Before the Nazi movement, a German scientist named Wilhelm Shallmayer was attempting to get Germany back on track with eugenics. Shallmayer believed that Germany’s fittest citizens (namely the middle class) needed to reproduce more, and its unfit citizens (criminals, the mentally ill, and alcoholics) needed limits on reproduction (Weiss, 1987). Many proponents on the eugenics movement argued that helping, allowing the disabled to reproduce, and keeping alive disabled individuals cost too much money for Germany. They believed that the disabled were becoming a burden, and shrinking the “healthy population”.
Adolf Hitler was a major advocate for limiting the reproduction of disabled individuals. The idea of eugenics soon turned into reality (in the form of sterilization) once Hitler gained nearly absolute power in March of 1933 when the current President of Germany signed the Enabling Act, which legally gave Hitler the power to apply his extremist ideas. The Enabling Act, was also known as the”Law Concerning the Solving of the Emergency of the People and the Reich”. Here is a summary of the law:
“The Reichstag has issued the following decree, which is hereby announced with the agreement of the Reich Council, after having ensured that the necessary legal constitutional amendments have been made:
Article 1 – Laws of the Reich can be passed by the government, in addition to the procedure laid down in the constitution of the Reich. This also applies to laws covered by Articles 85, para. 2, and 87 of the Reich constitution.
Article 2 – The laws passed by the Reich government do not have to adhere to the constitution provided that the institutions of the Reichstag and Reichsrat have no objection. The rights of the President of the Reich remain unaffected.
Article 3 – The laws passed by the government of the Reich will be drafted by the Chancellor and announced in the Law Gazette. They will apply, provided that no other provision is made, from the day following their publication. Articles 68-77 of the constitution do not apply to the laws passed by the government of the Reich.
Article 4 – Treaties agreed by the Reich with foreign states, which concern the constitutional affairs of the Reich, do not require the consent of the legislative institutions. The government of the Reich will issue the necessary instructions for the implementation of these treaties.
Article 5 – This law applies from the day of its publication. It will expire on 1 April 1937; it will also be annulled if the present government of the Reich is replaced by another” (Weikart, 2009).
Most of Hitler’s power (he was Chancellor at the time) came from Articles 2 & 3. In that same year, the Expert Committee on Questions of Population and Racial Policy was formed to scientifically back up the plans of Hitler’s new political party. The members of this committee included Alfred Ploetz, Ernst Ruden (a psychiatrist), and Fritz Lenz (Proctor, 1988). Each of these men were influential scientists and major proponents of racial hygiene. Ernst Ruden in particular had the goal of applying Mendel’s law of genetics and the eugenic principles to psychiatry (Lifton, 1986). One of the results of this committee was “Law for the Protection of Hereditary Health: The Attempt to Improve the German Aryan Breed” enacted in July. This law stated that:
Anyone suffering from a hereditary disease can be sterilized by a surgical operation if, according to the experience of medical science, there is a high probability that his offspring will suffer from serious physical or mental defects of a hereditary nature. Anyone suffering from any of the following diseases is considered hereditarily diseased under this law: 1. Congenital mental deficiency, 2. Schizophrenia, 3. Manic-depression, 4. Hereditary epilepsy, 5. Hereditary St. Vitus’ Dance (Huntington’s Chorea), 6. Hereditary blindness, 7. Hereditary deafness, 8. Serious hereditary physical deformity (Horvitz & Catherwood, p. 541, 2006).
Initially, any person who fit under these classifications was usually ordered a vasectomy (for men) or tubal ligation (for women). Just over a year after this law was passed, the first amendment was made which allowed for abortions if either parent could pass down undesirable traits. Friedlander (1995) states that this amendment allowed for sterilization and abortion to take place simultaneously. One year later, in 1936, a second amendment was added allowing for castration, and women to be sterilized by means of X-rays (Friedlander, 1995).
In 1934, the breakdown of sterilizations performed were 52.9% for congenital feeble-mindedness, 25.4% for schizophrenia, 14% for hereditary epilepsy, 3.2% for manic-depressive psychosis, and the remaining 4.5% for severe alcoholism, hereditary deafness, hereditary blindness, severe malformations, and Huntington’s chorea (Friedlander, 1995). Just over 75% of these sterilizations were performed on the mentally ill alone. Between 1934 and 1936, over 400 men and women died as a result of sterilization surgeries, and by the fall of the Nazi regime, over 400,000 individuals had been sterilized (Friedlander, 1995).
As if sterilization was not enough, another law was passed in 1935 called “The Law for the Protection of the Hereditary Health of the German Nation”. This law was almost purely targeting the mentally ill, making it illegal for any one who was classified under the Sterilization law, suffered from a mental derangement, was under legal guardianship, or had a contagious illness to get married. If a couple desired to be married, they first had to obtain a Marriage Fitness Certificate. (Friedlander, 1995)
Unfortunately, sterilization and marriage restrictions were not enough for the Nazi regime, and euthanasia was the next step in racial hygiene.
For further research on sterilization:
United State Holocaust Memorial Museum