Of the numerous memorials for the victims of National Socialism that can be found a short distance from the current German government quarter, it is the monument next to the Berlin Philharmonic building that serves to commemorate the first group to have suffered at the hands of the Nazis on a genocidal level. A translucent sky-blue wall and corresponding curved metal sheet, the fourth memorial introduced to the city for the victims of Adolf Hitler’s murderous regime, stands for the disabled, the mentally handicapped – the so-called life unworthy of life (Lebensunwertes Leben).
Here on the Tiergartenstrasse (number 4) once sat the headquarters of the organisation responsible for the Aktion T4 plan to exterminate anyone considered physically or mentally incompatible with the National Socialist Weltanschauung.
While the paperwork and preparation would be carried out in Berlin – the implementation of this strategy of industrial murder would take place elsewhere – in hospitals, psychiatric clinics and six secret killing facilities- such as the T4 euthanasia clinic in Brandenburg an der Havel. The knowledge gathered as a result of this murderous policy would prove fundamental in preparing the way for the further industrial killings in the East – of perceived racial enemies of the Third Reich, such as the jews.
Meticulous bureaucracy would define the mass killings carried out by the National Socialist regime, leaving a papertrail of documents to be analysed and surveyed by generations to come. And to chart the trajectory followed over the course of the development of the Nazi extermination programs.
Examining the medical killings of the T4 program provides it is possible to gain valuable insight into the duplicitous mindset of the Nazi doctrine – where the institutionalised mass murder of a segment of society deemed a burden on the whole would be justified as a merciful death to relieve the suffering of individuals tormented by their own imprefections. A process of euthanasia in a country where outright murder still remained clearly illegal – as premeditated killing continued to carry with it a death sentence for the perpetrator according to German criminal law.
While during the initial phase of the program’s operation, from 1939 until in 1941 (when the T4 action was interrupted due to public outcry), some 70,000 people are known to have been murdered – it is estimated that up to 200,000 in total would fall victim to this policy, as work continued discreetly and out of the public eye until the end of the Second World War. Graduating from the killing facilities of Bernburg, Brandenburg, Hadamar, Hartheim, Grafeneck, and Pirna-Sonnenstein, the program would finally reach into the concentration and extermination camps with the help of the team of physicians originally tasked with these centrally-planned euthanasia murders.
The T4 program would be directly authorised by the Nazi Party Chancellery to grant a 'merciful death' to those suffering from illnesses deemed incurable. The order would be backdated to September 1st 1939 - the start of the Second World War and the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Originally constructed in part of a penitentiary complex, the facility at Brandenburg an der Havel was established in 1939 on the site of an earlier concentration camp, which had closed in 1934. Its position in the centre of the small town of Brandenburg, at the Nikolaiplatz, meant that its existence was well known to the local inhabitants.
Opposition to the facility and the T4 program would grow as the smoke from the mobile furnaces used to burn the bodies of murdered patients would spread across the town – choking the historic centre of Brandenburg with one of the real and undeniable consequences of this callous policy. A lesson for future extermination camps, that would be located far from urban areas and away from any population that might object to their purpose or practice.
The Brandenburg site now contains a museum documenting the historical foundations of Nazi euthanasia and racial hygiene policy utilising testimony of people involved. The biographies of some 30 victims have also been recreated on the basis of photographs and documents donated by their families. Putting names, faces, and stories to some of the 8,237 victims murdered at this location, between January and October 1940, and identified in the memorial book now hosted on the site.
Beyond serving as one of the first killing facilities of the T4 Operation – Brandenburg also bears the unfortunate distinction as the location of the first Nazi gas chamber on German soil. Many of the men, women, and children, targeted as ‘life unworthy of life’ would be poisoned by morphine-scopolamine injection or slowly starved to death, but as the need to speed up the killing process increased, further methods were tested to establish greater efficiency.
Asphyxiation by carbon monoxide eventually proved to be the most viable alternative, whereby following a short medical examination patients would be led to a gas chamber to be murdered en-masse. The building footprints of the former prison barn in Brandenburg where the gas chamber had been installed are still visible at the present day site.
As this refined killing process would be introduced to other killing facilities, the newly acquired expertise of the physicians and nursing staff – trusted members of society, expected to uphold an ethical code of decency and humanity to care for the sick and needy – would further fuel the pursuit of National Socialist racial goals. As medical professionals became professional killers and killing professionals.