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Recognize the disabled as Nazi-era victims — German charity

January 24, 2023

A new appeal urges the Bundestag parliament to recognize disabled people or others deemed too sick either to live or to procreate as victims of the Nazi regime. Roughly 300,000 were killed in Europe.

A view into what used to be the gas chamber at what is now the Pirna-Sonnenstein memorial site in Pirna, Saxony. The site was a sanatorium in the Nazi era, where around half of Europe's disabled or sick victims were killed. The visible ring of light indicates where the door and entry was.
The former sanatorium in the town of Pirna near Berlin where many of the victims were killed has been converted into a memorial to honor the victims; the pictured area is where the gas chamber was in the building, with the ring of light placed where the entry wasImage: Daniel Schäfer/dpa/picture alliance

A German charitable group for people with disabilities has urged the national parliament to declare people killed or forcibly sterilized as part of the Nazis' eugenics operations to be among the victims of Adolf Hitler's regime. 

"Seventy-eight years after the end of World War II there is no historical reason to deny the victims of 'euthanasia' and forced sterilizations status among the persecuted groups," the chairwoman of the Bundesvereinigung Lebenshilfe organization, Ulla Schmidt, said. "Right up to the present day, they are being made into second-class victims." 

The Nazis referred to killings conducted under their eugenics laws as acts of "euthanasia." 

Bundesvereinigung Lebenshilfe is part of the Inclusion International worldwide umbrella organization that specializes in particular in helping people with intellectual disabilities and their parents.

Hundreds of thousands killed or sterilized in 'T4 Action'

Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazi regime killed an estimated 300,000 people around Europe who were deemed to have some form of hereditary disease or disability. Some victims were gassed, others given lethal cocktails of medication, and others were systematically underfed. 

Many more people deemed to have some kind of congenital disorder or potentially "hereditary" sickness — from physical disabilities to intellectual or psychiatric illnesses to blindness or deafness, or sometimes even conditions like alcoholism — were forced to submit to sterilization or were sterilized without their knowledge.

Symbolic crucifixes, and the number 14,751, painted on the ground at the Pirna-Sonnenstein memorilal in Saxony. Just between 1940 and 1941, 14,751 people, mainly with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses, were murdered there.
Just at a former 'sanatorium' in Pirna in Saxony between 1940 and 1941, 14,751 people were executed, most of whom had either intellectual disabilities or psychiatric illnessesImage: Arno Burgi/dpa/picture alliance

"People affected by this with physical or intellectual disabilities as well as with psychiatric illnesses must therefore be classified as a group persecuted by the Nazi regime like other groups of victims," the charity wrote in its appeal. 

The operation was euphemistically called the "T4 Aktion" (T4 Action) by Nazi officials, in reference to the execution center at the Tiergartenstrasse 4 address in Berlin from where it was planned and coordinated. Because many of the victims of the operation were dependent on state support of some kind, authorities already had often quite detailed information on their conditions, especially those living in Germany.

A law enabling the forced sterilization of people deemed at risk of having what the Nazis called "diseased offspring" was passed as early as July 1933, soon after Hitler's NSDAP took power. It was also used against other groups like Afro-Germans, Sinti and Roma and "antisocial" elements.

They called them "The children of shame"

Charity says the aftereffects of Nazi persecution still visible today

Tuesday's appeal was timed to coincide with the upcoming German memorial day for the victims of the National Socialist regime, this Friday, on January 27.

Representatives of the German government and Bundesvereinigung Lebenshilfe will lay a wreath at the site of the now-demolished villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4 at 11:30 a.m. local time on Friday. It's part of the commemorations planned by the German government's commissioner responsible for matters relating to people with disabilities, Jürgen Dusel. 

Ulla Schmidt said on Tuesday that the legacy of Nazi mistreatment of people with disabilities could still be seen today. 

"Even in the Germany of 2023, people with disabilities encounter rejection and prejudices," Schmidt said. "As a result of highly advanced prenatal examination methods, parents of a disabled child often encounter comments like these: 'Did it really have to be? Were you not aware [of your future child's condition]?'"

"Instead of fear and marginalization we need a welcoming culture," Schmidt said. "There is no such thing as a life not worth living, people with disabilities belong to the bandwidth of human diversity — no ifs and no buts."

In recent years, the groups of people formally recognized by the Bundestag parliament as victims of the Nazi-era killing machinery has been expanding. Most recently, in 2020, 75 years after the war's end and Hilter's death, the Bundestag recognized what the Nazis called either "antisocial elements" or "career criminals" as another such group. 

msh/nm (dpa, KNA)

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