Museum Fellowship Lesson Plans

  Euthanasia program

 Euthanasia and the T4 Program
 Judith Clark-Zaino
 Milford High School
 Milford, New Hampshire


  Bed from the Sachsenberg psychiatric asylum
Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives


The euthanasia campaign, called Operation T-4, was code-named after the address of the confiscated Jewish villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4, which was the address of the program's central administrative offices. The Nazi regime authorized a systematic program to eliminate lebensunwertes Leben ("life unworthy of life"). These "worthless" people included mentally and physically disabled Germans and Austrians, children and adults, who were regarded as a blight on the Third Reich's "racial integrity" and as an unacceptable economic burden for the state.

The focus of this lesson is to direct students toward exploring their own and society’s feelings about the taking of a human life. The lesson concentrates on allowing students to identify at what point “the line is crossed” when making decisions about the termination of life or life-supporting treatment. The inherent value of individual life, regardless of the mental ability or issues of that life, must be examined. 

The logically anticipated outrage that students feel when reading about the T4 “euthanasia” program of the Nazis requires students to look at the reality of the world around them and compare it to the world in which the T4 program existed. Like it or not, uncomfortable or not, students need to identify how far people are willing to stretch the definition and acceptable parameters of what is now euphemistically deemed “assisted suicide” and “euthanasia.” By examining current trends in acceptable social beliefs and medical practices, students may more clearly see why the Nazis chose these victims. 

While this lesson is part of a semester-long history course on the Holocaust, its inclusion in any discussion of non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust is vital. Most of my students come to my class with a basic knowledge of the Holocaust and its Jewish victims; this lesson allows them to begin an exploration of the other victims. The progressive nature of Nazi atrocities becomes clear when these victims, the least able to defend themselves, is exposed. Social and personal notions about the value of human life are examined as well. Frustrations regarding the funding of special education, in which a few individuals who will most likely never become “productive, tax-paying members of society” may often find its way into the discussion. 

While students often need to struggle to find their moral footing on this topic, it is what I consider one of the most valuable lessons that they can take away. This lesson makes clear how easily a society can slip from one in which people may exercise the right to die into one in which they have a responsibility to die. This responsibility, if not exercised by the individual or the family, may then slip into the hands of the government and its bureaucracies. Although certainly not the only, or by some standards the most important lesson of the Holocaust, it is a valuable one for young people to examine.


  • Analyze their own thinking about the value of individual humans and society’s responsibility for them.
  • Consider the role of the German government in deciding who was worthy of life.
  • Understand the facts of the T4 program.

Time Required

One class period and follow-up homework assignment.  

Grade Level

Grades 10-12

Curriculum Fit

Holocaust Studies, World History

Procedure / Strategy

  1. Students will have read USHMM pamphlet “Mentally and Physically Handicapped: Victims of the Nazi Era” for homework
  2. Give students literal definition of euthanasia including it’s Greek root of “easy death” (See overhead information)
  3. Place scenarios on overhead with the first showing – student discussion
  4. Continue through scenarios with student discussion, ask at what point students will no longer endorse the taking of human life
  5. Discuss “Angel of Death” trial in Goffstown, NH [Substitute local/current story]
  6. Review the details of the T4 program:
  1. Who were the victims
  2. Beginnings in 1939 through 1941 resistance
  3. Continuation after resistance
  4. Nazi euphemism use of “euthanasia” and “special treatment”
  5. Development of Operation 14f13
  1. Homework: In essay form, answer the following question: What are the moral implications of the T4 program in today’s society?

Materials / Resources

Evaluation / Assessment

  • Quiz reflecting key content of lesson
  • Essay


Euthanasia: the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy

Etymology: Greek, easy death, from euthanatos, from eu- + thanatos (death)

A woman is suffering from ovarian cancer. All methods of treatment have been exhausted and her death is unavoidable. Knowing that she has a few months of life left that may well be spent in excruciating pain, she chooses to take an overdose of medication that will cause her to fall asleep and then eventually die.

A woman is suffering from advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Although she has many months to live, she is no longer able to care for herself – she is completely paralyzed and can no longer speak. Her husband of many years has discussed this eventuality with her and knows that she would prefer to die rather than live in such a condition and gives her a lethal injection of her pain medication.

A woman suffering from Alzheimer’s is admitted to the county nursing home. She has no immediate family, only distant relatives who are unable to care for her. She has what appears to be no sense of reality. A night nurse gives her a lethal dose of sleeping medication.

A woman who suffers from severe schizophrenia is admitted to a mental institution. She has not responded well to medication and even when she does, she often refuses to take it. She lives on the street most of the time and is tormented by the voices she hears and hallucinations. She has neither insurance nor family members to pay for her hospitalization. She will become a permanent burden on Medicaid. Rather than allow her care to become a drain on public resources, a doctor gives her a lethal dose of sleeping medication. She will be, he believes, at peace.

A woman who is severely physically handicapped, unable to care for herself and unable to make a contribution to society is allowed to starve to death in the hospital in which she resides by the administrators responsible for her care. 

The government recommends that all patients deemed mentally ill or physically unfit be “euthanized” to end their misery and end their drain of resources.

Angel of Death

Salem nurse gives up license, avoids jail - By NANCY MEERSMAN, Union Leader Staff
(This story appears on this website by special permission of the Union Leader Corporation. No further republication or redistribution is permitted.)

MANCHESTER, N.H., Oct. 24 - John W. Bardgett, acquitted in February of killing two patients in a Bedford nursing home, won't go to trial on three outstanding felony counts for giving his patients unauthorized injections of morphine.

Bardgett, 27, who called himself the "Angel of Death," has entered a plea agreement that will keep him out of prison and also prevent him from ever working again in New Hampshire as a registered nurse. 

Bardgett went on trial in January on two counts of second-degree murder for allegedly injecting lethal doses of morphine into two terminally ill patients, 92-year-old Clara Hamm and 91-year-old Dorothy Koch. Both were patients at the Harborside Healthcare-Northwood nursing home and were under Bardgett's care in September 2001 when they died. 

The state medical examiner testified that the women died of acute opiate intoxication. He ruled the deaths homicides. But defense experts countered that the patients were probably given authorized amounts of morphine and came to tolerate the high levels that built up in their systems over time. The patients died of natural causes, the defense witnesses said. 

Bardgett's plea agreement calls for the state to drop three first-degree assault counts alleging Bardgett injected patients with morphine without orders from a doctor. Bardgett will plead guilty to two misdemeanors alleging dishonest or unprofessional conduct "by unlawful administration of a controlled substance" to one of the patients. 

If the judge accepts the plea agreement, Bardgett will be sentenced to a total of 24 months in the house of corrections, suspended for two years, as long as he stays out of trouble. Bardgett will sign a consent decree agreeing to a permanent revocation of his nursing license in the state of New Hampshire. 

He will enter a formal plea and will be sentenced on Nov. 6 by Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge James J. Barry. 

"I think the plea reflects his conduct. It's the same conduct we admitted at the trial," said Bardgett's attorney Peter Anderson of McLane, Graf, Raulerson and Middleton. 

Anderson said Bardgett, a resident of Salem, is working in Massachusetts, but he declined to say where, other than that he is not working in the medical field. 

"He's lost several jobs as the result of these proceedings," Anderson said. 

Anderson said jurors struggled with evidence related to the cause of the patients' deaths. After deliberating for eight days, jurors returned innocent verdicts on the two second-degree murder counts. They deadlocked on three counts of first-degree assault. 

"They were seriously concerned about the lack of proof on the cause of death on the murder charges," Anderson said. 

Senior Assistant Attorney General Michael Delaney said he would discuss the reasoning behind the plea bargain at the plea-and-sentencing hearing next month. 

He said the state wouldn't be making any public statements until after articulating the rationale for the judge. As for the families of the victims, he said, "They support the disposition." 

Gretchen McKee of Hollis, niece of Dorothy Koch, said the family wouldn't discuss the case until after the sentencing.

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