“[£200,000] is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too.”
In the midst of the most controversial Labour Conference in recent times, the speeches were pored over for things to be outraged about. The country needed to show that the Party had been taken over by ‘lefty loonies’ and, while the big names got front page headlines, other speakers became easy targets. One of these was Sioux Blair-Jordan, a Labour disability rights campaigner, who gave a powerful speech about the dehumanising narrative regarding sickness and disability emanating from the government, and the risks disabled people face if the Conservative Government follows through on their campaign pledge to dissolve the power of the European Court of Human Rights in the UK. The media and commentariat exploded with outrage and even anti-austerity campaigners expressed discomfort when she stated that, “if Cameron does his bill of rights, we might as well walk into the gas chamber today.”
Of course it was shocking. That was the point. The Express breathlessly reported that Jeremy Corbyn gave her a ‘HUG‘ (yes, in capitals) instead of chastising her; a Justice Minister, Dominic Raab, said, “Jeremy Corbyn should apologise immediately for embracing rather than distancing himself from the delegate. It points directly to his unfitness to lead.” Various Jewish organisations and publications were contacted for their statements, and they echoed the papers and the politicians. A spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism called the reference “gratuitous and offensive”, commenting on the need for education about antisemitism. Guido Fawkes called the speech “spectacularly inappropriate” and a “slur”, while their commenters were somewhat less civil.
Comparison to Nazi Germany is one of the most overused tropes in political discourse. Its derisory title, The Godwin Effect (a result of Godwin’s Law), means that an otherwise reasonable argument becomes invalid simply through referencing Nazism. It is seen as the last refuge of hyperbolic, desperate conspiracy theorists, and is almost always a ridiculous interpretation of whatever political situation the wild-eyed keyboard warrior is referencing. What possible defence could there be for invoking the horror of the gas chambers in a speech about our democratically elected government? Let’s take a look.
Possibly the most dangerous aspect of our fascination with World War II – the hero-worship of the Allies, the morbid fixation on what we consider to be the pinnacle of human cruelty – is that we have turned history into a caricature. We no longer see the minor decisions, the small increments which allowed otherwise normal people to turn into the avatar of evil on Earth. We believe that the Nazis came to power fully formed, their plans for genocide and world domination already drawn up and enforced through intimidation. We believe that the Germans were weak, that we would not do the same thing, because how could we? We forget that the history of the Holocaust started a long time before Auschwitz, before Kristallnacht, before the Nuremberg Rallies. If there was a beginning, it was a depressed economy and resentment at being forced to accept responsibility for World War I, and a party which gave the citizens someone to blame for it.
The Jewish community was, of course, the primary target for this. Most people are aware that there was a build-up to the Concentration Camps: the Night of Broken Glass, when the windows of Jewish-owned buildings were smashed by paramilitaries; the removal of Jewish people from political, economic or social power. We know that Germans hated them. Brits are less familiar with how much the rest of the world also hated them, because it doesn’t fit our chosen narrative. We know how Nazi Germany ended up, so any kind of affiliation with their principles is taboo; we try our best not to look at our own history of antisemitism, eugenics, Nazi sympathies, imperialism, and world domination. We focus on the fact that, for those few years, we were the good guys and they were the bad guys, and we can never, ever be compared to the monstrous, shambling horrors who perpetrated the Holocaust.
In blurring the details of history, we lost some vital understanding: the Nazi death machine did not just kill Jews. The term ‘Holocaust’ is often used specifically for the genocide of Jewish people in WWII, but some scholars use it to talk about the whole picture. There is no widely used term for the collective deaths at the hands of the Nazis outside of the battlefield. When we talk about the Camps, about the gas chambers, about the medical experiments, we are almost always talking about Jews. It’s why, in the aftermath of Blair-Jordan’s speech, the Jewish community was asked to comment, when she was in no way referring to the genocide of Jewish people. There is no reason for them to comment on this except for the fact that we have, by focusing exclusively on the horrors visited upon the Jewish people (and not without reason, for it was catastrophic and unimaginable), forgotten about the other victims of Nazi Germany.
People are peripherally aware that gay and disabled people were also persecuted, but have nowhere near the level of detailed information we have about the Jewish experience. The Holocaust now culturally just means the Jewish genocide; to our society they are the only victims, the only people who can claim the right to invoke the names of the camps where their families died in their millions, which they do whenever antisemitism rears its ugly head. They are right to be vigilant: we forget so easily how small acts of injustice pave the way for larger ones. But how could disabled people possibly think that they, too, have the right to fear the gas chambers?
The phrase ‘Action T4’ barely registers on society’s ledger of horrors. Even among its target population it is mostly meaningless. It started just before WWII, but before that came the propaganda. The quote at the top of this article, about how it’s your taxes which pay for disabled people to survive, could have been taken from any Daily Mail page in the last few years. It is, in fact, from the above poster from 1938 encouraging people not to have children if they had any hereditary diseases. Many such items of propaganda were distributed, citing the cost of supporting disabled people to the taxpayer, how many healthy people could be fed and housed for the price of just one ‘Hereditary Defective’ (the title of a particularly brutal propaganda film showing the worthlessness of the life of a sick person). But before the move towards ‘mercy killing’ was the push towards resentment, something we in the UK should recognise. Germans were told that the state could do more to help them if it wasn’t for all the ‘defectives’ they had to look after. They were told that it was their business, because it was their taxes paying for it. After the last 8 years of government (it started well before the Conservatives took office in 2010), most disabled people have either been or have known victims of members of the public demanding to know why they have a Blue Badge. When told they have no right to private medical information, the response is always the same: ‘I pay for you to live, my taxes keep you alive.’ Some go on to explicitly state that they have the right to know that any given disabled person is doing as much as they can to ‘get better’, and I’ve seen it argued multiple times that this should include access to medical records to show that they are ‘trying’. The Germans were given first the resentment, and then the salve to let them believe their hardened hearts were actually kind ones: the push for mercy killing.
It began with the children. In mid 1939 a register was begun of any child born ‘severely disabled’, which included any form of disfigurement, Downs Syndrome, ‘idiocy’, any kind of spastic condition, and other hereditary disorders. When the order to start Action T4 was given in the Autumn, the children under three were the first to be killed. Parents were told that their children had been selected for treatment in a specialist hospital, where they would have much better care. After a few weeks of ‘assessments’, they were injected with toxic doses of chemicals, usually phenol (carbolic acid), and their deaths recorded as ‘pneumonia’. After war was declared, the remit was expanded to include children and adolescents, and any parents who resisted were threatened with having their remaining children taken away or with being called up for ‘labour duty’. The hospitals created specialised killing centres, and brains and other organs were removed for research purposes.
After the war broke out, Action T4 was quickly expanded to disabled adults, including people with mental health conditions. The first mass killings of adults were of institutionalised people in Poland, and it was at a psychiatric institution in Poland where the process for mass gassing was developed. Most patients in the beginning were simply shot, but chemists experimented on the disabled population to develop the gas chamber technology. Himmler witnessed one of these early experiments and filed it away for future use. As the killing spread, and more conditions were brought under the wing of the euthanasia program, every old age care facility, mental health institution, youth home, hospital and sanatorium was forced to provide lists of patients with details of whether or not they were able bodied enough for ‘labour service’. At first, the doctors and nurses falsified records, listing people as too disabled for labour duty out of compassion, until the full plan became clear. Dedicated Euthanasia centres were created where disabled people were gassed in their thousands by SS guards dressed as doctors. The transports to the killing centres were T4 ‘Charitable Buses’, staffed by guards in white coats, taking them on a labyrinthine tour to mask their final destination. Families were told they could not visit because of the war, and eventually a plausible death certificate and a pile of random ashes was sent to them, even though most were killed with a day of reaching the centres. They would be given an initial assessment, and it was here that the ruse of the shower blocks was invented.
While the deaths of disabled people continued until just past the end of the war, the official end of T4 happened in 1941, when many of the staff and high ranking officials were transferred to the new death camps, taking with them their expertise and technology. The architects of Action T4 were given major roles in the Final Solution. None of this could have happened without the initial propaganda campaign. The Third Reich managed to successfully change the narrative from disabled people being part of the population (before access to modern medical care, disability was common and accounted for) to their being worthless drains on society, and that it would be better for everyone – the people paying the bills and the poor, suffering souls – if they were put out of their misery. They needed both resentment and dehumanisation for it to work, and they created both easily with insidious campaigns which are mirrored in every major newspaper in the UK today.
In the here and now, if you spend any time in the disability community, as I do, you will hear a shrill note of terror running through every conversation. It was anger at first, years ago, when the obstacles began to be placed in our paths and the services we, as disabled people, relied on for access to society were quietly dismantled. Then, after years of telling people that this was ruining our lives, that it was turning many of us from independent, engaged members of the community into dependent, isolated, much sicker people, the deaths started. People started to kill themselves after contact with the DWP, and we thought then that something would have to be done. Even if they couldn’t understand our admittedly complex systems of self-care and independence, the deaths would have to change things, surely. We wrote articles, we protested, we wrote letters, we begged for our lives, and we were told over and over again that it was for the best.
Beyond the unimaginable pressure from the DWP, disabled people were also increasingly targeted by hate crime, which has risen year on year since the disability provision was introduced in 2007. Even in a system in which a Criminal Justice Inspectorate review found in May that “police, prosecutors, and probation services had failed to bring about much-needed change over the past two years“, prosecutions were still up by more than 200% for disability hate crimes. Many, many more are going unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted. Propaganda has an effect. It made the general public shrug their shoulders as more services were stripped away, more brutal techniques to ‘root out fraud’ (that the DWP’s own numbers showed was less than 1%) were introduced, and the deaths increased. People began to suffer from PTSD just from dealing with them, the dread of the Brown Envelope began to consume people, people began to seriously believe that each suicide or death from exacerbated illness was seen as a victory by the DWP as it was one less person to pay for. The Scottish Government had to drain millions of pounds from other places just to keep the worst effects of the Westminster regime from killing its citizens, but most of the country had no such protection, and the deaths continued.
Finally, Cameron admitted on national television just before the election that he was comfortable with the system as it stood, and would not be investigating the death toll. When the election result was announced in May, the reaction among disabled people was a stunned horror. We had been pleading for our lives, and people had voted for a government that was responsible for the deaths of so many disabled people because our lives were less important than their bank balances. Many posts were simple statements; most can be summed up like this: “I don’t think I will survive the next five years.”
The only recourse we have is the human rights investigation which has been ongoing for the last year or so. When it is the government themselves who are enacting this horror, a higher court is the only place to go, so we have. When Blair-Jordan said that if we removed the influence of the Court of Human Rights, disabled people may as well walk into the gas chambers now, she wasn’t being flippant. Most of us don’t think that death camps will be built to kill us all, but many of us do believe that the government will continue to pursue a path which they know makes life untenable for us. They will remove every other option available for anyone who doesn’t have outside support. And if anyone doubts that we have the right to talk about gas chambers, learn your history. We were the tests, the targets and the victims. The gas chambers were created for us, and disabled people were walking into those showers long before anyone else. The gas chambers are our horror, our history. If we do not remember this, as a culture, the bodies will keep piling up, and we know what comes next. People often ask why the Germans did not stop the war machine in its early stages, when they could still do something. You can still do something. See the propaganda for what it is, fight the people trying to twist our country into a bitter, cold, hardened place where profit and power mean more than the lives of the sick and the poor and the other. Speak the names of the dead, so we never forget that rhetoric has a cost, and that erasing history can only lead to repeating it.