Many people do not realize that the Germans were methodically killing fellow Germans before they were killing Jews, gypsies, and dissidents. ‘Action T4’ was a medical program that quietly whisked disabled and mentally ill people for extermination. Germans of all ages were targeted. Hundreds of thousands received ‘treatment.’ Fewer people know that the philosophical foundations for the Nazi actions were laid many years earlier, even before the National Socialist party was created.
In a sober, academic discussion, professors Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche argued that there were ‘lives unworthy of life’ and for the good of society, and indeed, out of compassion for the worthless individuals, such people could be ethically killed. Binding and Hoche’s book was a turning point in German culture and served as a catalyst for the T4 program, which itself was a precursor to the Holocaust.
Perhaps the most significant passage in the history of the twentieth century—shaping the Holocaust and Second World War—appeared in 1920, from Alfred Hoche and Karl Binding:
Are there human lives which have so completely lost the attribute of legal status that their continuation has permanently lost all value, both for the bearer of that life and for society? Merely asking this question is enough to raise an uneasy feeling in anyone who is accustomed to assessing the value of individual life for the bearer and for the social whole.
It hurts him to see how wastefully we handle the most valuable lives (filled with and sustained by the strongest will to live and the greatest vital power), and how much labor power, patience, and capital investment we squander (often totally uselessly) just to preserve lives not worth living–until nature, often pitilessly late, removes the last possibility of their continuation.
Reflect simultaneously on a battlefield strewn with thousands of dead youths, or a mine in which methane gas has trapped hundreds of energetic workers; compare this with our mental hospitals, with their caring for their living inmates. One will be deeply shaken by the strident clash between the sacrifice of the finest flower of humanity in its full measure on the one side, and by the meticulous care shown to existences which are not just absolutely worthless but even of negative value, on the other.
This passage—quoted repeatedly by historians of Nazism—provided the ideological foundation of the “Euthanasia Program” that took hold in Germany in 1939. Two eminent academics—law Professor Alfred Hoche and psychiatrist Karl Bending— proposed that the state was justified in killing “life unworthy of life.”
The authors ask us to reflect upon a “battlefield strewn with thousands of dead youths,” and to compare this scene with “our mental hospitals with their caring for their living inmates.” Upon making this comparison, one will be “deeply shaken by the strident clash” between the sacrifice of the “finest flower of humanity,” on the one hand, and the “meticulous care” shown to existences which are “absolutely worthless,” on the other.
This passage contains the germ of a critique of the First World War. While the authors do not ask, “Why were millions of young German men slaughtered on the battlefield?” they pose the question, “Why were the best, most vital people (young German men) treated so miserably by the nation, while the least valuable people (incurable mental patients) are treated so well?”
The authors present their proposal for euthanasia—the destruction of life unworthy of life—based on a comparison of the two cases: “If the state is willing to kill its best people—healthy young men who contribute significantly to society without compunction or guilt, why should the state hesitate to take the lives of people who make no contribution, indeed are burdensome to society?”
The Nazi euthanasia movement had little or nothing to do with genetics or social Darwinism. Rather, it arose out of the incipient perception of what could not be uttered: that the state already was involved in a project of mass-murder. If the state killed its best and healthiest human beings (that presumably contributed substantially to society), why could it not also kill the worst or least healthy human beings (who were incapable of contributing to society)?
The Trauma of the First World War
Directly below are figures for German casualties in the First World War (reported by Robert Whalen, 1984).
Missing or Prisoner: 974,977
The First World War lasted from July 28, 1914, to November 11, 1918, four years, three months and 14 days—or 1567 days. This comes out to 4666 German casualties—or 1300 German soldiers killed—each day.
In the Iraq war, 2003-2012, approximately 5000 American soldiers died in ten years. An equivalent number of German soldiers died every three days during the First World War; and this number of deaths continued for over four years. It is nearly impossible to grasp this event—the quantity of slaughter—or to imagine the impact of the First World War on the German people.
The magnitude of the trauma is suggested in the following address presented at a convention in Berlin by a disabled veteran (cited in Whalen):
A gash goes through all our lives, and that gash is the war. With a brutal hand it has torn our lives in two. Everyone here experienced it differently, but everyone sensed the demonic quality of the war. It was like some elemental catastrophe, I don’t know how else to say it, which threw the entire planet into torment.
We know and feel, that the war didn’t only have external effects. It did not just change the map of the world, it changed the soul of human beings. We ourselves cannot entirely sense the enormous impact of the war on the human spirit, because we were part of it…we who have lived through this inferno can never be free from it. It has affected all our lives.
Of course, there were protests toward the end of and after the war—and Germany was on the brink of revolution. Finally, however, patriotism, nationalism—belief in one’s country—won out. Despite the havoc and destruction wreaked upon people by their own nation, it was difficult for most people to say what was true: that the German government had been responsible for killing and mutilating millions of young men.
If the Nation Can Kill Its Best Citizens, Why Can’t It Kill Its Worst?
Adolf Hitler came to embody German patriotism or nationalism—refusing to critique Germany (and therefore to critique war). Though death had “snatched so many dear comrades and friends from our ranks,” Hitler averred in Mein Kampf, it would have been “a sin to complain” because, after all, were they not “dying for Germany”?
Because death has occurred in the name of one’s beloved nation, it is a “sin to complain.” No matter the extent of suffering that one’s nation has caused, Hitler—like many others—refuses to say that his country is destructive, or evil; to contemplate abandoning her.
Like Hitler, Hoche and Binding are unable to critique Germany directly, posing simple questions like: “Why did my nation sacrificed the finest flower of humanity?” “Why—during the First World War—was the battlefield strewn with thousands of dead youths?” They refuse to acknowledge the destruction wrought by their nation. Rather, they perform an oblique, indirect critique by comparing the care provided for soldiers with the care provided for mental patients. Why are the most valuable lives treated so wastefully, while the state provides excellent care for lives that are worthless?
Here lay the origins of the ideology of mass murder—arising from the wreckage of the First World War. Unable to pose the question, “Why did our nation kill its healthiest or best citizens?” Hoche and Binding declared, “If our nation can kill its healthiest or best people, why can it not also kill its unhealthiest or worst people?”