Anna Lehnkering was 19 years old when she was sterilised and confined to a hospital. She was 24 when a doctor declared her “not useful.” She was gassed. She had attended a special school, and had difficulty learning to read, write or use numbers.
The Nazis had decided that allowing disabled people to live and have children, led to the “unfit” reproducing more quickly than “the fit”. It was said that this weakened society’s ability to function efficiently, placing an unnecessary toll on non-disabled people.
The Nazis claimed that the social and economic problems that Germany experienced in the 1920s and early 1930s were due in part to the weakening of the population created by an unfair burden.
Nazi propaganda in the form of posters, news-reels and cinema films portrayed disabled people as “useless eaters” and people who had “lives unworthy of living”. The propaganda stressed the high cost of supporting disabled people, and suggested that there was something unhealthy or even unnatural about society paying for this. One famous Nazi propaganda film, Ich Klage (I Accuse), told the story of a doctor who killed his disabled wife. The film put forward an argument for “mercy killings”. Other propaganda, including poster campaigns, portrayed disabled people as freaks.
After the propaganda came action. On the grounds that disabled people were less worthwhile and an unfair burden on society, a widespread and compulsory sterilisation program took place. This began in 1933, as soon as the Nazis came to power. The Nazi euthanasia program – code-named T4 – for Germans who were not considered “useful,” such as those who were physically or intellectually disabled, or psychiatric patients deemed unworthy to live
Some 300,000 mentally and physically disabled people were exterminated. Between 1940 and August 1941 alone, more than 70,000 were killed, either gassed, neglected or given lethal injections
The T4 Program involved a string of six death camps – called “euthanasia centres” – set up across Germany and Austria. These centres contained gassing installations designed to look like shower stalls Two of the most notorious centres were at Hartheim Castle in Austria and Hadamar Institute, which is near Wiesbaden in Germany. Hadamar had a staff of approximately 100 people. To conceal its real purpose, it also operated as a normal crematorium.
Hitler ordered the suspension of the program in 1941 after opposition from groups within Germany, including Catholic churchmen. However, killings were restarted the following year in a more secretive way, and continued until the end of the war. Hadamar only ceased operation shortly before liberation by American troops in March 1945.. During this latter phase of the T4 Program, death was caused by an overdose of lethal medication or by starvation.