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Euthanasia – the ‘mercy killing’ of disabled people in Germany

The Hartheim Institute - one of the hospitals where the Euthanasia Programme was carried out, USHMM #76511.

At the beginning of World War II the Nazi regime began killing individuals with physical disabilities, people who were mentally retarded, and the terminally ill. The killings were called ‘euthanasia’, i.e. ‘mercy killings’.

According to the Nazi policy of racial hygiene, people with physical and mental disabilities were “useless” in German society, and they were a threat against the Aryan purity. They were deemed unworthy to live.

The so-called Euthanasia Programme (‘Operation T4’) cost approximately 270,000 people their life.

More about:
Euthanasia and the Holocaust
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Hitler's authorisation of the Euthanasia Programme (Operation T4) was signed in October 1939, but dated 1 September 1939.

After Hitler had received a letter from the father of a handicapped child, whom the father wished to be put to death as a mercy killing, the Fuehrer approved the Euthanasia Programme. The idea of the Programme was to “remove” the seriously disabled on a national basis.

The head of the Fuehrer Chancellery,
Phillipp Bouhler, became the administrative leader of the Programme, which was code-named ‘Operation T4’ after its headquarters at Tiergarten Strasse 4 in Berlin. The real head of the Operation was Viktor Brack , while the dirty work was dealt with by police inspector Christian Wirth from the criminal police in Stuttgart – the refinement of killing techniques was his specialty.


The Euthanasia Programme demanded the cooperation of German doctors, who were to decide what patients to kill. The killings were done by doctors and policemen employed by Operation T4, either by lethal injection, gassing, gas trucks or shooting. Approximately 400 people were part of the Operation, which worked out of six ‘killing centres’.

In August of 1941 Hitler decided to terminate the Operation, which had by then become a public secret. Popular opposition to the Operation played an important role in this. The killings were stopped. In the period of 1939-1941 around 70,000 were murdered.

In August 1942 the Euthanasia Programme was resumed, and the group of potential victims was expanded to include victims of air raids, “anti-socials” and slave labourers. Even handicapped children were murdered, by lethal injections, or they were starved to death. The bodies of the victims were burned in large ovens (crematoria). Operation T4 continued in deep secrecy through the end of the war.

According to the testimonies presented at the Nuremberg War Tribunal, a total of approximately 270,000 people fell victim to the Euthanasia programme between 1939 and 1945.

Euthanasia and the Holocaust

Many historians see Operation T4 as an experimental “rehearsal” before the Final Solution – the extermination of Jews and gypsies. The people involved in Operation T4, approximately 400, became unemployed when the Operation was (temporarily) terminated at the end of 1941. However, most of them were transferred to the newly established concentration- and extermination camps, as ‘experts in the killing of people’. Among them was Christian Wirth, one of the most important men in the practical implementation of Operation Reinhard – the extermination of the Polish Jews.

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> The extermination camps
> Operation Reinhard


Ernst Klee, "Euthanasie" im NS-Staat : die "Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens" (Frankfurt/Main, 1985).

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