When It Began
The Nazis began experimenting with poison gas for the purpose of mass murder in late 1939 with the killing of mental patients. Six gassing installations were established as part of the Euthanasia Program: Bernburg, Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Hartheim, and Sonnenstein. These killing centers used pure, chemically manufactured carbon monoxide gas. Concentration camps like Stutthof, Mauthausen, Sachsenhausen, and Ravensbrueck, although not designed specifically as killing centers, also had gas chambers. The gas chambers were relatively small, constructed to kill those prisoners the Nazis deemed "unfit" to work. The first killing center was Chelmno, which opened in the Warthegau in December 1941.
After the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union and Einsatzgruppe (mobile killing unit) mass shootings of civilians, the Nazis experimented with gas vans for mass killing. Gas vans were hermetically sealed trucks with engine exhaust diverted to the interior compartment.
Bodies found in a gas chamber after american soldiers raided an Auschwits camp
The Nazis constantly searched for more efficient means of extermination. At the Auschwitz camp in Poland, they conducted experiments with Zyklon B by gassing some 600 Soviet prisoners of war and 250 ill prisoners in September 1941.
The term "euthanasia" means literally "good death". It usually refers to the inducement of a painless death for a chronically or terminally ill individual who would otherwise suffer. In the Nazi context, however, "euthanasia" was a euphemistic or indirect term for a clandestine murder program. The "euthanasia" program targeted, for systematic killing, mentally and physically disabled patients living in institutional settings in Germany and German-annexed territories.
In the spring and summer months of 1939, a number of planners began to organize a secret killing operation targeting disabled children. They were led by Philipp Bouhler, the director of Hitler's private chancellery, and Karl Brandt, Hitler's attending physician. On August 18, 1939, the Reich Ministry of the Interior circulated a decree requiring all physicians, nurses, and midwives to report newborn infants and children under the age of three who showed signs of severe mental or physical disability. Beginning in October 1939, public health authorities began to encourage parents of children with disabilities to admit their young children to one of a number of specially designated pediatric clinics throughout Germany and Austria. In reality, the clinics were children's killing wards. There, specially recruited medical staff murdered their young charges by lethal overdoses of medication or by starvation. At first, medical professionals and clinic administrators included only infants and toddlers in the operation. As the scope of the measure widened, they included youths up to 17 years of age. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 5,000 physically and mentally disabled German children perished as a result of the child "euthanasia" program during the war years.
People With Disabilities And Mental Illnesses
Persons with disabilities also fell victim to German violence in the German-occupied east. The Germans confined the "euthanasia" program, which began as a racial hygiene measure, to the Reich proper—that is, to Germany and to the annexed territories of Austria, Alsace-Lorraine, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the Warthegau in former Poland. However, the Nazi ideological conviction which labeled these persons "life unworthy of life" also made institutionalized patients the targets of shooting actions in Poland and the Soviet Union. There, the killings of disabled patients were the work of SS and police forces, not of the physicians, caretakers, and T4 administrators who implemented the "Euthanasia" Program itself. In areas of Pomerania, West Prussia, and occupied Poland, SS and police units murdered some 30,000 patients by the autumn of 1941 in order to accommodate ethnic German settlers transferred there from the Baltic countries and other areas. SS and police units also murdered disabled patients in mass shootings and gas vans in occupied Soviet territories. Thousands more died, murdered in their beds and wards by SS and auxiliary police units in Poland and the Soviet Union. These murders lacked the ideological component attributed to the centralized "euthanasia" program. The SS was apparently motivated primarily by economic and material concerns in killing institutionalized patients in occupied Poland and the Soviet Union. The SS and the Wehrmacht quickly made use of the hospitals emptied in these killing operations as barracks, reserve hospitals, and munitions storage depots. In rare cases, the SS used the empty facilities as a formal T4 killing site.