In 1939, as Germany prepared for war, Hitler asked a group of physicians to prepare for the murder of disabled children. Known as the "Reich Committee for the Scientific Treatment of Severe Hereditary and Congenital Diseases," members were told to keep the group's mission secret. Two weeks before the invasion of Poland in September 1939, they asked physicians and midwives to complete a questionnaire for every child "to clarify certain scientific questions." Click here
for a translation of the questionnaire.
The responses to the questionnaire determined the fate of each child. The child's physician was not consulted and parents were told only that the youngster was being placed in a special hospital to "improve treatment." There, death came quickly. The program was later expanded to include older children, teenagers, and adults.
Although the program was kept secret, many Germans were aware of the killings. They were virtually impossible to hide. After investigating the "euthanasia program" at Hartheim Castle in Mauthausen, a small town 90 miles from Vienna, Austria, historian Gordon I. Horwitz writes, "It was not just the smoke and stench that drew the attention of bystanders. At times human remains littered parts of the vicinity." As evidence of mass murders mounted, Christian Wirth, the director of the operation, told local residents that his men were burning shoes and other "belongings." He insisted that "a machine that turned old oil and oil by-products into a clear, oily fluid" was responsible for the odor.2
Residents later told Horwitz that Wirth ended the meeting by threatening to send anyone who spread rumors of "burning persons" to a concentration camp. The townspeople took him at his word.
At first mobile gas vans carried out some of the killings. They were replaced in June 1940 by "showers" that sprayed gas. Between 1939 and 1941 at least 70,000 persons were killed. A number of experts place the figure higher, claiming that over 250,000 were murdered. The technology developed for Hitler's euthanasia program was later used on Jews and other "racial enemies" at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps as part of the Holocaust. These actions were also kept secret.