The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution by Henry Friedlander

Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final                       Solution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.



Henry Friedlander has written a groundbreaking study of the Nazi genocide in his book The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Friedlander contests that the euthanasia program, which in essence was a methodical killing of handicapped people, “…preceded the systematic murder of Jews and Gypsies.” (p. xiii) In fact, Friedlander found that the Nazi regime murdered, without fail, only these three groups: the handicapped, Jews, and Gypsies. Three-quarters of this book are dedicated to the euthanasia program, T4, with the final quarter examining the ties that link that program with its end, the final solution.

Henry Friedlander, originally Heinz Egon Friedlander, was born in Berlin, Germany, 1930. He was a German-American Jewish historian of the Holocaust and a survivor of Auschwitz. He went on to obtain his BA in History at Temple University in 1953 and then his MA and Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1954 and 1968. Friedlander served as a professor in the department of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College, New York, from 1975 until his retirement in 2001. Friedlander died at the age 82.

Friedlander wrote the forward for Hermann Langbein’s book People in Auschwitz as well as several books himself, notably The German Revolution of 1918. He co-edited with his wife, Sybil Milton, Archives of the Holocaust: An International Collection of Selected Documents, and The Holocaust: Ideology, Bureaucracy, and Genocide. Friedlander has also written articles on the subject of Nazi genocide, “Registering the Handicapped in Nazi Germany: A Case Study,” and “Step by Step: the Expansion of Murder, 1939-1941.” For this book, The Origins of Nazi Genocide, Gerhard L. Weinberg, writing for the German Studies Review, wrote that “On the basis of extraordinary and successful digging in a vast array of archives…Friedlander has built both a case and an account which will be of enormous significance for decades to come.”

At the outset, Friedlander sets the stage, so to speak, by examining how the Nazis belief in man’s inequality produced the theories that some groups were inferior, degenerates, and even criminal. It took four years and four months for Nazi genocide to kill six million Jews, Gypsies, and the handicapped. However, the ideology of human inequality, Friedlander writes, was more than fifty years in the making. The author shares a very relevant quote from Robert Proctor, from his book Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis, where he says the German elite or members of the educated professional classes had “…advanced a theory of human hereditary that merged with the racist doctrine of ultra-nationalists to form a political ideology based on race.” (p. 1) It was only after the Nazis came to power in 1933 that they were able to take this ideology and put it into a political framework policy of exclusion.

In 1933 the sterilization law required sterilization for all persons suffering from mental or physical disorders. The regime was very concerned with hereditary degeneracy, and by 1935 they mandated required screenings, prior to marriage. Chief of the German Police in the Reich Ministry of Interior, SS Heinrich Himmler, issued regulations on Gypsies’ travel and trade and by 1937 the ministry authorized the police to incarcerate Gypsies for preventative measures.   (p. 25) Friedlander’s use of tables allows the reader to assess his data and information at a glance. Tables include ‘Sterilization Surgeries,’ ‘Deaths from Sterilization Surgery for Men and Women,’ and ‘Sterilizations Classified by Disease.’ All the tables are divided by year and the sources used are easily found below each.

Friedlander is able to show how the Nazi regime progresses from the beginning, or setting, of the genocide program that would eventually bloom, into the final solution. The divided chapters show a clear timeline beginning with the exclusion of the handicapped, to the killing of handicapped children. Friedlander said the killing of the children came first in the euthanasia killing program, and that they were considered particularly crucial because they represented the country’s posterity. The author writes that the “…elimination of those considered diseased and deformed was essential if the eugenic and racial purification program was to succeed.” (p. 61) The numbers are not completely accurate due to many records not surviving, but it is thought that at least 5,000 children were murdered during World War II. Referencing the transcript of the proceeding of Karl Brandt’s testimony, Brandt is one of the main men who carried out orders of mass murdering the handicapped, he stated that Hitler ordered the killing to stop in August 1941. According to Friedlander, this ended the first phase of the adult killings. (p. 83) The number of adult victims murdered in this first phase is calculated at 70,000.

Friedlander adds a chapter exclusively about ‘The Killing Centers.’ Medication had been used to kill the handicapped children but the same process could not be used on the adults since the numbers far exceeded that of children. Hitler supposedly wanted to know the most “humane way” to kill and Brandt suggested gas. It was then that the first killing center was built at Brandenburg. Friedlander describes in every detail, the construction process and the technology used to safely put gas into a sealed chamber without harming the physicians. A staggering 70,273 human beings were executed in the killing centers of Hartheim, Sonnenstein, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Brandenburg, and Bernburg. The author includes figures derived by certain statisticians, one of which calculated that by killing the 70,273 people, Germany saved a whopping 885,439,980 RM, and 13,492,440 kilograms of meat and wurst over a ten year period. (p. 110) Though Friedlander shows little to no emotion in this book, the statistics show the horrors clearly.

The second phase of adult euthanasia included Jews and Gypsies, with operations being moved East so that opposition from relatives would hinder them less. The killings of the handicapped continued in some hospitals after the war had ended and only stopped once the Allies were made aware. There were only a few handicapped survivors who were witnesses at war crimes trials, and unfortunately, Friedlander writes that “We have no memoirs from the survivors of the euthanasia program.” (p. 163)

The cold calculated killing ramped up on 22 June 1941, when the German Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union. Friedlander, in the last section of his work, discusses the final solution, continuing to link the early euthanasia program to the appalling slaughter of Jews. As soon as the Germans crossed onto Soviet soil, the mass executions began. They shot large numbers of civilians, the Jewish were the primary target, but Gypsies and the handicapped were murdered as well.

Friedlander believes that the questions that often surround Nazi genocide and its origin are answered by studying the chronology of Nazi killing operations, which he says provides the roadmap. (p. 284) His argument, and what he set out to prove in The Origins of Nazi Genocide, and with great success, is that, “The murder of the handicapped preceded the murder of Jews and Gypsies, and it is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that T4’s killing operation served as a model for the final solution.” (p. 284) The early success of T4’s euthanasia program gave the Nazi leadership the evidence they needed to realize that mass murder, was in fact, “technically feasible.” (p. 284)

Friedlander resists labeling the men and women, scientists, doctors, biologists, and psychologists, who played such an important role in the killings. They simply became the killers that the world recognizes as the monsters of the Third Reich’s medical and scientific community. One struggles to label what “neither ideology nor self-interest is a satisfactory explanation for such behavior.” (p. 245) Friedlander did establish that the killing operations between the Jews, Gypsies, and the handicapped were linked. He has proven that the linkage, is in fact, so closely woven, that one, nor the other, can be explained without discussing all three. As Friedlander takes the reader through Germany’s trials and errors, it is clear, that the Nazi regime was nothing, if not efficient and adaptable. The scope of their killing success would not have been as great had the different segments of the bureaucracy not been able to collaborate.

The author is meticulous and conscientious in his work. He leaves little room for fault finding in his effort. It should be noted that some pages, and even chapters, are laborious, and even tedious, to wade through. Friedlander, however, is always building with focus. The documentary evidence abounds throughout, and any student or historian of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust will appreciate Friedlander’s thoroughness. Auschwitz has come to symbolize genocide, but Friedlander is correct when he writes that Auschwitz was only the last, most perfect Nazi killing center. (p. 302) Beginning with the helpless, institutionalized handicapped patients, the killing spread to include the Jews and then the Gypsies, until Nazi genocide had taken the lives of six million men, women, and children by 1945. (p. 302)

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