Casualties of Hitler's sterilisation programme still suffer

Making amends for the sins of previous generations is now ubiquitous. Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, apologised ten days ago for the abuse of children who were sent to Australia between 1930 and 1967. Tony Blair made an equally profound gesture in 2006, in recognition of Britain’s role in the African slave trade, and it is 39 years since Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of West Germany, fell to his knees in Warsaw and declared Germany to be sorry for the Holocaust. Yet, despite all the hand wringing, some victims remain hidden in the shadows...

... It was in 1934 that the Nazis brought into force the “law for the prevention of genetic ill procreation”. For Hitler, the sterilisation of “genetically ill” people was a “humane deed” for mankind. “The passing pain of one century can and will release thousands of years from suffering,” he wrote in Mein Kampf. This “passing pain” was inflicted on about 400,000 people. The exact number is difficult to ascertain because many victims did not survive their ordeal.

Men and women were classified as genetically ill if they suffered from “hereditary mental retardation”, “schizophrenia”, “manic-depressive insanity”, but also if they were deaf or blind. People who were heavily disabled and some who were alcoholics could suffer compulsory sterilisation, with or without anaesthetic. To achieve this the Nazis established “genetic health tribunals” to arbitrate. Many victims were healthy, but had had the ill-luck to belong to a marginalised social class.

In Germany today those victims of Nazi eugenics are still fighting against being labelled “lebensunwert” — unworthy to live. Incredibly, the eugenic Nazi law still exists. The German Parliament suspended the “law for the prevention of genetic ill procreation” in 2007, but this did not eliminate it, only put it out of force. To some this may appear only a juristic formality, but Germany’s failure to abolish it has left the victims feeling isolated.

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