During the Nazi reign, around the 360.000 people were forced to be sterilised and castrated for ‘the health of German blood’ – which meant that these victims had heritable disabilities. During World War II, another 300.000 people were killed for the same reason. The administration of this crime – called Aktion T4 – was situated at the Tiergartenstraße no.4, a villa not far from Potsdamer Platz. What happened with Berlin’s disabled patients? How is the Aktion T4 remembered in the present-day?
Nazi’s decided to dissexualise and execute disabled persons for a combination of two awful beliefs. The easiest motivation to understand, is the money it costed to take care of the people who needed it. Due to their mental of physical limits, most of the patients in hospitals were not able to work. Another explanation is because of the believe in eugenetics, a(n im)moral science which was obsessed with population genetics. The eugenetic scientists also acted as a ‘bio-social engineer’. The social-darwinist philosophy behind this science was the most radical among nazi’s. It is no surprise that the German law concerning the ‘Prevention of Hereditarily Diseases’ was already nazified in July 1933. A variety of hereditary disabilities, among them epilepsy and imbecility, were listed as a reason to sterilise a patient. During the Nazi regime, films were developped to defend forced sterilisation such as Das Erbe (The Inheritance) in 1935, Opfer der Vergangenheit (Victim of the Past) in 1937 and Ich klage an (I Accuse). The latter even encouraged euthanasia. It is estimated that 360.000 people were sterilised and castrated under force before the outbreak of World War II.
Hitler and high ranked nazi’s planned the mass murder on patients already, but they needed an incident to let go of their plans. This incident came in February 1939, when Richard and Lina Kretschmar gave birth to a baby – which they named Gerhard. The fanatic nazi’s were not amused by their phsysically handicapped infant and wrote a letter to Hitler, asking him for a juridical exception and give them allowance to commit ‘euthanasia’. Gerhard was killed in July, only five months old. Three weeks after his death, the nazi’s started secretely to registrate all mentally disabled patients. The decision to execute the disabled was taken in October 1939, though it had to be backdated to September for legalising the executions which already had taken place. Hitler signed this act himself. The program was covered up as ‘a special health program with high risks’. In the following reality, the victims and their parents were not informed about their fatal destiny – and their execution was covered up with false causes. Most families gave up the courage to save their family member because they (silently) agreed with the nazi’s, or they were put under high ideological and financial pressure. When the disabled arrived, they were mostly killed the same or the next day and incinerated thereafter. The victim’s family was given an urn with random ashes – since the cremation took place with an amount of victims at the same time. The responsible doctors were mostly busy with making up the cause of death and writing falsified death certificates.
The active execution took place from January 1940 onwards. Within half a year, six extermination camps for the disabled patients were erected throughout Germany. Nazi doctors experimented here with fatal injections, overdosing medicins, poisoning, starvation and gassing. The first gas chambers were build in these extermination sites. When it comes to murderous techniques – it can be postulated that the nazi’s implementated with Aktion T4 – and used their killing experiences for the Holocaust by the end of 1941 onwards. Various key-figures, among them Josef Mengele and Christian Wirth – worked at first hand for Aktion T4 and were later responsible for the crimes in the extermination camps.
In August 1941, after 70.000 people were killed already – among them 5000 children – the nazi’s officialy stopped the extermination after the ‘euthanasia’ campaign was critisized by catholic officials. Nevertheless, the nazi’s picked up Aktion T4 again in August 1942 – and killed their victims more secretive. Another 200.000 patients were killed before the end of WWII – not only patients with ‘hereditary diseases’ but also ‘racially unwanted children’ from forced labours were killed, as well as life-time patients in the clinics such as soldiers and citizens who witnessed the front or air raids.
One of Berlin’s psychiatric hospitals was the Wittenauer Heilstätten (now: Karl-Bonhoeffer-Nervenklinik). Already in 1932, patients were sterilised and they were used for psychotherapeutic experiments with pentetrazol shocks. When the nazi’s took power, the direction was fired – as well as the jewish employees and staff which was member of a social-democratic or communist party, up to memberships of thirteen years ago. They were replaced by nazi’s and thereafter, the ‘therapeutical’ shocks became more agressive. When they were tested with electroconvulsive shocks, nazi’s looked how far the could go before a human died – with fatal results. From 1939 onwards – 3000 of the Wittenauer patients were killed in various execution camps. In 1940, three other psychiatrical clinics in Berlin were closed and the patients were sent to the Wittenauer Heilstätten, where the pressure for the staff became intentionally too hard. In 1941 it was known that the patients’ average weight was 10 percent lower than two years before. A selection of male patients who were able to work were forced to do so by the autumn of 1943. By the end of the day, nearly 5000 of the remaining patients found death in the Wittenauer Heilstätten itself due to starvation and medical experiments – a death rate of 33%.
The Berliner Geschichtswerkstatt found out in the eighties that the administration of Aktion T4 took place at Tiergartenstraße 4, where nowadays the Philharmonie is situated. During Berlin’s 750 year jubilee – the Geschichtswerkstatt organised an exhibition in a mobile schoolbuss, standing at the location of Tiergarten 4 for several weeks. The West Berlin Senate decided to ‘develop’ a monument – a design by Richard Serra which already stood in front of the Martin-Gropius-Bau – only 500 meters away. According to the senate, it was important to have an internationally famous artist – and the design fitted the architecture of the Philharmonie. The indignation among the Berliner Geschichtwerkstatt was enormous. Due to this protest, the Senate decided to lay down an information panel next to Serra’s design – which was revealed 50 years after Hitler’s decision to eliminate disabled patients. In 2007, an information panel is placed in the window of a nearby buss stop – and another information panel is erected by the Stiftung Topographie des Terrors a year later. In 2009, a stone sculpture of the mobile museum is revealed – which ‘travelled’ to other cities in Germany where victims were executed. Also, a memorial stone is placed at the platform of the former Heil- und Pflegestätte Wuhlegarten (now: Wilhelm-Griesinger-Krankenhaus), on which many patients were deported from their psychiatrical clinic and faced death shortly after. The responsible ‘doctor’ – Dr. Bender – stayed the clinic’s director till the 1960s. Nearby, there is a mass grave with a row of memorial stones for the 180 patients who were burried here in May 1945 – shortly after the clinic’s liberation. At other clinics where patients were evacuated with fatal results, such as the Heil- und Pflegeanstalt Buch or- Herzbergstraße, no memorial stones or equal memorials were erected.
At the Karl-Bonhoeffer-Nervenklinik, there is a memorial stone added at the clinic’s gate and a permanent exhibition about the crimes is situated in a part of the clinic. The history of the formerly named Wittenauer Heilstätten is exposed, with the most attention for the period during the Nazi regime. Also, the full propaganda film Das Erbe is shown here. The exposition is opened Monday till Friday from 10am till 1pm and Sundays from 1pm till 5pm – there is no entry fee.