In October of 1939 amid the turmoil of the outbreak of war Hitler ordered
widespread "mercy killing" of the sick and disabled.
Code named "Aktion T 4," the Nazi euthanasia program to eliminate
"life unworthy of life" at first focused on newborns and very
young children. Midwives and doctors were required to register children
up to age three who showed symptoms of mental retardation, physical deformity,
or other symptoms included on a questionnaire from the Reich Health Ministry.
A decision on whether to allow the child to live was then made by three
medical experts solely on the basis of the questionnaire, without any examination
and without reading any medical records.
Each expert placed a + mark in red pencil or - mark in blue pencil under
the term "treatment" on a special form. A red plus mark meant
a decision to kill the child. A blue minus sign meant a decision against
killing. Three plus symbols resulted in a euthanasia warrant being issued
and the transfer of the child to a 'Children's Specialty Department' for
death by injection or gradual starvation.
The decision had to be unanimous. In cases where the decision was not
unanimous the child was kept under observation and another attempt would
be made to get a unanimous decision.
The Nazi euthanasia program quickly expanded to include older disabled
children and adults. Hitler's decree of October, 1939, typed on his personal
stationary, enlarged "the authority of certain physicians to be designated
by name in such manner that persons who, according to human judgment, are
incurable can, upon a most careful diagnosis of their condition of sickness,
be accorded a mercy death."
Questionnaires were then distributed to mental institutions, hospitals
and other institutions caring for the chronically ill.
Patients had to be reported if they suffered from schizophrenia, epilepsy,
senile disorders, therapy resistant paralysis and syphilitic diseases,
retardation, encephalitis, Huntington's chorea and other neurological conditions,
also those who had been continuously in institutions for at least 5 years,
or were criminally insane, or did not posses German citizenship or were
not of German or related blood, including Jews, Negroes, and Gypsies.
A total of six killing centers were established including the well known
psychiatric clinic at Hadamar. The euthanasia program was eventually headed
by an SS man named Christian Wirth, a notorious brute with the nickname
'the savage Christian.'
At Brandenburg, a former prison was converted into a killing center
where the first Nazi experimental gassings took place. The gas chambers
were disguised as shower rooms, but were actually hermetically sealed chambers
connected by pipes to cylinders of carbon monoxide. Patients were generally
drugged before being led naked into the gas chamber. Each killing center
included a crematorium where the bodies were taken for disposal. Families
were then falsely told the cause of death was medical such as heart failure
the huge increase in the death rate for the disabled combined with the
very obvious plumes of odorous smoke over the killing centers aroused suspicion
and fear. At Hadamar, for example, local children even taunted arriving
busloads of patients by saying "here comes some more to be gassed."
On August 3, 1941, a Catholic Bishop, Clemens von Galen, delivered a
sermon in Münster Cathedral attacking the Nazi euthanasia program
calling it "plain murder." The sermon sent a shockwave through
the Nazi leadership by publicly condemning the program and urged German
Catholics to "withdraw ourselves and our faithful from their (Nazi)
influence so that we may not be contaminated by their thinking and their
As a result, on August 23, Hitler suspended Aktion T4, which had accounted
for nearly a hundred thousand deaths by this time.
The Nazis retaliated against the Bishop by beheading three parish priests
who had distributed his sermon, but left the Bishop unharmed to avoid making
him into a martyr.
However, the Nazi euthanasia program quietly continued, but without
the widespread gassings. Drugs and starvation were used instead and doctors
were encouraged to decide in favor of death whenever euthanasia was being
The use of gas chambers at the euthanasia killing centers ultimately
served as training centers for the SS. They used the technical knowledge
and experience gained during the euthanasia program to construct huge killing
centers at Auschwitz, Treblinka and other concentration camps in an attempt
to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. SS personnel from
the euthanasia killing centers, notably Wirth, Franz Reichleitner and Franz
Stangl later commanded extermination camps.