Prosecution of perpetrators

The Prosecution of NS-"Euthanasia" Crimes in East and West Germany

In the NS time more than 200 000 sick, disabled and care-dependent persons died a violent death, which was organized and legitimized by the state.

Immediately after the end of the war the dimension of the murder of sick people came to light: on the one hand when allied troops inspected the institutions and found there, in addition to entirely enfeebled, underfed patients also dead bodies; on the other hand when relatives filed charges, in order to learn the truth about the actual circumstances of their relatives. Subsequently investigative proceedings were started in all of the four occupation zones.

Clarification was difficult for several reasons: Many of those accused of participation in the murder of patients, had been employed in several institutions. From 1942 on men were partly appointed also in the extermination camps Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka, so that penal responsibility comprehended several scenes of crime and several occupation zones and the jurisdiction and department of prosecution and each time the responsibility of another department of prosecution. Many suspects had moved to the western occupation zones, some had disappeared abroad. In numerous instances it had to be ascertained if the accused had not or not as yet returned home from war or had escaped a legal verdict by suicide.

Another factor which aggravated the investigative work of the departments of prosecution was the fact that part of the files, which charged the suspects had been annihilated partly by the effect of war and partly by deliberate destruction.

Prosecution by allied (military) lawcourts

The occupation authorities declared in the Control Council Law No. 10 German law-courts responsible for the prosecution of crimes committed by Germans on Germans or stateless persons – hence also for the complex of NS euthanasia crimes, yet two prosecutions were nevertheless tried in allied courts: Parallel to the main war crimes trial at Nuremberg, one of the first war crime trials took place at Wiesbaden in an American military court, the penal proceedings against members of the former killing institution in Hadamar, the so-called Hadamar Trial – because of the murder of foreign forced workers, male and female.

The second allied prosecution concerned with the NS murder of patients was the so-called Nuremberg Doctors‘Trial , which lasted from 9 December 1947 to 20 August 1948. In the center of this trial was the medical testing of men, whereas the murder of physically and mentally disabled played only a minor role: Only four of the twenty-three accused had to answer for participation in the murder of sick persons: Prof. Karl Brandt, Viktor Brack, Dr. Kurt Blome and Dr. Waldemar Hoven. With Brandt and Brack two of the highest representatives of NS euthanasia, who were still living, were brought to trial and condemned to death by hanging. The deputy leader of the Reich’s Doctors‘ Association, Blome, and the doctor in the KZ Buchenwald, Hoven, had, however, participated neither in the planning nor in the implementation of the killing and were acquitted of the charge of euthanasia.

Fotos of Karl Brandt and Viktor Brack
Karl Brandt (l.)
und Viktor Brack (r.)

Brandt: USHMM courtesy of Hedwig Wachenheimer Epstein Copyright
Brack: USHMM Photograph Nr 1173 Courtesy of Hedwig Wachenheimer Epstein

On the territoryof the (later) Federal Republic as well as on the territory of the (later) GDR prosecutions on account of euthanasia were initiated. To justify their action the accused always referred to the same circumstances, which had motivated them for their doing:

a) Acting by command: Many of the accused, above all members of the nursing staff, argued the deed had been assigned to them by superiors.
b) Exemption from punishment: Many accused had been assured that they would not be held liable for their deeds.
c) Emergency: The accused argued in many cases that in case of refusal they would have been sent to a concentration camp or had been threatened by death.
d) Replaceability of the doer: A number of accused tried to abdicate responsibility by the argument, „If not I, somebody else would have done it”
e) Lack of the consciousness of doing wrong/Mistake regarding prohibition: Above all representatives of the medical staff behaved as offenders by conviction: They argued that they had understood the killing of disabled as assisting suicide or that they had believed in the legality of their doing because of a law.

Most of the trials took place in the immediate post-war time, in the years 1945 – 1952 in the west as in the east.

In the first NS euthanasia trials 1946 – 1947/48 in the west zones the wrongdoers still received a quite far-reaching condemnation, in some cases life-long imprisonment was imposed; since 1947/48 the trials ended increasingly with shorter terms of imprisonment or respectively numerous acquittals. The reason for this is a change of the legal appreciation of the facts of the case: Murder was evaluated as man-slaughter, perpetration as abetment.

In the SBZ and GDR a total of 22 trials for murder of patients took place. 21 took place in the first years after the end of the war till 1952, the last one in 1964/65. In the context of the so-called Waldheim trials of 1950, which were to put an end to the prosecution of violent NS crimes, judgment was passed on six persons because of participation in NS euthanasia. After the end of the Waldheim “trials”, which were controlled and staged by the SED, thus being a „model case of the pseudo and despotic justice“ of the DDR, the number of condemnations fell drastically; the punishment for NS crimes was believed to be finished.

In the SBZ/DDR harder and longer terms of punishment in jail or prison were imposed. However, in the west as well as in the east amnesties were granted at the beginning and in the mid 1950es, so that even people who had been sentenced to long term of imprisonment (in the GDR) got out of prison again.

In both German states the endeavours for penal prosecution abated after 1952. Soon they stagnated, at last they came to a standstill. Only with foundation of the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes („Zentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen zur Aufklärung nationalsozialistischer Verbrechen“) in 1958 new investigation proceedings were started and trials held. Thanks to the work of the Ludwigsburg prosecutors still some of the main responsible persons for the murder of disabled patients could be brought to justice since1960/61– some first had to be identified respectively found. The late prosecutions in the west were however characterized by long investigations and proceedings, so that lapse of time prevented the condemnation for man-slaughter. Some perpetrators could still be convicted, for aiding and abetting murder, although they had been jointly responsible for the murder of hundreds if not thousands. To some of the accused it was attested that they were incapable of attending court, regardless of the fact that they continued to treat patients in their practices. Others escaped justice by suicide – as for example Werner Heyde and Friedrich Tillmann.

When the attorney-generalship had at the beginning of the 1960es initiated investigation proceedings at the district court against NS perpetrators also the names of doctors got known who till then lived undetected in the GDR. The GDR government had to react to this reproach, since in the east the prosecution of Nazi crimes was officially considered as concluded and since the GDR always presented itself as a better, antifascist state: the Ministry of Security checked these suspected doctors – in one case the decision was made to initiate or stage a prosecution. Otto Hebold was arrested and sentenced to life-long imprisonment, yet the GDR did not omit to emphasize that this was an isolated case.

Overview over prosecution of NS-„Euthanasia“ in East and West

Western Zones/FRG SOZ/GDR (amon those Waldheim)
Preliminary proceedings 441 29 (7)
- Among those begun until 101 18
Trials 32 25 (7)
- Convictions 50 40 (7)
- Acquittal/Nulle prosequi 65 15
to Top