by Mehak Burza
In the decades following the First World War, discontent, inflation, and political infighting characterised Germany. Adolf Hitler, who would become one of the most infamous dictators in history, rode on the subsequent wave of popular discontent, eventually becoming Germany’s Chancellor in 1933 and unleashing a radical transformation of the German state. Linking Jewish people to the country’s defeat in 1918, the National Socialist Workers’ Party (NSDAP) gave new impetus to this age-old racial thinking. To historian Tim Grady, for example, the NSDAP became the embodiment of German defeat in the Great War.
Among many of the ideals of the Nazi party, the Volksgemeinschaft (or the people’s community) figured centrally within the NSDAP. With the ambition to create a kind of social solidarity, Nazism attempted to put forward a cohesive and unifying movement for all Germans, at least those acceptable under its ideals. This pursuit led to the promotion of the concept of the Volk (the nation’s people) and its associated notions of blood and soil (Blut und Boden), where they would dwell. The Artamanen-Gesellschaft (Artaman League) started in 1923 as a German agrarian and völkisch (folk)-oriented movement devoted to a blood-and-soil–inspired ruralism, intent on carrying out the reformation of society (Lebensreform. The League turned out to be firmly connected to, and was ultimately absorbed by, the Nazi Party and the aforementioned concepts of the German Volk and their associated place of belonging in the world, central to Nazi propaganda.
Among the Germans belonging to the Volksgemeinschaft, the superior race and racial hygiene were the Aryans featured most prominently, as the epitome of superiority reflected by their racial hygiene. As a race that was believed to have given birth to all European civilisations, including the German, typical Aryan features included fair skin, a strong physique, blue eyes, and blond hair. This idea of Aryanism became the foundation of the Nazi race theory. By contrast, the Jews became identified as unwanted elements within this future society. As a people collectively to blame for the German defeat in the First World War, they became the victims of a German revanchist movement. Excluded from the Volksgemeinschaft, the Jewish people became suitable and convenient scapegoats to explain any misery of the German people, particularly the loss of the German state’s property (territorial and financial) caused by stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles.
Emerging in this climate, the eugenics movement, pioneered by Francis Galton – a psychologist working on the hereditary nature of intelligence – in 1883, , held that only people with superior characteristic traits should be allowed by society to procreate further. Years later in 1905, Alfred Ploetz, a German biologist, published his work The Fitness of Our Race and the Protection of the Weak which debilitated clinical attention to the frail and undesirables. Ploetz termed this as the theory of racial hygiene (Rassenhygiene). As a particular special notion of eugenics, this philosophy led to the formation of the International Society for Racial Hygiene (Gesellschaft fur Rassenhygiene) by Alfred’s brother-in -law, Ernst Rüdin in 1907. Rüdin, a psychiatrist and an advocate of racial hygiene, through his research into genealogy, reasoned that frail mindedness and its related issues were heritable, and could be forestalled through eugenics.
The 1917 photoplay, “The Black Stork”, edited and re-released in 1927 as “Are You Fit to Marry” further established the benefits of proper racial hygiene. Influenced by the notions of racial cleanliness and anti-Semitism, Hitler acknowledged that eugenic practices were important to eliminate degenerate components from the country’s blood stream. Besides Jews as the Unerwünschte (unwanted elements), the other, non-Jewish groups included Roma Sinti groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled, and homosexuals.
The eugenic ideals were used to justify mass sterilisation on those persons the German state deemed unwanted. Moreover, in 1933, the sterilisation law was passed. Marriage laws followed, prohibiting union with the “ill suited”. A further measure that ensured the racial cleansing of the German nation was the enactment and adoption of The Nuremberg Laws on 15 September 1935. The Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, both passed in Nuremburg at the time ensured the exclusion of Jews from the Reich citizenship and further the Blood Protection Law forbade the marriage between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans. In this way, a eugenic thinking process and the idea of blood unity began to seep in and spread through the institutions across Germany.
The eugenic ideal was actualised in October 1939, when the Nazi Regime implemented Aktion T4 or the T4 Euthanasia Program. The name was taken after Tiergartenstrasse 4, the street address of the program’s coordinating office in Berlin. The program included practically the whole German mental network. Headed by physicists, Dr. Karl Brandt and Phillip Bouhler, an administration was set up with an order to execute anybody considered a useless eater. On one hand, where the Nazi regime treated the Jewish people as parasites and vermin, the psychiatric vocation treated them as genetic aberrations. Killed from the outset by starvation and deadly injection, then later suffocation by poison gas. Doctors supervised gassings in chambers in the guise of showers, utilising deadly carbon monoxide gas obtained from physicists. So successful was this endeavour that the program directors set up gas chambers at six existing psychiatric extermination centers in Germany and Austria.
To curb the proliferation of what the Nazis perceived as abnormal, defective, and flawed individuals, the psychiatrists, who were fervent eugenicists, killed their patients who otherwise appeared to be quite normal without any deformities, much to the violation of the ethics of the Hippocratic oath. A majority of the doctors who became skilled in the techniques of this kind of extermination later also operated the concentration camps. However, as they realised that the carbon monoxide gas would not be successful for a large-scale mass extermination, they replaced it with Zyklon B. Used for fumigant purposes in the camp, it soon proved out to be an effective means for mass murder.
Commenting on psychiatric activities in Nazi regime, the German biologist, Benno Muller-Hill argues: “Almost no one stopped to think that something could be wrong with psychiatry […] The international scientific establishment reassured their German colleagues that it had indeed been the unpardonable misconduct of a few individuals, but it lay outside the scope of science.” As much as physical selection took place in the extermination camps the moment victims descended from the cattle trains, psychiatric selection played an important role within the hospital framework that preceded the Holocaust as it targeted those inmates of institutions who were thought fit for sterilisation and thus it was the psychiatrists who decided the reproductive potential of the individuals.
It remains thus important to infer that the intrinsic, fundamental standards of psychiatry were not just mirrored by Nazi extremism and racist bigotry, but they also envisioned, supported, and acted as an entering wedge into the Holocaust. Psychiatry, further helped establish the concept of the Volk as individuals within the body politic, advocating the expulsion of purportedly parasitic people from the country’s society. This subject of treating society to the detriment of the individual was vital to the corruption of medication and the defense of the annihilations. An underlying principle that was shared between both Holocaust and psychiatry was the concept of selection.
Mehak Burza is a doctoral research scholar of Holocaust Studies in the Department of English, Jamia University (New Delhi, India). Her thesis title is Literary Representations of The Holocaust; An Assessment. Her primary interests include Holocaust/Genocide Studies, Gender Studies, Holocaust Trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). She has presented papers in international conferences in Texas and Gettysburg. Her creative works have been published in Trouvaille Review, Visual Verse and Galaxy International Multidisciplinary Research Journal. She also translates from Hindi/Urdu into English and her translations are published in Purple Ink Magazine, the online magazine of Brown University, Los Angeles. She is also associated with LLIDS Journal as a peer reviewer, CLRI journal as an editor for research papers and as a copy editor (part time) in Journal of International Women’s Studies. Apart from academics she is trained classical dancer, with Kathak being her forte.