Online media representations of the memorial for victims of the National Socialist “euthanasia”

By Robert Parzer
Translation: Ylva Söderfeldt

Workers at the T4 memorial in Berlin. Photo © Robert Parzer.
Workers at the T4 memorial in Berlin. Photo © Robert Parzer.
Public discourse and collective memory have tended to neglect the National Socialist killings of mentally ill and disabled people. Still in the 1990s the position towards victims of the so-called “euthanasia”-programs was defensive, until in the early 2000s the debate surrounding the Berlin Holocaust memorial led to other victimized groups being recognized at the highest political level. This started a process that finally in 2014 led to the inauguration of the memorial for the victims of the National Socialist “euthanasia” killings. The memorial was supported by an exhibition project funded by the German Research Foundation.

Since the practice of “writing onto the internet” has become popular and commonly accepted, different online media have also become platforms for remembering Nazi crimes. However, the murdering of mentally ill and disabled people is an exception that rarely finds its way online. For instance, the Hashtag #Krankenmord [“murder of the sick”, a German term often used for the killings of mentally ill and disabled people under the Nazis] yields less than 1000 results on Instagram, probably the most popular photo platform on the web. Of course, there are exceptions, such as the platform gedenkort-t4.eu or singular projects, among which the highly professional, interdisciplinary and transcultural documentation of a field trip by George-Washington University students is worth mentioning.

Behind the situation as outlined above are probably methodological as well as archaeological problems. First, the semantic ambiguity of the word “euthanasia” poses some methodological difficulties. Originally deriving from Greek philosophy, the word designated the good death until it was picked up as a battle cry in emerging biomedical discourses on useful vs. useless life. Then, in National Socialism, it came to serve as a euphemism for the murder of sick and disabled people. This use continued after 1945, but it was simultaneously used in debates on assisted suicide and abortion. More recently, the animal rights movement has also started using the word when speaking out against the practice of killing shelter cats and dogs. The lack of a definite terminology has thus affected the visibility of Nazi “euthanasia” negatively. Protagonists and antagonists of physician-assisted suicide have been more prone to use the hashtag “euthanasia” than those concerned with remembering victims of Nazi murder programs. Thus, online searches as outlined above necessarily yield distorted results. They are perhaps interesting for word field analyses, but hardly for the study of online remembrance cultures in the way that Steffen Jost recently analyzed online Holocaust remembrance.

“For ‘Fredi’/ We miss you! Your sister, your family”:  Alfred Mohr murdered at the age of three in Uchtspringe.  Photo taken at the T 4- Memorial in Berlin 2015 ©  Robert Parzer. The clinic in Uchtspringe in Saxonia  was a place of decentralized patient murder after 1941
“For ‘Fredi’/ We miss you! Your sister, your family”:
Alfred Mohr murdered at the age of three in Uchtspringe.
Photo taken at the T 4- Memorial in Berlin 2015 ©
Robert Parzer. The clinic in Uchtspringe in Saxonia
was a place of decentralized patient murder after 1941
Second, by archaeological problems I mean the issue of remembrance communities. The formation of structures that reproduce knowledge and remembrance began immediately after the liberation, as survivors of Nazi persecution gathered to record and publish recollections. However, awareness of the experienced persecution and annihilation was also passed on within families, at places of work etc., although this was often inhibited, delayed, or heavily convoluted due to trauma. Each remembrance community has its own specific characteristics, but a precondition they all share is the fact of having survived. This might seem banal, but the significance becomes noticeable in light of the fact that there were less than a dozen survivors of the T4-action. They are people who for some reason were singled out and sent back by physician-commissioners when they were already waiting outside the gas chambers. The very low number of survivors is in itself a factor that makes it unlikely that they would form a remembrance community. Furthermore, these patients as well as those who were able to survive the systematic starvation used to kill asylum wards, were in most cases still in psychiatric custody after 1945. Neither were they able to connect to each other, nor to communicate their experiences with their families, or much less, to form a family of their own. Thus, they had no way of transmitting knowledge about the Nazi “euthanasia” by oral tradition. In contrast, victims of forced sterilizations were to some extent able to tell their stories. Some of them can be found in the Visual History Archive of the USC Shoah Foundation Legal proceedings, and especially the testimonies of survivors, were immensely important for Holocaust remembrance, but in the case of euthanasia, no survivors were available to testify.

Thus the marginalization in social networks can at least in part be explained by a generational void. Content posted on social media by survivors in the second or third generation is also quite rare. Julia Frick, who runs a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account devoted to the memory of her grandfather, is probably the sole exception. When relatives do research on their murdered family members, they tend to publish the results on major sites connected to memorials, like gedenkort-t4.eu, where there are already about 100 biographies. This might be explained by the continued taboo and stigma surrounding disability and mental illness, which lead the descendants of “euthanasia” victims to seek privacy. Data protection policies in place at many archives are surely also part of the explanation, as they forbid the publication of names in order to protect the supposed interest of the families. This is based on the belief that they have the right not to have mental illness and disability connected to their name (for a critical discussion of this issue, see Erhard Körting).

Is it desirable or even necessary to change the situation as outlined above? In order to answer this question, we must also consider the ambivalence of online presence, as it on the one hand may be of great significance to marginalized groups, but on the other carries the risk of inflating and distorting facts or sealing them away in filter bubbles. Perhaps the remembrance of Nazi “euthanasia” victims will be on an equal footing with other victimized groups only when our current discussion about disability and mental illness has been fundamentally changed

Recommended Citation
Robert Parzer (2016): Online media representations of the memorial for victims of the National Socialist “euthanasia”. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 5.