T4 and public disability history in Sweden

By Matilda Svensson Chowdhury

The boy in the black and white photograph is smiling widely at the camera. He is well-groomed and well-dressed in a white shirt and a dark jacket. His eyes are glistening. This photograph is the first picture in a Swedish exhibition on Aktion T4. Across the boy's chest there’s a turquoise text: “Aktion T4 – on the view of human beings in Nazi Germany”. The boy in the picture is named Robert and a little further in the exhibition, we learn how his mother cunningly was able to could save him from becoming a victim of T4.

Picture of Robert, exhibition on Aktion T4
Picture of Robert, exhibition on Aktion T4

The Living History Forum (The LHF) is a Swedish public authority [myndighet] which, on behalf of the Swedish government, shall “promote work to enhance democracy, tolerance and human rights with special focus on the Holocaust.” It might seem a bit strange to have a public authority working with these issues, but this is the way it has been in Sweden for the last almost 20 years. A large part of the work the LHF is doing is directed at school children and thus there is almost always an educational framing to the produced material, for example in the form of teachers’ guides. One of the first information materials, which was developed already in 1998, was the book “Tell Ye Your Children...”. This book was however intended primarily for an adult audience and came about as a part of the first information campaign, Living History. To date, more than 1.5 million free copies have been distributed in Sweden.

Holocaust Remembrence Day

Spreading awareness about the International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27) is one of LHF’s key tasks. This has been done in various ways since 2003, for instance by developing exhibitions on specific themes. These exhibitions are directed to the general public, not only to schoolchildren. “The geographical locations of the Holocaust”, “The life and achievements of Raoul Wallenberg”,  and “The path from democracy to dictatorship in Nazi Germany” are some of the past themes for the remembrance day. In 2015 the theme was obviously the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
In 2016 the remembrance theme was the T4 program and its connection with the Holocaust. Cecilia Snell, Deputy National Coordinator at the LHF, told me that there were several reasons why precisely this theme was chosen:

- The choice of annual remembrance theme often depends on several factors. The theme must, of course, have a very clear connection to the Holocaust. The overall theme of humanitarianism is something we have dealt with in different forms over the years. The idea to start from there and focus on the Aktion T4 and Nazi policies directed towards disabled and hereditary ill people came from two different directions. Partly through a tip from a person outside the LHF who is very involved in disability issues. Partly through the international network of similar institutions, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, where the LHF is included. Some instances within the IHRA are planning a conference on the Aktion T4 and its connection to the Holocaust, to be held sometime in 2016. So, this is a theme that is coming more into focus, which is very positive. These two “external” factors, together with an interest in the Aktion T4 within the working group, made us develop the material to commemorate the day.

According to Snell's description, the fact that the Aktion T4 was considered to be something highly topical, “a theme that is coming more into focus”, led to it being the theme for the  Holocaust Remembrance Day 2016. The reception of this year’s memorial exhibition shows that the LHF hit the mark: according to Snell “Aktion T4 – on the view of human beings in Nazi Germany” has been downloaded more times than the previous year’s exhibitions and so far, the response that has reached the LHF has, according to Snell, only been positive.

The memorial exhibition

This year’s memorial exhibition can be downloaded in a Swedish version on the LHF website but could also be ordered in a high-resolution version suitable for printing. It consists of 12 pages of combined image and text. It contains texts on  Aktion T4 and its context. Furthermore, we meet three individuals who were highly involved in T4. “Robert’s Story” and “Paul’s story” are two subjective stories from people who were institutionalized as children. Robert, the boy pictured here, was as previously mentioned close to being murdered, but was saved at the last moment by his mother. Paul lived in an orphanage in Dortmund Applerbeck and witnessed the killing of other children. The stories are intense. Paul tells us, for example, about how he as a child discovered that he transported dead bodies to the crematoria.1

Under the headline “The Perpetrators”, we can read a short story about the nurse Pauline Kneissler, who was one of those who initially oversaw the gassing of disabled people but later herself murdered several people. Kneissler was, according to the text, sentenced to a “short” time in prison the Second World War. Kneissler is quoted: “I never saw mercy killing as murder... Most important in my life was devotion and self-sacrifice... I was never cruel to people and for that I will suffer and suffer.” The quotes are not commented.

The exhibition ends with an invitation to self-reflection. On the last page, across an image which, according to the text, is of Robert and his mother Lotte:

Robert and his mother Lotte
Robert and his mother Lotte

”The view on human beings today? How can we understand these ideas and actions? Do they have any meaning for us today? Is there anything to learn? If there is a challenge here, it is not so much about pointing out the bad guys in the past. It has more to do with us becoming aware of our own ways to categorize people and draw up boundaries, and us thinking about our own role, and the role of science, in the shaping of our view of human beings.”

Making T4 visible in Sweden

According to the LHF, interest in the of the Holocaust Remembrance Day has grown significantly during the last years. In the calendar on the LHF webpage, there were events in no less than 156 places this year. From Gällivare in the north to Trelleborg in the south, various activities were organized. Not all, however, had T4 as a theme, but those who did seem to have revolved around the material developed by the LHF.

Places of events at the Holocaust Remembrance Day
Places of events at the Holocaust Remembrance Day

In a previous blog post here on Public Disability History, Robert Parzer has shown that the Nazi crimes against the disabled has been surrounded by silence. In Sweden, this has also been true to a great extent. Now, when an official Swedish authority has created and distributed this exhibition, an exhibition that indeed was spread widely, the silence can probably finally be seen as challenged, at least in part and at least locally in Sweden, a country very active in the movement that culminated with T4. It does not, however, mean that the work is done -- on the contrary it has just started.

Recommended Citation
Matilda Svensson Chowdhury (2016): T4 and public disability history in Sweden. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 9.

1 It is likely that “Paul” might be Paul Brune, but Cecilia Snell at the LHF could neither confirm nor dismiss this.

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