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Murderous medicine: the role of psychiatrists in genocide

  • MirahPsychiatryandGenocide1
“Where are you taking us?” So reads the inscription on the memorial of the infamous Grey buses which, during World War II, were used to transport psychiatric patients to their deaths at the hands of doctors and nurses.
by MIRAH LANGER | Jul 05, 2018

“The grey bus is to the Aktion T4 [programme in which psychiatric patients were ‘euthanised’] what the cattle car… is to Auschwitz and the Shoah,” said Professor Michael Robertson, Health Ethics Associate at the University of Sydney.

Professor Robertson explained how the killings of psychiatric patients, often in gas chambers, later became the prototype for the chief murder method in concentration camps.

Robertson was speaking at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre in Parktown. He explained how in October 1939, the SS Einsatzgruppe [mobile killing] detachments began the sporadic gassing of psychiatric patients in hospitals in Western Poland.

“From December 1939 through to January 1940, the first victims of Operation Aktion T4 died in a gas chamber built in a prison complex in Brandenburg.”

As part of this, “the Gemeinnützige Krankentransport – also known as the Gekrat – was a ‘benevolent’ transport company which was supposed to help transport people from institution to institution. What it was actually doing was taking them from psychiatric hospitals and facility care institutions to transitional [sites] – and then to their deaths.

“These buses would come into asylums and cause terror because patients knew that the people who left didn’t return.”

A replica of a grey bus now travels around Germany as a memorial to the atrocity, while another is placed in a fixed location in Ravensburg.

Robertson detailed how, by the end of the Aktion T4 programme, there were six euthanasia centres established in Austria and Germany. By 1941, these centres had also begun to murder prisoners from concentration camps who were too weak to work.

By then, more than 70 000 people had been killed in the scheme – and yet, its impact on the Holocaust was only just beginning.

After all, “after the cessation of the T4 programme, there were several hundred quite skilled mass killers who were unemployed”.

Soon, “these skilled killers were put to work on the much larger project of the elimination of the Jewish population”.

“Many of the Shoah’s most evil perpetrators… honed their craft during the T4 programme,” he said.

“The [T4 programme’s] process of identification of a group, their exclusion from the community… their mass transportation to their deaths in designated killing centres, and the disposal of their bodies, provided the ‘software and hardware for the Final Solution’,” said Robertson, quoting historian Henry Friedlander.

The direct link between the establishment of gas chambers in concentration camps and those originally conceived of by psychiatrists came about during a visit by Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler to Minsk in August 1941.

“Himmler, and to a lesser extent [Reinhard] Heydrich, were concerned about the welfare of their men tasked with the elimination of enemies of the state – particularly when the decision was taken that woman and children were to be the victims. The anxieties of the senior ranks of the SS increased.”

The visit by Himmler to Minsk proved pivotal in finding ‘inspiration’ from the murder methodology of psychiatric patients.

“At one point when visiting the ghetto in Minsk, Himmler is shown a demonstration pit killing of a hundred people from the ghetto.

“Himmler is standing at the edge of the killing pit, and his tunic is sprayed with brain matter… from one of the people shot in front of him.

“Later that day, he travels to a psychiatric hospital in Minsk, witnesses the gassing of psychiatric patients, and he has a Damascus Moment that this is the way things must precede.”

During his discussion of this era of murderous medicine, Robertson noted that eugenics was prevalent in many parts of the world at that time: “In fact, eugenics had a much more virulent presence in the United States.”

Robertson added a caveat about the ideology of eugenics, warning that there was a danger of racial purity theories rising to prominence again.

“A failed state, a punished and shamed people, a public health crisis – all led to the potential for populism to take hold.

“This is a phenomenon that we are seeing now: economic instability, the struggle many have adapting to late capitalism. All are fertile ground for demogogues and populists who offer nostrums [schemes], whether they be racist exclusion, or whether they be, as in the case of National Socialism, biological nostrums.”

At a previous event at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre, Robert Kaplan, Professor and Forensic Psychiatrist at the University of Wollongong, expanded on the role of doctors in the Armenian and Bosnian genocides.

“The 20th century is the most murderous century in history,” was his opening declaration.

He said that while the significance of the Holocaust was clear: “We can’t see the Holocaust in isolation; there have been genocides before and genocides since then.”

For example, the Armenian Genocide, which began in 1915, was “a perfect prototype for the Holocaust”.

“The Nazis took very careful notice of what happened,” said Kaplan, pointing out that those behind the genocide were believed to have “set up the first known use of a primate gas chamber”.

As was the case with the Nazi party, “doctors were prominent in the central committee of the Ittihadist Party who came into power in 1908 in Turkey through a coup”.

Kaplan singled out a number of medical professionals central to the killings, including physicians Behaeddin Sakir and Mehmett Nazin. The latter – with sick irony – was a professor of ethical and judicial medicine at Istanbul medical hospital.

“Between them, they are credited with at least a million deaths. They drove the whole system.”

Kaplan explained that in the Armenian genocide, medical personnel not only planned killing methods, they participated in them directly.

“The Turkish doctors saw their duties as straight butchers.”

In fact, in one incident, four butchers were hired to slaughter victims; in other cases, abbatoirs were used as the site of killing.

Turning to the example of the Bosnian Genocide, which took place from 1992 to 1995 in the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia, Kaplan said that psychiatrists used their professions as a propaganda tool for propelling hatred and division – linking mental disturbance to different nationalities.

“As the temperature heated up, psychiatrists on both sides – Serbian and Croatian – went into battle, making statements and writing papers.”

“Psychiatric jargon is the driving force for ethnic cleansing,” he said.

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