The Nazis’ relentless persecution of Jews before and during WWII has been well-documented. But, how many of us are aware of their persecution of the mentally and physically handicapped? How many of us are aware of their persecution of other religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The record of such persecutions, as detailed below, is horrifying as well.
The primary source of the information in this blog is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, although some of it was gleaned from other historical sources. As you read it, be prepared to be shocked, horrified and disgusted at the Nazis’ callous disregard for human life.
The Nazis targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses because they were not malleable. In particular, they would not bend to Nazi ideology; they resisted obeying the authority of the State; and they were opposed to engaging in war. In addition, many of them refused to give the Nazi salute, to display the Nazi flag, to join Party organizations or to let their children join the Hitler Youth. The Nazis could not abide these acts of independence. They considered them subversive. Accordingly, they commenced their campaign of persecution against the Jehovah’s Witnesses within months of their taking control of the government. For instance, they crashed JW meetings, attacked the people, destroyed property and sent thousands of them to concentration camps.
One of the basic tenants of the Nazis was that the Germanic people were the descendants of a superior race (Nordics or Aryans). All other people, such as Slavs, Gypsies, Jews, and non-pure Nordics, were inferior. The Nazis sought to create a “Master race” consisting solely of these Nordics and Aryans. In order to achieve this goal it would be necessary to weed out and eliminate certain “substandard” and “deficient” persons, which they believed were actually “unworthy of life.” In their twisted minds, it was their right and duty to do so. This included not only the aforementioned groups, but also those with physical, mental, or emotional handicaps. Thus, in the 1930s the Nazis established six major “euthanasia” facilities whose sole purpose was the sterilization and euthanasia of the handicapped. Thousands were euthanized in these facilities, including some 5,000 children.
In typical fashion, the Nazis promulgated an elaborate set of organized procedures to achieve their goal. Phase 1 was child infant and euthanasia, which began in 1939. Doctors and midwives were required to report to health authorities any newborns that exhibited certain characteristics. Among these were blindness, deafness, mongoloid appearance, paralysis, malformed or missing limbs, hydrocephalus or microcephaly (overly small head, which was believed to be a forerunner of various maladies such as poor motor function, poor speech or intellectual disabilities). Phase II was adult euthanasia. Phase III was the euthanasia of the disabled or handicapped.
One of the euthanasia facilities was located in Hadamar, which opened in 1939. It is estimated that 15,000 German citizens were murdered, including a goodly number of children. The head nurse at the Hadamar Clinic was Irmgard Huber. As far as I could discern, before the war Huber was a normal person who led a normal life. She was born and raised in Hadamar, attended the local primary and secondary schools, then nursing school, and upon graduation in 1932 became a nurse. One becomes a nurse to care for the sick and save lives, but at some point Huber underwent a metamorphosis and became a monster.
Before and during the war Huber was the head nurse at Hadamar. Although she later insisted she never actually killed anyone (a claim that was supported by co-workers and witnesses), as head nurse she certainly procured the drugs that were used in the murders and would have supervised the process. In my view, this made her equally culpable, if not more so.
Before and during the war, some 250,000 persons were euthanized at these facilities. Most of them were German citizens, although some 500 were forced laborers from foreign countries. There were countless examples of this wanton cruelty, especially to children, but, in the interest of time and space, I have selected just one to illustrate the process.
Helene Melanie Lebel was born in Vienna in 1911 to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. Her father was killed in WWI and her mother remarried. She was raised in the Catholic faith. At the age of 19 she began to exhibit signs of mental illness. Eventually, she was diagnosed as schizophrenic and in 1936 was placed in a psychiatric hospital in Vienna. In 1938 Germany annexed Austria. Even though Helene was showing improvement she was one of thousands who were transferred to the Brandenburg Euthanasia Center, which was, in fact, a converted prison without her parents’ knowledge or consent. She was severely mistreated and eventually gassed along with thousands of other children and young adults. The “official” cause of death and what authorities told her parents was that she had died in her room of “acute schizophrenic excitement,” whatever that is. In 1938 alone over 9,000 persons were gassed in that facility.
After the war it was time for the reckoning. In the post-war divided Germany Hadamar was in the American zone. The Americans who were prosecuting these cases were limited by international law to only prosecuting the murders of non-German citizens. Huber was one of those arrested by the Americans, but in view of her claim that she never actually killed anyone she was initially released. Later, she was rearrested, tried, and convicted as an accomplice. Being a female she received a lighter sentence, 25 years. ( In 1946 a German court did try her and others for murdering the 15,000 German citizens at the facility. She was convicted and sentenced to an additional eight years.) Her male nurse co-defendants were sentenced to death.
In 1952 as a result of America’s greater focus on the Cold War and a more lenient attitude toward ex-Nazis Huber was released from prison. She continued to reside in Hadamar until her death in 1983.
In my opinion Huber was another example (like the thousands of administrators I discussed in a previous blog) of a pre-war normal citizen who became corrupted by the Nazi ideology and the lure of power and influence. It did not, however, diminish the heinous nature of her crimes. I believe she got off easy.