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Murder of People with Disabilities


On 26 November 2017, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance will hold a conference in Bern, Switzerland, on the murder of people with disabilities and the Holocaust together with the Paedagogische Hochschule Bern and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland.

Image: Pirna-Sonnenstein sanatorium, Pirna, Germany. In 1940 and 1941 the National Socialists murdered 13,720 people with disabilities in the former Pirna-Sonnenstein sanatorium.  Over a thousand prisoners from National Socialist concentration camps also died at this site in the summer of 1941.

About the Conference - Programme - Abstracts - Speakers  - Media

About the Conference


The conference will focus on two Nazi operations to kill people with disablities or illnesses: the “Aktion T4", the Nazi Euthanasia program, and the Aktion “14 f 13”, the murder of concentration camp inmates categorized as sick and no longer able to work, who were killed in the same extermination institutions used in the “Aktion T4” (“T4” refers to Tiergartenstrasse 4, the address of the headquearter of the Gemeinnützige Stiftung für Heil- und Anstaltspflege ("Charitable Foundation for Curative and Institutional Care").

While much research on the murder of people with disabilities under the Nazi operations in the German Reich has been carried out, recent research also deals with murders in occupied Eastern and Western Europe. The IHRA conference aims to bring this new research together in one place to provide a fuller picture of the murder of people with disabilities and will focus on continuities of methods and perpetrators in the Holocaust. The panels will be moderated by IHRA delegates.

The main target groups of the conference are delegates of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, as well as academics working in the field.


For more information, consult the conference programme.


Panel 1: Ideology and the German and Austrian case

Regula Argast: Swiss Eugenics and its Implication in Nazi Racial Hygiene


The history of eugenics in Switzerland has been the subject of intensive research over the past fifteen years. But a broad public debate on the subject has yet to take place. This paper examines how eugenic patterns of thought and action were able to establish themselves in Switzerland, what role Swiss eugenicists played in the propagation of eugenics, and what links there were between Swiss eugenics and Nazi racial hygiene. The focus is on the professors of psychiatry August Forel, Eugen Bleuler, Ernst Rüdin, and Carl Brugger, as well as the Zurich human geneticist Ernst Hanhart and the director of the Medical Clinic in Zurich Otto Nägeli.

Paul Weindling: Reconstructing the Lives, Deaths and Body Part Histories of the Victims of Nazi "Euthanasia" Killings in Germany and Annexed Austria

Oxford Brookes University

Whereas Holocaust victims are commemorated by name, the situation for commemorating Nazi victims with mental and physical disabilities remains fragmented. There is no publicly accessible documentation at a national level in Germany and Austria – where there was a high rate of killing of psychiatric patients - commemorating psychiatric, disabled and infirm, and elderly murdered patients. Since the opening of the “T4” memorial in Berlin in 2014 some relatives have authorised the public inclusion of victim details. There are institution specific initiatives (notably for the Spiegelgrund Jugendfürsorgeanstalt since 2002 in Vienna), and recent urban initiatives (since November 2017 for Hamburg with pioneering online records), but no national scheme to document all victims in Germany and Austria, let alone covering ca. 300,000 victims (estimates vary significantly) of Nazi “euthanasia”. Victim figures are based on a series of estimates rather than aggregating person-specific documentation. An often quoted figure of 5000 children killed in the Kinderfachabteilungen is an estimate from a prosecutor, and this should be revised upwards using institution-specific records.  Victims have been represented in documents with blacked out names, and more recently with digitally removed names. This perpetuates stigma and legitimates ideologically distorted diagnoses.

There were pioneering post-war accounts of psychiatric killings by Platen-Hallermund and G. Schmidt. The ensuing silence was challenged by a grass roots movement associated with the social protests of the 1980s. Since 1983 the Arbeitskreis zur Erforschung der Geschichte von NS-„Euthanasie“ und Zwangssterilisation represents activist public history from below. This movement has intersected with disability rights agitation and critique of psychiatric institutions as dangerously coercive. Ernst Klee’s writings represent a landmark. This initiated a person-oriented history of “euthanasia” as a complex set of parallel killing programmes, both centrally and de-centrally imposed.

The “T4” Memorial Documentation Centres perform an important role, but do not document de-centralized euthanasia. Only Pirna-Sonnenstein places “euthanasia” victim documentation online;  Brandenburg Prison,  Grafeneck, Hartheim make full memorial books available for public scrutiny. The Bundesarchiv does not publicly list the former Stasi-held records of ca 30,000 “T4” victims. There is no consolidated public listing of the ca. 72,000 “T4” victims, nor of the 14f13 victims selected from concentration camps killed in the former “T4” gas chambers: both  listings would be highly desirable.

Wholly neglected until very recently is the post-mortal history of euthanasia victims. Patients were selected as living persons of medical interest and then killed. The brains of murdered patients and of Jews dying from Fleckfieber in Warsaw were sent to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research in 1940. “T4” continued after August 1941 as a research institution with designated “Reichsauschuss Kinder” earmarked for death, as at the Heidelberg Institute of Psychiatry. The Heidelberg brain tissues were secretly destroyed in 1989, and a series of secret destructions require documentation. There were collective but anonymised burials of “euthanasia” victim brain specimens as well as other Nazi victim body parts in 1990 in Frankfurt, Munich and Tübingen, posing historical problems of identifying the persons whose remains were buried. Moreover, victim brain tissues and other body parts remain in scientific collections, a matter requiring urgent resolution with identification and provenance history before a named burial, a course of action to which the Max Planck Society is now committed.

Names and biographies are essential to restore dignity and personal identity, for full-scale historical reconstruction, and for the fate of the murdered to be known by concerned relatives.

Panel 2: Western Europe

Isabelle von Bueltzingsloewen: Starvation in French Asylums during the German Occupation : Reality and Misinterpretations

University of Lyon

G.J.C. (Cecile) aan de Stegge: New data on the mortality in Dutch psychiatric institutions 1940-1945


Panel 3: Eastern Europe

M. V. Simunek: The Action "T4" in Bohemia and Moravia in Context, 1939-1941

Charles University, Prague

The expansion of the Action T4 to the territory of Bohemia and Moravia depended primarily on the administrative factors and national/racial criteria. According to these, the treatment of individual patients – or groups of patients – residented mostly in large (non-private) psychiatric institutions was supposed to diversity in 1939–1941.

At the end of 1940 directly included into the Action T4 were the patients from the northern and northern-western territories of former Czechoslovakia, which were annexed to the Third Reich in 1938 (so called Reich District of Sudetenland). In December 1940 and in early Spring of 1941 several hundred patients were transported from the psychiatric institutions in Opava (Troppau) and Šternberk na Moravě (Sternberg) through Arnsdorf to Pirna-Sonnenstein in Saxony and probably also to Hartheim in Upper Austria. In spring and summer 1941 several further hundreds of patients were transported from Dobřany (Wiesengrund) in Western Bohemia to Hartheim. Despite of the original instructions of the T4 headquarter, patients of both German and Czech nationality as well as fewer of Polish nationality were included.

Within the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, created after the German occupation on March 15, 1939, the adult patients of Czech nationality and Protectorate citizenship were supposed to be preliminary exempted from Action T4 in 1941. The number of patients, who could become victims of the Action T4, in the German and Austrian psychiatric institutions is not known.

Patients of German nationality and both German and Protectorate citizenship from the Protectorate were supposed to be included into the Action T4 on the pretext of cetralising their care under German authority. The second oldest psychiatric institution in Bohemia in Kosmonosy (Kosmanos) was designated to serve as a concentration place for them. In August 1941 the selection and transport lists were completed and the transport was set up for September 8, 1941. Because of the decision to stop Action T4 from August 24, 1941 no transports left for Pirna-Sonnenstein.  

The patients of Jewish origin seem to be included into the Action T4 in the Reich Disctrict of Sudetenland, while in the Protectorate they were concentrated in two special departments (Judenabteilungen) within the psychiatric institutions of Kromeříž (Kremsier) and Prague-Bohnice (Prag-Bochnitz).

Tadeusz Nasierowski, Filip Marcinowski: The Extermination of the Mentally Ill in Occupied Poland. The Beginning of Genocide

Warsaw Medical University

The extermination of the mentally ill in occupied Poland during the World War II initiated the genocidal activities of the Third Reich. The first victims were the patients of Pomeranian psychiatric hospitals in Świecie and Stargard Gdański, whose shootings by the invaders began in September 1939.

Qualitatively new elements in the patients killing technique appeared during the extermination of patients of psychiatric hospitals in Western Poland, where Germans formed the Reichsgau Wartheland (Warthegau). The killing of the ill in this area was carried out by a special unit of secret police officers in Poznań, led by the criminal commissioner SS Untersturmführer Herbert Lange.

In mid-November 1939, Lange's unit began the gassings of patients from the hospital in Owińska near Poznań, in a stationary gas chamber at Fort VII in Poznań, and at the turn of 1939 and 1940, for the first time during World War II, the patients from hospital in Gniezno were executed in mobile gas chambers. In the spring of 1940, Sonderkommando Lange made a tour of the remaining hospitals in Warthegau and exterminated their patients in mobile gas chambers. In the autumn of 1941, Lange’s squad was commissioned to launch the Center of Immediate Extermination of Jews in Chełmno nad Nerem. Lange became the commander of this very first death camp, where Holocaust was initiated.

In the General Government, the occupiers liquidated three hospitals.  The hospital in Chełm Lubelski was annihilated on January 12 1940. SS unit shot all the 441 patients in the hospital yard. On June 23 1942, 535 patients of the hospital in Kobierzyn near Cracow were transported by rail to Auschwitz-Birkenau and gassed in Birkenau in chamber no. 1. On August 19 1942, the liquidation of the ghetto in Otwock near Warsaw began. At this time the patients of the Zofiówka hospital, intended for people  of Jewish origin, were murdered as well.

It is estimated that during the wartime, as a result of the genocidal activities performed by the German occupiers (killing, starvation, poor sanitation conditions conducive to the spread of infectious diseases), about 20000 mentally ill Polish citizens died.

Björn Felder: Mass Murder, Starvation, Experimentation: NS-Euthanasia in the Baltics 1941- 1944

Georg-August University Göttingen, (bfeder[at] uni-goettingen [dott] de)

After the Nazi occupation of the former Baltic States in 1941 about 5000 mental ill and patients of psychiatric clinics were exterminated until 1944. About 4500 victims of Nazi euthanasia in the Baltics are documented today. Random shooting of mentally ill took place in all three Baltic countries, in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, in the first weeks of occupation and was somehow related to the first wave of killings related to the holocaust. The main phase of killing of the mental ill began in the end of 1941 and endured until early 1943. The killings did differ in practise and in perpetrators in each country though all three Baltic countries belonged to the Nazi civil government called Generalkommissariat Ostland.

The paper deals at first with the practise of Nazi-euthanasia in the Baltics states under Nazi occupation. Besides illustrating the different methods and circumstances of killing the paper will focus the German perpetrators and the reaction and action of locals, namely health authorities, physicians and nursing personal and their involvement in euthanasia. The question to be discussed here are the fact that Nazi-euthanasia was implied by different Nazi agencies with different methods and instruments. So there is the question about the existence of an euthanasia blue print or “Führerbefehl”. Further there has the be discussed the role of locals, their motivation and involvement, that is not so easy to reconstruct but the picture shows everything from resistance to affirmation in the form of conduction medical experiments on starving patients. A third point to deal with will be the reactions of local societies. In the case of Latvia and Lithuania we had public debates on killing mental and chronic ill patients that arose because of the Nazi-euthanasia.

Panel 4: Continuities and Comparisons

Sara Berger: “Murder was already their profession”. The Aktion T4 staff in the Aktion Reinhardt extermination camps

Fondazione Museo della Shoah, Rome

The employment of staff from the Aktion T4 in the extermination camps of the Aktion Reinhardt, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka is surely one of the clearest links between “euthanasia” and “Holocaust”. The transfer of personnel of the T4-killing centres Brandenburg/Bernburg, Grafenck/Hadamar, Sonnenstein and Hartheim was not about single relocations to camps that were built and run by concentration camp SS. Quite the opposite: The staff that was diverted to the General Government was responsible for the three camps in every aspect. Their workforce consisted nearly completely – besides Trawniki men – of T4 personnel. At least 117 men were transferred by the Kanzlei des Führers to the General Government in total; 112 men worked in one or more of the three extermination camps. Five were only employed by the Inspektion Einsatz Reinhardt, which was instituted by Christian Wirth in Lublin in August 1942, or in one of the labour camps that were subordinated to the Inspection. This small number sufficed to kill approximately 1.6 million Jews over the course of one and a half years because it was supported by the so-called Trawniki men, who functioned as guards.

Although the camps were officially named SS-Sonderkommandos and the men were dressed in SS-uniforms, the personnel remained subordinated to the non-military Kanzlei des Führers (Hitler’s Chancellery). The staff of the three camps created the on-site conditions with extreme autonomy. It decided upon the extermination structures, necessary reconstruction works in the camps and changes in organization and personnel.

The participation of the men in the “euthanasia” was certainly a “preschool for Poland.” They transferred their killing skills from the “euthanasia” to the camps, installing ramps, undressing rooms and the gas chambers operating with poison gas. But even if continuities between Aktion T4 and Aktion Reinhardt are obvious, the two murder campaigns differ in essential points.

Yehuda Bauer: Non-Jewish Victims of National Socialism: The Disabled and Others

Honorary Chairman of the IHRA


Regula Argast is professor in History at the Berne University of Education (Pädagogische Hochschule Bern). She received her PhD from the University of Zurich in 2005. Her research focuses on the history of citizenship and migration, and on the history of eugenics and genetics in Switzerland from a transnational perspective.

Yehuda Bauer, 1926, was born in Prague and emigrated to Palestine in March 1939. He studied in Cardiff, Wales, and received a B.A. Hon, 1st Class, followed by his PhD in 1950 from the Hebrew University Jerusalem. From 1968–1996 he worked at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry (ICJ) at Hebrew University, Jerusalem; from 1973–1975 as Head of Holocaust Studies at the ICJ, and from 1977–1979 as Head of the ICJ. He was founding Chair of the Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Antisemitism, a Member of Academic Committee, Founding Editor of the Journal for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Yad Vashem Research Institute. He was also Academic Adviser at Yad Vashem and a member of the Israeli Academy of Science. In the year 2000 Professor Bauer acted as Adviser to the government of Sweden as Chair of the Content Committee of the Stockholm Forum on Holocaust Education (2000), and on Genocide Prevention (2004). He went on to become Academic Adviser of the International Task Force for Holocaust Education and Research (ITF) – now IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), and since 2005 has been the Honorary Chairman of the IHRA.

Sara Berger (born 1978), is a researcher at the Fondazione Museo della Shoah in Rome and editor of the Italian part of the document collection The Persecution and Murder of the European Jews by Nazi Germany, 1933–1945 (VEJ 14). She is author of Experten der Vernichtung. Das T4-Reinhardt-Netzwerk in den Lagern Belzec, Sobibor und Treblinka (2013), editor of Gualtiero Cividalli: Lettere e pagine di diario (1938–1946), 2016 and I signori del terrore. Polizia nazista e persecuzione antiebraica in Italia (1943–1945), 2016. She is also co-editor of the exhibition and catalogue I Ghetti Nazisti (2012) and La razza nemica. La propaganda antisemita nazista e fascista (2017).

Isabelle von Buetzingsloewen is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Lyon (Lumière Lyon 2) and a researcher at the Laboratoire de recherche historique Rhônes-Alpes (LARHRA). Her work focuses on the fate of civil “fragile” populations during the Second World War and the history of psychiatry and mental health care in contemporary France. Her publications include L’Hécatombe des fous. La famine dans les hôpitaux psychiatriques français sous l’Occupation (2007; second edition 2009).

Björn M. Felder, received his PhD from the University of Tübingen in 2009. In 2013 he was a research fellow at the Max-Plank-Institute of the History of Science in Berlin, and from 2013 to 2014 a researcher at the History Department at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. He is a lecturer in the History Department at the Georg-August- University Göttingen. His interests span comparative totalitarianism, Soviet and Russian history, Baltic history, and social and cultural dimensions of the history of medicine in Eastern Europe. He recently finished a project on eugenics, racial anthropology and biopolitics in the Baltics.

Filip Marcinowski, M.D., works in the Department of Psychiatry of Warsaw Medical University. His research is in the field of the history of psychiatry. His ongoing Ph.D. project deals with the relation between Polish psychiatry and German-language psychiatry before 1939.

Tadeusz Nasierowski, M.D., Ph.D., works in the Department of Psychiatry of Warsaw Medical University. His research is in the field of clinical psychiatry and the history of psychiatry and he has authored many works including several books including The Extermination of the Mentally Ill in Occupied Poland. The Beginning of Genocide (Zagłada osób z zaburzeniami psychicznymi w okupowanej Polsce : początek ludobójstwa, 2008).

Michal V. Šimunek PhD. studied history at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Charles University in Prague and obtained his PhD. degree from the Faculty of Science of the same university (history and philosophy of science). He deals with the history of life science in Bohemia and Moravia in the 19th and 20th century, with a particular focus on the history of genetics, eugenics, and their social implications. In his further research he also focuses on science policy during the Nazi occupation and its consequences, e.g. the annihilation of the scientific elite.

Cecile aan de Stegge is a former psychiatric nurse with a masters’ degree in Western Philosophy (1988). She had worked for around 20 years as a strategic policy advisor for psychiatric hospitals and the Dutch government, when she decided to write about the history of her former profession. After publishing her thesis (Maastricht, 2012) she started to research the high mortality within Dutch psychiatric institutions during the German Occupation.

Paul Weindling is a Research Professor at Oxford Brookes University. He is currently researching the life histories of victims of coerced research under National Socialism, including the victims of brain research in a new project commissioned by the Max-Planck-Society. His most recent book is Victims and Survivors of Nazi Human Experiments: Science and Suffering in the Holocaust (London: Bloomsbury, 2014


Media Contact: Laura Robertson
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