As the Nazis unleashed the horror and fury of the Holocaust across Europe, was there anyone they feared? Could it really be that in twentieth century Europe, no one was able to stop the murders?
During the Third Reich’s reign of terror, there was one instance where the Nazis had to actually stop killing people because of public backlash. Here is the story of the T4 program and how it was officially suspended.
It is well- known that the Nazis were obsessed with racial cleansing, which included the extermination of men, women and children with all sorts of physical and mental disabilities. This was a priority as Hitler ym”sh rose to power, but until the war broke out, it was difficult to implement. As medical facilities grew crowded due to the war, hospitals and institutions for the mentally ill were required to submit lists of patients with serious disabilities. SS men, wearing white coats to give a medical appearance, loaded these unfortunate souls onto buses and took them to “transition centers,” to avoid patients being traced by their families. They were then taken to different facilities throughout Germany where they were gassed to death.
The “doctors” who operated these centers spent much of their days producing death certificates listing false causes of death, such as “complications from pneumonia” or appendicitis. Thousands of families began receiving small urns filled with ashes—the only remainder of their children. Tiergarten 4 was a suburban Berlin address where such massacres took place, hence the name “T4” was given to this horrific practice.
Many of these patients had families who cared deeply for their welfare. After transfers, they were told they could not visit patients due to wartime conditions. This did not prevent suspicion, and indeed, such a huge operation involving hundreds of medical personnel proved impossible to keep under wraps for long. In the towns where killing centers were located, many people saw the loaded buses arrive, but no patient ever left. They saw the smoke rising from the crematoria and became certain of the murders. In the town of Hadamar, bits of human hair would rain from the sky.
In the face of such evidence, the Catholic Church could no longer remain silent. Thousands of patients were disappearing from hospitals and asylums, and their fate was public knowledge. While some clergy protested privately, it was not until July of 1941 that letters of protest were read in churches across Germany. Many citizens now began voicing their opposition, but the strongest pushback came when Catholic Bishop of Mьnster in Westphalia, Clemens August Graf von Galen, publicly denounced the T4 program in a sermon. He telegrammed his text to Hitler, calling on “the Fьhrer to defend the people against the Gestapo.” Galen wrote, “It is a terrible, unjust and catastrophic thing when man opposes his will to the will of G-d. We are talking about men and women, our compatriots, our brothers and sisters. Poor unproductive people if you wish, but does this mean that they have lost their right to live?”
This sermon was immediately circulated in the form of illegal leaflets, and the British Royal Air Force dropped copies among the German troops. Many Nazis called for Galen’s arrest, but Josef Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler warned that this would result in open revolt. The protests spread to Bavaria, and it was there that Hitler was jeered by an angry crowd—the only time he was opposed in public during his twelve-year rule.
On August 24, 1941, Hitler ordered the cessation of the T4 program, and issued strict instructions to avoid further confrontations with the Church. Most of the personnel were simply shifted to the Eastern Front to help implement the Final Solution, a much more important program. However, the killing of the disabled did not end; other methods, such as lethal injection and starvation, were used in smaller scale operations.
All told, more than 200,000 people with disabilities were murdered between 1941 and 1945. But let the story of the Catholic Church officially curbing T4 dispel any notion that the German citizens were innocent bystanders, completely helpless and irrelevant against a ruthless tyrant. Clergy could not stand by and watch as their “compatriots, brothers and sisters” were taken away. Yet most were silent from the very beginning—from the shattering of windows and livelihoods on Kristallnacht to the cries of children in cattle cars—they were silent to the Jews.