domenica 8 novembre 2009

Nazi Euthanasia


It has been argued that euthanasia and eugenics have not been inextricably intertwined (Pernick 1996; Goldhagen, 1996; Kühl 2001). This chapter seeks instead to demonstrate that concerns about fitness and racial purity, as they were conceived in Nazi Germany, had their feeding roots in a common, transnational soil, which was marked out by a number of features: biological reductionism, genetic determinism and a biological vision of social well-being; the cult of collective health and personal sacrifice; a naturalist ethics premised on a distorted interpretation of Darwinism; the devaluation of life for the sake of efficiency; and the radicalization of legal realism. It was no coincidence that lawyers and doctors were the most over-represented professionals within SS ranks. Here I propose to discuss the relationship between doctors, jurists and the Nazi State, the erosion of their professional ethos, and the motives behind their involvement in the larger program of racial purification of the German nation. In my view, the question of why this catastrophe took place there and not in other countries invites an interpretative, political-anthropological approach.

The eugenic State

The term ‘eugenics’ was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), after the Greek εύγενής, meaning ‘wellborn’. Galton mistakenly assumed that all traits are passed down unaffected from our ancestors (‘law of ancestral heredity’) and envisioned eugenics as a naturalistic religion antagonistic to Christianity. An extreme version of this theory, called Ahnenerbe (‘ancestral inheritance’), which described individual life as the epiphenomenon of perpetual bloodlines, was deployed by Heinrich Himmler to substantiate his infamous holistic plan for a New European Order and by the Nazi leadership to justify the implementation of the “euthanasia” programme, codenamed “Aktion T-4” after the address – Tiergarten 4of the “Reich Work Group of Sanatoriums and Nursing Homes” in the Berlin Chancellery. Traces of this erroneous understanding of genealogies in terms of genetic continuity were evident in the writings of Nietzsche, of Ernst Haeckel, the most influential German popularizer of evolutionary theory and the “direct ancestor of Nazi euthanasia” (Mosse, 1978, p. 87), and of American biologist Charles Davenport, who held that predispositions to social deviance were inherited from ‘ape-like ancestors’.[1] A combination of Eternal Recurrence – human beings as expressions of the immortal germplasm – and natural teleology of history – biology as destiny – stamped these positions and fostered the conception of National Socialism as angewandte Biologie, i.e. applied biology. Adolf Hitler himself stated that “Our revolution is another step, or rather the final step towards the overcoming of historicism and the acceptance of pure biological values” (Vogt 1997, p. 288). For the Nazis, historicism and mechanistic/materialistic science were peculiarly “Jewish” and undermined the “healthy” organic conception of Germany as one Volk with one Führer, in which a prominent role would be assigned to biologists and geneticists, now responsible for the popularisation of the “fundamental laws of life”. And what could be more mechanistic than the existence of disabled people, who depended upon an artificial environment, precisely the sort of environment that the holistically-minded Nazis were most averse to? Not being in the service of life, the disabled and feeble-minded were regarded as disposable machines. Nazi physician Karl Kötschau was very outspoken on this matter: “Our time does not need externally controlled machine-people, but rather self-controlled people who have developed their own powers schooled in battles with a healthy Nature. Our time needs the heroic man, the man who is up to the challenges of the time, and who does not have to rely on the doubtful protection of an all too artificial environment” (Harrington 1996, p. 186). The much-despised separation of man and nature could be overcome by “life-sustaining myths” that met with the approval of the most respected European intellectuals (Clark 1993). The price to pay for the preservation of primeval virtues and mores was to be exceedingly high. As ethics ought to answer to the demands of natural selection – which had been a matter of course for, among others, the illustrious marine biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919) who, since as early as the 1860s, publicly advocated racial selective breeding, infanticide and the elimination of the unfit –, free will, human dignity, and personal autonomy would be sacrificed to higher priorities and natural calls (Stein 1988). The two persons who most clearly foresaw what would happen in Germany, should the dreams of racial hygienists come true, were Oscar Hertwig, one of Ernst Haeckel’s most famous students, and the celebrated physician Rudolf Virchow, one of Haeckel’s lecturers. Hertwig warned that “A breeder of people should possess a supermanly foresight. But it is precisely those persons who are ethically and spiritually superior that are conscious of their weaknesses, and would not volunteer for such a tribunal, as earlier on it was not the best people who pressed for the office of Grand Inquisitor” (Vogt 1997: 277). Virchow similarly admonished Haeckel that his attempt to replace the Church’s dogmas with a religion of evolution would come to grief (Gasman 1971).
Biological reductionism alone cannot, however, account for the startling success of the transnational eugenics movement. The carnage and hardships of World War I had a lasting impact, for they led, among other things, to the devaluation of the lives of mental patients. This notwithstanding, by the onset of the Great Depression, eugenics and “mercy killing” advocates in Germany had accomplished very little. It took the Depression to radically alter the public perception of what was acceptable and what was not. Already in the early 1930s, eugenics sterilisation programmes were in full swing in Northern Europe and North America. Following the moral panic generated by the global crisis, few families were prepared to put up with the social protection of what was perceived to be a disproportionate number of dependent people. It was argued that under exceptional circumstances, basic rights could be withheld and that social services should only be granted to those whose social usefulness, law-abidance, and biological capability were incontrovertible (Porter, 1998). The ostensibly progressive civic religion of eugenics was seen by many as essentially fair and morally unassailable. Various representatives of the judicial branch became self-appointed guardians of the public morality and urged state governments to intrude in people’s private lives “for their own good”. Wayward citizens, namely those who could not be converted to an acceptable lifestyle, and whose behaviour remained unpredictable, were liable to being sterilized or institutionalized. This kind of society, at once ready to embrace an abstract notion of humankind and reluctant to put up with certain categories of human beings, was so insecure, apprehensive, and self-doubting, that it was willing to carry out self-mutilation in order to become risk-free, while refusing to consider the motives of the offenders and “miscreants.” The contemporary post-Socratic and secularised international political climate proved very receptive to the arguments of those prominent American, German, and Swedish jurists who agreed that personal and social rights were culturally and historically relative legal fictions or superstitions (vidskepelse), their existence depending, to a large extent, on the majority’s willingness to uphold them. For legal realists legal science was a branch of natural science, the only reliable form of knowledge, and they called on governments to cast aside nonsensical metaphysical conceptions of law and public morality, regarded as mere expressions of feelings, conveniences, habits, prejudices, or vested interests. Swedish lawyer and legal philosopher Karl Olivecrona (1897 – 1980) stated that “the law is the cause of morality, not the other way around” (Bjarup 1999, p. 775). Likewise, the founding father of Scandinavian legal realism, Axel Hägerström (1868-1939), claimed that “value itself means nothing, apart from the pleasure or displeasure of the judging party” (Paulson, 2003, p. 316). In order to have any meaning and legitimacy, law had to abide by some enduring principles, and those were established in harmony with the pragmatic will of the State. Accordingly, law was understood as a method of rational social control promoting the good life of all citizens and the public interest (Bouquet & Voilley, 2000).
Social utility and public policy were also at the centre of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s though-minded scientific naturalism. Like most realists, who generally held to a pessimistic anthropology, Holmes (1841-1935) appears to have had very little or no compassion for the suffering of others and believed that people were essentially gullible and foolish and could not be trusted to be the best stewards of their own interests (Leiter, 2000). In 1924, Virginia had already passed a law authorizing the involuntary sterilization of alleged mental defectives. This law was upheld, 8-1 by the Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200 (1927). Over the next few years, as a result of the Depression and of this decision, taken in a country that prided itself on its commitment to individual freedom but favoured scientifically unverifiable notions of social progress over clear constitutional principles, nearly half the U.S. states passed eugenics laws authorizing compulsory and non-voluntary sterilization. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the majority opinion, arguing that “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” In his private correspondence he once talked about “restricting propagation by the undesirables and putting to death infants that didn’t pass the examination” as a condition for intelligent socialism (Mennel & Compston, 1996, p. 125). He also cherished “a future in which science . . . shall have gained such catholic acceptance that it shall take control of life, and condemn at once with instant execution what now is left for nature to destroy”, “substituting artificial selection for natural by putting to death the inadequate” (Alschuler, 2002). These are not the words of a Nazi doctor but of someone who has been described as “the great oracle of American legal thought” (Grey, 1989).
In the United States, as in Sweden, Alberta and, in its most extreme form, in Nazi Germany, this Machiavellian interpretation of public law made ethics the handmaid of politics: rights could only be granted by law, and social utility overruled the “untenable notion” of human rights. Virtues, rather than rights, were the defining attribute of citizenship. Instead of protecting the citizens, law legitimized the persecution of certain categories of people, purportedly unable to enjoy freedom and to pursue happiness, by gradually stripping them of their rights and legal protections. Such policies were described as politically necessary and ethically indisputable, because the personification of the state meant that it became a moral entity invested with a superior moral status and therefore entrusted with special rights, indeed sometimes unlimited rights over the individual.
In a tragic reversal of roles, according to the “discourse of truth” which became prevalent in these result-oriented “herrenvolk democracies”, those who violated the physical integrity of other citizens were fulfilling a constitutionally sanctioned civic duty, while the victims of involuntary sterilization and confinement were a social threat and, as such, subject to legally mandated sterilization or confinement “for the good of society” (Stolleis, 1998; Colla, 2000; Morone, 2003). The German National-Socialists took it a huge step farther, to the point where they created a master morality for a biotic community (biocracy), in which the divide between animals and humans was effaced (zoological reductionism), whereas the divide between the healthy and the sick came to coincide with the line separating life and death (Sax 2000). As a result, both the Jews and the mentally impaired were relegated to a non-human status, one incompatible with the impending Nazi eugenic utopia of an organic Urvolk, a “blood community of the Artgleiche”, free from inheritable diseases and inheritable racial inferiorities (Burleigh & Wippermann 1991). From 1935 to 1945, an estimated 400,000 citizens were sterilised, while up to 200,000 mentally retarded and elderly people were murdered or starved between 1939 and 1941. The ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring’ (1933) authorised the forcible sterilisation of hundreds of thousands of citizens. The ‘Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour’ (1935) forbade miscegenation, while the ‘Law for the Protection of Hereditary Health of the German People’ (1935) made marriage permits compulsory. In 1936, the ‘Lebensborn e. V.’ (‘Spring of Life, registered association’) was launched, involving the selective breeding of ‘racially superior’ children and the kidnapping of ‘racially valuable’ children across occupied Europe. On March 8, 1937 the SS periodical Der Schwarze Korps explained that when the Gospel of Matthew (5:3) recited “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” that meant that feeble-minded had no mundane rights, whereas nobody would dispute their right to own the kingdom of heaven (Roger, 1989, p. 140). In 1939, a Führer’s directive allowed for ‘involuntary euthanasia’ in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. In 1941, the Final Solution to the Jewish Question was well under way.
By contrast, in those same years, law-makers in Western and Southern Europe objected to selective breeding, involuntary sterilization, the assault on the notion of free will, and the linear extension of natural laws into the social sphere. In those countries, most scientists and social analysts correctly understood that Charles Darwin had historicized nature without closing the gap between nature, human history and society. In short, eugenics, genetic fatalism, and the marriage between bureaucratic rationality and scientism did not resonate with every Western repertoire of values and symbols (Baud, 2001).

Euthanasia in Nazi Germany

In 1895, Alfred Ploetz, the founder of German racial hygiene, published a paper entitled Die Tüchtigkeit unserer Rasse und der Schutz der Schwachen (“The fitness of our race and the protection of the weak”), where he maintained that the humanitarian and socialist ideals inspiring the state’s measures for the protection of the weak were working against the interest of the Volk (Weingart 1987). He then set forth the vision of a rassenhygienische Utopie, explaining that reproduction could not be left to chance and a panel of doctors should assume absolute authority over the life and death of unfit children (Kappeler 2000). Such a society would eliminate abnormal newborn children, compile card-indexes of the asocial, rank the citizens according to a scale determining their entitlement to reproduce, neglect the genetically sick and constitutionally weak (minderwertig), prohibit the consumption of tobacco and spirits, and use the weakest subjects as cannon-fodder (Sieferle, 1989). The very same year, in his book Das Recht auf den Tod (“The Right to Death”), social commentator Adolf Jost announced that the state had the right to kill those citizens it deemed a burden, that the incurably ill had the right to choose death, and that this was in the interest of the “health” of the “social organism” (Ganssmüller, 1987). The message of this booklet was quite disquieting. Being alive did not automatically entitle someone to continue to live: a justification was now required, because one’s life was now owned by the State and could be used for many purposes, and even wasted. The boundary separating one’s freedom to choose suicide and one’s duty to choose ‘self-deliverance’ was no longer easily discernible.
In 1920, Karl Binding, an expert in criminal law, together with the well-respected psychiatrist Alfred Hoche, published a pamphlet on euthanasia entitled Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens [“The authorization for the extermination of the life unworthy of living”] in which they urged politicians to take active measures to solve the problem of all those whose life was wertlosen [worthless] by releasing[2] them from their existential burden, in so doing relieving the German taxpayers of a huge economic commitment. This is how they framed the question: “Are there human lives which have so completely lost the attribute of legal status that their prolongation has permanently lost all value, for the bearer of that life and for society as well?” Euthanasia was economically more effective than eugenics, for it would rid society of erblich belastet (genetically defective) “useless eaters” and would prevent the economic recovery from being hampered by Ballastexistenzen (human ballast). Finally, by turning human life into a piece of property and by considering citizens as Menschenmaterial (human material), Germany could close the gap between Volksgemeinschaft (ethnocracy) and Soziale Leistungsgemeinschaft, a social system based on cost-benefit assessment of human life and on considerations of national efficiency (Schmuhl, 1987). Binding argued that the incurable idiots were a “travesty of real human beings, occasioning disgust in anyone who encounters them”, while Hoche sought to persuade the readers that future generations would label “barbaric” the contemporary “over-exaggerated notion of humanity and over-estimation of the value of existence” (Burleigh, 2002a, p. 20).
These earlier proposals would serve as a blueprint for the Euthanasie-Programm für unheilbaren Kranken, premised on the alleged right to extinguish “life unworthy of life” (lebensunwertes Leben). On 5 August 1929, while addressing a party rally in Nuremberg, Hitler unveiled his ghastly intentions: “If Germany was to get a million children a year and was to get a million children a year and was to remove 700000-800000 of the weakest people, then the final result might even be an increase in strength” (Burleigh & Wippermann, 1991, p. 142). Aktion T4 was never sanctioned by law.[3] Starting in October 1939, following an informal secret letter from Hitler –, backdated to September 1, the onset of the war against Poland, and addressed to Karl Brandt and to the head of the Führer’s Chancellery, Philipp Bouhler –, which authorized physicians to participate in the “mercy killing” (Gnadentod) of the incurably ill,[4] the programme was carried out in relative secrecy. It began with the intensification of the killing of children (at least 6,000), which had been under way since May 1939 and was later extended to encompass adults. Not only “genetically dangerous” mentally ill and retarded, but also “socially obnoxious” maladjusted adolescents, adults traumatized by allied bombing, and sick foreign labourers, in order to cut costs and make room for convalescing soldiers and curable civilians. All that was weak, vulnerable, helpless, alien and deviant was viewed as a liability and would be sacrificed for the collective good. By mid-1941, when it was temporarily suspended to allow for the transfer of personnel and equipment from the asylums to the extermination camps, it had claimed over 70,000 lives through starvation, lethal injections and gassing at Hadamar, Grafeneck, Bernburg, Sonnenstein, Hartheim, and Brandenburg. It was then clandestinely resumed and, by the end of the war, the victims numbered in the hundreds of thousands, including 12,850 Polish psychiatric patients (Burleigh, 2002a).
It is a widely held opinion that only the strong opposition of some Protestant and Catholic leaders brought the programme to an end in 1941 although, unofficially, some of the killing did not stop until the final collapse of the Third Reich, on the ground that more beds should be made available for the physically ill and air-raids victims. While it is true that when word was leaked of what was going on in asylums across the country Hitler was confronted with the first signs of reaction from sectors of the German populace, it is nevertheless important to stress that a majority of the victims of Nazi euthanasia came from church institutions (Steigman-Gall, 2003). Secondly, one of the main forces behind the euthanasia movement was a politicized version of the Protestant ethic, with its pollution taboos and purity boundaries, which saw unconventionality as a social stigma because it threatened to break the symbolic and physical continuum between individual bodies and the body social, envisioned as a “community of model citizens.” Finally, those few individuals, such as the bishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen (1878-1946), who spoke from the pulpit against the euthanasia programme, remarking that “If you establish and apply the principle that you can kill ‘unproductive’ human beings, then woe betide us all when we become old and frail!”, never defended the Jews. Some Catholic theologians even attempted to rationalize and justify sterilization, abortion and euthanasia, despite the unequivocal denunciation of the Holy See (Griech-Polelle, 2001). Unfortunately, in Germany, there was no strong, consistent and resilient internal opposition, and the unrelenting propaganda machine of the Nazi Party was particularly skilful, producing speeches, leaflets, posters and movies like “The Inheritance” (Das Erbe, 1935) and “I Accuse” (Ich klage an, 1941) which deceptively “appropriate[d] the language of mercy, morality and religion in order to subvert them the more effectively” (Burleigh, 2002a, p. 188). They also disseminated the mistaken notion that an authentic core existed in all Aryans, which required each of them to be oneself by bonding with “’one’s own kind” and protecting the collective, intergenerational genetic continuity of the Volk, a putative ethnic essence contained in the germplasm of all pure, healthy Aryans. This, combined with severe economic constraints and crowded asylums persuaded many doctors and asylum administrators that selective killing, together with selective breeding, could be a viable solution for the nation’s healthcare problems and economic ills. Nor was there anything wrong with issuing falsified death certificates to the relatives of the “refractory therapy cases”, along with urns containing random ashes.[5] Thus, when Himmler requested their redeployment in Eastern Europe to gas the Jewish population of occupied Europe, they readily accepted.

The role of professionals

The situational context, that is, the social network of interactions, roles, expectations, obligations, etc., exerts a powerful influence upon moral choices and maturation that goes beyond a simple coupling of cognitive and moral development. It activates selective cognitive processes that may impair our moral judgment. This can be ascribed to the fact that a society’s morality reflects its power structure. Therefore just men do not necessarily build just societies. In a radicalized milieu, the moral competence of individuals with advanced cognitive skills – university educated, professionally trained, well-readmay be as hindered as that of lay-people, and their skills may prove seriously dangerous (Damico 1982).
Many of the medical professionals who took part in the killing of mental patients did not necessarily think they were evil, although they certainly displayed little or no empathy for the suffering of others (Caplan, 1992). Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician (Begleitarzt), Minister for Health and Sanitation in the Third Reich, head of Nazi euthanasia project, and a SS major general in charge of all experiments on humans, cited Schweitzer and Hitler as two fine examples of praiseworthy moral conduct (Lifton 1986). As a young man, he was eager to devote his life to assisting Albert Schweitzer, a fellow Alsatian, at Lambaréné, Gabon. The same idealism and willingness to serve a charismatic, missionary figure with complete loyalty and devotion which he later twisted into a justification for murderous demagoguery, with a view to creating a perfect and safe Volksgemeinschaft. In his defence before the United States Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (U.S.A. v. Karl Brandt et al.), he explained that “Somewhere we must all take a stand. I am fully conscious that when I said ‘Yes’ to euthanasia I did so with the deepest conviction, just as it is my conviction today, that it was right. Death can mean deliverance. Death is life just as much as birth. It was never meant to be murder. I bear a burden, but it is not the burden of crime. I bear this burden of mine, though with a heavy heart, as my responsibility. I stand before it, and my conscience as a man and as a doctor” (Frey, 2004, p. 137). Shortly before his execution, he revealed the nature of his obsessions and what motivated him to act the way he did, when he told his son that “The soil which absorbed our youth should be and should remain holy to us. Our parents and ancestors walked this earth before us, breathed the same smell of the earth, saw the same hills and woods and valleys and heard the same wind blowing. How could one leave this behind? The mountains, the castles, the murmur of the rivers and the springing of the streams! Heimat! Oh, when the days draw to a close and time has passed, one longs to come home” (Schmidt, 2007, p. 3). Ambitious, fervently patriotic, prejudiced technocrats. This is what a majority of these professionals most likely were. One of the former Nazi doctors, interviewed by American psychiatrist R.J. Lifton, described him as “a highly ethical person,…one of the most idealistic physicians I have ever met during my career” (Lifton, 1986, p. 114). This further demonstrates that no truly ethical behaviour is possible without compassion, sympathy, and benevolence and that a conception of morality as a matter of custom offers no resistance to radical evil. To this I shall return later. Or else, following André Mineau, Professor of Ethics and History at the University of Quebec, we could posit that there was indeed a Nazi ethic, as well as an ethic of the Holocaust, a master morality grounded in the pre-modern principle that human beings are not all equally human and that some are not even fully human. In other words, that not all human beings are born into this world with the same right to live and that some, like the members of the Aryan race, have a comparatively greater moral standing (Mineau, 1999). Eichmann’s inability to think from another person’s point of view and to feel remorse sits well with this interpretation. Eichmann’s and Brandt’s sense of moral obligation was reserved to their Führer, their country, their people, and their race. They both could embrace a dehumanizing, vicious doctrine and still believe that it was life-affirming, that they were living deliberately and abundantly, and acting lucidly, mindfully and intentionally, when their behaviour was really infantile, narcissistic, megalomaniac and, ultimately, nihilistic.
Nazi medical professionals saw no contradiction in the simultaneous acceptance of romantic idealism and technocratic rationalism. On the contrary, in an astonishing display of blind devotion to techno-scientific innovation, they believed that what stood in the way of the modernizing process was the result of ignorance, inertia, bigotry, parochialism, vested interest, and backwardness. Those who questioned their ostensibly sophisticated and rational arguments were labelled as uncooperative or reactionary. In a burst of self-serving enthusiasm, they regarded themselves as modern, progressive and boldly experimentalist. This made resistance to ethical self-scrutiny particularly strong, because the project of a rationalist utopia was inextricably bound up with social systems that many Germans believed were a model of enlightened administration, the embodiment of intrinsic farsightedness, eminently fair and morally unassailable. The wrong side was that of traditionalists, who did not see that times had changed and called for new modes of thinking and new rules. The fact that other cultures upheld different beliefs, something that would disprove their proposition that nature could provide a universally valid ethical guidance, was not a matter of concern. From an evolutionary point of view, the other cultures were simply too backward. They thus conjured up a new ethics according to which “acting in terms of euthanasia cannot be a crime against humanity, but precisely the opposite” (Bock, 1997, p. 168).
Their attitude and rationale are probably best portrayed by an exchange between Berthold Stauber and his father in Arthur Schnitzler’s “The Road into the Open” (1908). After being reproached by his father, himself a doctor, that it is not only technical proficiency that makes a good physician but also kindness and love of mankind, Berthold replies that, to him, pity is tantamount to weakness, and in hard times one must have no scruple in sacrificing the individual if the common good so demands: “You only need to consider, father, that the most honest and consistent social hygiene would have the direct result of annihilating diseased people, or at any rate excluding them from all enjoyment of life, and I don’t deny that I have all kinds of ideas tending in that way which may seem cruel at the first glance. But the future, I think, belongs to ideas. You needn’t be afraid, father, that I shall begin straight away to preach the murder of the unhealthy and superfluous. But theoretically that’s certainly what my programme leads to.” A chilling anticipation of the Nazi euthanasia programme which provides clues to the socio-cultural climate at the turn of the century. In fact, this comparison is even more pertinent if we consider what a young Ernst Haeckel wrote to his father: “I share essentially your view of life, dear father, only I value human life and humans much less than you…The individual with his personal existence appears to me only a temporary member in this large chain, as a rapidly vanishing vapour…Personal individual existence appears to me so horribly miserable, petty, and worthless, that I see as intended for nothing but for destruction” (Weikart, 2002, p. 329).
It stands to reason that all claims of superior knowledge tend to foster anti-democratic feelings, because of the almost inevitable self-perception of many professionals as the chosen few, selected by their informed peers through an assessment of their merits and not by chance or favouritism (Glatzer 1997). However, one of the important lessons of the past century is that we must beware of people who put ideas before human beings. Failing to do so increases the chances that some day we might find ourselves like the proverbial frog in the kettle, that is, unaware that the rising temperature of the water is killing us.

Why Germany?

In these conclusive considerations, I intend to place a special emphasis on the importance of understanding that not a single element of the later Nazi racial policy was deemed acceptable in the Weimar Republic (E. R. Dickinson, 2004). Without Nazism, German law-makers would have stopped at the sterilisation laws promulgated in other countries, and perhaps they would not have even gone that far (Massin, 1996). The gardening metaphor first introduced by British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1989) should therefore not be construed into a facile condemnation of secularism and modernity. By all evidence, Aktion T4 and the Holocaust were not an inevitable product of modernity. Otherwise, how would we account for the fact that eugenics, forced euthanasia and a genocidal mentality did not find a fertile ground in the most advanced liberal democracies. In Britain, Northern France, Benelux, and on the Canadian and American east coasts, a liberal-cosmopolitan mindset was widespread. These societies represented the yardstick against which we should compare the performance of other contemporary societies in terms of their commitment to liberal democracy – the “rule by the people”, where people is understood as demos (autonomous citizens), not as ethnos (ethnic majority) – and to the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, that is, to the culture of human rights. These seafaring, open societies traditionally welcomed immigrants and religious and political refugees and have been virtually immune to fascism, eugenics legislation, racial hygiene and what Bauman calls “adiaphorization”, namely the social production of indifference. Anti-Semitism has also been less strong there than anywhere else in Europe and North America. Prior to WWII, the further one moved from these core areas, the more insufficient the grasp of the humanist and liberal cosmopolitan values was, and the greater the prejudice against vulnerable minorities, women, and liberal-democratic institutions. If anything, the Nazis preyed upon the layers or residues of magical-mythical thinking existing in German society to override ethical concerns and dehumanize non-standard and non-Aryan human beings. Their semantic and symbolic webs, i.e. their ‘vocabularies of motive’ which altered the perception of reality and authorised oppression and violence, could not be demystified by logical-rational public debates. By contrast, in occupied Netherlands physicians never took part in involuntary euthanasia, even though they had been incorporated into the German healthcare system (Burleigh, 2002b).
Duly highlighting the instrumental approach to morality and the technocratically rationalistic and totalistic undercurrents of the Enlightenment should not obscure the fact that the National Socialist doctrine was saturated with the dark side of Romanticism: (a) the dovetailing of the exaltation of the past and the Messianic hope of a radically new future society; (b) the desperate yearning for the experience of the Infinite and the Absolute – das Streben nach dem Unbedingtbeyond human transience and the individual/wholeness divide, and for a sort of “cosmic awareness” which could be attained by sensitive intuition alone[6]; (c) the titanic rebellion against mediocrity and treadmill routine, which really was contempt for everyday life, ordinary people, and the artificial, consensual, negotiable, unexciting and non-heroic character of democracy (Sturm und Drang); (d) the misanthropic cult of Ego and of reified supra-individual entities like the State, the Germ-Plasm (Blood), the Volk and its Spirit (Volksgeist), portrayed as the true agents of history; (e) the ultra-relativistic rejection of universal and comparative criteria of evaluation of the past and the present, of Kantian cosmopolitism and of a critical perspective on historical events and socio-cultural phenomena which undermined tradition and social stability (the so-called “Biedermeier mentality”).
These anti-democratic sentiments and impulses were absent in Sweden, even though some other preconditions for a genocidal progression were in place.[7] The commonsensical proposition that in Sweden the stability of democratic institutions was never seriously in peril, as Swedish Social Democrats managed to blend socialism and nationalism without disposing of democracy, seems to me to be able to pinpoint the crucial difference between the two countries.

Lessons learned?

Bauman’s most valuable contribution is the intuition that “weeding out” can be viewed as a creative and praiseworthy activity. This could partly explain how some murderous doctors managed to see themselves as in charge of an idealistic mission and ostensibly oversaw their opportunistic and malicious purposes. It could also indicate that the threat is more insidious than one would imagine. Take Helge H. Mansson’s experiment at the University of Hawaii. In the late Sixties, 570 university students were asked to collaborate with certain scientific procedures that would “euthanize” persons with mental disorders and severe physical impairments, on the ground that experts believed that this would prove beneficial to both the victims and the rest of the population, especially the most gifted, who would be granted more opportunities. Students would select the best method and decide who would carry out the euthanasia, when it could no longer be postponed, and to what extent they were ready to take part. 326 out of 570 approved of the final solution. Mansson’s conclusion was that “the values ordinarily associated with a commitment to, and a belief in, the sacredness or worthwhileness of human life are not unqualifiedly shared by everyone” (Mansson, 1972, p. 316). This might well be true, but it hardly seems a plausible reason to confuse Aktion T4 with the current practice of euthanasia in Oregon, Switzerland, or the Netherlands, as so many people seem to do these days. The slippery slope argument is often misleading. In fact, there are a number of leading contemporary moral philosophers such as Jenny Teichman, Mary Midgley, Raimond Gaita and Margaret Sommerville – leaving aside their Continental European and Japanese like-minded colleagues – who embrace a notion of the “secular sacred” encompassing an intuitive, profound respect for human life. This idea of respect has little cogency when it is anchored to rationality, dignity, and inalienable rights. For this reason, Australian ethicist Gaita prefers to stress the “sharedness of human life”, “a sense of fellowship with one another”, the “awareness of our mortality”, which would prevent a slave owner from depriving the slave’s personhood of its moral significance, making it “epistemically impotent” (Gaita, 1991), as was the case in Nazi Germany. For Iris Murdoch, there is no true understanding without love, justice, openness and compassion: “The central concept of morality is ‘the individual’ thought of as knowable by love” (Murdoch, 2001, p. 29). In a similar vein, a sense of commonness is referred to by Martha Nussbaum as central to a morally enlightened conduct: “The pain of another will be an object of my concern only if I acknowledge some sort of community between myself and the other, a pain that is closely linked to an acknowledgement of one’s own vulnerability and incompleteness. […].Without that sense of commonness, I will react with sublime indifference or intellectual curiosity — like a Martian scientist, or a certain sort of god” (Nussbaum, 1994, p. 143).
The medical personnel in charge of Aktion T4 were sorely wanting in this respect and, ultimately, this is why they did not act as healers but as executioners.

[1] Incidentally, Nordic Lutherans call the original sin arvsynd which, like its German equivalent Erbsünde, conveys the fatalistic idea of the inheritability of moral and social degeneration.
[2] Erlösen which, ironically, also means “to redeem”.
[3] A 1940 proposed “Law on Euthanasia for the Incurably Ill”, establishing precise criteria for scientific killing, remained at the draft stage, which is all the more remarkable, given the degree of nazification of the judiciary (Hilger, 2003; Stolleis, 2004).
[4] Needless to say without their request or consent.
[5] For the corpses were cremated together.
[6] Which would otherwise be especially commendable if one could be certain to avoid Martin Bormann’s deadly excesses: “The power of nature’s law is what we call the omnipotent force of God. The claim that this universal force could care for the fate of each individual, of each bacillus here on earth, that it might be influenced by so-called prayers or by astounding things, rests on a large amount of naiveté or on profit-minded impertinence. We National Socialists, on the other hand, demand of ourselves that we live as naturally as possible, that is to say in accord with the laws of life. The more precisely we understand and observe the laws of nature and of life and the more we keep to them, the more we correspond to the will of the Omnipotent Force.” (Remak, 1969, p. 103).
[7] Among them, I should mention (a) völkish nationalism and Aryanism, bound together by the exclusionary concept of folkhem, that is, the vision of the nation as a people’s home, an ethnically homogeneous family household that would safeguard traditional virtues and values (Colla, 2000); (b) strong anti-Semitic sentiments among medical students and race hygiene as an official academic discipline (Broberg & Roll-Hansen, 1996); (c) a hotbed for racist propaganda – Uppsala University –, which offered courses in Aryan studies, and where the Svenskt Sällskap för Rashygiene and the State Institute for Race Biology, which would serve as a model for the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, were inaugurated respectively in 1910 and 1921 (Weindling, 1989); (d) a government ready to collaborate with the Third Reich both economically – iron ore, steel, coal, and timber exports, indispensable for the German war effort – militarily – allowing the Wehrmacht to travel across its territory – and politically – Ernst Rüdin, a foremost Nazi race hygienist, was a consultant on matters of race hygiene for the Swedish authorities (Colla, 2002); (d) laws, since1941, permitting the involuntary sterilization of the “feeble-minded” (sinneslö); (e) a national church (the Church of Sweden) that, between 1935 and 1945, applied the Nuremberg Laws to prevent mixed marriages in Sweden (Jarlert, 2001); (f) a welfare system informed by productivist and technocratic criteria (folkhemmet welfarism), which stripped thousands of people on welfare of their right to vote and to marry without asking for official authorization (Zylberman 1999, 2004); (g) the lack of an independent judiciary (Lars Tragardh and Michael X. Delli Carpini, 2004).

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