I wish to introduce this piece with care. The Holocaust was a complicated and horrific event with a number of moving, intersecting pieces — and it is possible to talk about one group of individuals affected by the Holocaust without diminishing the suffering of another. But it is also important to note that some aspects of the Holocaust are more widely discussed and understood than others, and we should explore why that is. This is not about playing Oppression Olympics or asking ‘why this and not that,’ but very specifically looking at a part of Holocaust history that has been systematically erased. I am focusing on a piece of that history today, but I do so acknowledging that the Holocaust as a whole is still subject to denialism and hidden histories. This is merely one of them.
I also wish to introduce a note of caution — if you haven’t heard of Aktion T4 before, you may find this disturbing. If you have, and you know where this is about to go, I still wish to include a note of warning, because this is about to go to a very dark place.
In the 1939, vans started moving quietly through districts of Berlin. They crept through the city carrying out a sinister mission, a programme of ‘involuntary euthanasia’ — murder, to the unenlightened — targeting disabled people across the city. As Aktion T4, as the programme came to be known, spread, it swept across Germany, often focusing on asylums, poorhouses, and other institutions. Victims were selected on the grounds that they would poison Germany’s genetic purity — as early as 1933, disabled people were subjected to compulsory sterilisation, by government decree. That killing them would be a mercy. That eliminating them would resolve funding shortfalls in the nation’s welfare budget.
Aktion T4 was rooted in disablism. In hatred of disabled people, and the notion that they should be hidden away, prevented from breeding, and ultimately, destroyed. That visceral hatred was about disability as the monstrous, but also disability as a drain on society. A drain on racial purity and the genetic stock on Germany. A drain on the nation’s resources.
People like to talk about the events of the Holocaust as a thing in the past, something that happened in a different time, to different people. However, the populations targeted in the Holocaust know full well that the attitudes that drove their destruction under Hitler persist today.
For disabled people, though, those attitudes are especially close to home, because they are not just social, but institutional. Disabled people understand not just that society hates them, wants to destroy them, wants to hide them away, finds them repugnant and awful. Disabled people are used to hearing modern eugenic arguments about their fitness as parents not just from society, but institutional figures. Disabled people are still subject to coerced sterilisation. Today. In 2017. In America. And disabled people experience hate crimes at the hands of those who are furious about the fact that they receive government benefits, but also, they are well aware that the government itself is trying to kill them by slashing those benefits, that the government, much like Hitler’s government in 1939, feels that it is spending too much money on them.
These are the things that drove me to write about Aktion T4 today, because many people don’t know about it. They don’t know that it happened. They don’t know that the Nazis killed an estimated 200,000 disabled people prior to and during the Holocaust. They don’t know that the Nazis practiced the techniques they used to devastating effect in the death camps on disabled people first.
Aktion T4 proved to be an instructive experience for the Nazis. In the process, they refined the techniques needed to transport and kill people en masse, realising that it was far more efficient than politely going door to door. Yes. Aktion T4 was the dry run for the camps — the same camps where disabled people were also incarcerated, used in gruesome and horrific medical experiments, and, ultimately, gassed alongside the Roma, Jewish people, political prisoners, and LGBQT people trapped in the camps. The first death camp started formally operating in 1941, two years after the start of Aktion T4.
I write about this today because this is a piece of ‘forgotten history,’ one rarely taught in schools and rarely acknowledged outside the disability community, which feels it as a real, pressing, intense pain. This is a difficult post for me to write, because it is a reminder of the way that disability is swept out of history, and of the sheer, unadulterated visceral hatred that many people reserve for disabled people still. We know they hate us because they try to block out the memory of the darkest periods in our history. And we know they hate us because the attitudes behind Aktion T4 are alive and malevolent today and they are active within the government itself.
We know they hate us because as I watch changes in the federal government, my heart seizes, because I see a government that doesn’t just hate disabled people, but wants to destroy us. Perhaps they don’t want to send euthanasia vans winding through the streets of our cities, but they want to kill us just as surely by destroying our health care system, by decimating government benefits, by dismantling civil rights laws. And this is all erased, just as Aktion T4 was erased — much of the discussion about the Affordable Care Act, for example, ignores the fact that it is disabled people with their backs against the wall, disabled people who will die, and I do not mean that figuratively or hyperbolically.
In December, I attended a disability dance performance, thrilled with the electric energy of a room filling with disabled people like me, to the sight of wheelchairs and people signing conversations and white canes and wildly different and diverse bodies. It was a room filled with people of colour, with queer and trans people, with a cross-section of the disability spectrum. The lights went down and the set was slowly illuminated and I was swept away, but I had a momentary, acutely painful thought: These are my people, I thought, and these are the people they are coming for. This defiant, non-normative, radical room is one that my own government thinks shouldn’t exist.
Researchers have picked up the threads of Aktion T4 from time to time, have discovered mass graves, have recommitted to delving into more detail. But Aktion T4 remains persistently absent from much of the mainstream discourse about the Nazis — not just the Holocaust itself, but the preceding years. The warning signs.
First they came for…we are warned, and yet, we do not listen. Disability history scholars, and disabled people, know what it means that one of the first acts of the new government is to launch an assault on disabled Americans.
Image: Brass cobble in memory of deported girl in Action T4, Berlin, Chris Alban Hansen, Flickr