Lecture highlights pre-Holocaust movement

by Courtney Sinner

While reading Anne Frank and learning about the Holocaust are standard curriculum in American middle school history classes, a different wave of German killings that precluded the Nazi genocides is rarely heard of.

where to go

Deadly Medicine
What: Exhibit
When: Through May 4
Where: The Science Museum of Minnesota
For more information and to buy tickets go to, http://www.smm.org.

Mandatory euthanasia of mentally and physically disabled German citizens took place only a few years before the crimes at concentration camps.

Dr. Patricia Heberer, a historian with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, spoke at Moos Towers on Thursday to highlight the little-known practices.

The talk was part of a lecture series in conjunction with the current “Deadly Medicine” exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

The euthanasia practices were an extension of emerging eugenics studies, which tried to better the human race through examining genetics and heredity.

Early eugenicists believed everything was inherited and that they could learn to create a better society by eliminating certain traits, Heberer said.

“Not only your blonde hair, or black eyes or how tall you were, but that you could inherit social traits and diseases,” Heberer said. “And your heredity made up whether you were going to be a productive citizen or someone to be on welfare.”

Until the early 1900s, eugenics was an international movement. Many countries, including the United States, enacted sterilization policies for individuals who were not considered worthy to reproduce.

“Today, we would call it a pseudoscience,” Heberer said, “But many individuals felt, at the time, that it was actually cutting-edge science.”

The sterilization practices gained popularity in Germany, and were supported by public health officials, psychiatrists and doctors.

“They began not only to sterilize people like this, but to murder them,” Heberer said. “This was a mainly German-on-German crime. These aren’t Jews necessarily, or Poles necessarily. They are German victims.”

The technologies used to euthanize disabled people, like chemical gassing, drug overdosing and starvation, were used a few years later in concentration camps, Heberer said.

“It was the first program of mass murder,” she said. “It serves as a kind of staging ground, a kind of trial balloon for the more systematic killing that we see in the Holocaust.”

Jessica Zeglin, a public health grad student, attended the lecture and said the basis of eugenics can be applied today. She said it’s important to know about the history so it doesn’t repeat itself.

“Modern eugenics is based on genetics to make a better human,” Zeglin said. “We all want to be healthy, but where do we draw the line?”

At the lecture, audience members drew comparisons to the modern practice of prenatal genetic testing – where parents can know any genetic disorder before their child is even born.

“By looking at the history, it makes contemporary linkages,” Heberer said. “I think we can draw lessons from thinking about the history.”

Dana Feld, a nursing graduate student, also said it’s important to learn from the past.

“Especially for the children – for those who can’t help themselves,” Feld said, “It’s horrifying to listen to, every time.”

Kirk Allison, the program director for the lecture series, said the purpose of the Science Museum exhibit is to think about current debates in genetic testing.

“We think we’re the enlightened ones, but it can still happen,” Allison said. “Old mistakes can be made in new ways, and new mistakes can be made in old ways.”