Selling Murder: The Secret Propaganda Films of the Third Reich

This documentary film is available online here. It is a filmic record of how the Third Reich murdered 200,000 mentally and physically disabled people by deliberate starvation, lethal medication and toxic gas, while subjecting another 350,000 to compulsory sterilisation between 1933 and 1939. The Nazis falsely labelled the disabilities as hereditary, a genetic threat, thereby condoning their Rassenpolitik of cleansing the German race of undesirable traits. They claimed that disabled people had been permitted to survive in defiance of the laws of natural selection, that they were unproductive and meaningless as well as being an economic drain.

Mental illness is a hereditary evil, one of the greatest dangers to the health of the nation.”

It is unnatural and intolerable in terms of a higher morality that whole generations of healthy young people should grow old caring for the incurably idiotic and mad.”

They excluded all forms of medical treatment or improvement, thus necessitating the merciful “liberation” (killing) of “regrettable creatures” the “spiritually dead“, “living corpses” who were suffering an “existence without life.” The subjects were interned in Hadamar psychiatric hospital, where they were herded into shower rooms and suffocated with carbon monoxide gas in anticipation of the systematic extermination of ethnic minorities later in the war. The relatives were sent letters of condolence with plausible death certificates to avoid raising any suspicion. Those responsible for the extermination were indoctrinated with the notion that this was some kind of merciful destiny, that it was cruel to keep alive those who can neither recover nor die, “left to vegetate in an existence that no longer has anything in common with the purpose and value of human life” those who cannot be healed should be relieved of their suffering, given the right to die, since:

reasonable people prefer death to such an existence and wouldn’t condemn any incurable patient who sought deliverance through death

Mental illness was described as “the most horrific fate to befall anyone“, and that modern psychiatry had reached its limitations in the face of its incurability, while those subjected to a “terrible suffering and hellish existence” were offered liberating relief, painless deliverance by way of a “humane and gentle death.” The patients were presented as grotesque, and the surviving reels of film show the lighting techniques used to achieve this effect:

The case for euthanasia is presented in the films, both visually and verbally – first of all by introducing twisted Darwinian logic in natural examples of birds that have developed the instinct of eliminating their poorly developed offspring (at which a female student exclaims they pursue proper racial policy!) , then calling upon medical science to prove that the mental conditions are hereditary and incurable, presenting the economic argument that supporting pathetic and unproductive individuals was a drain on society, then inciting the humane justification for the right to die and be delivered from a living hell, “Dasein ohne Leben” (an existence without life), finally calling on the faculty of reason – since any reasonable person would prefer death to such a miserable existence and would neither deny that right nor condemn any incurable patient who sought liberation through death.

Hubbard (1990) claims that some of the most distinguished psychiatric institutes in Germany were involved in the systematic extermination of their mentally ill, mostly by gas and lethal injection, but if physicians were reluctant to intervene, inmates starved to death or succumbed to infectious diseases and thus died of ‘natural’ causes. While the war progressed and the gas chambers were removed to be reinstalled at Auschwitz and other extermination camps, the murders in the hospitals had mostly stopped by 1941 due to disapproval from the Church.

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