GERMAN historians have identified the family whose request to Adolf Hitler that their disabled son be “put to sleep” was the catalyst for the Nazi euthanasia programme.
The five-month-old boy, who was given a lethal drug after Hitler sent his own doctor to examine him, has been named as Gerhard Kretschmar, the son of a farm hand.
The case was to provide the rationale for a secret Nazi decree that led to “mercy killings” of almost 300,000 mentally and physically handicapped people. The Kretschmars wanted their son dead but most of the other children were forcibly taken from their parents to be killed. A few days after Gerhard died in 1939, 15 psychiatrists were summoned to Hitler’s Chancellery and told that a secret euthanasia programme – dreamed of by Hitler for more than a decade – was to be put into effect. Until this month, the boy was referred to only as “Case K”, the term used by Nazi doctors when the programme was launched and at the subsequent Nuremberg war-crimes trials.
Now, Gerhard’s name heads the first comprehensive list of victims of the euthanasia killings, unveiled in Berlin this month as a permanent and chilling reminder of one of Hitler’s lesser-known extermination programmes. It was compiled over three years after painstaking research by German government archivists into 740 previously unknown files relating to the euthanasia programme.
The files, originally taken from Hitler’s Chancellery, were uncovered in archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police. It was during his trial at Nuremberg that Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal doctor, revealed that an unnamed infant had provided the Nazis with the excuse to embark on creating a master race.
The baby’s father, Richard Kretschmar, from the small Saxony town of Pomssen, near Leipzig, had written to Hitler’s office in early 1939 asking for permission to kill his blind and deformed son. In his testimony, Dr Brandt said:
“The father of a deformed child wrote to the Fuhrer with a request to be allowed to take the life of this child or this creature. Hitler ordered me to take care of this case. The child had been born blind, seemed to be idiotic, and a leg and parts of the arm were missing.”
The boy is believed to have been given luminal in the form of a dissolving tablet, causing unconsciousness and death after three to five days. The drug was later used on other victims of the euthanasia programme. Only a month after the baby’s killing, in August 1939, Hitler’s Interior Ministry issued the decree ordering the systematic annihilation of mentally and physically disabled children.
The new report contains the most comprehensive analysis yet of Nazi records, including the hundreds of hospitals and clinics that took part in the Third Reich’s programme to wipe out the lives of people considered “unworthy of living”. It contains names and case details of 200,000 of the programme’s estimated 275,000 victims.
Germany’s Culture Minister, Christina Weiss, said that the report had been drawn up to confront the truth and “restore some dignity to the victims”. As was the case with many other victims, Gerhard Kretschmar’s cause of death was recorded not as euthanasia but as “heart failure”, according to documents at the church where he was buried.
The euthanasia programme was code-named T4, after its street address in Berlin [Tiergartenstrasse, the site of the Privatkanzlei des Führers run by Philip Bouhler, right], and was responsible for the deaths of up to 8,000 children. By the beginning of 1940, six hospitals had been devoted to “processing” cases. However, the newly discovered records show that it eventually extended to 296 medical facilities in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland, in which children and adults were drugged, gassed or starved. Ms Weiss said: “We know that these crimes were meant to be kept secret. The relatives received fake letters of condolence. The doctors in charge worked under false names. This list is an attempt to admit what happened and put the record straight.”
BUT it was not until the end of 1938 that Hitler was directly involved in any euthanasia decisions, and then it was in “mercy killing,” rather than the infinitely more controversial blanket program to eliminate the insane.
Bouhler’s Chancellery had repeatedly submitted to him appeals from patients in intolerable pain, or from their doctors, asking Hitler to exercise the Head of State’s prerogative of mercy and permit the doctor to terminate the patient’s life without fear of criminal proceedings.
When Hitler received such an appeal from the parents of a malformed, blind, and imbecile boy born in Leipzig, he sent Dr. Brandt early in 1939 to examine the child, and on hearing the doctor’s horrifying description of the pathetic case, he authorized the doctors to put him to sleep; at the same time he orally authorized Bouhler and Brandt to act accordingly in any similar cases in the future.
A ministerial decree was eventually passed in August 1939 requiring all midwives and nurses to report to the local health office the details of such deformed newborn babies; a panel of three assessors judged each case, and if all three agreed, the infant was procured from the parents either by deception or by compulsion and quietly put away with as little pain to the child and sorrowing parents as possible.
From a theological expert Hitler had in 1939 secured formal assurances that the church need not be expected to raise basic objections to euthanasia. Perhaps as many as five thousand children were eventually disposed of in this way.