Artistic Confrontation with National Socialist "Euthanasia" and Eugenics Crimes

Artistic Confrontation with National Socialist "Euthanasia" and Eugenics Crimes

"... human judgement allows the granting of mercy death to the incurably ill."  – Letter of authorization from Adolf Hitler, October 1939

The Greek term "euthanasia" translates to "beautiful death"—an unspeakably euphemistic description for the NS mass murder of more than 300,000 people with physical, emotional, and mental disorders throughout Europe.

This crime remains hardly recognized by the general public today: In the MEMO Youth Study 2023, less than half of the young adults surveyed included ill people and people with disabilities as groups that were persecuted and murdered under National Socialism.

How are NS "euthanasia" crimes and their victims commemorated in Germany today? How is the injustice remembered at historical sites? Let’s take a look at two projects of the Education Agenda NS-Injustice.

Paul Goesch: one of 300,000
Anyone walking through the Gothic old town of Brandenburg an der Havel in the summer of 2023 may come across the colorful artworks of Paul Goesch and hear residents talk about his paintings. A project of the Education Agenda NS-Injustice has become the talk of the town: The Memorial for the Victims of the Euthanasia Killings and the City Museum in Brandenburg an der Havel, together with a variety of players from Brandenburg’s urban society, are planning a participatory exhibition project on the life and work of the artist. At workshops and as so-called citizen curators, those interested can participate in the project and contribute ideas. The exhibition of original works will be on display in the City Museum in the summer of 2024.

Paul Goesch is considered a visionary of Modernism. His works from the 1910s and 1920s are examples of avant-garde expressionism. Goesch suffered from schizophrenia and was a psychiatric patient for many years. He is one of 300,000 people whom the Nazis declared "unworthy of life" and murdered in the course of "euthanasia.”

Where exactly? Few Brandenburgers can answer this question. Many know Nicolaiplatz as a busy traffic junction where trams stop and the parking lot of the Citizens’ Service Center is located. But 83 years ago, from February to October 1940, doctors killed more than 9,000 people here as part of "Aktion T4.” Patients from nursing homes and psychiatric clinics were taken by bus to the grounds of the former "Alte Zuchthaus" [Old Penitentiary] on Nicolaiplatz, led into a gas chamber and murdered there. One of them was Paul Goesch.

"Beredtes Schweigen" [Eloquent silence]: legal jargon—a contractual agreement that allows silence as a declaration of intent
Who in Thuringia knows the history of the buildings of the University of Jena, the Klinikum Stadtroda (Stadtroda Clinic), the former health office in Weimar or the state sanatoriums in Blankenhain, Mühlhausen or Hildburghausen?

Are there sites of eugenics crimes in your own neighborhood? What happened there?

A participatory art and education project by the Biology Didactics Working Group at Friedrich Schiller University Jena, the association Lernort Weimar, and the Weimar cultural site "stellwerk junges theater" uses facade projections to make five perpetrator locations visible and anchor them in the regional culture of remembrance.

National Socialist racial hygiene was based on eugenics, the doctrine of supposedly "good" heredity traits. The goal was to improve the genetic makeup of one’s "own race”: accordingly, people who were handicapped, incurably ill, or leading an "undesirable lifestyle" should be prevented from reproducing. During the National Socialist regime, 400,000 women, men, and youth were forcibly sterilized.

The legal and social reappraisal of National Socialist eugenics crimes did not begin until the 1980s. Decades of denial and repression were traumatizing for survivors, who often did not talk about what they had suffered out of shame. Court rulings legitimizing forced sterilizations were not overturned until 1998. To this day, the descendants of "euthanasia" victims and people who were forcibly sterilized are still not entitled to benefits under the Federal Compensation Act, but one can apply for benefits under a hardship scheme.

Who were the people whose lives were irreversibly shaped by the National Socialist eugenics crimes?

The Jena project makes the lives of those affected from the region visible, linking scientific and artistic formats. 
In a graphic novel and in a play, people come to life and tell their stories: How old were they? Did they have a job? Why did the National Socialist regime persecute them?

One of the profiled persons is Renate S., born in Weimar in 1928. In 1935, the health department took notice of the deaf girl: she was considered "not fit for school" and was sent to the school for the deaf in Gotha. This meant that she was leaving her family and now living in the "Thüringer Taubstummen- und Blindenanstalt" [Thuringian Institution for the Deaf, Mute, and Blind].

But Renate would have to move many more times: back to Weimar, to a home in Bad Blankenburg, and finally to the state sanatoriums in Stadtroda. In early December 1941, her mother sees her for the last time in Stadtroda and reports: "The child looked terrible. She was stiff and unconscious. The child’s body was blue, green, and bloodshot. There were many puncture wounds visible on the body." On December 6, 1941, Renate allegedly died of pneumonia—a diagnosis typical of the NS infanticide, indicating that she had been administered an overdose of narcotics.

In the here and now, pupils deal with National Socialist eugenics and "euthanasia" crimes and make connections to their present: What are the ethical foundations of good coexistence? And how do we as a society deal today with people who perform differently or not at all?

"Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority." Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, Article 1. 

Two projects that exemplify how democratic attitudes can be strengthened today through a historically conscious conveyance of National Socialist crimes and the visualization of the stories of those affected.

Both projects are still seeking contributors! Learn more here about the Paul Goesch exhibition und here about the project in Jena.

Author: Sophie Ziegler