Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, Adolf Hitler began a program that involved the selection of a particular group of people for extermination. They were people he considered undesirable and dangerous. First, they were transported to special facilities. Upon arrival, they were told to undress and then led into a room designed to look like showers. Once they were all inside, the doors were sealed and carbon monoxide gas was released into the chamber until all were dead. Afterward, the bodies were removed and burned.
What I’ve just described was not the Holocaust. The population targeted for extermination in this case was not German Jews. Instead, the targets for this program were German Christians —those with various physical and mental conditions that designated them, in the regime’s terminology, “life unworthy of life.”
As a historian of modern Germany, I felt compelled to write about this after seeing Donald Trump tell a crowd of Paralympic athletes visiting the White House on April 27 that it was “tough” to watch “too much” of the Paralympic games. Of course, this was not the first expression of Trump’s disdain for the disabled. At a campaign rally in November 2015, he mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski in disgustingly crude fashion.
In writing this, however, I do not mean to imply that the President’s horrible comments will lead to gas chambers in our immediate future. The danger at present is exclusion—the marginalization and potential removal of various groups of people beyond the boundaries of Trump’s national community. What happens after that we can’t foresee. That’s why it’s critical to pay attention now, to be alert to any efforts to de-value, to denigrate any group, because any group is a potential target.
Most people associate Donald Trump’s bigotry with groups such as Mexicans, African Americans, women, Muslims, and Jews, to name a few—and with good reason. But his disdain for the handicapped should also receive serious attention.
Those who see important parallels between Donald Trump’s America and Germany under Adolf Hitler (a comparison that is unfortunately not nearly as far-fetched as it once might have seemed) may not know about the tragic fate that befell tens of thousands of disabled people during the Third Reich. And if that’s the case, they would not know about the role it played in the evolution of Hitler’s murderous policies toward Jews and others he considered outside his desired national community.
The ideas that inspired Hitler’s policies toward the disabled were by no means new. During the late nineteenth century, ideas emerged to challenge the Enlightenment belief in equality. In addition to a new belief in the superiority and inferiority of races, there also developed concerns over more and less “valuable” members of individual races or nations. Those with various conditions that placed them beyond the boundaries of the “healthy” members of the community were felt to be holding the nation back, consuming resources that should go to those who could best put them to use.
Eugenics—the “science” of improving the race through selective breeding—appeared to provide the solution for those concerned about the danger of “useless eaters.” Advocates in Great Britain and the United States initially developed it to its furthest extent. In fact, some thirty-one states at one point had compulsory sterilization laws on the books. But Germany, too, had its proponents, and they were active well before Hitler came to power. Rather than being the inspiration for eugenics in Nazi Germany, the Führer served as the enabler.
Only months after coming to power, in fact, Hitler issued the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring.” As a result, the authorities put together an entire bureaucracy to implement the program—a bureaucracy that involved most branches of the country’s health care system. By January 1934, when the program officially began, the hereditary health courts that were to decide the fate of the disabled were swamped with the names of hundreds of thousands of potential candidates for sterilization. Over the next five years the regime forcibly sterilized nearly 300,000 people. With the coming of war in 1939, prevention turned to elimination as Hitler authorized the killing program known as T-4, described above. By August 1941, they had murdered around 70,000 adults along with some 5,000 children.
By that point, as Hitler was making the decisions that would culminate in the Final Solution, those people from the T-4 program—people with expertise in the process of mass murder and a palpable self-interest in finding new categories of people to kill—would find themselves in demand as the regime sought methods and technologies to kill the millions of European Jews now targeted for elimination. What started with the disabled was thus be re-directed at a new group of people Hitler considered undesirable and dangerous. Had he won the war, others would undoubtedly have followed.
Donald Trump’s disdain for handicapped Americans has not remained solely at the level of rhetoric. His administration has adopted policies that appear to be nothing short of a concerted attack on the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In October 2017, to give but one example, the Department of Education withdrew 72 documents that set out the rights of disabled students.
The heartlessness behind such prejudice can perhaps best be seen in the direct impact it’s already had on some of the most vulnerable individuals. In October 2017, for example, an undocumented 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who had just come out of surgery found herself in the custody of federal immigration officials. In another case, a six-year-old paraplegic boy faced the prospect of losing his only caregiver because immigration officials targeted the man for deportation.
Disabilities, of course, do not limit themselves to one ethnic, racial, or religious group. That’s one of the reasons that Germans spoke out against the euthanasia program as knowledge of its existence spread. As all those “real Germans” came to realize, it’s one thing when the government targets “those people.” It’s something else entirely when it turns to you and those in your group. And one of the most important things German history teaches us is that no group is safe once the state begins selecting and eliminating people.
Donald Trump knows what his national community looks like. He knows who’s in and who’s out. And we know that too because he makes it very clear with each insult, with each mocking gesture, and more ominously still, with each new policy, with each new regulation, and with each new law. Whether it goes further—from discrimination to removal—is up to all those armed with the knowledge of history and the sense of fellow feeling to understand that ultimately we’re all part of one single group.
Richard E. Frankel is an Associate Professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.