Reporting the massacre of the mentally ill in Nazi Germany
A bulwark against the aberation
On 3 August 1941 the strong and unequivocal words of Bishop Clemens August von Galen rang out in the Church of St Lambert in Münster, Westphalia. Von Galen was created a cardinal in 1946 by Pius XII and beatified in 2005 by Benedict XVI for his clear and courageous testimony of faith during the dark years of National Socialism. Reading that homily seventy years later, you still hold your breath as it takes you through the streets of suffering travelled by thousands of individuals who were demeaned, trampled on and annihilated. It brings you face to face with the seed of that insidious violence which still lurks in our society today. Those with psychiatric illness, in particular those affected with schizophrenia — “the psychotic experience par excellence, so vertiginously foreign to our usual models of life and so disconcertingly enigmatic and human”, said Eugenio Borgna in an important study — were systematically eliminated as, “unproductive members of the national community”.
On 6 July 1941, von Galen, commenting on the Pastoral Letter of the German Bishops read in all Catholic Churches in Germany on 26 June stated: “For some months we have had reports that some patients in mental homes who have been under medical treatment for a long time and would seem incurable, have been forcibly removed on orders from Berlin. Regularly, shortly after that the family members receive a notice which communicates to them that the patient has died, that the body has been cremated and that they may receive the ashes. There is a diffuse suspicion, one would say certainty, that these numerous, unexpected deaths of the mentally ill are not the consequence of natural causes but are intentionally procured, in keeping with the doctrine which claims that is it legitimate to destroy a life, which is so-called, ‘without value’. In other words, to kill innocent men and women”, according to “a terrible doctrine”, which legitimizes, “the violent massacre of mentally disabled people, who are unable to work, crippled, terminally ill, old people and the infirm”.
The Bishop did not hide from his faithful the names of certain places nor his attempts to opposed such crimes, through legal means available. For example, von Galen filed a complaint on July 28th with the Prosecutor of Münster, to protest against the removal of patients from the hospital in Marienthal to the psychiatric hospital in Eichberg, where they could be eliminated far from prying eyes and requested to be kept informed of the measures taken. He was never contacted about the case. He also wrote a letter to the headquarters of the Province of Westphalia regarding the hospital in Warstein, from which, the Bishop said, 800 patients had already been removed.
“The way is open for the killing of all of us when we are old and infirm and thus unproductive”, to the point that, “no one is safe: any kind of commission could place one on the list of unproductive people who are ‘unworthy of living’.
“And there will be no police to protect one, no tribunal to do justice to one's assassin and to bring those responsible to justice. Who could place any faith in a doctor? They could determine that a patient is unproductive and then give instructions to eliminate him!”. With a clarity that leaves no room for doubt, the Bishop describes in just a few words the result of such a summary judgment, without appeal, on the quality of life of a person determined by his capacity to produce or not: simply, the destruction of medicine based on that relationship of trust and conscience, which is the first and fundamental therapeutic resource.
In the summer of 1941, a 55-year-old farmer from a country parish in Münster was admitted to the hospital of Marienthal for some minor mental problems and regularly received visits from his wife and one of his sons, returning from the eastern front, on leave. “When his family visited him”, said the Bishop, “he was always happy”. But he, too, was put on the fateful list and sent far away to an unknown place, never to return.
Mental disability, Benedict XVI recalled in his Message for the 14th World Day of the Sick, “now afflicts one-fifth of humanity and is a real social-health care emergency”. The temptation to consider the ill as a burden on society is the first root of violence, which in that summer of 1941 reached a peak, sweeping victims and executioners into an abyss of inhumanity. “Every human being cries out silently to be understood differently”, writes Simone Weil. Let us truly seek to listen.
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