Do You Know About Action T4? The Erasure Of Disabled People From The Holocaust Narrative, And Why It Matters Today

“[£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.”


Sioux Blair-Jordan outside the conference, from the East Anglia Daily Times.

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?

Action T4 Propaganda

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.

Propaganda indicating that the cost of looking after a ‘Hereditary Defective’ for a day is the same as for an entire German family.

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.

Propaganda depicting ‘The Worker’ bearing the burden of the mentally ill and deviant members of society.

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.

The now-infamous DM cover, which has been proven false again and again but which has been quoted in Parliament to justify the regime which is killing disabled people.

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.”

Disability activist Liz Crow in Trafalgar Square on the 70th Anniversary of the official start of Action T4.

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.

EVEL: The Clue Is In The Name

Today the UK parliament, for the first time in its long history, voted to make two classes of MPs, some more equal than oth….. Sorry, I meant to say some with more powers than others.

Scottish people who want independence are often asked to defend our opposition to EVEL, as since we want the power of self-determination, surely it’s hypocritical to begrudge that power for others. So, as we have to repeat over and over again, here goes: yes, there is a constutional imbalance. The argument could easily be made that this imbalance is negligible because of the difference in size between England and each of the devolved parliaments, but in the interests of fairness, I don’t think I know anyone who wouldn’t back a devolved English parliament, or, even better, a series of them, each about the same size as the already extant ones for each major region.

But a tiny child could see the conflict of interest in having Westminster also be the devolved English parliament. Scottish MPs can’t vote on devolved matters, and MSPs can’t vote in Westminster. EVEL has the same people fulfilling both functions, which is a terrible idea.

It has also drawn the line at ‘Scottish MPs cannot vote on bills which will only be implemented in England’, which doesn’t remotely take into account the actual problem we have with EVEL, which is this: while very little we do up here in our parliament has any discernible effect on England, there is a vast gulf between ‘will only be implemented in England’ and ‘will only  affect England’.

To paraphrase how Dara O’Briain put it, ‘after suddenly noticing that Scotland existed and spending three weeks begging them to stay, the second the result was called they turned to each other and said “so what does this mean for England?”‘ Instead of making a speech about being glad we chose to stay, reaffirming the Union and our place in it, Cameron immediately moved to EVEL and started the process of painting the Scots as coming to take away what was theirs. We immediately became the enemy, wanting to ‘have our cake and eat it’ after 18 months of being told staying would give us ‘the best of both worlds’ (and all the clichés you can handle).

Ever since that morning, every move has been made to put us in our place, to remind us that we have very little power, that we will always be overruled, that we are a symbolic relic, allowed to exist as long as we keep funneling the oil money south. We were reminded, as the Chamber broke out in cheers and applause, that they can dissolve Holyrood at any moment because they *allow* it to exist out of the goodness of their hearts, as long as we don’t affect them. And now we’ve got a voting bloc of MPs who might possibly make a difference in close votes, we’ve had that power removed too.

Better Together? Aye, right.

I’m In The Paper! (some clarifications)

I’m currently recovering from my first ever political conference. It was inspiring, welcoming, eye-opening, frustrating and completely, utterly exhausting. On the second day, I went home for a nap between events and woke up the next day. I am bone tired, but my heart is full.

Before my nap-turned-marathon-sleep, I had been accompanying two of the most vital disability campaigners in the UK (Gail Ward of DPAC and John McArdle of Black Triangle) as they spoke to politicians and other activists about the devastation the disability community is currently undergoing. A journalist from the local paper, the Evening Express, briefly interviewed them and then took some details from me. That article appeared today, and I just wanted to offer a little background and clarification of ideas.

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Jennifer McKiernan wrote a powerful piece about our talk, and I am deeply grateful for the chance to reach a wider community. We desperately need people to understand what is happening, why it is so dangerous and why it has become so harmful that the UN is currently in the UK gathering evidence for the investigation into human rights abuses of disabled people by the UK government. It is the first time this provision has ever been activated, and it should be the front page of every newspaper and every commentary.

There are, of course, a few elements to my story that I did not convey perfectly because a short interview leading to a shortish article is not the greatest vehicle for complex ideas. I am not great at being concise, and do not have much experience speaking to journalists, so here are some of the things I wish I had remembered to say or wish I had been more clear about.

The first, and main, point is about the phrase “I had spent a long time trying to convince myself my life wasn’t ruined by my disability.” What I wish I had said is this: “It took me a long time to understand that my life was not ruined by my disability, but it had been irrevocably changed.” My life was not ruined. The essential problem with realising this was that society has a very clear definition of ‘worth’ and it is entirely tied up with what you can provide to the economy. By the time we reach adulthood, we are already instilled with a sense that your life is only valuable if you can work, if you can provide, if you are not a ‘burden’. We ask people ‘what do you do?’ when we meet them as if that is their defining characteristic.

I’ve spoken to a lot of disabled people and, especially among people who became disabled, as opposed to being born so, this is a common thread. Alongside learning how to navigate our new lives, with new medication, equipment, living situations, we also have to relearn how to see ourselves. It can take years, because it has taken years to build up these ideas. Possibly harder than the cocktail of drugs I needed to take, or learning how to read my pain and exhaustion levels, was learning that I have worth beyond the career I had built my life towards. I had to learn to see being supportive of my friends, being a source of comfort or protection to the people I loved, as being just as important as the career in Physics I had been looking forward to. We dismiss all of these elements of life as side interests, as add-ons to the real game, and we forget that these are the things which make our lives worth living, too. Other people find other routes back to self-worth – writing, activism, love – but each is a distraction from the central point: we have worth because we exist. We do not have to prove our right to exist, to take up space, because it is inherent. Society does a very good job of trying to convince us otherwise, but learning this is false is part of the journey when you are disabled.

So when I say I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself that my life wasn’t ruined, I mean that I was learning this the hard way. I had everything I thought defined me stripped away and learned that I was still here and I did not need to feel guilty for that. I was learning a new way to define worth and to define myself, and it was difficult but utterly essential.

Where this intersects with the article is that the WCA is the sharp-edged avatar of all those ideas about worth which you have just spent years unpicking and removing. You are forced back into a situation where you have to justify yourself and your life to people who think you can only possibly have a life worth living if you contribute economically, but who also believe that everyone is always trying to shirk this responsibility. They force you to justify yourself in their language all over again, to reframe your life on their terms, and you are confronted by just how far short of their ideal (and previously your own ideal) you fall. You may well have learned to eat softer food in smaller pieces because cutting up your food hurts your wrists and chewing hurts your jaw, and this is adaptation. They treat you as if you are lying and, in doing so, force you to explain in great detail how you can no longer eat or chew like a ‘normal’ person.

The problem with all of this is that the world is still set up only for non-disabled people. So while we may find myriad ways to adapt and live full, happy lives, it costs money and time and energy to access the rest of the world which is not adapted. Some aspects of what is believed to be a ‘normal life’ are not available to us even with this adaptation, but that is true of everyone, I think. The social security system with regards to disability support is supposed to help us access society where we can, and provide the assistance we need where we cannot. It is meant to level the playing field between us and able-bodied people, and support our new ways of living. Instead, it grinds your face into the fact that the world does not want you and so you are worthless to the world. If you cannot fit their idea of what value is, you are morally bereft, lying, or useless.

The other point to make is this: I went through the WCA in one of its very earliest formats, before it had really developed its sharp teeth, and it still made me suicidal. I was lucky enough to have all the support I needed from friends and family to get through it, including people to go to the meetings with me, to hold me in the waiting room as I sobbed hysterically after my tribunal, to get angry along with me when the huge pile of medical evidence was ignored in favour of an uneducated, compassionless, narrow view of disability. This was under Blair’s government, and before any of the devastating changes were made to eligibility criteria. I still had everything denied (with letters from my GP, Rheumatology consultant, psychiatrist, psychologist, carer and osteopath) and, though I technically won my appeal it wasn’t at the level I should have received and one of the people in the tribunal, even with the addition of the DWP’s own doctor’s multi-page report about the severity of my condition, still thought I was just outright lying.

I have benefitted, strangely, from the farce that the WCA has become. For the last five years, I have not had to go through the process because the staff at the DWP have been so consumed by all the appeals after the denial of new claims (most of which result in the decisions being overturned) that they made a nationwide decision to largely just rubber-stamp ongoing claim renewals in which the condition had not significantly changed. I fall into that category, so I have been free from the WCA itself, though not from the initial part of the process, which is also awful (and which I’m currently writing a longer, in depth article about entitled, ‘Let Me Tell You About The Brown Envelope’).

That will change this year, of course. DLA, which I rely on to exist, is being dismantled and replaced with a benefit which can only be described as utterly unfit for purpose. I think I am going to lose pretty much everything, which will also mean losing my blue badge, my bus pass, my access to education, and so my social life, my ability to get out of my home, and the health benefits of being able to go outside often. I am numb with fear about it, so I try not to think about it. There’s nothing I can do, other than speak to journalists and politicians and activists and keep on fighting for the right of disabled people to determine their own worth, their own place in the system, and their access to society.