Nazi murderers of the mentally handicapped were treated much more leniently in postwar German courts than their counterparts who killed Jews during the Holocaust, according to a new study by a University of Florida doctoral student in history.
Because they were unable to testify, the mentally handicapped lacked organization and advocates to make their case and often were faceless victims secretly murdered in asylums originally meant to help them, said researcher Shane Stufflet.
In contrast, the Jews pulled together to elicit sympathy by demonstrating that their murdered contemporaries were fellow Germans, he maintained.
"If you murdered a Jew, you were much more likely to get a sentence and get a stiffer sentence than if you murdered the mentally handicapped," said Stufflet, whose study is the first to calculate the disparity. "The mentally handicapped were seen as a burden on society and so judges, and especially lay judges, did not consider their murders to be as great a crime."
More than half of the Nazis tried for crimes against the mentally handicapped 57 percent were acquitted, said Stufflet, who now teaches at Rollins College, the University of Central Florida and Lake Mary High School.
Of the 43% of defendants found guilty in cases involving mentally handicapped victims, only 1.6% received life sentences, none of which were served, he said. In contrast, only 24% of the Nazis tried for crimes against the Jews were acquitted, with about 11% receiving life sentences, said Stufflet, who did most of his research at the state archives in Munich and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
Patricia Heberer, historian at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, said Stufflet's research is important because these so-called "euthanasia crimes" are an under studied chapter of history. The medical profession shielded its own, often falsely certifying the perpetrators as physically unable to stand trial, Heberer said. "These physicians, nurses and bureaucrats who administered the 'euthanasia program' often did get away with murder," she said.
Because of their larger numbers and greater visibility in German society before the Holocaust, Jews were seen as more "human" victims and the postwar judiciary was quick to condemn their deaths, Stufflet claimed.
The same shift in attitudes that resulted in a smooth transition from "enemy" to "victim" for Jews did not occur with the mentally handicapped, he said. "One was more than twice as likely to be acquitted for murdering a mentally handicapped person and nearly seven times as likely to receive a life sentence for killing a Jew," he said.
In the 1950s and '60s, the German government denounced incidences of anti-Semitism, such as desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, but subtle prejudice against the mentally handicapped remains today, Stufflet said. Although laws have been passed to protect the rights of the mentally handicapped, they are not as fully integrated into public life as they are in the US, he said.
One reason for this disparity is that Germany didn't begin integrating the handicapped into public schools until the late 1970s, while the US started doing so nearly two decades earlier as part of the civil rights movement, he said. The first mentally handicapped victims of Nazi murder were children in asylums, around late 1939 or early 1940, about a year before those on Jews began, he said.
"Children were either starved or injected with Luminal or morphine and the killings were soon expanded to adults," he said. "When the Nazis realized they couldn't murder as many people as they wanted in that fashion, they started experimenting with gas." Basements in six asylums were modified to create gas chambers, with hookups added for diesel trucks to pump in carbon dioxide, he said.
Because the victims were hidden from view, many families were not suspicious when they received a death notice, Stufflet said. "The Nazis would send them a fake letter saying the family member had suddenly taken ill and been transported to another institution, and the next letter would state that the person had died," he said.
An estimated 70,000 to 75,000 mentally handicapped children and adults were killed in the gassing program, with about 200,000 more dying from starvation or injection, Stufflet said.
Unlike some Jews, who testified at various trials about the atrocities committed against them and won judges' sympathy, the mentally disabled were unable to make arguments in the witness stand because of their limitations, he said. "Judges did not hear firsthand the dramatic and oftentimes brutal stories of how victims were selected, transported, stripped naked and led into gas chambers," he said.