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forgotten crimes

1 november 2021

The Nazi campaign to eradicate disabled people from the Third Reich is not part of the Holocaust strictly speaking. The Nazis killed many, many disabled Jews, but they killed Jews of any ability status, with purely genocidal intent. By contrast, the programs of euthanasia and sterilization directed against disabled Germans were eugenic, meant to improve the racial stock of "Aryans." The principle at work, as in the Holocaust, was racialist, but the murderous projects ran on separate if parallel tracks. Thus, perhaps, in the subtitle of Suzanne E. Evans' harrowing and valuable book Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and people with disabilities, one should read "and" as somewhat disjunctive. The Holocaust was one thing and "euthanasia" was another, though they left from the same ideological station.

Notably, too, Nazi euthanasia met stiff domestic resistance, and the Nazis were sensitive to that public response. Clemens August Graf von Galen, Catholic bishop of Münster, is widely admired for his defiance of Hitler as he condemned euthanasia of the developmentally and physically disabled. Von Galen was also not an active anti-Semite. But he seems to have thought that the specter of Bolshevism – always associated by the Nazis with Jewishness – made it worth supporting Hitler on most issues. The reaction of von Galen and others shut down much of the Nazi euthanasia program, but it left the Final Solution unaffected.

Nazi persecution of the disabled, as Evans shows, spanned a wide range of categories, including physical and mental disabilities, many of which could have had only dubious links to genetics even if one accepted the insane eugenic theories of the Reich. Particularly gruesome was the sterilization of deaf Germans, an assault on their culture as well as their bodies, a conflation of different ability with weakness that reveals a little-seen and especially nasty side of fascism that still has its echoes today.

As if anything could be worse than murder; but as I've noted, the outright murder of the disabled proved unpopular even in Nazi Germany and had to be disguised and largely discarded early in the war. (Small comfort to the thousands already murdered by that point.) Sterilizations and incarcerations of the disabled continued throughout, and the scant thought that Nazis gave to feeding their prisoners led to the starvation of many more of the disabled. There is nothing redeeming in these pages.

Forgotten Crimes does not include much original research. Large portions of it are paraphrased from more specialized studies (always with extensive credit and documentation). Writing history often involves synthesis from secondary sources, so there is nothing wrong with that approach. But rarely does one see so many chapters of a book that are plain retellings of other books. The exigence for Forgotten Crimes explains the approach: Evans' book is meant to raise consciousness by directing readers' attention to the known research; it is more survey than direct study. As such, it is an invaluable addition to libraries of writing about Nazi atrocities.

Evans, Suzanne E. Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and people with disabilities. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004. D 804.5 .H35E93