It's true that history is a story that repeats itself. Yet, there are chapters in our human history so horrific that even to know about them sparks shudders of repulsion and fear so severe that we don't want to hear about it. But retelling some stories is essential if we are to prevent repetition.
That's why a group called the International Commemoration Committee on Eugenic Mass Murder set aside May 2 as a day to remember the hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities who were killed from 1939-1945 in Nazi Germany, and to "demand that no person, with or without disability, ever fall victim to medical murder again."
David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, professors of disability studies at University of Illinois, Chicago, toured psychiatric institutions in Germany two years ago. Their award-winning documentary, A World Without Bodies, detailed the sites and methods used to destroy an estimated 260,000 children and adults deemed unworthy of living by their physicians.
"What is incredible," Mitchell explains, "is that the gas chambers in the basements of German hospitals are still intact. ... The Nazis were incredibly bureaucratic and meticulous in their extermination practices, and kept meticulous records in psychiatric institutions. The medical histories and autopsies of thousands of patients are still available."
Under the banner of eugenics, citizens with psychiatric disabilities, mental retardation, communication disorders or physical "imperfection" due to accident or illness were identified by their physicians and dispatched to the killing facilities.
With euphemisms like the "children's campaign" and the "final medical treatment," patients were killed by lethal injection, starvation and poisonous gas. It would help ease our pain if we could blame Hitler. But to learn from this horrific historic tale, we need the whole story.
"Americans have a pretty expansive history supporting eugenics," Mitchell points out. "From the 1880s to the 1940s, there were physicians supporting the idea of segregating disabled people to prevent pollution of the hereditary stock of the nation." Public campaigns for population control through marriage laws, coerced institutionalization and involuntary sterilization were sanctioned and launched by the medical community.
It was physicians, not soldiers following Hitler, who initiated the killings in pristine gas showers in 1939. Those techniques were adopted in the concentration camps two years later.
When an enormous public protest against eugenic murders came from the Catholic church in 1941, Hitler ordered the killings stopped. But they continued through 1945 and perhaps beyond.
The key in orchestrating such mass eugenic murders in medical facilities was that there was no single point of responsibility. Local physicians filled out forms. Did a patient have a history of depression? Schizophrenia? Cerebral palsy?
Did an accident or illness affecting physical function identify the patient as one with unbearable suffering? Once identified, marked individuals were transported by other workers, examined by hospital physicians, eventually conveyed to the "showers" where yet another physician turned the valve releasing the poisonous fumes.
So why is this international committee focusing on remembrance now, more than 60 years later? Partly from the lack of historical reparation for the murders of so many. At the Nuremberg trials, racial crimes were deemed crimes against humanity. The crimes committed in psychiatric and medical institutions were declared out of bounds.
We remember for another reason. Ordinary human beings can commit monstrous crimes against humanity in the misled pursuit of the common good. History needn't repeat itself if each of us - physician, politicians, citizens - cling to the simple mantra that every life has value.
Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430;
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