The Forgotten Holocausts

Heading the list of the errors made by some who describe the Holocaust is the way they ignore the Nazis' other victims, apart from the Jews. The Nazis didn't restrict their campaign of genocide to Jews alone, but also included such ethnic groups as Gypsies, Poles and Slavs, the mentally and physically handicapped, and religious communities such as the Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses. This chapter shall examine the "forgotten holocausts" waged against these groups, which are generally totally neglected.

Savagery Against the Wretched: The Genocide of the Handicapped

Most people think that the Nazi Holocaust began with the slaughter of the Jews. Actually though, before the Jews, another group was subjected to Nazi murder: The mentally and physically handicapped and those with hereditary diseases in German society. In his book The Origins of Nazi Genocide, the historian Henry Friedlander writes:

In the postwar world, Auschwitz has come to symbolize genocide in the twentieth century. But Auschwitz was only the last, most perfect Nazi killing center. The entire killing enterprise had started in January 1940 with the murder of the most helpless human beings, institutionalized handicapped patients.88 

In order to understand the reason behind that, we need to look at Nazi ideology, which was based on racism. One of racism's practical applications was the false theory of "eugenics," which foresaw the "improvement" of the human race in the same way as an animal species is improved, through selective breeding. First, the Nazis decided to eliminate the handicapped and those with hereditary diseases, which they felt would "damage the race."

The concept of eugenics was born with Darwin's theory of evolution. In his book The Origin of Species, Darwin consistently referred to the improvement of species, and in The Descent of Man he put forward the lie that mankind was just another species of animal. Darwin's cousin Francis Galton took his erroneous claims another step further, and formulated the theory of eugenics.

Galton's 1869 book Heredity Genius discussed a number of so-called "geniuses" in British history, and put forward the mistaken idea that they possessed particular racial characteristics. Following that claim, Galton suggested that British blood was genetically superior to that of other nations, and that steps needed to be taken to protect it. In his twisted view, that theory applied to all races, not just to the British.

According to the theory of eugenics practiced in Nazi Germany, the physically and mentally handicapped were seen as an obstacle to the development of society. This perverted view led to the slaughter of thousands of the handicapped and elderly.

After Galton, the concept of eugenics' fiercest advocate was the German Darwinist biologist Ernst Haeckel, accepted as one of the Nazis' ideological forefathers. Haeckel was the first to speak openly of the brutal killing for eugenic purposes. In his book Wonders of Life, he maintained the inhumane idea that "handicapped babies need to be killed with no loss of time," and claimed that this would not constitute murder, since those babies were not yet conscious.89 Also, as part of the "laws of evolution," Haeckel wanted to kill all those sick and handicapped who might hold back the so-called evolution of society. He opposed giving them medical treatment which, he argued, only prevented natural selection:

Hundreds of thousands of incurable people, for instance the mentally ill, lepers, and those suffering from cancer are being artificially kept alive, yet that brings no advantage to them or to society in general... In order to be freed from this evil, these patients must be given a quick-acting and effecting poison, by decision and under the observation of an authorised commission.90

This barbarity theorized by Haeckel was to be put into practice by Nazi Germany.

As committed practitioners of the deception of social Darwinism, the Nazis adopted the theory of eugenics in that same form. The Forgotten Crimes report, by the Disability Rights Advocates organization, describes the mass murder of the sick and handicapped by the Nazis, and sets out their monstrous view of these innocent people:

Instead of accepting disability as an aspect of life in all societies, German [Nazi] ideology considered disability to be a sign of degeneracy and viewed nearly any disabled person as a "life not worthy of life." People with all kinds of disabilities, depression, retardation, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, cancer, mobility impairments, "slow learners," deafness and blindness were labeled as "useless eaters." People with disabilities were the first victims of Hitler's efforts to create a master race; the elimination of people with disabilities was a central component of the Nazis' plan to "purify" the Aryan race.91

The first stage of the Nazis' campaign to eliminate the handicapped was sterilization. Between 1933 and the start of World War II in 1939, that policy was enforced with total ruthlessness. Hundreds of thousands of handicapped people were rounded up from hospitals, clinics or their homes, sent to "sterilization centers" and forcibly operated on. As a result of these clumsy operations, a good many patients died, and the majority suffered terrible pain for months. Furthermore, for many years, most were unable to recover from the psychological damage thus inflicted. One study carried out after the war showed that some sterilization victims still suffered violent pains up to ten years after the event, and that a third still suffered psychological trauma.92

Dr. Karl Brandt, who maintained that handicapped babies should be murdered as soon as they were born.

Following sterilization, the murder of the handicapped began, by an order issued by Hitler to his staff, known as order Aktion T-4:

Hitler's strategy progressed phase by phase. First there was sterilisation. From 1933 onward, more than 400,000 handicapped people were forcibly sterilised… Then the official murder program known as Aktion T-4 began. That program had been specially designed with the handicapped in mind. The methods of extermination that the Nazis would use on their Jewish victims, for instance the gassing of people forced into the "shower rooms," were first developed under the handicapped people program. As a result, more than 275,000 people were killed in the framework of the Aktion T-4 program. That figure does not include those handicapped people who lost their lives in the camps after Aktion T-4 had come to an end. During the war, an unknown number of other handicapped people were killed in regions invaded and occupied by the Nazis. As the areas under their control expanded, the Nazis murdered handicapped men, women and children, without regard to race, religion or political opinions.93

Doctors and many other public officials brainwashed by Nazi propaganda thought it was their duty to carry out that unbelievable barbarity. The spread of Social Darwinist teachings, which themselves formed the very essence of Nazism, naturally led to the loss of such moral virtues as compassion and mercy, as commanded by religious moral values. The following extract describes an incident in Hadamar, one of the six centers set up to kill the handicapped under Aktion T-4, and reveals to what level Nazi ideology had brought German society:

For example, the slaughter of the handicapped at Hamadar (one of the six main killing centres), took place with bureaucratic regularity and "productivity." It was considered most important to keep morale at high levels for the success of this operation. In order to keep both "productivity" and the morale of the hospital staff at the highest possible level, the administrators frequently emphasised the importance of the program. In the summer of 1941, a ceremony held in the lobby of the right wing of Hadamar formed a milestone in the killing program. All hospital staff attended, and were offered [drink]… After the introductory festivities, all those in attendance were invited down into the hospital basement and participated in the ceremony to mark the "cremation of the 10,000th patient." The corpse was festooned with flowers and small Nazi flags, and one of the doctors made a short and emotional speech confirming the importance of the work being done in Hadamar. The body was then burned, and some of those present made mocking speeches "in memory of the dead." The others listened and laughed, and a party was then held to the accompaniment of polka music.94

The massacre of handicapped children and babies was a tragedy all of its own. Although "work" had been proceeding in that direction since 1933, the real impetus was given on August 18, 1939 by the Reich Committee for Scientific Research into Serious Illness of Hereditary and Protonic Origin. Under a "child euthanasia" decree, the Committee was to be notified of all newborn babies, and children under the age of three, suspected of having serious hereditary diseases. The "serious diseases" in question included Down's Syndrome, physical deformities, and paralysis. Those babies "reported" as being suspected of having such diseases were subjected to medical tests. If confirmed, their documents were marked with a "+", and they were sent to the death centers. One of the Nazi doctors of the time, Dr. Karl Brandt, said, "The aim behind rounding up such babies was to kill them as quickly as possible after birth." Thirty child euthanasia departments were opened in hospitals across Germany, and hundreds of babies are known to have been murdered in each and every one.

Babies were sometimes killed by poison injected into their hearts. Some Nazi doctors behaved even more monstrously, however, and simply allowed them to starve to death. One of these, Dr. Hermann Pfannmuller, is reported to have held one starving baby by the heels, saying, "This one has a few days left."95

The Nazis branded those suffering from depression, the crippled, cancer sufferers, the mentally ill, the deaf and blind-all kinds of handicapped people-as "useless eaters." This twisted ideology is still continued by neo-Nazis today.

One of the worst aspects of this barbarity is the way that it has been "forgotten" to a large extent. The report by the Disability Rights Advocates organization stresses the fact:

In spite of greatly heightened interest in the Holocaust in recent years, silence has surrounded the mass atrocities inflicted on men, women and children with disabilities under the Nazi regime. The vicious and systemic persecution of people with disabilities during the Nazi era has been overlooked and greatly underestimated in historical research and our collective remembrance of the Holocaust. The result is widespread public ignorance of these horrors – an ignorance often perpetuated by the indifference of politicians, academicians and the media. Moreover, restitution measures have been virtually non-existent.

Some people erroneously believe that the number of victims with disabilities is relatively small. However, ample evidence shows that people with disabilities were subjected to slave labor, were looted, plundered, and otherwise exploited, both within Germany and in the territories conquered by the Nazis. In every way that other victims, such as the Jews, suffered and lost, people with disabilities suffered and lost...

... [However,] no memorial center or museum specifically for survivors with disabilities exists anywhere in the world today... Moreover, although there are literally hundreds of Holocaust memorials internationally, it is exceedingly rare for any of them to give more than a passing reference to people with disabilities. Most do not even mention the horrors inflicted on disabled people during the Holocaust.96

In short, the "genocide of the handicapped" that formed one important dimension of Nazi barbarity has been largely forgotten. One of the dangerous results is a loss of sensitivity to the subject, and the neo-Nazis who dream of resurrecting the Nazi system are trying to take advantage of that gap. Moreover, the twisted Social Darwinist logic that underpins that negative view of the handicapped still prevails, making the situation even more serious. The Disability Rights Advocates report Forgotten Crimes (which would later be published as a book) makes it clear that "hostility towards the handicapped" is, sadly, still influential in Germany:

... where many people with disabilities are treated as second-class citizens and are viewed as economic burdens and inconveniences. Discriminatory attitudes have resulted in acts of targeted violence, including public taunts, insults, harassment, attacks, beatings and killings. Neo-Nazis ("skinheads") have led the abuse. Reports show that skinheads have beaten a blind man to death, severely beaten five deaf boys, thrown a wheelchair-using man down subway stairs, and shouted taunts such as "They must have forgotten you in Dachau," and "Under Hitler, you would have been gassed." The Journal of the British Council of Organizations of Disabled People reports that as many as 1000 disabled German citizens have been physically or verbally harassed in a single year.97 

These painful facts lead us to an important conclusion. The genocide of the handicapped must never be forgotten, and with regard to them, slogans such as "Never again" must also be fixed in peoples' minds. To protect the rights of the handicapped, a much more effective strategy must be implemented worldwide.

The Gypsy Genocide

The Nazis' racist ideology also placed the Gypsies in the category of the so-called "inferior races that need to be eliminated." When the Nazis came to power, a policy of repression against Gypsies living in Germany began to be implemented. With their artistic abilities and individual lifestyle, Gypsies are welcomed in many countries as an important cultural element, but in Nazi Germany became the targets of an inhuman hatred.

In a statement issued in 1936, Dr. Hans Globke, one of the drafters of the Nürnberg Laws, stated that Gypsies were a foreign race. A decree published on December 14, 1937, described them as "incorrigible criminals," and decided they should be isolated from German society. From the beginning of 1938, Nazi officials began to round them up and send them to concentration camps. Later, in her doctoral thesis, Eva Justin of the German Health Ministry's Racial Research Department described the Gypsies as "a great danger to the purity of the German race." The Buchenwald camp set up a special section for Gypsies. Most of those sent to the Mauthausen, Gusen, Dautmergen, Natzweiler and Flossenburg camps died there.

Above: Prisoners in the Buchenwald death camp. Among them is the Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel. Thousands of Gypsies, as well as Jews, were slaughtered in this camp.

Gypsies were also subjected to a program of forced sterilization. Gypsy women married to non-Gypsy men were forcibly sterilized in operations at a hospital in Düsseldorf-Lierenfeld. Some died during sterilization, and most of the pregnant women so operated on lost their lives.98

In 1938, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and second most senior figure in the Nazi hierarchy, personally took over the "Gypsy problem," and transferred the Gypsy Affairs center from Munich to Berlin. From then on, the elimination of the Gypsies, like that of the Jews, would be one of Nazi Germany's aims.

Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss

The mass destruction began in the summer of 1941. At that time, Special Einsatzgruppen teams were set up to find Gypsies and kill them or send them to the camps. Tens of thousands of Gypsies (including women, the elderly, children and infants) were sent from Germany to Poland, and from there to the Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor and Majdanek concentration camps. Some 30,000 Gypsies from Holland, France and Belgium were sent to Auschwitz. The great majority were killed by the Nazis. According to Dr. Franciszek Piper, director of the Auschwitz Museum History Department, "23,000 gypsies were transferred to Birkenau [a part of Auschwitz], of whom 21,000 were killed." As Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss wrote in his memoirs, "there were a large number of children, old people aged nearly 100, and pregnant women" among those Gypsies killed.

All the methods of destruction aimed at the Jews were also applied to the Gypsies. Einsatzgruppen teams killed Gypsies wherever they found them. One UNESCO article titled "Gypsy Victims of the Nazi Terror" gives the following information:

In Poland and in the Soviet Union Gypsies were killed both in death camps and in the open countryside… Wherever the Nazis passed, Gypsies were arrested, deported, or murdered. In Yugoslavia, executions of Jews and Gypsies began in October 1941 in the forests, where peasants still remember the cries of children being driven in trucks to the places of their execution.99

It is difficult to estimate how many Gypsies the Nazis killed, although the statistics give some idea. According to historian Raoul Hilberg, there were 34,000 Gypsies living in Germany before the Holocaust, the vast majority of whom were killed. Reports from the Einsatzgruppen responsible for the massacres in Russia, Ukraine and the Crimea indicate that some 300,000 Gypsies were slaughtered in those countries. According to the Yugoslavian authorities, 28,000 Gypsies were killed within the borders of Serbia alone. No estimate can be made of the number of victims in Poland: The historian Joseph Tenenbaum says that the Nazis murdered a total of at least 500,000.

Despite that terrible tragedy, the genocide of the Gypsies is generally ignored. In books, films and articles about the Holocaust, that genocide is either not referred to at all, or else portrayed as an unimportant matter. Ian Hancock of the Romany Archive and Documentation Center in Texas, says there is "a move to underrate the Gypsy genocide."100

Yet there was no difference between the way the Gypsies and the Jews were treated. Both groups were excluded from German society under the 1936 Nürnberg Laws. Adolf Eichmann, one of the most influential figures in the Holocaust, wrote, "The Jewish and gypsy problems need to be resolved together and at the same time," which effectively meant the destruction of both nations. In the concentration camps and those areas under Nazi occupation, Gypsies were murdered just as ruthlessly as Jews.101

Genocide Aimed at the Poles

Throughout the course of World War II, the Nazis killed some 6 million Polish citizens. Three million of these were Jews, and the others Catholics. Yet the drama of the Polish Catholics is generally forgotten or ignored.

Hitler's hatred of the Poles stemmed both from his regarding them as untermenschen (inferior people) and from the belief that they had occupied German lebensraum (space to live). That is why he aimed his first military attack at Poland. On August 22, 1939, the German armies suddenly invaded Poland, a move which sparked off World War II. A few days before the invasion, Hitler had given his commanders this message: "You must ruthlessly kill all men, women and children of Polish origin, or who speak Polish. That is the only way we can secure the space we need to live."102

Within a few weeks, Nazi armies had occupied all of Poland and, in accordance with Hitler's order, set about a systematic genocide. All landowners' property was taken away, and rationing was introduced. Polish children with features resembling those of the German race were forcibly taken from their families and sent to Germany, to be trained as soldiers. A complete massacre of the Polish intelligentsia was initiated. Hundreds of community leaders, mayors, civil servants, priests, teachers, judges, senators and doctors were executed publicly. Tens of thousands of other educated people were sent to the concentration camps and lost their lives there. Over the course of the war, Poland lost 45 percent of its doctors, 57 percent of its lawyers, 40 percent of its teachers, 30 percent of its technicians and engineers, and a large part of its journalists and men of religion.

Poland was one country where Nazi genocide was most widely perpetrated. The photograph shows a Polish Jew beaten by Nazis. In addition to Jews, three million Catholic Poles were also murdered.

Hitler also wanted to destroy Polish culture and everything to do with Poland. All middle schools and colleges were closed. All Polish-language newspapers were closed down. Libraries and bookshops were burned. All written cultural records and works of art were destroyed. Religious institutions were the most important target of all. Churches and other religious places were torn down. The majority of the country's priests were arrested and sent to concentration camps. The names of streets and roads were changed, their old Polish names replaced with new German ones.

The Nazis murdered 6 million Polish citizens. Half of these were Jews, and the other half Polish Catholics. At Auschwitz and the other death camps, the first victims were these Polish Catholics. The historian Richard C. Lukas writes, "So many Poles were sent to the concentration camps that just about every Polish family had someone who had been tortured or killed in the camps."103

As in Poland, many devout Catholics in Germany, and priests in particular, became targets of the Nazis, who hated Christianity and wanted German society to return to the pre-Christian pagan culture. After seizing power, they rounded up a great many Catholic figures and sent them to the concentration camps. In Dachau, a special section was set up for priests, and thousands were sent there. Only a few survived; some were shot, and others died by inches of starvation or disease. In the same way, Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany and territories under German occupation were arrested, sent off to the camps and killed, because they considered taking an oath of loyalty to Nazi Germany to be incompatible with their beliefs.104

All the Others Who Were Killed

As we have seen so far, Nazi savagery was aimed at a number of ethnic groups, not just the Jews. At the basis of this lay Hitler's racist theory known as lebensraumpolitik, which means "the room-to-live policy." Hitler suggested that Germany was not large enough for the German population and that the Aryan race was being "constricted." He then claimed that land belonging to eastern countries such as Poland and Ukraine should be taken to give Germans new "room to live." The populations in those areas, mainly Slav, were to be eliminated in order to provide that extra space.

Nazi documents show that within the borders of the Soviet Union alone, the "room to live" contained a population of some 75 million, which the Nazis intended to reduce to some 30 million—to be used as slave labor to meet the needs of Germans who were moving in. The Nazis planned to transport the remaining 45 million still further eastwards, or to kill them by various means.

In occupied countries, the partisans were resistance groups set up to fight the Nazis, who eliminated whole towns and villages on the pretext that they had supported the partisans.

The massacres the Nazis perpetrated against civilian population in their occupied areas show that they put this plan into operation. One justification for these was that the civilian populations had "supported the partisans"—resistance units established to fight the Nazis in occupied countries. The entire population of a village or town would be wiped out for allegedly having helped the partisans. According to the historian H. Kuhnrich's estimate, "5,900,225 people were killed as a result of the anti-partisan war." Of these, 4.5 million were Ukrainians.

Between 1939 and 1945, those non-combatants killed in Poland number more than 6 million. This represents 3 million Jews, 200,000 gypsies and the remainder Christian Polish Slavs. Almost all Polish intellectuals were murdered. In Yugoslavia, some 1.2 million civilians were killed: 9 percent of the total population. This figure excludes some 300,000 Yugoslavian troops or fighters who died during the war.

The worst losses were suffered by the Soviet Union. By May 10, 1943, the Nazis had captured some 5.4 million Soviet troops, of whom 3.5 million starved, froze to death, or were hanged, shot, or exterminated in the concentration camps. In 1944, when the Germans withdrew completely from Soviet territory the population of Ukraine had reduced from 42 to 27.4 million, a difference of 14.6 million. If we subtract those who migrated and survived captivity during the war, some 7 million people still lost their lives. Within the borders of the Soviet Union, 11 million fell victim to the Nazis' policy of mass destruction and genocide.105

All told, it appears that a total of 26 million people lost their lives as a result of the Nazi massacres of civilians. Of these, 6 million were Jews, up to 750,000 gypsies, and the rest Slavs living in such countries as Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Yugoslavia.

The total of all those who died in World War II, including all military and civilian casualties, is a staggering 55 million.

88 Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution.
89 Ernst Haeckel, The Wonders of Life, New York, Harper, 1904, p. 21.
90 Ibid., pp. 118-119.
91 Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and People with Disabilities, A Report by Disability Rights Advocates, Oakland, California, September 2001, p. 3.
92 Biesold, Crying Hands: Eugenics and Deaf People in Nazi Germany, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 147.
93 Forgotten Crimes:The Holocaust and People with Disabilities, A Report by Disability Rights Advocates, p. 3.
94 Hugh Gregory Gallagher, By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians, and the License to Kill in the Third Reich Arlington, Virg., 1995, p. 13.
95 Forgotten Crimes:the Holocaust and People with Disabilities, A Report by Disability Rights Advocates, p. 14.
96 Ibid., pp. 1-2, 37-38.
97 Ibid., p. 41.
98 Myriam Novitch, "Gypsy Victims of the Nazi Terror," UNESCO Courier, October 1984.
99 Ibid.
100 Ian Hancock, "Downplaying the Porrajmos: The Trend to Minimize the Romani Holocaust," The Patrin Web Journal, 2000.
101 Ward Churchill, Assaults on Truth and Memory, Part II, 1997, ZNet.
102 Terese Pencak Schwartz, "How Could 5.000.000 Be Killed and Forgotten?," based on The Forgotten Holocaust by Dr. Richard C. Lukas.
104 "Who Were the Five Million Non-Jewish Victims?;"
105 Ward Churchill, Assaults on Truth and Memory, Part II, 1997, Znet.