Germany unveiled a World War II memorial this week. It is the first to commemorate those with medical problems who were deemed unworthy of life (Lebensunwertes Leben) and were exterminated by the Nazi regime. The memorial wall has been built at Tiergartenstraße 4 in Berlin, not only the site of the “Charitable Foundation for Cure and Institutional Care” but also the address that gave the German euthanasia program its name (Aktion T4).
In the field of medical ethics and in the general culture, there are some who like to throw around the word “Nazi” as an epithet for their opponents. However, there are real dangers in particular ideologies and philosophies, and the Nazi regime provides a number of excellent case studies, particularly concerning medical ethics. Most importantly, the German Lebensunwertes Leben policy (“life unworthy of life”) gives us insight into the power of ideas and how they affect a more technical enterprise like medicine.
We, in America, are familiar with the pressure to measure up, to be at the top, to be Number One. In some instances, people fear their failings more because of the disdain of others rather than the failure itself. Many on the Left counter the Rightist ideology of the Nazis with an appeal to diversity, stating that we should value even those things we find unfit or disabled. However, I think the Christian ideas on redemption do much more for the wounded person and the wounded soul. In fact, we all need this healing of the soul, even the excellent medical students and the successful CEOs. The horrors perpetrated by the German leadership in the 1930s and 40s might reveal that the malformations of the body are not nearly as significant as the malformations of the soul. Jesus was indeed the Great Physician, and the compassion of his healing ministry should serve as a model for our medical profession. However, Christ’s preeminent skill was in the redemption of the human heart, a healing that might do more for the well-being of American culture than any health care law. In fact, our King is a broken King whose very body is scarred even after Resurrection (John 20:27) and who is even called the Lamb of God (John 1:29; Rev. 21:23, 22:3), not primarily because of the lamb’s beauty but because He was led to the slaughter.
In the American context, I think we need to consider our own philosophical and ideological dispositions in more of an individualistic light. The large-scale ideological party plans of Europe have not been a part of the American experience per se because of our love of individualism. However, as individual men and women working in medicine or working in our churches, we need to consider which philosophies drive our behavior. While there may be a place for housing those retarded mentally (intellectual disability) in a group home or administering medication to children with behavioral problems in school, we must consider what it says about us as family members, fellow church members, and neighbors. Are we being the parents we are supposed to be to those children (see the “mercy killing” case of Gerhard Kretschmar in The Telegraph’s “Named: The Baby Boy Who Was Nazis’ First Euthanasia Victim”)? Are we taking care to be the church members or church leaders who advance good theology and not some false spirituality that suits our fancy but might cause harm to others? And that neighbor who makes too much noise or does too little with his yard—are we apt to call the police or are we interested in talking to him over coffee as a friend and a neighbor? This is where the rubber meets the road for the United States, and I pray we would consider the man or woman in the mirror and consider the disposition of our own hearts.
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” – Ezekiel 36:25-27
For Further Study
“Berlin Memorial Remembers Nazi Euthanasia Victims,” Deutsche Welle, September 2, 2014.
Eddy, Melissa, “Monument Seeks to End Silence on Killings of the Disabled by the Nazis,” New York Times, Sept.. 2, 2014.
Khazan, Olga, “Remembering the Nazis’ Disabled Victims,” The Atlantic, September 3, 2014.
Zoech, Irene, “Named: The Baby Boy Who Was Nazis’ First Euthanasia Victim,” The Telegraph (UK), October 12, 2003.
Schwarz, Alan, and Sarah Cohen, “A.D.H.D Seen in 11% of U.S. Children as Diagnoses Rise,” New York Times, March 31, 2013.
Adams, Stevens, “Killing Babies No Different from Abortion, Experts Say,” The Telegraph (UK), February 29, 2012.
Eppinette, Matthew, “Breeders? Featured on ABC News’ Nightline and PBS’ To the Contrary,” The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.
Lahl, Jennifer, “This Is Huxley’s Brave New World,” The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.