Children with Down's Syndrome at a Psychiatric Facility
Schönbrunn Psychiatric Hospital, 1934. Photographed by Friedrich Franz Bauer, courtesy of Sammlung Berlin Document Center.

German Nazis decided who dies and who lives, and euthanasia was one of the common practices that German physicians used to kill people. Concentration camps reported on who could work and who could no longer work, and those people were put into a pool that expert consultants would review. Hitler’s authorized his euthanasia program in October 1939 (1). It would target not only those in the concentration camps, but also those in hospitals. The program gave the expert consultants the decision to decide who they killed and how. Yet, many of the consultants never even saw the patients that were going to be killed (2).

Several arguments arose defending the program. One of the most popular was that Germany needed to conserve its resources for the war. They stated that Germany did not have the money to support disabled individuals (3). Nazis would reject morality for the sake of a better world, and used this argument to persuade others as well. The Nazis used this abuse as social control, and routinely target racial minorities and political offenders

The program would begin with the killing of disabled children in 1940. Many of these children came from the communities, and if the physicians deemed them disabled, they moved to one of the kill center facilities. Injection of medications or starvation were the methods used to kill most of the children.

Hartheim Euthanasia Centre
Hartheim Euthanasia Centre, where over 18,000 people died in carbon monoxide gas chambers. Courtesy of Wikimedia user Dralon.

Similar facilities were being built for mentally and physically disabled adults during this time. Many of these adults would be killed in similar ways or by the use of poison gas. Gas chambers were the most efficient way to kill large numbers of people, and crematoriums would dispose of their bodies. German health commissions would even visit neighboring countries and their overcrowded hospitals to categorize the patients and kill them (4). The program would eventually spread to many neighboring countries.

While this program was being kept top secret, some Germans began to notice the large amounts of patients going missing. Family members also grew suspicions of their loved one’s deaths. Hitler ended the program in 1941 due to public opposition, but an estimated 70,000 adults had been killed (5). Thus, the discrimination of disabled children and adults would continue for decades to come.

Bunker that was once used as a gas chamber.
Bunker No. 17 in artillery wall of Fort VII in Poland, used as improvised gas chamber for early experiments. Courtesy of Radomił Binek.
  1. “Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases (July 14, 1933).” GHDI, 14 July 1933.
  2. Moss, Ronald. “The Abuse of Medicine as a Political Power in Nazi Germany.” Medicine and War 3, no. 1 (1987): 43–47.
  3. Kessler, Karl. “Physicians and the Nazi Euthanasia Program.” International Journal of Mental Health 36, no. 1 (2007): 4–16.
  4. Ziherl, Slavko, Zdenka Čebašek-Travnik, and Zvonka Zupanič-slavec. “The Extermination of Psychiatrie Patients in Occupied Slovenia in 1941.” International Journal of Mental Health 36, no. 1 (2007): 99–104.
  5. Poore, Carol. Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 87.