Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of University of North Carolina PressThe Origins of Nazi Genocide from Euthanasia to the Final Solution
Henry Friedlander
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995

Reviewed by:
Roni Rankin

Cascade High School
Cascade, Idaho


An extension of Social Darwinism, eugenics captured the imaginations of many who envisioned a perfect gene pool and wielded the power to put it into practice. Henry Friedlander's The Origins of Nazi Genocide, From Euthanasia to the Final Solution reminds us how prejudice can twist science to advance a racist doctrine. Friedlander's first chapter makes reference to Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, an account of how the widely held 19th century belief in human inequality resulted in faulty data collection which correlated brain size and intelligence. By the scientific standards of the early 20th century, "eugenic research was on the cutting edge of science." "Its practitioners were respected scholars” and their failing was not the methodological error of 19th century phrenologists, but "their inability to recognize the ways in which their own prejudices corrupted their premises and tainted their conclusions." Nazi eugenicists ultimately used science to advance the philosophy of "life unworthy of life", or put more crudely, "useless eaters." Friedlander traces the progress of a widely and scientifically accepted ideology that first resulted in the sterilization and then the extermination of handicapped children and adults in Germany and ultimately reached its culmination in the Final Solution and the systematic extermination of Jews and Gypsies.

Until WWI, eugenics in Germany and the U.S. ran parallel courses. By the middle of the 1930's, more than half the states in the United Sates had passed laws that authorized the sterilization of "inmates of mental institutions, persons convicted more than once of sex crimes, those doomed to be feeble-minded by 10 tests, 'moral degenerate persons,' and epileptics." In the famous Carrie Bell case, the Supreme Court upheld the Virginia law ordering her compulsory sterilization and "presaged the arguments used later to justify eugenic killings in Nazi Germany."

Friedlander argues that American eugenics "withered and died" while German race hygiene succeeded in imposing on society its radical vision of a biological-social utopia because the political climate of the Weimar Republic provided a "hospitable milieu where race hygiene could prosper” and the assumption of power by the Nazis "made the implementation of the race hygiene utopia possible." A policy of exclusion stood at the center of the Nazi utopia. Once domestic and foreign restraints were removed, this policy could be carried to its Final Solution. 

The plan was set in motion when the Nazi regime issued numerous laws and regulations during the 1930's to implement its eugenic and racial program. German science was rapidly synchronized with Nazi ideology, especially after "any scientists opposed, as well as those with the wrong background, were fired." Friedlander cites a couple of cases in which scientists actually took a harder line toward the unfit than Himmler himself, who wanted to spare illegitimate children. 

Although "Blood Protection Laws" were a crucial steppingstone toward the final solution, Jews and Gypsies were not the immediate targets. The exclusion of Jews, a significant group of German people, took a number of years. The sterilization of the handicapped, however, could begin immediately, and in 1934 the courts imposed sterilization in 62,463 cases. By 1939, the period of sterilization was ending, the period of the killings had begun. Although the party and the state sometimes struggled over who had the final say-so in implementing "euthanasia," the killing system depended on the cooperation of bureaucrats, physicians, nurses, and staff, all of whom deluded the parents of those who were killed to the financial gain of the state. Many physicians were eager to use the deaths to advance their own training as well as their economic and professional status; the euthanasia killings served as a laboratory for the "advancement of science." Friedlander concludes that it is "not surprising that Mengele used Auschwitz as a research laboratory." 

Friedlander carefully documents what is known about the directors and physicians of the T4 Operation, so titled for the street address of the office in charge of adult euthanasia, which served as a front to hide the fact that the killings were actually a Reich-sponsored operation. The Charitable Foundation for the Transport of Patients, known as "Gekrat", served as a front for the T4 Transport Office and ran the notorious gray buses that carried "patients" to "special treatment." Gekrat was only one of numerous bureaucracies designed to carry out the euthanasia operation smoothly and, most importantly, placate relatives and collect money for the care of patients who had already been killed. In traditional Nazi fashion, the paperwork was voluminous and meticulous and the language appropriately euphemistic.

When the burden of killing many more handicapped adults than children required more efficient means than narcotics and starvation, gas chambers were "invented" and, in many cases, constructed on hospital grounds. This unique invention developed to lure the victims, kill them on an assembly line, and process their corpses was "the institutionalized killing center that Nazi Germany bequeathed to the world." The victims were marked prior to gassing so that their gold dental work could be extracted. 

On August 24, 1941, Hitler ordered an end to the first phase of adult euthanasia. "Popular history and special pleading have credited opposition by the churches" for this order, but Friedlander notes that widespread public knowledge about the killings was the principal reason for Hitler's decision. Hitler's stop order did not end the killings. They continued in German hospitals by other means, a period Friedlander calls "wild euthanasia" in which the physicians, nurses, and staff in the hospitals, committed to racial hygiene, continued to kill patients anyway. At the same time, the SS became involved on the borders of the Reich and in Poland, conducting mass executions of handicapped. In Minsk, handicapped patients were locked into a pillbox that was then dynamited. A second "experiment" gassed handicapped victims in vehicles. It seemed natural that the SS in concentration camps should turn to the T4 experts for advice about how to "process" concentration camp populations. T4 physicians were placed at the disposal of the SS, and at least 12 of its physicians visited the camps. Almost a hundred supervisors and staff members were assigned to Beizec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, words more familiar than the places Friedlander names in his book. 


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