A Brief History of the First Nazi Gas Chambers
In Brandenburg an der Havel State Welfare Institute a crude experiment using poison gas to murder people took place in January 1940.
The experiment came about after Viktor Brack, a department head in the KdF (Chancellery of the Führer), commandeered the services of Dr. Albert Widmann, the head of the chemical section of the KTI (Criminal Technical Institute). Brack had been given permission by his immediate superior, head of the KdF, Philipp Bouhler, to look for a method of killing institutionalised psychiatric patients after they had received orders from Hitler to expand the children’s ‘euthanasia’ program to adults in August 1939. Eventually, they were able to obtain a written order for the killings in October 1939, which was backdated to September 1, 1939, to coincide with the invasion of Poland and the beginning of war:
Berlin, 1 Sept. 1939 Reichleiter Bouhler and Dr. med. Brandt are charged with the responsibility to extend the authorization of certain physicians designated by name in order that patients who must be considered incurable on the basis of human judgement may be granted the mercy death after a critical evaluation of their illness.
Eventually Widmann decided upon carbon monoxide gas, rather than other substances such as morphine, scopolamine, or prussic acid. He also initially suggested pumping it into hospital wards, but then this idea transformed into specialised gas chambers at psychiatric institutions. In a report on the gassing (given after the war), one witness whom was present at the first gassing, Dr August Becker, stated:
“For this first gassing about 18–20 people were led into this ‘shower room’ by the nursing staff. These men had to undress in an anteroom until they were completely naked. The doors were shut behind them. These people went quietly into the room and showed no signs of being upset. Dr Widmann operated the gas. I could see through the peephole that after about a minute the people had collapsed and lay on the benches. …. Following this successful test, Brack – who was naturally also present and whom I forgot to mention – said a few words. He expressed satisfaction with the test and emphasised once again that this action must only be carried out by doctors according to the motto – ‘syringes are a matter for doctors’. Finally, Dr Brandt spoke and reiterated that doctors alone should carry out this gassing. With that, the start in Brandenburg was considered a success and the thing continued under Dr Eberl.”[i]
In the aftermath of this first apparently successful test gassing, Bouhler and Brack set about registering and selecting adult patients for murder in psychiatric institutions. Although only four were ever simultaneously operational, six ‘euthanasia’ institutions with gassing facilities existed until, in the face of public opposition, Hitler issued a stop order in summer 1941. All of these institutions operated in the German Reich, all but one in Germany:
- Brandenburg, on the Havel River near Berlin,
- Grafeneck, in southwestern Germany,
- Bernburg, in Saxony,
- Sonnenstein, also in Saxony,
- Hartheim, near Linz on the Danube in Austria,
- Hadamar in Hessen.
These ‘euthanasia’ centres claimed the lives of around 70,000 institutionalised psychiatric patients in the gas chambers. After the war, this murder program became known as Aktion T4, due to the administrative locus of the operation being set up by the Chancellery department at Tiergartenstraße 4, in Tiergarten district, central Berlin. Following Hitler’s stop order in 1941, ‘euthanasia’ continued by various methods, such as starvation and luminal poisoning in a more decentralised manner, referred to as ‘wild-euthanasia’ or alternatively as Aktion Brandt.
The chosen method of killing with gas reflected one of the more popular ways to commit suicide: “In addition, this method was generally known because the police were familiar with cases of suicide or accidental death through the inhalation of gas; for example, in Berlin such a case had been investigated in depth just before euthanasia gassing commenced.”[i] Using poisonous gas was the preferred method of murder for pragmatic reasons. It did not require face-to-face interaction during the moment of death, nor was it bloody, and was thus less traumatic for the perpetrators. The gas chambers could be disguised as shower rooms, meaning that victims were generally unaware; it is then understandable why a similar method was later used to murder the Jewish population of Europe in the East. Nonetheless, this must still have been an unimaginably horrific and excruciating process for the victims, and this method was not necessarily a clean and efficient or a medical process:
“Did I ever watch a gassing? Dear God, unfortunately, yes. And it was all due to my curiosity. … Downstairs on the left was a short pathway, and there I looked through the window. … In the chamber there were patients, naked people, some semi-collapsed, others with their mouths terribly wide open, their chests heaving. I saw that, I have never seen reserved. anything more gruesome. I turned away, went up the steps, upstairs was a toilet. I vomited everything I had eaten. This pursued me days on end. … Looking into the chamber, I could not imagine that this was completely without pain. Of course, I am a layman and this is just my opinion. A few were lying on the ground. The spines of all the naked people protruded. Some sat on the bench with their mouth wide open, their eyes wide open, and breathing with difficulty.”[i]
It is also surprising that the first Jewish people to be gassed by the Nazis were actually killed primarily because they were considered disabled, rather than Jewish: “The first transport of handicapped patients left Eglfing-Haar on 18 January 1940 for Grafeneck, where the twenty-five men in that transport were killed. Ludwig ‘Israel’ Alexander was the first person and the only Jew listed on the Eglfing-Haar transport list.”[i] As historians we know that the inclusion of the middle-name “Israel” was forced on all male Jews after January 1939, thus Alexander was considered Jewish under the Nuremberg racial laws. He was probably the first handicapped Jewish patient murdered in the gas chamber of one of the euthanasia killing centres.
Although there is a growing body of excellent scholarship on the murder of people in psychiatric institutions, it has been under-researched for many years. Despite the obvious and important links to the Holocaust, the murder of those deemed disabled should not be seen as merely a prelude to the murder of the Jews of Europe. Instead, it has its own distinct contemporary relevance. As Sigrid Falkenstein–relative of a victim Anna Lehnkering–points out: ““alarm bells should start ringing when – as recently – eugenic theories about socioeconomically valuable and less valuable life start to circulate.”[ii]
Jonny Hudson – 7.12.21
Jonny Hudson is a teacher of History and English, has lived and worked in five different countries, and has experience teaching the Holocaust in England and Japan. He has organised and led survivor talks and international trips to Holocaust sites in Germany and Poland. After receiving his master’s in Holocaust education in 2019, he began a PhD in Holocaust Studies, with his main research interest being Holocaust perpetrators. Jonny has been a volunteer at HELC since October 2021.
Bryant, Michael S. Confronting the “Good Death” Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005.
Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Weindling, Paul. From Clinic to Concentration Camp: Reassessing Nazi Medical and Racial Research, 1933-1945. Routledge, Taylor et Francis Group, 2021.
[i] From the Trial of Hans Joachim Becker 1970, p723 Cited in Susan Benedict and Linda Shields, Nurses and Midwives in Nazi Germany: The “Euthanasia Programs” (New York: Routledge, 2014).p84
[i] Cited in Lisa Pine, Hitler’s ‘National Community’: Society and Culture in Nazi Germany (London: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017).p182-183
[i] Henry Friedlander, The Origins Of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1997).p86
[i] From the testimony of testimony Maximilian Friedrich Lindner 1947, p9 Cited in Henry Friedlander, The Origins Of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1997). p97
[i] Henry Friedlander, The Origins Of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1997).p271
[ii] Cited in F. Schneider, Psychiatry under National Socialism (Berlin: Springer, 2011).p56