Providing information, education, and training to build knowledge, develop skills, and change attitudes that will lead to increased independence, productivity, self determination, integration and inclusion (IPSII) for people with developmental disabilities and their families.

Hadamar: The Forgotten Holocaust

The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities presents a new documentary, Hadamar: The Forgotten Holocaust, detailing Hitler's extermination of people with disabilities

On September 1, 1939, World War II began with the German invasion of Poland. On September 1, 2020, the Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities is releasing a new documentary entitled, Hadamar: The Forgotten Holocaust. This documentary focuses on Adolph Hitler's order to kill hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities in order to create a master race.  Deaths occurred in various hospitals including Hadamar. We gratefully acknowledge Dave Reynolds from Spokane, Washington who generously provided us with his lecture notes and PowerPoint, and to Tim Lewis from Mastcom for converting that lecture into a 16 minute documentary.

Male narrator: The Holocaust.

Hitler's extermination of an estimated 6 million Jews during World War II. Before the Holocaust, there were many other victims of Hitler's attempt to create a master race.

Thousands of people with disabilities, along with others determined to have lives unworthy of life, all murdered at the hands of Hitler's Nazi regime. This is their story.

[crowd cheering]

[speaking German]

Narrator: Once he came into power, Adolf Hitler was interested in advancing his own version of eugenics, a 19th century concept, to improve the genetic quality of the human race by excluding people and groups judged to be inferior, while promoting those deemed to be superior.

Hitler's legal justification had its roots in the United States, with the state of Virginia's Sterilization Act of 1924, a form of eugenics. The law required the sterilization of people afflicted with forms of idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness, or epilepsy.

In 1927, a Virginia court determined Carrie Buck would be the first person sterilized under Virginia's new law, because she was said to be incorrigible and had a child out of wedlock. After appeals, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in an 8-1 decision, Buck v. Bell upheld the Virginia Sterilization Act, saying it did not violate the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

Six years after the Supreme Court decision, Hitler's Nazi Party enacted its own version, called the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases. This led to the forced sterilization of more than 2 million Germans over the next 12 years.

Hitler believed the Germans to be a superior race that should dominate, calling this master race Aryan. He believed those not part of this superior race had no place in Germany and that cultures degenerated when distinct races mixed. His vision was to unite Germany and make it the strongest nation on Earth, but Hitler took Virginia's sterilization law to another, murderous level in his ambition for the master race.

He ordered the outright elimination of those citizens deemed defective, including people who were intellectually disabled or those born with genetic illnesses, as well as those the Nazis declared racially inferior.

A wave of legislation between 1933 and 1936 identified categories unworthy of life that soon became targets of the Nazi killing policy. These included those diagnosed with mental illness, epilepsy, dementia, encephalitis, chronic psychiatric or neurological disorders, those not of German blood, the criminally insane, or those committed on criminal grounds.

A 1939 Reich government program permitted mercy killings, or euthanasia, in the case of incurably insane persons. Many of these policies are generally seen as precursors to what eventually became the Holocaust. According to the program's own internal calculations, the euthanasia program claimed the lives over 70,000 institutionalized people with mental or physical disabilities between 1940 and 1941.

[somber music]

A quiet little town of 12,000, nestled in a sleepy pastoral valley in Western Germany, Hadamar appears today to be an idyllic place, but its looks belie its evil past.

This is Hadamar Clinic.

Constructed in 1883, this former sanatorium was home to some of the cruelest treatment of people with disabilities in human history. Early one morning, beginning in 1941, grey buses from the volunteer ambulance service began rumbling into the Hadamar Clinic, carrying passengers from orphanages, children's homes, hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities. They were told this was a brief stop.

Pleasant-looking nurses helped them prepare for a physical and dental exam as they were instructed to disrobe before proceeding to another room down the hall. There, doctors would select from a list of 60 fatal diseases to record on their paperwork as their cause of death. Typically, tuberculosis, pneumonia, or heart failure. A nurse would then place a piece of tape between their shoulder blades to indicate what would happen to their bodies after being put to death.

Some would have their brains preserved for study, or gold teeth harvested after death.

Their paperwork would be sent upstairs where clerical workers would type their death certificates and condolence letters to their families.

After their examination, the people would be ushered to the basement, where they were told they would be taking a therapeutic shower. Those who could not walk were carried down on stretchers. 60 to 75 people at a time were crammed into a nine-by-sixteen room. Once the heavy doors were sealed shut, deadly gas was pumped into the room.

In only ten minutes, all would be dead. Workers removed the bodies one by one, and carried them to the mortuary room, the dissecting room, or directly to one of two cremation ovens. Cremation took 30 to 40 minutes per body. Canisters of random ash were delivered with the letters of condolence to family members.

[somber music]

An average of 65 people were processed each day, Monday through Friday, except holidays. On the day the 10,000th person was gassed to death, the director halted work so he and the staff could celebrate the milestone with beer, wine, and cheese. A witness reported that they cleaned out the skulls of some victims and used them as drinking cups.

The first people killed at Hadamar were children, followed by residents from nursing homes and other group quarters. Nearly all were German and had physical or developmental disabilities and/or mental illness. The gassing was halted after about eight months due to the complaints of townspeople about the stench of the fumes, along with the efforts of the Catholic Bishop of Munster, a sharp critic of the Nazis.

The ovens were simply dismantled and shipped to new, more infamous extermination camps in Sobibor and Treblinka.

And this still was not the end of mass murder at Hadamar.

A year after gassing was halted, a more covert phase began, where victims were given massive doses of drugs or starved to death.

To avoid cremation and the noxious fumes it caused, these victims were buried in mass graves behind the facility, surrounded by walls topped with broken glass.

The killing finally ceased when the U.S. Army's Second Infantry Division liberated Hadamar in April, 1945. Each of these 481 mass graves contained the remains of at least ten people.

Today, visitors can tour the same waiting room where the 15,000 passed through before meeting their demise. The room has displays and memorials detailing what happened in this facility. A life-sized photo shows one of the cremation ovens and where it was located.

Hadamar was the last of six official killing centers across Germany, set up specifically to exterminate people with disabilities. But there were others built in Poland and Austria once the Nazis occupied those countries.

[somber music]

The Nazi euthanasia policy led to the murder of over 100,000 people with disabilities between 1939 and 1945, including over 10,000 at Hadamar. The destruction of worthless life was at the center of Nazi euthanasia policy, and was designed to cleanse the master race of imperfections and rid the country of so-called "useless eaters".

As time went on, any German who could not contribute to the war effort was selected for death, even soldiers with disabilities from the first World War.

[ominous music]

Despite the brutality and atrocious nature of the crimes carried out at Hadamar, American authorities could not prosecute Hadamar defendants as a violation of international law since it was German nationals mistreating German citizens with disabilities as directed by the German head of state.

However, the Germans kept meticulous records, and investigators found Polish and Russian nationals were among the victims. International law agreed upon at the 1907 Hague Convention protected civilians during wartime. This agreement, along with the Geneva Convention and Moscow Declaration, allowed U.S. authorities to prosecute Hadamar defendants for war crimes.

The jurisdiction of the U.S. military commission trying the Hadamar defendants was challenged immediately and throughout, but in the end, the commission relied on the absence of regulation to prove jurisdiction.

All seven Hadamar defendants were found guilty, but only three received death sentences. The remaining four received prison sentences based on their involvement, but in the ensuing years, many of these sentences were reduced.

By 1951, not one surviving Hadamar defendant remained in prison.

[gentle music]

Modern Berlin.

The Reichstag.

Germany's national legislature.

A few blocks from the Reichstag is Tiergartenstrasse 4, also known as T-4, the address of a villa where the national euthanasia program was planned and implemented. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, access to further research increased the number of T-4 victims to more than 300,000.

A grey bus monument was installed at the site in 2008. It is the same size and dimensions as the buses that transported so many to their deaths, all over Germany and elsewhere. It's inscribed with words of one victim in German.

Wohin bringt ihr uns?

"Where are you taking us?"

While doing genealogy research, Sigrid Falkenstein found that her aunt, Anna, was one of the T-4 victims. Anna Lehnkering was diagnosed with mild intellectual disabilities as a teenager, was later moved to a nursing home, and eventually executed when only 24. Sigrid launched a citizens campaign to build a more fitting memorial. At the dedication of this memorial in 2014, a culmination of years of planning, building, and coordination, Mrs. Falkenstein concluded with these remarks.

"I can hardly imagine a better form of remembrance of the victims. Every human life is worth living."

[gentle music]

We can only hope that such a murderous dictator will never again emerge to inflict pain and death on people in need. The compassion given to those in need is a statement or indictment of our society and its legacy for future generations.

©2023 The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities
 370 Centennial Office Building  658 Cedar Street   St. Paul, Minnesota 55155 
Phone: 651.296.4018   Toll-free number: 877.348.0505   MN Relay Service: 800.627.3529 OR 711  Email:   View Privacy Policy   An Equal Opportunity Employer 

The GCDD is funded under the provisions of P.L. 106-402. The federal law also provides funding to the Minnesota Disability Law Center, the state Protection and Advocacy System, and to the Institute on Community Integration, the state University Center for Excellence. The Minnesota network of programs works to increase the IPSII of people with developmental disabilities and families into community life.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 2001MNSCDD-03, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects with government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official ACL policy.

This website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL),  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $1,120,136.00 with 83 percent funded by ACL/HHS and $222,000.00 and 17 percent funded by non-federal-government source(s). The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.