mentally ill

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Holocaust Memorial Day, lessons for today

Published January 27, 2013 by Katy J Went

Today (27th January) is Holocaust Memorial Day, remembering not only the Jewish holocaust but others besides. The Holocaust (from the Greek ὁλόκαυστος holókaustoshólos, “whole” and kaustós, “burnt” also known as the Shoah (Hebrew: השואה, HaShoah, “catastrophe”). Within the attempted genocide (wiping out of a whole genus/people group) of the Jews, there were attempts to exterminate other ‘imperfects’ such as the Romany, people with disabilities, communists, and gays.

After a decade of turning a liberal blind eye to LGBTIQ expression (particularly in Berlin) the advent of the Nazis changed Germany. In 1933 research into sexology (homosexuality & transsexuality) was ended after the looting of the Sexological Institute by the Nazis. Founded in 1919, the Institute had been set up by the outspoken gay and Jewish activist Magnus Hirschfield, a world-renowned expert in the emerging discipline of sexology. During its existence, thousands of patients were seen and ‘treated’, often for free. The Institute also achieved a global reputation for its pioneering work on the understanding of transsexuality and call for LGBTIQ equality. In 1935 Germany strengthened the anti-homosexual law by which gays were knows as 175ers after paragraph 175 of the German law under which homosexuality had been condemned since 1871. Tens of thousands were sent to mental asylums or concentration camps and/or tortured for their sexuality; hundreds were castrated under court order or coercion. In the camps gay prisoners’ were made to wear pink triangles to identify them, often marking them out for additional persecution. Lesbian groups and associations were closed down but the women were not imprisoned as they were still considered capable of Aryan ‘breeding’, though nobody wanted the gay men to ‘breed’, up to a million were thought to exist lacking the German archetype “masculinity” and who were instead considered “degenerate” and “parasites”.

Other groups singled out for elimination were the physically disabled and/or those with mental health issues, up to 200,000 of the latter are estimated to have been murdered both in and outside of hospitals and institutions. Known as the T4 program (named after Tiergartenstraße 4, the address of the HQ of the General Foundation for Welfare and Institutional Care) and running from 1939-1941 they forcible sterilized another 300,000 with the consent and participation of the psychiatric profession. 

The Nazi ideology of cleansing their gene pool of ‘inferior’ peoples and persecuting society’s ‘weaker’ elements was made possible by their propaganda machine and an innate distrust of difference already present within the general population. This “fostered public acceptance of state-sponsored intolerance and brutality”. A lesson for today in countries affected by the now 6 year long credit crunch and austerity crisis as governments, commentators and groups, look for scapegoats to blame, persecute and save spending on. Now is the time to protect not persecute the most vulnerable members of society. The measure of a society can be seen in how it treats its least member, not how well the majority are doing.