Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 19, 2007
Courageous cardinal battled Hitler's 'euthanasia' decree
Despite history's warnings, society risks repeating the same inhuman practices
My Glass is Half Full
By MARK PICKUP
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently published a short article about a new memorial in Berlin dedicated to victims of the Nazi euthanasia program which claimed close to 100,000 lives of handicapped people in Germany during the Second World War.
Started by Hitler in 1939, the T4 euthanasia program initially targeted mentally ill people and deformed children up to the age of three for lethal injections. What started with abnormal infants gave way to abnormal older children and finally disabled and handicapped adults.
The Nazi euthanasia program was based on the idea of racial purity and paved the way for the final solution which eventually claimed the lives of six million Jews. It was the euthanasia program that developed gas chambers camouflaged as shower rooms where poison gas was piped in to kill disabled people deemed unworthy of life.
The first gassing demonstration for Nazi officials overseeing the T4 program occurred in a disused prison in Brandenburg; 20 Jewish psychiatric patients were gassed. The demonstration was deemed a success. Six killing centres were established where busloads of people with mental illnesses, or physical disabilities or handicaps were shipped for systematic exterminations. One doctor oversaw the gassing of 5,000 disabled people in a six-month period from March to August 1940.
The euthanasia program never enjoyed legal sanction; it was murder even under perverted laws of the Third Reich. Although Hitler signed a decree for an adult euthanasia program against lebensunswertes leben - "life unworthy life" or "beings unworthy of existence" - he instructed officials that under no circumstances was the fhrer's office to be seen as active in the program.
Doctors who participated in the program did so voluntarily. Roughly 45 per cent of them were members of the Nazi Party and many belonged to the SS. Many of the doctors were exempted from military duty and enjoyed elevated status and perks rare in a wartime economy.
On Aug. 3, 1941, Catholic Bishop Clemens von Galen risked his life at the Munster cathedral where he delivered a scathing sermon against the euthanasia program. He condemned attempts to give legal sanction to killing the disabled and handicapped.
He roared across the pulpit, "Once admit the right to kill unproductive persons, then none of us can be sure of his life. A curse on men and the German people if we break the holy commandment 'Thou shalt not kill.'
"Woe to us German people if we not only license this heinous offence but allow it to be committed with impunity."
Von Galen's sermon sent shock-waves throughout the Nazi leadership. Twenty days later on Aug. 23, Hitler officially suspended the T4 program. The Nazis retaliated by beheading three parish priests who distributed copies of the bishop's sermon, but left Bishop von Galen untouched for fear of making him a martyr.
Word of von Galen's fiery sermon against the euthanasia program spread like wildfire. The BBC in England made broadcasts about the sermon. It made the front page in the Daily Telegraph. The RAF dropped copies of the bishop's sermon over Germany. Ordinary German soldiers on the frontlines and outposts were sent copies of the sermon by family members.
Hitler threatened von Galen. He hissed, "He may rest assured that in the balancing of our accounts no 't' will remain uncrossed, no 'i' left undotted."
The threat proved idle, although disabled and handicapped patients continued to be quietly euthanized by starvation or lethal medication, the mass extermination by gassing stopped.
A cunning Nazi film entitled Ich Klage an (I Accuse) was produced that year which was shown in theatres in Germany. It portrayed a doctor whose wife suffered from multiple sclerosis. In the warm glow of the family hearth, the doctor gently, ever so lovingly, assists his wife's suicide, giving her the deliverance she so obviously desires.
He faces charges of murder, but in turn accuses the state of not helping the disabled die. It was a skilled and clever propaganda film promoting euthanasia and assisted suicide and was designed to confuse the public by introducing the idea of personal autonomy into the euthanasia debate. Many Germans saw it as a response to von Galen's charges.
Pope Pius XII elevated von Galen to cardinal after his courageous stand defending the disabled and handicapped in the face of daunting Nazi hostility.
His words speak across the decades to North America where the heinous offence of euthanasia is gaining acceptance: "There is no such thing as life unworthy of living."
In December 2004, three months before the judicial execution of disabled American Terri Schiavo, and his own death, Pope John Paul approved beatification of Cardinal Clemens von Galen.
Von Galen's courageous actions serve as a towering example for Catholics everywhere to defend the defenceless whose lives are devalued or endangered by the acceptance of euthanasia.
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