The Origins of Mass-Murder in Germany

Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life: Its Measure and Form By Karl Binding (Author), Alfred Hoche (Author), Cristina Modak (Translator)Publisher: Suzeteo Enterprises
Format: Paperback
Published: 1920
ISBN-10: 1936830507
Language: English
Pages: 120

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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).

Dead: 2,037,000
Wounded: 4,300,000
Missing or Prisoner: 974,977
TOTAL: 7,311,977

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?”

4 thoughts on “The Origins of Mass-Murder in Germany

  1. Herbert Gross

    The capacity of humans to dehumanize seems universal and manifest for as long as we have historical records. Even as we analyze and teach about the horrific holocaust, dehumanizing genocide pops up around the globe seemingly inverting the forward march of “what we know.” However what we don’t know about ourselves still overwhelms what we think we know. Of course we need to study each instance and try to understand but the narratives we develop are post hoc. We have no words adequate to convey what victims and perpetrators feel. It gives pause to understanding when we realize that it took years for the victims of Nazism to begin to speak.

    Herb Gross

  2. Paul Matthew St. Pierrre

    I just purchased a copy of Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life: Its Measure and Form, by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche. I hope it will be a useful resource in my current book project, Collaborative Filmmaking in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933: Directors and Cinematographers (Fairleigh Dickinson UP).

  3. charles

    A good follow up to this piece would be consideration of the Kellogg Briand Pact circa 1928-29 outlawing war! That became the law of the land in the USA and France and a bunch of other countries because WW I was such a completely stupid and brutal horror show. What happened? How was this moment of rationally choosing not to do “war” any more eroded? Or not followed up with a Global Organization Of Democracies mobilizing world opinion in this direction year round?

  4. Douglas R. Skopp

    I am an American Jew, although, I admit, relatively unobservant. I have been married for fifty-two years now to a German woman, whose father was killed while serving in the Reichswehr in France. What sustains our marriage? Compassion. A search for greater understanding. Love. Respect. Determination to see each other as distinct human beings: each of us worthy of living our lives in harmony with each other, without prejudice or assumptions about our biological heritage or creed or values, unless we have substantial and incontrovertible reasons to judge otherwise and unless we are willing, too, to explore our own prejudices and assumptions about ourselves.

    I taught aspects of German history during my long career at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh, where I retired with the rank of Distinguished Teaching Professor of History emeritus. My research focus was on German educated elites—teachers, physicists, lawyers, professors and finally, on physicians. As a senior Fulbright Scholar/Teacher, I was privileged to be a guest professor in Germany and conduct research in twelve major German archives and in Great Britain’s former Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine on “German medical ethics and practices from 1870 to 1945.”

    One of the fruits of this research is my novel, Shadows Walking, in which I describe, to the best of my ability, the mind and motives of a Nazi physician who “commits crimes against humanity.” It was, obviously, painful to research and write, and is, no doubt, painful to read. Everything in Shadows Walking either actually happened, or could have happened, exactly as I describe it. To my knowledge, it is only one of a few efforts to enter the mind and motives of a Nazi.

    I specifically call my protagonist, Dr. Johann Brenner, before he has joined the Nazi Party, a German: he is an idealistic, well-intentioned, even reasonable German. He is born a German and raised in a German—and has strong reasons, I submit, to be proud to be a German, based on the achievements of German civilization. After he has joined the Nazi Party, he is a Nazi. This is a deliberate and conscious decision on my part.

    I regret more than I ever can say the attitudes that holds Germans responsible for the crimes of those who chose “to do harm” to so many innocents. It is a disservice to the honor of not only the German Jews and those Jews caught in the maw of Hitler’s armies as they invaded the Soviet Union and as they created “Fortress Europa,” but to those heroic Germans in the German Resistance against the Nazis; to the German Protestants and Catholics themselves victims in Hitler’s so-called “Euthanasia Program” – the subject of the excerpt published here, based on Hoche and Binding’s essay; Hoche is a character in my novel, Shadows Walking, as is Horst Schumann, the physician who oversaw the T-4 program at Grafeneck and went on to use X-rays to sterilize prisoners at Auschwitz; to the courageous German Jehovah’s Witnesses who were sent to the camps; likewise to the German gay and Lesbians; to the Sinti and Roma peoples, and even, we must admit, to the youth of Germany who knew no other world than the world of Nazi Germany and who were not educated to question authority.

    I see too many similarities between their world and ours. That is why we must never forget. Not because we hold “them” responsible. But because we could have been, and might still be, “them.”

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