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.

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

  1. Thank you for this engaged and outraged article. I live in Germany, where the times of the Nazis are well known and remembered, and it’s fair to say that in Germany the debate about what health care can afford does take the crimes and negligence that led to the murder of uncounted human beings into consideration. The more surprised I am over the, to me at least, cynical and hostile politic against humans in need of care. The habit of putting a price tag to everything ist deeply disturbing in a modern free society.
    Thank you again for making it clear that we are talking about decency, care, responsibility, and human beings – not money.

    1. Thanks for your interesting comment. I’m glad to know that the risk to the soul of a society is still being balanced against the need for frugality in some places. It isn’t that we don’t understand that money isn’t infinite – it’s that the way we’re choosing to apportion it at the moment clearly draws a line between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, and that line is continually shifting to take more and more people into the ‘undeserving’ camp. It isn’t just about the lives of the people at risk, although that should obviously be the primary concern; it’s also about the ability of a society to look at itself in the mirror and not see monsters looking back.

  2. I totally agree with you, and with Sioux Blair-Jordan. I’ve been saying it for years – the Tories are more than happy that disabled people are killing themselves over their “reforms” because it saves them the price of the gas.
    I knew about some of what you’ve written here, but I didn’t know how it started or that it was called T4 – and I definitely didn’t realise it started with the youngest. But I certainly knew that the disabled were targets; I remember watching a film about it when I was fairly young – the “shower blocks” etc. – and being completely horrified then. Still am.

    I hoped that more people would understand this before the last GE – but they didn’t, because it didn’t affect them directly – a common “othering” situation. I could hope that they never find out what it’s like to be disabled in modern Selfservative Britain – and I should hope that. But some of them will – and God help them then, because sure as hell the Tories won’t.

    1. Exactly, i second that and clearly who ever controls the Tory Party had an action plan to cause as many vulnerable people who suffer from mental health problems to either starve to death, freeze to death or commit suicide by cutting the funding for the Mental Health Services thus causing so many traggic deaths. Now they are refusing to release the details of the number of deaths. What a bunch of cold blooded heartless Tory Toffs who obviousy just want to save on the friggen GAS!

  3. Important information, not widely known although I am well aware of it. Apart from the sick and disabled, millions of Polish non-Jewish victims are usuallly glossed over. And in mentioning the first atrocities being carried out in Poland (I’m not sure about the accuracy of this as the Germans started murdering mentally ill and disabled people in Germany before the war) you should have made it clear that Poland was occupied by the Germans at the time and had no influence on the atrocities being carried out by them.

    1. You’re absolutely right about the occupation, I’m sorry I didn’t make that clear. It’s hard to remember sometimes what is generally known and what isn’t.

      With regard to the killings, I’ve talked about the various deaths in Germany, though I missed out the decade of forced sterilisations for expediency. The first *mass* killings of adults were in Poland, by which I mean the murder of many people at once, rather than one at a time as had been happening in Germany up until this point. While many had died, it had not been ‘mass killing’, which is a specific term.

    2. I have suffered bullying (offline and online) for decades because I dared to talk about my Granddad, who escaped from Auschwitz. He was Polish, and lost his entire family – parents, siblings, cousins, wife, baby, everyone. Most of his neighbours were murdered too.

      I’ve been labeled a liar and an attention seeker (thanks history teacher who beloved the myth of the six million!), been doxxed, harassed and bullied for saying one thing, that Jewish people weren’t the only victims. I’ve been labeled an anti-semite, which is not a label you can shake.

      It doesn’t help that ‘6 million’ is the accepted number of victims, thanks to the BBC’s lazy reporting. I complained about a BBC News online article this year, which listed the toll of Hitler’s evils as “six million Jewish people”. I asked them why they hadn’t mentioned PWD, LGBTQ people, Poles, Slavs, Russians, Roma, feminists, anti-war activists, etc. They refused to correct their article.

      A particularly vicious Jewish woman (a two year convert, not by birth) told me that I had no right to even mention my Granddad because her people were victims, and the other 40 million+ victims of the Reich were “collateral damage”.

      I’ve also been trying to tell people about Aktion T4 since the ConDems took over, and was repeatedly ‘Godwinned’, abused, called paranoid and a ” holocaust denier” (I still don’t quite understand that one!). People refuse to believe that the Nazi regime actually started the gassing with PWD. People don’t believe how bad things are here and now, so it’s impossible to get them to consider the Thirties and Forties. It doesn’t help that mainstream media doesn’t cover disability related protests, or the appalling events that have unfolded since 2010. Campaign orgs like 38 Degrees will fight tooth and nail to save books, trees and buildings, but consistently refused to take up the banner for sick and dying victims of T4 mkII.

      thanks for speaking out.

  4. I won’t lie. I did know about the kiling of disabled people as part of the Holocaust so that’s no surprise, what does surprise me is how willing we are to sweep it under the carpet. This seriously scares me because it doesn’t seem that we can change anything – despite voting against Cameron in the last election he still got in. Nothing touches him.

  5. A well written and interesting take on a speech that was not only correct in it’s tone, but also in the end results if the govt has it’s way. The mock outrage that followed was inevitable, but it’s noticeable that so many people accepted and mirrored that ‘outrage’. Propaganda works.

    A couple of things though. T4’s ‘euthanasia’ campaign was officially halted by Hitler on August 24th 1941. This was the direct result of the incredibly brave, if foolhardy, given the NAZI’s probable reaction, of Archbishop Galens sermon in Munster during which he exposed the NAZI’s ‘euthanasia’ programme. Copies of the sermon were widely spread, although in many cases it only confirmed the worst fears of the families and friends of those murdered by T4. The NAZI’s were furious, but despite Tiessler recommending he be hung, Goebbels rejected this as too dangerous given the large number of Catholics in Southern Germany. However, in the occupied territories and Concentration camps the disabled were still put to death, usually by injection, but in smaller numbers than before. In total the NAZI’s estimated that the (initial) campaign had resulted in 70,000 ‘disinfected’ persons.

    As for Poland, the initial thought was that Poland would become part of the greater Reich ‘as is’. Himmler and Heydrich did not see it that way. Once the SD were involved, Poland became the first mass experiment in ‘ethnic cleansing’. Leading Poles (national and local) were rounded up and executed. Any authority figure was done away with to remove any kind of figurehead to the Poles. Poles were forbidden to speak German, to ‘associate’ with Germans (in a relationship) on pain of death, had their education system downgraded to a level ‘suitable’ for ‘lesser races’, their entertainment was dumbed down to a level that was, frankly, depraved, and their food rations were limited by the SD to the point where only Death Camp and Concentration camp inmates received less. Added to that, Poles were re-settled to make way for German migrants from the East, and moved into the ‘General Government’. The NAZI’s had succeeded in brutalizing an entire nation.

    The Jews were indeed not the ‘only’ victims of the ‘Final Solution’. Although only Jews (as the biggest ‘problem’) were discussed at Wansee, Gypsies, Homosexuals, ‘social delinquents’ (tramps, Socialist, Communists), Slavs and in the end leading Catholics, were also put to death by the SD. The numbers may not have been as large but at least a million of those groups were murdered between 1941-44.

    What’s tragic, is the hysterical reaction of senior Jews (not unlike their sadly, deluded and self serving reaction during the Holocaust) to any comparison of their favourite Political party with the one that has long inspired it, only helps the persecution of others.

    Finally, as if the above is not bad enough, the Einsatzgruppen are estimated to have killed 750,000 Jews between June 1941 – April 1942. This is less than the million quoted above, but still a shocking amount. During the second ‘sweep’ between 1942-43 they added a further 1.5 million, taking the total up to 2.2 million. It should be understood though, that these figures are not as accurate as Eichmanns figures for the Death camps, as the Einsatzgruppen were mobile units, not in a fixed location. One word of caution though, the estimates should be up not down, according to witnesses. To manage these numbers, it should also be noted that large numbers of Estonians, Lithunanians, Latvians and Ukranians were involved in the massacres. There is a hefty amount of photographic, and even cine film evidence of the shootings and locals would also turn up to ‘enjoy the show’.

    Propaganda is effective as a weapon, but it is no substitute for age old hatred. All the current govt is doing is tapping into peoples ‘ugly’ side, just as the NAZIs tapped in the ugly side of ordinary Germans. Hate for the Jews in Germany did NOT come about because of alleged slights at Versailles (compare Versailles to the (critical) treaty the Germans imposed on France in 1871) but due to the influx of Eastern Jews coming into Germany in the late 19th Century fleeing Alexander III’s pogroms. The NAZI’s simply turned a festering resentment and old hatred into something far more deadly.

    Which is what the Conservatives are doing to the Disabled, Unemployed, Immigrants, and now the Working poor.

    Evil has been awoken.

  6. The recent talk on “assisted dying” leaves me cold. Those that are supporting it should be careful what they wish for.

    1. My feelings on assisted suicide are pretty complicated – it’s one of the big sources of tension in the disability community. I’ve always been absolutely on board with it – I see the right to decide not to end your own life as a right – but the last few years have introduced an awful lot of caution into that.

      In the campaigns for assisted suicide, there has very rarely been anyone who suggests it should be an unrestricted, unmonitored decision. We mostly said that it should be something you have to apply for, and that there should be a series of psychological checks done to ensure it isn’t being coerced or done out of guilt at ‘being a burden’, and that the major part of that process should be checking to see if there is anything that can be done to offer an alternative with regard to support, company, access, etc.

      These days, though, my support has become much more muted because I cannot see that particular system of support being in place when we don’t have anything close to it available for the people who desperately want to live. ‘Coercion’ has stopped being a concern so much about the family wanting an inheritance and more about the state systematically removing everything that made a person’s life enjoyable or meaningful while making them more insecure, so that ‘I just can’t cope with living like this anymore’ is no longer anything to do with a condition and much more to do with the restrictions the world and the state have created.

      If we lived in a supportive, decent society, then my backing for the right to die would return wholeheartedly, but we don’t. Right now, it seems it would just save them the time spent resisting tribunals and humiliating people until they give up.

  7. I agree with the earlier comment that the tone of this article was exactly right. And it has continued in the maturity of the comments that followed it. You have all raised my consciousness and for that I thank you: I shall be investigating this further and hope I can follow your example in raising others awareness.

  8. I’m not sure if this posted above (as a response to the gentleman who spoke off all the Polish deaths) so I’ll C&P it here.

    I have suffered bullying (offline and online) for decades because I dared to talk about my Granddad, who escaped from Auschwitz. He was Polish, and lost his entire family – parents, siblings, cousins, wife, baby, everyone. Most of his neighbours were murdered too.

    I’ve been labeled a liar and an attention seeker (thanks history teacher who beloved the myth of the six million!), been doxxed, harassed and bullied for saying one thing, that Jewish people weren’t the only victims. I’ve been labeled an anti-semite, which is not a label you can shake.

    It doesn’t help that ‘6 million’ is the accepted number of victims, thanks to the BBC’s lazy reporting. I complained about a BBC News online article this year, which listed the toll of Hitler’s evils as “six million Jewish people”. I asked them why they hadn’t mentioned PWD, LGBTQ people, Poles, Slavs, Russians, Roma, feminists, anti-war activists, etc. They refused to correct their article.

    A particularly vicious Jewish woman (a two year convert, not by birth) told me that I had no right to even mention my Granddad because her people were victims, and the other 40 million+ victims of the Reich were “collateral damage”.

    I’ve also been trying to tell people about Aktion T4 since the ConDems took over, and was repeatedly ‘Godwinned’, abused, called paranoid and a ” holocaust denier” (I still don’t quite understand that one!). People refuse to believe that the Nazi regime actually started the gassing with PWD. People don’t believe how bad things are here and now, so it’s impossible to get them to consider the Thirties and Forties. It doesn’t help that mainstream media doesn’t cover disability related protests, or the appalling events that have unfolded since 2010. Campaign orgs like 38 Degrees will fight tooth and nail to save books, trees and buildings, but consistently refused to take up the banner for sick and dying victims of T4 mkII.

    thanks for speaking out.

  9. I had heard of Aktion T4 before I read your blog post. It is briefly discussed in ‘The War of the World’, by Niall Ferguson. His account is much less detailed than yours, but what he says agrees with what you say.

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