70 years on and the dark echoes continue to reverberate

This week marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp by the Russian Allied Forces on the 27th of January 1945.While the world rightly remembers in commemorating this day the horrors of the mass extermination of Jews and others we must remind ourselves always, always continue to ask the question: How did this happen? 

Why that question? Because to answer that question we ultimately must confront the reality that an entire nation of people, not so different in reality from you and I, slowly and inexorably fell under the spell of a regime that perpetrated this great evil upon millions of innocent people. Not to ask that question risks consigning this dark period in world history to a hermetically sealed box of memories that has no possible lasting consequence or risk of repetition in the modern world.

Yet echoes of the beginnings of the holocaust are really never far from us. The tract by German academics, Binding and Hoche that developed the concept of 'life not worthy of life' in 1920 that is recognised as the genesis of the holocaust is being repeated in different form time and time again in this the twenty-first century. Not so direct, perhaps, but nonetheless arguing for or at least tolerating the unthinkable: that some lives are indeed not worthy of life.
Craig Wallace, disability activist and convenor of Lives Worth Living put it succinctly on his facebook page:

"� the Nazis targeted many other groups: for their race, beliefs or what they did. Historians estimate the total number of deaths to be 11 million, with the victims encompassing gay people, priests, gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, communists, trade unionists, Jehovah's Witnesses, anarchists, Poles and other Slavic peoples, and resistance fighters.

"Those with mental and physical illnesses were regarded by the Nazis as "unworthy of life", leading to a clandestine programme of mass murder, under the cover of 'mercy killings'.

"Institutions were turned into mass killing centres, with SS officers wearing lab coats to keep up the appearance of a medical programme. Families were told their relatives had died from illness and given faked death certificates, when in reality up to 300,000 people in German and Austria were systematically murdered, usually in gas chambers disguised as showers. Their organs were used for experiments.

"The T4 'euthanasia' programme pre-dated what is usually referred to as the Holocaust by two years, but continued informally during it, and disabled people were later sent to concentration camps with other groups. Let us also remember them."

Wallace's closing plea is incredibly poignant. How many know that disabled people were the first to be slaughtered lawfully in Germany? Who has even heard of the 'Aktion T4' euthanasia program? How many remember Binding and Hoche's description of people with brain damage or psychiatric disorders as 'ballastexistenzen' or human ballast?

This point was emphasised forcefully this week in hearings on the Scottish assisted suicide bill currently in committee.

Ephraim Borowski, Director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities in his submission made the connection between the bill and the Holocaust. The headline in the London Times was misleading: Assisted suicide will 'be like Holocaust'; yet the connection he made should be obvious.

In his evidence to the Health Committee, Borowski said that his reference to Holocaust Memorial Day was to make "a point about practicalities rather than principles," adding that, "It's a well-known cliché that the Holocaust didn't begin in Auschwitz, it ended in Auschwitz. In terms of principle, it began with the belief that some lives are not worth as much as others, and that is precisely what we are faced with here."|

The promoter of the bill, Patrick Harvie MSP, dismissed the testimony out of hand by telling The Times journalist that, 'while we must respect the right of religious people to their own view, it can't be imposed on the rest of society." Can we read into this reply that Harvie thinks that treating some lives as not worthy of life is a legitimate position; that Borowski's warning was simply a religious opinion? He should be reminded that after the war and the Nuremburg trials the leaders of the world saw the need in response to the oft repeated 'never again' to formulate a Universal Charter of Rights - human rights not based on any creed that encapsulated the right to life as inalienable and common to all.

In his book Do You Call this a Life? Blurred Boundaries in the Netherlands' Right-to-Die Laws, Gerbert van Loenen reviews the history of the Dutch experiment with euthanasia. He marks its beginnings way back in 1969 with the publication of a text by physician and scientist Jan Hendrik van den Berg called Medische macht en medische ethiek . Echoes of Binding and Hoche.

As van Loenen describes it, the point Van den Berg tried to make in 1969 was that a distinction should be made between meaningful and meaningless life:

"Van den Berg's influential booklet bears this striking feature: disabled and ill individuals are only examples, objects in an argument. Whether they are mentally competent or not, able to speak or not, Van den Berg never gives them a voice. They are merely objects in a display of what medical power can lead to. Look, these people are still alive, but should we be pleased about it? Wouldn't it have been better if the physician had never treated them? Wouldn't it be better if the physician would let them or cause them to die now?"

Fifty years on from Binding and Hoche and only 24 years from the end of the Second World War and we see here the same arguments being put about. Van den Berg should have been ridiculed into academic oblivion, but quite the opposite happened; he was taken seriously. After all, he was a physician and a scientist.

Anthony Horvath in his review of Binding and Hoche and the effect it had on German thinking, observed that it was their couching of the discussion in pseudo-scientific terms that created its irresistible appeal for the Nazi's because it enabled this otherwise outrageous proposition to be reconciled with German domestic law at a time in history where the economics of disposing of those whose very existence came at significant cost to society created an additional 'rational' reason to proceed.

Is that so different from the concerns of our age? Was it so different from the domestic situation in Holland circa 1970?

Hardly surprising that the Dutch and the Belgians have a huge problem with disability as van Loenen describes in relating the story of how the brain damage accident suffered by his partner brought him into conflict with many around him through their callous commentary. It brought him to a place where he first began to criticise the Dutch euthanasia law because he could see the effect it was having on Dutch society.

Van Loenen encapsulates this problem in reflecting upon the words of Dutch Ethicist Hans Reinders, Professor of Ethics and Mental Disability at the Free University of Amsterdam. Reinders here is observing the situation, not endorsing it:

"From the perspective of people who view their own existence as a project of which they themselves…are the author, a severely disabled life must inevitably seem completely pointless. A condition that appears to them like death, even if it does not coincide with it."

Van Loenen says:

"Reinders quotes the German remedial educationalist Emil Kolb, who describes the problem the Dutch have with disability: "When there is nothing more to examine or to do, the researchers and doers are confronted with the possible futility of their own actions. And this must not be allowed to happen!" Physicians cannot allow the disabled individual to simply be; they must help him to develop. Emil Kolb summarizes this belief "What does not become something, is nothing."

In Belgium and Holland it is okay to have a disability. You will get support if you can develop, to be like everyone else; productive, valuable. But productivity here is the mark of worth and the price of admittance. It's a relative value on life rather than an absolute. The reality that those who 'cannot become something' are 'nothing' is reminiscent of the Nazi 'useless eaters' slogan. Have we really progressed very far in seventy years?

So, when remembering the Holocaust, as Wallace advises, we should also recall its beginnings and come to the realization that we're not really than different from the German people who bought the Nazi lie.

We need to learn to listen to the voices of disabled people. How we treat them and how we think about people living with disability reflects on us all. The dream of an inclusive world with equality of access to the goods of society must be the great project of our time if not simply because it is just and right to do so then also because it is also as an antidote to callous indifference lest we fall into the same mistakes of the last century.

The fact that so many are dismissive of the risk that people living with disability sense and express in relation to euthanasia and assisted suicide and so easily forget the additional voices that speak to us from history only amplifies the risk to vulnerable people. The reality that these same people pushing this radical agenda are blinded to these risks by their drive for success scares me deeply.

Note: Gerbert van Loenen's book is currently being translated into English and should be available in paperback soon.

See also:

Eugenics and the modern euthanasia movement: an essay
The final seduction: Belgian euthanasia doctors become tourists at Auschwitz
New Berlin memorial revives memories of doctors' role in Nazi holocaust