one of murder (first with children and later with adults), they made a strategic effort to sell this to party members, to those that were to conduct the killing, and to the general public. Hitler decreed that the short film Victims of the Past (Opfer der Vergangenheit,1937) be shown in every movie theater in Germany. As the narrator for Selling Murder observes:

The film claims that disabled people have been allowed to survive thanks by modern medicines, in defiance of the laws of natural selection. Theirs lives are depicted as unproductive and meaningless.

The film also warns, in alarmist fashion, about the threat of a horde of mentally disabled people in the next fifty years if something isn't done immediately. You can see an excerpt below:

[Update: the original video was yanked, but the replacement above seems more complete anyway.]

Victims of the Past officially pushed for sterilization, but its even more ominous agenda is hard to miss. A subsequent film less widely distributed, The Inheritance (Das Erbe), pushed more directly for murder, or in Nazi terms, "mercy killings." Many of the films feature Social Darwinist rhetoric about the strong and the weak. In The Inheritance (Das Erbe), the oh-so wise doctors show a female nurse nature footage of a cat preying on a sick bird, animals fighting, and so on, while the narrator speaks of the dominance of the strong over the "weak" and the need to dispose of the "sick." The nurse happily exclaims the key point: "So animals pursue proper racial policy?" The film also features the requisite disturbing footage of physically and mentally disabled patients in asylums, the other "sick" who must be eliminated.

In these films, as at the Hadamar Clinic, one of the six asylums where the T4 killings were carried out, such phrases as "Existence without life" (Dasein ohne Leben ), "Life unworthy of Life" (lebensunwertes Leben) and "mercy killing" were commonly employed. At Hadamar and the other clinics, the infamous method later used at Auschwitz and other death camps was first employed: telling the victims they were to receive a shower, locking them in, gassing them with carbon monoxide (Zyklon B was used later in the death camps), and then cremating the bodies. At Hadamar, as at many similar sites, a peephole was provided for the doctors and guards.

The Nazis weren't able to keep all of this secret, however, and some prominent critics such as Bishop Galen denounced them publicly (Hitler was apparently furious, but Galen was too well-known to eliminate outright). This was one reason of many for the "Final Solution," deporting victims to the east and Poland, where there was less German scrutiny. Meanwhile, as a former guard explains in Selling Murder, at the Hadamar Clinic they shifted to more subtle methods. The most common was to administer a lethal sedative, and then report that the patient had died of the "flu."

("A Nazi chart incorporating Gergor Mendel's laws of heredity, part of efforts to show how "racially mixed" parents produced "inferior" offspring." [2])

The Nazis destroyed some of the films they made lest they be used in evidence against them, including an actual "snuff" film, showing a single victim, seen through the gas chamber peephole, succumbing to the deadly gas. However, for two of the destroyed films, the makers of Selling Murder found the original scripts and directors' notes, and some of the original footage. The original footage is mostly of physically and mentally disabled patients, the more shocking looking, the better. Some of this footage was shot on asylum grounds outdoors (as in the Victims of the Past clip above), but a fair amount was shot in a studio, with harsh lighting from below in the style of a horror film, to make the patients appear especially grotesque and frightening.

One of the most interesting sections of Selling Murder is their reconstruction of the short film Dasein ohne Leben (Existence without Life) from the director's detailed notes. The film centers on a professor lecturing his young, Aryan students (if anything, the reconstruction is more restrained than most other Nazi films). It was made for those doctors, nurses and guards who would actually implement T4 and perform the killings. The film stresses that it's expensive to keep these disabled people alive, and caring for them is a great indignity to the doctors and nurses who could otherwise lead a "normal" life. The professor ends with an impassioned speech to his students about how, if he were struck down with such a horrible, crippling mental disease, he'd end his own life — and that the majority of parents of "incurables" feel the same way about their children. Thus, the film equates an adult choosing to end his or her own life, with which many viewers could sympathize, with state-sanctioned murder. It's a deliberate blurring the Nazis would continue to use.

The Nazis destroyed another film, Mentally Ill (Geisteskrank), but the script, notes and most of the raw footage remained. It also was made to sell the concept of killing to those charged with implementing T4. The Selling Murder team also reconstructed this film. As the narrator remarks, "Marked top secret, it seeks to portray mass murder in a humane and compassionate light, and as the result of careful scientific deliberation." For me, the most striking passage from the Nazi script is (emphasis mine):

Every reasonable person would prefer death to such an existence, and would not condemn any incurable patient who sought deliverance through death. Our National Socialist state, taking into account the purpose and value of human life, has adopted measures by which those afflicted of an incurable mental illness, can be relieved of their terrible suffering and hellish existence, by a humane and gentle death.

Because we value human life, we must kill these people. Wow. Orwellian Newspeak is often a bit more subtle, but not necessarily more evil.

(A still from the film I Accuse (Ich klage an, 1941))

The most advanced Nazi propaganda film for the T4 program was I Accuse (Ich klage an (1941), a feature film apparently seen by about 15 million viewers. Based on a novel by a man working in the T4 program, the film was directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner, well-regarded at the time. Mathias Wieman, one of the three stars in the central love triangle, was apparently well-known for reading a Nativity play at Christmas, and the other two actors had similarly morally upright images.

The Vermaat article linked earlier provides a good synopsis:

Hanna, the beautiful young wife of professor Thomas Heyt, is suffering from multiple sclerosis. Her husband, the newly appointed director of the Anatomical Institute of Munich University, knows that there is little hope for his wife. Hanna first asks her personal physician and family friend Bernhard Lang to end her life should the moment of unbearable suffering occur. Lang refuses and says: ‘I am your best friend, but I am also a doctor, and as such I am a servant of life. Life must be preserved at any cost.’

Hanna then approaches her husband Thomas in a very emotional way: ‘You must help me. I want to remain your Hanna till the very end, I don’t want to become somebody else who is deaf, blind, and idiotic. I wouldn’t endure that. Thomas, if you really love me, promise that you will deliver me from this beforehand.’

Hanna’s medical condition rapidly deteriorates. Thomas and Bernhard realize she has only a few weeks to live. One day they are together at Hanna’s bedside. Hanna kindly asks Bernhard to leave the room. She wants to be alone with Thomas. Bernhard goes to the piano in the living room where he starts to play. While the piano music can be heard in the bedroom Thomas fetches a bottle containing a sedative and poors a fatal dose into Hannna’s glass. Before passing away Hanna says, ‘I feel so happy, I wish I were dead.’ Thomas replies, ‘Death is coming, Hanna.’ Hanna responds, ‘I love you, Thomas.’ ‘I love you, too, Hanna,’ says Thomas.

Bernhard is furious when Thomas informs him what has happened. Domestic servant Bertha then accuses Thomas of murdering his wife and takes him to court. At issue is: can a doctor be allowed to cause the death of a terminally ill patient after that person explicitly requested him to do so? One of the witnesses is Bernhard. He says that he initially also opposed Hanna’s request, but now he sees things from a different perspective. ‘Thomas, you are not a murderer!’ he says loud and clear in the courtroom. Thomas himself then accuses (‘I accuse!’) those doctors and judges who by adhering to strict rules fail to serve the people. ‘Try me! Whatever the outcome, your judgment will be a signal to all those who are in the same position like me! Yes, I confess: I did kill my incurably ill wife, but it was at her request.’

From a propagandistic point of view the film was a success. The Gestapo, the secret state police, reported that the film received much attention in the whole Reich. A Dutch woman living in Düsseldorf at the time told me in an interview: ‘All my colleagues were impressed by the film. They suddenly understood the dilemma of a doctor who is confronted with an incurable disease.’

[Update: Here's some footage from the film. The film's in German, and the narrator's speaking in Italian, but this will give you a taste of its imagery and style:

End update.]

The film was nominated for, and won, a few honors. There are two key aspects that Selling Murder adds to the above synopsis, however. The first is that the courtroom scenes that end the film were an attempt by the Nazis to convince the public of the need to change the laws, to allow the state to kill those it deemed "incurable." While the Nazis had been perpetrating such murders since the summer of 1939, that was not officially occurring. The second key aspect is that the film has a subplot, involving a severely disabled child. Dr. Berhard Lang had earlier saved the child's life, but now the parents want him to perform a "mercy killing" on it. Dr. Lang at first refuses, but after visiting the child again and seeing its dread condition, agrees. Interestingly, the Nazis at the T4 headquarters wanted to include actual footage of a severely deformed child, but the director Liebeneiner felt it would be too shocking.

Yet again, the Nazis sought to equate doctor-assisted suicide, voluntarily chosen, with the systematic murder of those the State deemed undesirable. All the Nazi films try to provoke a strong emotional reaction, then move in with an authoritative message on the course of action that must be taken. I Accuse may be the most interesting because it's the most subtle and effective, but the other films are carefully tuned propaganda pieces as well, more blatant at times, but often quite crafty. The propaganda campaign against the general public to sell the T4 program was evidently not entirely successful, but these "killing films of the Third Reich" do clearly show that the Nazis pursued a deliberate strategy to sell a terrible, inhumane idea. Meanwhile, the methods of mass killing employed during the T4 program were put to horrific use on a larger scale in the death camps. Along with the systematic stripping of the civil rights of Germans, especially Jews, the T4 program played an essential role in the historical slippery slope of increasing Nazi power and greater and greater atrocities.

Discussing the Nazis can be problematic, since any modern comparisons can be overblown. However, eliminationist attitudes are very real, as is the far more common (and sadly acceptable) aggressive defense of inequality by some political groups. Defining what's actually fascist, versus proto-fascist, versus simply bad and dangerous, can be important. Regardless, Holocaust Remembrance Day is primarily about remembering history, those dread events and their many victims, but it can also be an opportunity to stop to think about current political rhetoric, policies and their potential consequences.

[Update: This short documentary clip gives a very interesting and relevant look at Joseph Goebbels' love of Hollywood films and his attitudes on propaganda via film.]

("This poster reads: "60,000 Reichsmarks is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the People's community during his lifetime. Fellow German, that is your money too. Read '[A] New People', the monthly magazines of the Bureau for Race Politics of the NSDAP." (about 1938)" [3])

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

1 comment:

Suzi Riot said...

Fascinating post. The true definition of fascism has been lost in the collective perception, primarily because of overuse and misuse. I think it's relevant when we're reflecting on Holocaust Remembrance Day, but I agree with you that the point is to remember the victims. Nice historical analysis.