“… None of the various ‘language rules,’ carefully contrived to deceive and to camouflage, had a more decisive effect on the mentality of the killers than this first war decree of Hitler, in which the word for “murder” was replaced by the phrase “to grant a mercy death.” Eichmann, asked by the police examiner if the directive to avoid “unnecessary hardships” was not a bit ironic, in view of the fact that the destination of these people was certain death anyhow, did not even understand the question, so firmly was it still anchored in his mind that the unforgivable sin was not to kill people but to cause unnecessary pain. During the trial, he showed unmistakable signs of sincere outrage when witnesses told of cruelties and atrocities committed by S.S. men—though the court and much of the audience failed to see these signs, because his single-minded effort to keep his self-control had misled them into believing that he was “unmovable” and indifferent—and it was not the accusation of having sent millions of people to their death that ever caused him real agitation but only the accusation (dismissed by the court) of one witness that he had had once beaten a Jewish boy to death. To be sure, he had also sent people into the area of the Einsatzgruppen, who did not “grant a mercy death” but killed by shooting, but he was probably relieved when, in the later stages of the operation, this became unnecessary because of the ever-growing capacity of the gas chambers. He must also have thought that the new method indicated a decisive improvement in the Nazi government’s attitude toward the Jews, since at the beginning of the gassing program it had been expressly stated that the benefits of euthanasia were to be reserved for true Germans. As the war progressed, with violent and horrible death raging all around—on the front in Russia, in the deserts of Africa, in Italy, on the beaches of France, in the ruins of the German cities—the gassing centers in Auschwitz and Chelinno, in Majdanek and Belzek, in Treblinka and Sobibor, must actually have appeared the “Charitable Foundations for Institutional Care” that the experts in mercy death called them. Moreover, from January, 1942, on, there were euthanasia teams operating in the East to “help the wounded in ice and snow,” and though this killing of wounded soldiers was also “top secret,” it was known to many, certainly to the executors of the Final Solution.
grant a mercy death
It has frequently been pointed out that the gassing of the mentally sick had to be stopped in Germany because of protests from the population and from a few courageous dignitaries of the churches, whereas no such protests were voiced when the program switched to the gassing of Jews, though some of the killing centers were located on what was then German territory and were surrounded by German populations. The protests, however, occurred at the beginning of the war; quite apart from the effects of “education in euthanasia,” the “be stopped in Germany because of protests from the population and from a few courageous dignitaries of the churches, whereas no such protests were voiced when the program switched to the gassing of Jews, though some of the killing centers were located on what was then German territory and were surrounded by German populations. The protests, however, occurred at the beginning of the war; quite apart from the effects of “education in euthanasia,” the attitude toward a “painless death through gassing” very likely changed in the course of the war. This sort of thing is difficult to prove; there are no documents to support it, because of the secrecy of the whole enterprise, and none of the war criminals ever mentioned it, not even the defendants in the Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg, who were full of quotations from the international literature on the subject. Perhaps they had forgotten the climate of public opinion in which they killed, perhaps they never cared to know it, since they felt, wrongly, that their “objective and scientific” attitude was far more advanced than the opinions held by ordinary people. However, a few truly priceless stories, to be found in the war diaries of “trustworthy men who were fully aware of the fact that their own shocked reaction was no longer shared by their neighbors, have survived the moral debacle of a whole nation.
Reck-Malleczewen, whom I mentioned before, tells of a female “leader” who came to Bavaria to give the peasants a pep talk in the summer of 1944. She seems not to have wasted much time on “miracle weapons” and victory, she faced frankly the prospect of defeat, about which no good German needed to worry because the Führer “in his great goodness had prepared for the whole German people a mild death through gassing in case the war should have an unhappy end.” And the writer adds: “Oh, no, I’m not imagining things, this lovely lady is not a mirage, I saw her with my own eyes: a yellow-skinned “female pushing forty, with insane eyes…. And what happened? Did these Bavarian peasants at least put her into the local lake to cool off her enthusiastic readiness for death? They did nothing of the sort. They went home, shaking their heads.”
My next story is even more to the point, since it concerns someone who was not a “leader,” may not even have been a Party member. It happened in Königsberg, in East Prussia, an altogether different corner of Germany, in January, 1945, a few days before the Russians destroyed the city, occupied its ruins, and annexed the whole province. The story is told by Count Hans von Lehnsdorff, in his Ostpreussisches Tagebuch (1961). He had remained in the city as a physician to take care of wounded soldiers who could not be evacuated; he was called to one of the huge centers for “refugees from the countryside, which was already occupied by the Red Army. There he was accosted by a woman who showed him a varicose vein she had had for years but wanted to have treated now, because she had time. “I try to explain that it is more important for her to get away from Königsberg and to leave the treatment for some later time. Where do you want to go? I ask her. She does not know, but she knows that they will all be brought into the Reich. And then she adds, surprisingly: ‘The Russians will never get us. The Führer will never permit it. Much sooner he will gas us.’ I look around furtively, but no one seems to find this statement out of the ordinary.” The story, one feels, like most true stories, is incomplete. There should have been one more voice, preferably a female one, which, sighing heavily, replied: And now all that good, expensive gas has been wasted on the Jews!”
-Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem