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The Ability to Work: New Perspectives on the Holocaust

In a previous blog, A Brief History of the First Nazi Gas Chambers, I looked at the development of gas chambers as a method for mass killing during the Third Reich. Although initially used to kill adults held within psychiatric institutions, these specialised killing facilities were adapted, and implemented in the East during WW2.

This has led some historians, such as Henry Friedlander, to see the Holocaust as an outgrowth of the earlier T4 killings. However, as we shall see, newly uncovered evidence shows something quite different, and it now appears T4 victims were not killed because of their race, but rather their behaviour by way of being perceived as a nuisance and/or unable to work. That recent research has informed our understanding of this issue is a fascinating example of how our perceptions of the crimes of the Nazis are still evolving.

A major similarity between the two murder programs is the core personnel who were transferred from T4 institutions to work in the death camps in the East, including Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. [i] For example, historian Sara Berger draws attention to Eric Bauer, who worked for T4 and in Sobibor. She states “One could say, bumping people off was already their profession.”[ii]

Some of the major T4 perpetrators. Pictured on the left is Eric Bauer, at the time a chauffer. Second from right sits Dr Paul Nitsche, Head of the T4 Medical Office.

The T4 program clearly served as a vital training ground for the some 120 staff that transitioned to the death camps. Viktor Brack gave evidence in his trial after the war about the transfer of the euthanasia personnel to Operation Reinhard: “In 1941, I received an order to discontinue the euthanasia program. In order to retain the personnel that had been relieved of these duties and in order to be able to start a new euthanasia program after the war, Bouhler asked me—I think after a conference with Himmler—to send this personnel to Lublin and place it at the disposal of SS Brigadeführer Globocnik.”[iii] More former T4 personnel were gradually deployed by Brack to the services of Globocnik in March 1942, and in June 1942. These T4 men became SS on arrival in Poland, but remained on the payroll of T4 and still holidayed at the T4 retreat in Austria. The T4 personnel made up by far the most important source of manpower for the construction, running and administration of Operation Reinhard.

Odilo Globocnik (third from right) with other SS officers and NCO during visit to Trawniki training camp, December 31, 1942.

It is such links that led to Friedlander to claim that “no substantive difference existed, however, between the killing operations directed against the handicapped, Jews, and Gypsies.”[iv] Ultimately the list of substantive differences is voluminous; the gassing technology itself was similar but different and T4 and Reinhard were under different administrative structures. However, the most significant substantive difference, certainly for the purposes of this article, relates to the selection method for the Aktion T4 murders. It is interesting that Friedlander himself appears to have noticed this, and as such contradicts himself when he states that the “most important criterion for deciding whether patients should be killed was economic.” He goes on to document times when the T4 high brass believed institutions were listing too many patients as good workers, physicians were sent out and “either singly or as members of a panel, reviewed a local institution’s reporting of patients, their criteria for selection were extremely harsh. They selected large numbers of patients, and their overriding criterion was the ability to do productive work.”[v] This cold, hard utilitarian approach stands in stark contrast to the race mysticism which drove the SS to relentlessly murder Jews in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.

Map showing the location of the three main Operation Reinhard camps.

Additionally, listening to the perpetrators themselves often shows that economic considerations were central to the Nazis’ broader decision for mass killings. As early as 1929, Hitler was preparing the German populace for what became Aktion T4 with a warped but seemingly rational cost-benefit analysis of caring for the sick: “As a result of our modern sentimental humanitarianism we are trying to maintain the weak at the expense of the healthy.”[vi] What followed over the ensuing years was a concerted propaganda effort aimed at degrading psychiatric patients, such as the now widely documented propaganda posters which aimed at garnering support in the general populace through economic rationalisation: “60,000 Reich Marks. What this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the People’s Community during his lifetime. Comrade, that is your money too.”[vii]

Nazi propaganda poster, forwarding economic reasons for murder.

There is also a huge amount of documentation which reflects how the perpetrators justified carrying out “medicalised killing.” At Eglfing-Haar mental hospital, Dr. Hermann Pfannmüller, submitted a report after the outbreak of war which claimed: “Precisely these days, in which the heaviest sacrifice of blood and life is demanded of our most valuable men, teach us emphatically that it should not be possible on economic grounds to fill institutions with living corpses for the sake of a high principle of medical care that is no longer relevant.”[viii] There are also the Harteim Statistics which detail the supposed savings that were generated by the T4 program murders. Additionally, Herwig Czech has also noted how “Karl Brandt and Philipp Bouhler, the two recipients of Hitler’s euthanasia order of October 1939, defined the aim of the killing campaign in March 1941 as the “elimination of all those unable to perform productive work even if institutionalized.”[ix]

Excerpt from the Harteim Statistics, discovered by US soldiers in 1945

However, the most compelling evidence which places cold-hard economic logic at the centre of the selection and murder of those deemed disabled in the T4 gas chambers, is the research of patient files. Beginning in the 1990s, this research explored 30,000+ victim files of the T4 gas chambers from January 1940 to August 1941, which had made their way to the Ministry of State Security in Berlin and were discovered after German unification in 1990. The research project took a random cross sample of thousands of files and compared them with the files of people who survived these institutions having not been selected for the gas chambers. One of the key aims of the research was to determine the criteria for selection and thus the motivation behind murder. Summaries initially came out in 2000 and then findings were discussed intensively at a conference in Heidelberg in 2006, and ultimately gathered in a volume edited by the physician and historian Maike Rotzoll and her team in 2010: The National Socialist ‘Euthanasia’ Campaign T4 ’And Its Victims: History And Ethical Consequences For The Present. There is also an English-language article which came out around the same time as the Heidelberg conference: The First National Socialist Extermination Crime: The T4 Program and Its Victims(2006), by Maike Rotzoll et. al.

Buses used to transport T4 victims. Notice the windows have been painted over.

Being Fit to Work at Uchspringe:

Such studies are ground-breaking and shocking in how they uncover just how salient economic considerations or “ability to work” were in selecting patients for death in gas chambers. When comparing survivor and victim files from the former state mental hospital and asylum at Uchtspringe (from where approximately 1,800 patients were transported to the T4 gas chambers), researchers found that patients with the ability to learn and work had a much higher chance of survival: “70 percent of the victims were classified as unable to learn… Among the survivors only 5 percent are classified as unable to learn.”[x] This is clearly linked to the ability to be trained to do agricultural and work on the hospital grounds. To Rotzoll et. al, “the fundamental difference between the two groups was that in the victims’ group, 54 percent did not work at all – half of them because they were children. In the survivors’ group, by contrast, all the adults worked; only two children (4 percent of the entire group) did not work.”[xi] As in the case regarding Uchtspringe, the wider research project has found compelling evidence that utilitarian considerations, mainly ability to work, had a far greater role to play in selection than racial hygiene. Thus, when Friedlander highlights the fact that the “Nazis killed handicapped infants in hospital wards as well as elderly men and women in nursing homes”[xii], to draw comparison to the Holocaust, we should also note that these groups were the most economically unproductive.

Irmgard Huber, chief nurse at Hadamar “euthanasia” centre

Economic Value of Patients

Psychiatric patients were observed, and diagnosed in an arbitrary way based on their behaviour by physicians, whose observations were often led by classist bias. If a patient was observed to be capable of having some kind of economic value, then it was probable that this patient would be spared death. This is a far cry from a murder program driven by biological determinism, as is put forward by Friedlander. The following is a salient example of this kind assessment: “At the end of March 1944, two brothers from the Schwarzacher Hof near Mosbach were received as “research children” at the Heidelberg hospital. Twelve-year-old Walter and seven-year-old Günther were regarded as “congenitally feeble-minded”…“He acts quite dexterously and is industrious and enthusiastic”. Günther, on the other hand, “can only barely tie the bundle by hand, with the machine he is only able to crank it”… Walter survived the war. Günther was murdered at Eichberg on 28 December 1944.”[xiii]

Günther under examination at Heidelberg Psychiatric

In conclusion, as historian Paul Weindling has observed, those scholars such as Friedlander whom see a straight line of development from the Aktion T4 to Reinhard have failed to recognise “a significant but also transitory phase in the shaping of the Holocaust.”[xiv] As the Holocaust was a racist endeavour, this would conveniently place T4 victims within the victim group of a biopolitical, racist ideology. Convenient in terms of civil litigation and recognition, where campaigners have fought for the recognition of “euthanised” patients as victims of Nazi racism.

But indirectly “euthanasia” victims were victims of Nazi discrimination.  Although T4 victims were not killed because of their race, their behaviour determined their survival by way of being perceived as a nuisance, unable to work, Lebensunwertes Leben (life unworthy of life), or Nutzlose Esser (useless eaters). Thus, when it came to certain victim groups, arbitrary decisions based on behaviour were often enough to have someone murdered.

During Aktion Reinhard, one’s usefulness or behaviour was seldom enough to spare Jews who had been slated for murder as being members of a mythical and malevolent racial entity. Aktion T4 is then illuminating, as it shows that the Nazi perpetrators were not necessarily biological determinists, and often shoehorned racial justifications into persecution based on behaviour and perceived usefulness. Lessons learnt from a comparison between T4 and Reinhard move us away from monolithic racial paradigms and challenge us to grapple with the multifaced nature of human cruelty and the litany of actors and motivations which lead to the infliction of such appalling crimes.

Jonny Hudson – 3.3.22

Jonny Hudson is a teacher of History and English, has lived and worked in five different countries, and has experience of teaching the Holocaust in England and Japan. He has organised and led survivor talks and international trips to Holocaust sites in Germany and Poland. After receiving his master’s in Holocaust education in 2019, he began a PhD in Holocaust Studies, with his main research interest being Holocaust perpetrators. Jonny has been a volunteer at HELC since October 2021.

Further Reading

Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Pendas, Devin O., Mark Roseman, And Richard F. Wetzell. Beyond The Racial State: Rethinking Nazi Germany. German Historical Institute, 2017.

Weindling, Paul. Victims and Survivors of Nazi Human Experiments: Science and Suffering in the Holocaust. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.


[i] Henry Friedlander, The Origins Of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1997).p22

[ii] Sara Berger, Experten der Vernichtung. Das T4-Reinhardt-Netzwerk in den Lagern Belzec, Sobibor und Treblinka (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2013).p309

[iii] Cited in Yitshak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2008).p17

[iv] Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide.p22

[v] (Ibid).p82-83

[vi] Cited in Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, Nazism, 1919-1945: A Documentary Reader (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1983).p1002

[vii] See Michael D. Robertson, Astrid Ley, and Edwina Light, The First into the Dark: The Nazi Persecution of the Disabled (Sydney, Australia: UTS ePRESS, 2019).p46

[viii] Cited in Michael S. Bryant, Confronting the “Good Death” Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953 (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005).p194

[ix] Herwig Czech. “Nazi Medical Crimes, Eugenics, and the Limits of the Racial State Paradigm.” Essay. In Beyond the Racial State: Rethinking Nazi Germany (Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute, 2017).p219

[x] Maike Rotzoll et al., “The First National Socialist Extermination Crime: The t4 Program and Its Victims,” International Journal of Mental Health 35, no. 3 (2006): pp. 17-29,

[xi] (Ibid)

[xii] Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide.pxii

[xiii] Cited in Paul Weindling, From Clinic to Concentration Camp: Reassessing Nazi Medical and Racial Research, 1933-1945. Routledge, Taylor et Francis Group, 2021..p175

[xiv] (Ibid).p11

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