Depression – A life threatening disability in Nazi Germany

By Jörg Watzinger

In this article I give a biographical sketch of my grandmother’s life in the context of Nazi psychiatry. She died in the psychiatric clinic Göppingen in May 1945.

My grandmother Marie Watzinger was born in 1880 in Munich where she grew up with two sisters. Her father was a professor of pathology. Marie had no professional training and did not visit university. Theatre and literature became a central part of her life as a young woman.

Marie as a young woman in Munich. Private photo
Marie as a young woman in Munich. Private photo.

In 1912 she married my grandfather Carl Watzinger, who worked as a professor for archeology at the university of Gießen. Together they had three children: Karl Otto, my father, born in 1913, Helmut, born in 1915 und Irmgard born in 1921. While my grandfather Carl was far from home as a soldier during WW1, Marie brought up the two boys single-handedly. In October 1918, following the call for a professorship of the Archeological Institute, the family moved to Tübingen.

In family conversations, I never got a response to questions I had about my grandmother. It felt like she had gone lost. I was pleased therefore, to find the letters she exchanged with my father during the two-year period of his imprisonment from1939 until 1941.

In the letters I discovered a woman who knew a lot about classical literature and music. With my father Karl Otto she embarked on an energetic exchange of ideas about literature. She could express herself well and had her own opinions about the literature she read. She had a particular love for Goethe, his poems “Poetry and Truth” and his letters.

Classical music was played in the home. She listened to Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Bach on the radio and she also enjoyed playing piano herself.

The longing for her children

Karl Otto, Helmut and Irmgard with their mother. Private photo.
Karl Otto, Helmut and Irmgard with their mother. Private photo.

My father left Tübingen for Berlin in 1932 to study law and to leave, as he called it, the professor´s village Tübingen, for the vibrating capital where the political future and the place of the working class in the new republic was to be decided. My uncle Helmut studied electrical engineering in Darmstadt. Up to 1940 my aunt Irmgard had been very present at home during the preparations for her Abitur (A-levels) supporting her mother. After a compulsory labor-service she moved for Karlsruhe to study fine arts. Many letters convey how much my grandmother missed her children. On many occasions she made references to Irmgard’s youthful freshness and cheerfulness.

November 1940 my grandmother celebrated her 60th birthday in Tübingen. Her sister sent her favorite chocolate cake from a Munich cake shop. My father Karl Otto, supporting the SAP (Sozialistische Arbeiter Partei), imprisoned due to aiding and assisting high treason, could not be with them. After his release from prison in September 1941 my father was abducted to Dachau concentration camp. He stayed there for the next three years as a political prisoner. The abduction to Dachau concentration camp marks the end of her correspondence with my father. He corresponded from now on only with my grandfather Carl. When Marie did write at all, it was only a few short lines.

What happened to Marie?

For information on the last three years of Marie’s life, I have as a source the correspondence of my grandfather with the clinic in Göppingen and with his sister in law, Irma. In addition to this, I visited the clinic in Göppingen twice.

After Karl Otto’s deportation to Dachau concentration camp, Marie’s condition deteriorated significantly. In addition to physical incapacity due to extreme asthma, came mental difficulties. She had difficulties with concentration. She was restless, hardly slept, talked without cease and could no longer keep the household running. New maids ran away after short time.

Last photo of Marie Watzinger (r.) with her daughter-in-law Hanni, Christmas 1942. Private photo
Last photo of Marie Watzinger (r.) with her daughter-in-law Hanni, Christmas 1942.
Private photo.

After one year, in autumn 1942, my grandfather committed her to psychiatric services in Göppingen for the first time. The letters of my grandfather show that this decision was made after lengthy consideration of the situation with his sister-in-law. The advice of specialists was taken. In the clinic, Marie was diagnosed with a restless depression and a drug addiction to a stimulant asthma medicine.

Marie’s condition deteriorates 

After two years in the clinic without any improvement, weight loss resulting from a refusal to eat, became a focus of medical attention. During this time, autumn 1944, my father Karl Otto was forced to join the SS Brigade Dirlewanger to the eastern front in Hungaria. Irma, Marie’s sister, died from a bombing raid in Giessen. Marie weighed only 39 kg. Bed rest was prescribed, apparently to prevent extreme restlessness when getting up. She fell silent, blamed herself to be the cause of all misfortune. In March 45 Göppingen, city of heavy industry and garrison, was bombed heavily. The patients had to move to the air-raid shelter and stay seated there for long time. In this context Marie broke her leg. In April 1945 US Army occupied Göppingen without any further resistance. On 4 May 1945 Marie died in the clinic.

Marie is also a victim of the Nazi rule

In 1933 after the begin of Nazi rule at the university of Tübingen the majority of students and professors welcomed the new regime enthusiastically. My grandfather was the only professor in Tübingen who had not joined the NSDAP. For a sensitive person like my grandmother, my father called her „schwernehmerisch“ („she could not take things easy“), the violent vibrations of the Nazi politics were clearly noticeable even at her home filled with classic music and literature. Factors which triggered the aggravation of Marie’s condition, which led to the hospital admissions, were the arrest of my father Karl Otto in 1939 and the beginning of the war in 1939. To a greater extent, the abduction to concentration camp of Karl Otto in 1941 after his return from prison.

Psychiatry in Nazi Germany did not offer support or therapy that time. In contrary, it was life-threatening to become mentally ill. Patients were declared as genetically damaged, forced sterilization started already in 1934, until 1945 about 400.000 people were sterilized. Later they were declared as „life unworthy to live“: many of these people were finally murdered under the label „Euthanasia“.

During the T4 action 1940/41 70.000 patients were taken away from psychiatric clinics and murdered in special institutions, i.e. Hadamar or Grafeneck. After the end of T4 action the killing did not end. It went on inside the psychiatric clinics, altogether 300.000 people were murdered until 1945 in context of Euthanasia. This equals the number of all psychiatric patients in Germany in 1929.

There were two main arguments in Nazi politics regarding psychiatry. One was saving public money and the other was Eugenics. Both existed before Nazi rule, but both were discursively combined and practically executed without any compassion like nowhere else in the world. With the world-wide economic crisis in 1929 the money for the clinics was reduced already in 1930 as a consequence of tax deficiency.

Eugenics was the answer of the psychiatry in whole Europe on the frustration, not finding remedies for mental health patients. Instead of healing the patients the society was healed from the patients, as Mr. Brüggemann, psychologist in Christophsbad for 40 years, put it during my visit in spring 2019.
The killing of patients started with the so called T4 action in 1940. As a thorough investigation showed, from the clinic Christophsbad 293 patients were taken away, all „Staatspfleglinge“ (patients who stayed in a private clinic, but whose costs were paid by the state). 182 of them were murdered evidently. Many of them died afterwards in the different institutions. Only 61 patients have survived the crimes of „Euthanasia“. A clinic internal group working on T4 has not found any evidence that wild euthanasia has taken place in Christophsbad after T4 action was stopped.

Clinic Christophsbad in Göppingen, photo: Christophsbad
Clinic Christophsbad in Göppingen, photo: Christophsbad.

My grandmother was lucky to stay in a private clinic, where the doctors were not obliged to the „Euthanasia“-ideology. They took care to keep their patients alive, at least to keep the clinic running economically after the loss of the „Staatspfleglinge“.

My father survived three years at Dachau concentration camp. My grandmother died without getting news from him and without hope to see him again four days before the liberation from Nazi rule. Although her life had a such sad end, to come to know that she had not been murdered was a great relieve for me. I am glad to give a place to my grandmother in family and in public memory.

Jörg Watzinger is engaged in connecting descendants of Nazi persecuted people and in initiating groups of descendants.

Ernst Klee (2014): "Euthanasie" im NS-Staat. Frankfurt a.M.
Hans Ludwig Siemen (1987): Menschen blieben auf der Strecke. Gütersloh.

Thomas Stöckle (2016): Die „Aktion T4“ und die Heilanstalt Christophsbad in Göppingen. Göppingen.

Recommended citation:
Jörg Watzinger (2019): Depression - A life threatening disability in Nazi Germany. In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 12.

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