From 'Mercy Death' to Genocide

Julian Reed-Purvis examines the origins and consequences of Nazi Euthanasia.

In January 1939 Hitler made his famous Reichstag speech in which he blamed the Jews and the Bolsheviks for the coming war, a war that would mean their total destruction. Germany had begun her slow march down the twisted road to the death camps. Yet the first victims of the Nazi vision of creating a master race were not Jews but German citizens murdered as part of a euthanasia programme intended to destroy those unfit to become volksgenossen (racial comrades). It is the way in which the Nazi policy towards the mentally and physically handicapped dovetailed with their ever more radical racial policies that will be examined in this essay.

The Euthanasia Programme

At the end of the nineteenth century, throughout Europe and America but especially in Germany, ideas about the treatment of the handicapped and the carriers of genetic defects had become an area of grave concern. The term 'eugenics' was itself coined by the English naturalist and mathematician Francis Galton in 1881. It was left to an American, Charles B. Davenport, to take policy in a radical direction. In 1910 he proposed the sterilisation of all those who posed a threat to the genetic health of the nation, proposals that were actually implemented in a number of states. Furthermore, legislation in the 1920s attempted to block the entry into the USA of prospective immigrants with unwanted defects.

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