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The Chilling Tale Of How Doctors Became Murderers In Nazi Extermination Camps

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Indians are protesting against fascism spreading its wings over our country. Parallels are being drawn between Nazi Germany and BJP-ruled India, between Hitler and Modi, between Final Solution and the BJP manifesto, between concentration camps and detention centres.

Poster of film Action T4 by Catherine Bernstein

It is in this context, that watching the documentary film ‘Action T4: A doctor under Nazism becomes relevant. This documentary film by Catherine Bernstein asks how Dr Julius Hallervorden, a major brain pathologist, who contributed to the systematic murder and recovering the brains of 690 victims, went unpunished.

After the war, he still pursued a brilliant career in neuropathology, in all impunity, and died covered in honours. In this 50-minutes documentary, available on Amazon Prime and YouTube, she explains this in harrowing details. The documentary, which is in the form of an interrogation of Dr Hallervorden, which should have happened, but never did, unsheathes the larger Nazi campaign of extermination and racial hygiene.

It explains how Adolf Hitler, after coming to power in 1933, quickly brought into practice the theories of racial superiority, racial hygiene, eugenics and theory of natural selection. One of the first plans set into motion was involuntary sterilisation of adults as well as children, having certain diseases, which included hereditary conditions, mental disorders and physical deformities rendering patients incapable of working. This was backed by the scientific campaign, which stated:

“The curse of disease genes destroyed the happiness of entire families”

“Hereditary degenerates can only give life to their own kinds”

“Hereditary degenerates reproduce shamelessly”

“Their offspring mainly lunatics, criminals and prostitutes”

“They cost us millions of Reichsmarks, should this be passed on to the next generation?

This was also ably supported by the infamous German propaganda ministry, through posters like these, which read:


Propaganda ad for euthanasia and another propaganda ad showing the cost of sustaining a disabled person till the age of 60 years as 50,000 Reichsmarks.

The propaganda ministry also took the help of the psychiatrists for this. The documentary shows how the mental institute at Potsdam, near Berlin, took photographs of inmates, who showed peculiar signs in such light and angle; in order to evoke horror and disgust among the public against the disabled persons.

Hitler knew that any plan to exterminate the disabled would have been met with public dissent, and hence, he carefully created such propaganda, to change the way the German public viewed the “handicapped as parasites of the society”.

With their emphasis, on youth, health, and productivity, the Nazis turned illness into a social crime. This was based on Eugenics or creating a pool of people with better genetic make-up.

If you were not worthwhile and didn’t contribute to society, then you had no right to continue living. This was well theorised and supported by German Scientists. The eugenic sterilisation of persons diagnosed with Schizophrenia was advocated by Eugen Bleuler, who stated in his Textbook of Psychiatry that ‘The more severely burdened should not propagate themselves. If we do nothing but make mental and physical cripples capable of propagating themselves, and the healthy stocks have to limit the number of their children because so much has to be done for the maintenance of others, if natural selection is generally suppressed, then unless we will get new measures our race must rapidly deteriorate.”

To cite another example, after the invasion of Poland, Hermann Pfannmüller, who headed The State Hospital near Munich said, “It is unbearable to me that the flower of our youth must lose their lives at the front, while feeble-minded and asocial element can have a secure existence in the asylum.”

This is very well explained by an American psychiatrist, and author Robert Jay Lifton, who wrote that “The argument went that the best young men died in the war, causing a loss to the Volk (society) of the best genes. The genes of those who did not fight (the worst genes) then proliferated freely, accelerating biological and cultural degeneration.”

The documentary reveals how like the rest of the German Protestants, Dr Hallervorden took advantage of the fact that there was a systematic removal of Jewish people from the institutes of learning, and they were replaced by those who were members of the Nazi Party.

Thus, joining the Nazi Party became a stepping stone to professional and social security and success. Dr Hallervorden too had joined the Nazi party, and rose to power, achieving coveted seats, which were earlier occupied by Jews.

After conducting forced sterilisation on disabled persons, the next step was the secret plan of elimination of people with mental and physical disabilities. This operation to eliminate 70,000 persons was named the Charitable Foundation for Institutional Care, to deceive the people of its real intentions. The code-name of this extermination program was T4, as it was set up in a villa T4 which was confiscated from a Jewish family.

The T4 Tiergartenstrasse Villa on which the Aktion T4 program was named

The legal basis for the program was a September 1939 letter from Adolf Hitler to Bouhler and Brandt, which read-

Reich Leader Bouhler and Dr Brandt are entrusted with the responsibility of extending the authority of physicians, to be designated by name, so that patients who, after a most critical diagnosis, on the basis of human judgment, are considered incurable, can be granted mercy death [Gnadentod].

Letter by Hitler ordering mercy killing of children with disabilities

A meeting was held in the Chancellory of the Reich with 15 physicians to plan the who, where, when and how of this euthanasia program. This was probably the first of a conference of its kind, where doctors were plotting to kill their own patients. Circulars were sent to maternity and pediatric centres to identify children with mental disorders. An assessment form would be filled by paediatricians to decide who gets to live and who gets to die.

The Nazi doctors who took part in the Aktion T4 program were made to recite a knock-off of the Hippocratic Oath. It was replaced with the Gesundheit; which substituted the famous ‘do not harm the patient’ clause with the ‘protect the health of the Nazi state’ clause. Now, the German doctors first duty was to the benefit of the Nazi state.


Dr Karl Brandt, the personal physician of Hitler and organiser of Aktion T4 being awarded Death Sentence at Doctor’s trial at Nuremberg

As the operation T4 began, the children at Gorden Psychiatric Hospital were the first to be killed, either by a high dose of Phenobarbital or starving them to death. The war and extermination of the disabled were parts of a synergistic plan, to vacate the valuable bed-space used by the disabled so that it could be used by the wounded German soldiers. Also, war is a costly affair and they did not want to continue spending money on disabled which they believed to be a useless exercise with no returns.

While the gas chambers at German concentration camps are infamous, their origin is in the extermination camps for the disabled. As a need for a quick, odourless and medical method of mass extermination was sought, gassing with carbon monoxide was suggested and tried out at Brandenburg extermination centre.

Brandenberg Extermination Centre

While these children with physical and mental disabilities were selected and killed one by one, Dr Hallervorden saw this as an opportunity and asked the brains to be recovered before cremation of the killed bodies. He gathered an impressive number of brains (more than 600) which exceeded his own expectations.

One of the most bone-chilling narrations in the documentary is where it describes how the new accountant decided to turn the gassing of patients into a profitable business. He would defer the announcements of deaths of the inmates so that their parents kept paying for their stay in the institute. Also, the gold dental fillings of the inmates were removed and molten and some of it was used by the employees of the extermination centre for their own teeth. Imagine having gold in your teeth which comes from the teeth of those children you have killed; carrying it in person like a trophy.

What was worse is that the general public and parents of these children were in the dark; remember this was a secret operation. The parents were told that their children were shifted for special medical treatment. Fake autopsies were conducted and false death certificates were handed out to them.

The causes of death were mentioned as medical conditions like pneumonia and appendicitis. Later, however, rumours of what was taking place spread and many withdrew their relatives from asylums and sanatoria to care for them at home. What was the silver lining, in this story of doctors being complicit in the murder of children, is that in some places, doctors and psychiatrists co-operated with families, to have patients discharged or if the families could afford it, transferred them to private clinics beyond the reach of T4.

In some cases, doctors re-diagnosed their cases, so that they did not fit the requirement of T4. This, they did, at much risk to their own life, as it was considered going against the order of Hitler.

In 10 months, the extermination centre killed more than 9000 people and was then shut down by Hitler’s order. For what reason, it is not known. It may be because this centre located within a German Aryan neighbourhood caused discomfort to them. The burnt human fat started covering their windows, the air smelled of burnt flesh and the tufts of singed hair floated in the air. this was a ‘secret’ operation. The reason could also be that no more people were left to exterminate. They had a target of 70,000 and they had exceeded it before closing down. The actual number of killings revealed by later investigations could be anywhere between 275,000 to 300,000.

While this operation was terminated, it did give an idea for a larger program to exterminate Jews. The operation then began in concentration camps of Germany, under the name 14f13, using the same people who operated T4. The task of selecting people for extermination was again given to SS physicians and psychiatrists. During this process, Dr Hallervorden received more than 5000 brains. This was a jackpot.

Surprisingly, in a sting operation carried out by Leo Alexander, Dr Hallervorden tried to impress Leo with the work he did. The former was an Austrian Jewish Neuropsychiatrist, who had migrated to the US before the German war, and who was investigating the role of German doctors in Nazi crimes for Nuremberg trials, in his capacity as a medical advisor

What was more surprising, was that Dr Hallervorden also said that he felt that the killings were illegal, that he felt queasy whenever a new batch of brains arrived but he still accepted them and considered them useful evidence in his research.

Of course, he was lying. Unfortunately, though many doctors were tried and given a death sentence, most escaped with little punishment. Dr Hallervorden was never tried and punished for his crimes despite the scathing report by Leo Alexander. However, the evidence which appeared after Dr Hallervorden’s death, clearly pointed out that he was not just aware of the killings of children but also approved of them, for furthering his research in special cases of interest.

Apologies have flown in retrospect from Max Planck Institute, formerly known as Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where Dr Julius Hallervorden worked. Erin Schuman, the MD at MPI stated, “Our Institute, the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, bears the heavy burden of the crimes committed by some of its scientists in the name of science, during the Third Reich. This happened at our ancestral Institute in Berlin, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research. Some directors at KWI for Brain Research at that time, particularly Julius Hallervorden, supported the murder of children and young adults with assumed or proven psychiatric disorders to provide material for their research. Hallervorden used the brains for his research up into the 1960s and some of his immediate successors likely continued using those brain samples well beyond the 1960s.”

Memorial for the victims of the Euthanasia Program, in Berlin-Buch

The callousness of Dr Hallervorden can be clearly understood from his statement, “There was wonderful material among those brains. Where they came from and how they came to me was really none of my business.”

The concluding accusing words in the documentary nail it. “Your thirst for knowledge and recognition made you deaf and blind to humanity. How could your interest in Science obliterate your medical conscience to such a point as to see other people as nothing but research material? You made compromise after compromise until you ended up selecting the children to be killed. You became a murderer. That has nothing to do with science.”

This brings us back to the larger question. If fascism is indeed spreading in India, then is there a possibility of history repeating itself in India in the 2020s? Do we have some lessons to learn from the past and ensure that we do not fall down the same trap that Germany did vis-à-vis the unethical medical experiments and mass killings of humans?

Well, looking around us, it does not evoke any signs that we could have a replication of that but then the extermination did not start with extermination centres or gas chambers directly. It started with the theory of racial superiority, of who deserved to live in Germany and who did not, with calling a certain section of society useless and a burden on the taxpayers of the country, with removing heads of institutes and replacing them with those who were followers of a certain ideology, with leaders calling certain section of society parasites, and with strategies at controlling population of these parasites. Now, do you see this chatter around you? Deja vu?

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