In Israel today, sirens rang out across the country which brought traffic to a standstill and led to a moment of national silence. The silence is a commemoration of a day of remembrance for the Holocaust, the Shoah, a state-mandated genocide against Jewish people, identified as race and identity, as well as religion.
There is no need, not when so many others have articulated it better, to discuss the horror of deliberate genocide, nor the prolonged antisemitism that led to the attempted extermination of the Jews and persists today. The National Socialist fascination with racial hygiene as part of the identification and deliberate separation of the pure German volk and Lebensunwertes Leben, life unworthy of life, and the appeal and actual impact that had on the men who pulled the triggers and the switches (and the majority of killing was done by shooting, not in the gas chambers) has also been well covered by Goldhagen, Browning, and others.
The journey into that darkness is debated, as is who’s hand steered the vessel into that evil, and to whom the blame should be assigned. Debates rage about what the role of the liberators was and what it was not, and debates, without surcease, continue about the political and spiritual implications of such an event as it relates to Israel.
What I remember today is not the debate, the rallies, the propaganda, the loud cries that continue today. What I am thinking of instead is the verge of darkness, the point at which people said nothing, but allowed themselves to do things without ever having been told to. The subconscious tipping point where we allow ourselves to look at another being and quietly deny them. I am thinking of a passage in Jay Lifton’s book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, which is a stunning work unto itself, about Aktion T4.
Aktion T4 was a secretive directive to a select board of ideologically motivated National Socialist medical professionals to deliberately exterminate persons with severe neurological and physical handicaps and the mentally unwell, and also targeted the inmates of asylums who had histories of addiction, depression, and other social neuroses it was feared might be passed on genetically. At first it was targeted sterilization of mixed race children (which would continue into the Concentration Camps), and then the beginning of euthanasia programs against the mentally handicapped. The idea of racial hygiene in the medical profession itself had seen edicts and portions of the Nuremberg Laws dedicated to blacklisting and forcing out Jewish doctors, too often aided by their former colleagues who saw the laws as an opportunity to eliminate competition and rise in clinics and hospitals. Throughout the profession, with a few rare exceptions, a tacit understanding kept any backlash from materializing.
Aktion T4’s first targets were children with Down Syndrome, Micro or Hydrocephalus, Cerebral Palsy, and other physical deformations. Hitler was a key advocate of the program, and commissioned The Reich Committee for the Scientific Registering of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses, a small body which reviewed every case and passed judgement as to whether a patient would be euthanised, on the advice of his personal physician, Dr. Karl Brandt. Every case was weighed on the medical testimony of attending physicians through the lens of a certain criteria, while Jewish patients were immediately marked for death regardless of condition. Those killed were recorded as having died from various and sundry causes, and the impeccably kept records deliberately falsified.
Justification had come with the start of the attack on Poland. After all, hospital facilities and medical expertise ought to go to sustaining and propagating the healthy and those fighting for the future of the healthy, not mouths incapable or unwilling to work. The popular acceptance of explicit euthanasia, despite ideological efforts from the Party, was never very high, but acute resistance to the message, especially as the medical profession’s role as racial hygienists had been sanctified as part of the program of national self improvement, was never universal across the whole of Germany either, which allowed the semi-secretive Aktion T4 to proceed.
After initial actions, the program expanded to adults. While it was used to clear psychiatric hospitals in the Reich of persons who were disabled or it was feared would pass on genetic predispositions to a variety of negative traits and behaviors, the program also became a way to eliminate dissenters quietly by sticking them in mental asylums for various concocted reasons. The children were mostly killed in special wards, usually by a slow and increasing dose of sedative, administered to the point of fatal overdose. It was the adult victims who were the first to be extensively killed using specially-built carbon monoxide chambers in the guise of showers, a system observed with interest by the Einsatzgruppen, the special SS task forces tasked with liquidating Jewish populations in the areas behind the advance of the German Army.
Estimates range from 26,000 to 100,000 persons involuntarily euthanised; a number which acknowledges both those killed in Aktion T4 (which had to be put on hiatus in 1941 due to strong public reactions, especially in Catholic-majority Bavaria, to the rumors that the killings were occurring) as well as those killed in later informal clearances, mental patients killed by einsatzgruppen commandos in areas overrun by the Wehrmacht, and mental patients taken from labor and concentration camps to special facilities for observation, experimentation, and liquidation.
The killing was horrible, if not alien to the perverted course of Darwinism that the Nazis pursued in developing ein volk, ein reich which drew sources from scientific thought espoused in medical societies for the study of eugenics, especially in the United States. The thing that, to me, is absolutely staggering was the careful medical process of concocting explanations for relatives and the precise, if falsified, medical notation of all proceedings. This unseemly work, backed up by explicit threats from the gestapo to people who asked too many questions, was carried out by doctors, by people who had taken the Hippocratic Oath, by nurses, and by people who lived in the same communities as the families whose relatives they were deliberately killing. Perhaps some movements of conscious saved one or two lives, but the burden of proof before the Reich Committee was on local medical authorities to explain why patients should not be euthanized, and the system reinforced complicity for fear of blackballing or worse.
Yet even that is not so monstrous as the passage in which Lifton records the memories of the assistants administering the sedatives which slowly aped the appearance of declining health in children only a few years old. Relatives grew suspicious if healthy children suddenly perished overnight (one of the reasons the gassing aroused suspicion), so often the process was drawn out for days, even weeks. The special wards for children were a place of silence, a silence in which those killing never or almost never acknowledged to each other what they were doing. A few had to be told directly by Reich Committee representatives, but many simply followed those diffused orders without saying anything; young nurses who never had to be told explicitly about the aim of upping the dosage, even though they knew it was slowly killing the children. Maybe in some cases a mental extirpation was possible, a detachment to preserve sanity or to justify the transgression, but the fact remains that the action rarely had to be vocalized or the object made apparent by more than a look or by discursive references. Self-censorship, if the perpetrators are to be believed, was the norm.
There is a certain kind of collective shrug, a “c’est le guerre“, about many of life’s inconsistencies and even its outright cruelties. Certain things are perhaps merely inevitabilities, but one should never forget that all inevitability is made truly inevitable by its acceptance, and then by tacit process. Self-delusion is undeniably an important part of human survival, especially in a world where life consumes other life nearly everyday, but there is a danger in this. Persons suffering from intense handicaps indeed too often get swallowed up in our society, too often viewed as liabilities. The poor national conversation about mental health often relegates mental illness and handicaps to the fringe. It is exactly this fact that these people seem helpless that makes it perhaps easy to turn away from them.
Yet it was Aktion T4, that ability to look at the mentally unwell, deny them personhood, and then to deliberately and surreptitiously kill them that was the slippery slope to the decision, not in any final form as Germany inherited large Jewish populations through military conquest in the East and West, to eliminate Jews by deliberate and medically-supervised extermination. The concentration of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and other targeted groups and minorities mirrored the liquidation of separate institutions to fewer, better managed facilities with the purpose of efficiently identifying and killing those judged unworthy of life. The gassing process was refined on the mentally handicapped before it was used at Treblinka, with that becoming the model for the extermination facilities at concentration camps. What began with the voiceless turned on millions who were shot, gassed, and starved between 1939 and 1945.
What we need to remember is that today’s silence began with silence. It begins with someone looking at you, a look which, without words, asks, “Are you going to question this order? this state of affairs?” There are times in life when we cannot say no or we feel we cannot, and Fascism and all totalitarianism feeds on this by substituting for conscious a simple parochial and cynical truism about nature’s course and intention, with utter self-abatement necessary so the strong may eat. As Kipling says in the Law of the Jungle “…the head and the hoof of the law and the haunch and the hump is—Obey!”
Yet, we as people, as human beings, have the power of reasoning and examination, if we have to courage to look into the darkness and see it, to say “we cannot do this” or “I cannot allow this to happen.” We have the ability to say, as Jesus said in the Book of Matthew, that what you do unto the weakest of us you do unto all of us. We can take responsibility for what happens and risk ourselves for something better, even when it seems that all is against our doubt.
That is courage. That is the noise that breaks the silence: the Anacrusis between the abstract thought and the committing syllable, or in music the commencing notes before the first beat. Anacrusis derives from the Greek Anakrousis, which means to strike upwards or to push back. Let that be the challenge of today, for everyone, Jew or Gentile alike. When we are presented with some horrendous situation and the wily parochial response cries “It is the war- Obey!”, push back. Break the silence and perhaps you may create the wave that shatters collective tyranny over mind and body. That will be a fitting way to remember the millions gone into that darkness and serve the millions who live in it today.