Austria probes gruesome fate of Nazi-era disabled

By George Jahn

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Oct. 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Nazis called people deemed too sick, weak or disabled to fit Hitler's image of a master race "unworthy lives," in the terrible culmination of the cult of eugenics that gained international popularity in the early 1900s as a way to improve the "racial quality" of future generations.

"Patients, who on the basis of human judgment are considered incurable, can be granted mercy death after a discerning diagnosis," Hitler wrote in a 1939 decree that opened the flood gates to the mass killings.

More than 70,000 such people were killed, gassed to death or otherwise murdered between 1939 and 1941, when public protests stopped most wholesale massacres. From then until the end of the war in 1945, the killings continued at the hands of doctors and nurses. In all, at least 200,000 physically or mentally disabled people were killed by medication, starvation, neglect or in the gas chambers during the war.

After 1941, McGlynn said, "a lot of the smaller institutions were given carte blanche to take care of things themselves. No longer were people being transported to (killing) centers. They were being put to sleep right there."

Hundreds of psychiatric patients from Hall were among those shipped to killing centers before 1941, but what happened there after that was unknown until two years ago, when an archivist searching through old hospital files discovered the graveyard during a hospital expansion.

The records show that as the war progressed, and able-bodied men and women became scarce behind the front lines, the Nazis made a cynical adjustment in their measurement of patients' value.

"'Worthy of life' and 'unworthy of life' were the terms used back then," Haring said. "The difference was ability to work or not."

Excerpts of medical histories provided to The Associated Press described one of the patients as suffering from "imbecility," but most were objective, bereft of demeaning descriptions. McGlynn, however, said he had examined records that show emotional abuse in addition to the physical violence the remains attest to.

"People are being threatened: 'If you don't do this we are going to stuff this tube down your nose and pump you full of stuff,'" he said. "These people were at the mercy of their captors."

Other evidence backs up his findings.

Documents show that the cemetery was created in 1942, a year after the formal end of the mass-killing campaign meant that Hall patients could no longer be shipped to gas chambers. It was shut down and abandoned in 1945, when the war ended. During that time, deaths in the psychiatric ward rose from an average of 4 percent a month in early 1942 to as high as 20 percent in some months before the end of the war.

Haring, an affable, soft-spoken man, is visibly shaken as he speaks of the horrors perpetrated by the previous generation of psychiatrists. But he hesitates to assign individual guilt to anyone caught up in the inhuman machinery of the Third Reich.

"It is easy for us now to point the finger and say 'what have they done?'" he said. "But ... I am not sure that I would have acted differently. We were simply paralyzed."

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