The Nazi Euthanasia Movement: Moral Lessons for Health Care Workers

Brigadier General Telford Taylor, Chief of Counsel, during the Doctors Trial, which was held in Nuremberg, Germany, from December 9, 1946, to August 20, 1947. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had aspirations for creating a perfect human race. They accepted a quality of human life philosophy. They wanted to rid the human gene pool of defects. How they went about doing that, however, resulted in one of the most horrible accounts of evil in the history of humankind.

Life Not Worthy of Living

In “Medical Science under Dictatorship,” in the New England Journal of Medicine (14 July 1949), Leo Alexander, American Medical Science Consultant to the Nuremberg War Crimes Trails, explains the early origins of the Nazi euthanasia movement, saying,

“It started with the acceptance of the attitude … that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived.”

In the Nazi quality of human life philosophy leading up and in World War II, there was no room for human beings with defects. For many Nazi physicians and nurses, there were actually human beings whose lives are not worthy to be lived. They should be killed to relieve others, especially the State, of the financial burdens of keeping them alive. As a result, the Nazis made euthanasia into a “scientific” and systematic form of killing countless human beings.

Elimination of the Weak and Sickly

With a quality of life philosophy, a human being’s “usefulness is usually defined in terms of functioning for the benefit of society,” says Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (Simon and Schuster, 1984). Under the Nazi regime, anyone who could not contribute to society or was not in some way useful to others was a candidate for death. So, at Hitler’s order, the mentally ill, those with various developmental disabilities, the elderly in State homes and those with physical or facial deformities were exterminated.

In his book Night (Hill and Wang, 2006), Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel recalled the process of “selection” in the concentration camps. It was based on a quality of life philosophy. In other words, the inmates were lined up before a Nazi officer. If they looked well, they would remain alive; however, if they looked weak and sickly, they would be sent to the crematorium or gas chamber to be killed.

Dehumanization Leading to Destruction

In Existentialism with or without God (Alba House, 1974), philosopher Francis Lescoe notes that Hitler and the Nazis viewed other humans beings as things or objects, denying their inalienable right to live as persons. However, by depersonalizing other human beings, the Nazis also depersonalized themselves. Their behavior was not only sub-human but also below the behavior of animals, for even they do not design systematic methods of killing millions of their own kind.

Words are powerful! By using them correctly, they can promote life; by misusing them, they can lead to death. If someone were to say, “Chronically or terminally ill persons have lives devoid of value,” that would be dehumanizing. It would also be dehumanizing to say, “Sick persons do not have meaningful lives.” Such examples are called “verbicide.” In other words, after human beings are dehumanized in word, then it is only a matter of time before can be dehumanized in deed. Verbicide, killing with words, can lead to homicide and even genocide.


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