Human nature is an amorphous thing: Optimists and pessimists can look at the same human history and present diametrically opposed assessments of the human spirit.
The optimist will point to acts of selflessness and historical displays of a collective will toward waging progress in making their case that human nature is essentially “good.”
The pessimist will present ceaseless wars, slavery, and a host of other social ills peppering human history to construct a human nature that is more savage than humane.
Both are correct in their evaluations of the human condition. But it is acts of particularly relentless, unfettered violence that shock both the optimist and pessimist. These acts present not a humankind that is basically good, bad, or a little bit of both, but one that is absolutely sadistic.
Here are four of those very acts — and ones which may make Memorial Day assume a darker meaning:
T4 Euthanasia Program
In August 1939, healthcare providers throughout Germany received a missive from the Reich Ministry of the Interior. The note stipulated that all physicians, nurses, and midwives report newborn infants (under the age of three) who appeared to suffer from severe mental or physical disabilities.
Two months later, in October, these health experts started suggesting that parents send disabled children to certain pediatric clinics in Germany and Austria for treatment. The catch was that children sent to these clinics would not be helped; they would be killed.
This program — started by Adolf Hitler and which eventually comprised the near totality of Germany’s psychiatric community — was called the T4 program, coming from the address of the enterprise: Tiergartenstrasse 4.
T4 essentially created a “death panel”: A bureaucracy of physicians was charged with deciding who had a “life unworthy of life,” and who did not. To make such a decision, T4 planners distributed surveys to public health officials, hospitals, institutions, and elderly homes, placing particular emphasis on establishing the patient’s ability to work.
Nazi emphasis on productivity shaped much of their justification for euthanasia. Indeed, they argued that funds could “better” be used on those who were not insane or suffering from a terminal illness — and that those who did led “burdensome lives” or were “useless eaters” were fit only to die.
And that they did. Patients were shipped off to these “clinics,” where they entered “shower facilities” that were actually gas chambers. Dead bodies were disposed of in ovens. Their ashes were placed in urns and sent back to their families, along with a falsified account of their death.
The T4 program — which “officially” ended in 1941 and which the U.S. Holocaust Museum estimates killed at least 5,000 physically and mentally disabled German children — was a chilling vision of things to come. It was Germany’s first mass killing program, preceding the extermination camps that took shape some years later.