Of the numerous memorials for the victims of National Socialism that can be found a short distance from the current German government quarter, it is that next to the Berlin Philharmonic building which serves to commemorate the first group to have suffered at the hands of the Nazis on a genocidal level. A translucent sky-blue wall and corresponding curved metal sheet, the fourth memorial introduced to the city for the victims of Adolf Hitler’s murderous regime, stands for the disabled, the mentally handicapped – the so-called life unworthy of life (Lebensunwertes Leben). The main Berlin commemoration for the victims remembered at the Brandenburg T4 Euthanasia Memorial.
Here on the Tiergartenstrasse (number 4) once sat the administrative headquarters of the organisation responsible for the Aktion T4 plan to exterminate anyone considered physically or mentally incompatible with the National Socialist Weltanschauung.
While the paperwork and preparation would be carried out in Berlin – the implementation of this strategy of industrial murder would take place elsewhere – in hospitals, psychiatric clinics and six secret killing facilities- such as the T4 euthanasia clinic in Brandenburg an der Havel. For the Nazis, the knowledge gathered as a result of this murderous policy would prove fundamental in preparing the way for the further industrial killings in the East – of perceived racial enemies of the so-called Third Reich.
Meticulous bureaucracy would define the mass killings carried out by the National Socialist regime, leaving a papertrail of documents to be analysed and surveyed by generations to come. As such it is possible to chart the trajectory followed over the course of the development of the Nazi extermination programmes.
By examining the medical killings carried out under the auspices of the Aktion T4 plan, it is also possible to gain valuable insight into the duplicitous mindset of the Nazi doctrine – where the institutionalised mass murder of a segment of society deemed a burden on the whole would be perversely justified: as a merciful death to relieve the suffering of individuals tormented by their own imprefections. A process of state sanctioned euthanasia in a country where outright murder still remained clearly illegal – as premeditated killing continued to carry with it a death sentence for the perpetrator according to German criminal law.
During the initial phase of the programme’s operation, from 1939 until 1941 (when Aktion T4 was interrupted due to public outcry), some 70,000 people are known to have been murdered – altough it is estimated that up to 200,000 in total would fall victim to this policy, as work continued discreetly and out of the public eye until the end of the Second World War.
Graduating from the killing facilities of Bernburg, Brandenburg, Hadamar, Hartheim, Grafeneck, and Pirna-Sonnenstein, the programme would finally reach into the concentration and extermination camps with the help of the team of physicians originally tasked with these centrally-planned euthanasia murders.
The T4 programme would be directly authorised by Adolf Hitler to grant a 'merciful death' to those suffering from illnesses deemed incurable. The order for Aktion T4 to begin would be backdated to September 1st 1939 - the start of the Second World War and the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Originally constructed in part of a penitentiary complex, the facility at Brandenburg an der Havel was established in 1939 on the site of an earlier concentration camp, closed five years earlier.
Its location in the centre of this small town, at the Nicolaiplatz, meant that its existence was well known to the local inhabitants. In-fact, opposition to the facility, and the T4 programme, would grow as the smoke from the mobile furnaces used to burn the bodies of murdered patients would spread across the town – choking the historic centre of Brandenburg with one of the real and undeniable consequences of this callous policy. A lesson the Nazis learned that would influence the construction of later extermination camps, whereby they would be located far from urban areas and away from any population that might find fault with their purpose or practice.
The Brandenburg T4 Euthanasia Memorial here now contains a museum documenting the historical foundations of Nazi euthanasia and racial hygiene policy utilising the testimonies of people who were involved. The biographies of some 30 victims have also been recreated on the basis of photographs and documents donated by their families.
Putting names, faces, and stories to some of the 8,237 victims murdered at this location, between January and October 1940, and identified in the memorial book now hosted on the site.
Beyond serving as one of the first killing facilities of the Aktion T4 programme – this location also bears the unfortunate distinction as the site of the first Nazi gas chamber on German soil.
Many of the men, women, and children, targeted as ‘life unworthy of life’ would be poisoned by morphine-scopolamine injection or slowly starved to death, but as the need to speed up the killing process increased, further methods were tested to establish greater efficiency. Asphyxiation by carbon monoxide eventually proved to be the most viable alternative, whereby following a short medical examination patients would be led to a gas chamber to be murdered en-masse.
The foundation of the former prison barn where the gas chamber had been installed is still visible at the present day site.
As this refined killing process would be introduced to other killing facilities, the newly acquired expertise of the physicians and nursing staff – trusted members of society, expected to uphold an ethical code of decency and humanity to care for the sick and needy – would further fuel the pursuit of National Socialist racial goals. As medical professionals became professional killers and killing professionals – and the T4 Euthanasia site in Brandenburg an der Havel was reduced to just one of many locations where the National Socialist Weltanschauung reached its atrocious zenith.