Forgotten Crimes

Between 1939 and 1945 the Nazi regime systematically murdered hundreds of thousands of children and adults with disabilities as part of its “euthanasia” programmes. These procedures were designed to eliminate all persons with disabilities who, according to Nazi ideology, threatened the health and purity of the German race.

Forgotten Crimes explores the development and working of this nightmarish process, a relatively neglected aspect of the holocaust. Suzanne E. Evans’s account draws on the rich historical record as well as scores of exclusive interviews with disabled holocaust survivors. It begins with a description of the Nazis’ Children’s Killing Programm, in which tens of thousands of children with mental and physical disabilities were murdered by their physicians, usually by starvation or lethal injection. The book goes on to recount the T4 euthanasia programme, in which adults with disabilities were disposed of in six official centers, and the development of sterilization Law that allowed the forced sterilization of at least a half-million young adults with disabilities.

Ms. Evans provides portraits of the chief organizers and accomplices of the killing programmes, and investigates the curious role Switzerland’s rarely discussed exclusionary immigration and racial eugenics policies.

Finally, Forgotten Crimes notes the inescapable implications of these Nazi medical practices for our present – day controversies over eugenics, euthanasia, genetic engineering, medical experimentation, and rationed health care.


Reviewed by Sara Vogt (Disability Studies Program, University of Illinois at Chicago)

In October 1939–backdated September 1, 1939 to coincide with the onset of World War Two–Adolf Hitler issued a directive that extended the authority of physicians to include decisions about the “mercy killing” (Gnadentod) of the incurably ill.[1] This sentence-long letter addressed to his personal physician, Dr. med. Karl Brandt, and the head of the Kanzelei des Führers, Philipp Bouhler, served as the unofficial order that commenced the secret systematic killing program responsible for murdering over 250,000 children and adults with psychiatric, cognitive, and physical disabilities. For the reader unfamiliar with the Nazi regime’s targeting of people with disabilities in their efforts to create a strong and pure race, Forgotten Crimes by Suzanne E. Evans may be an appropriate point of entry.

Written in conjunction with Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a California-based nonprofit organization that facilitates the integration and full participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of life, this book is apparently a result of their Disability Holocaust Project (while authored by Evans, a lawyer, journalist, and Ph.D. student in American History at the University of California, Berkeley, the copyright belongs to the DRA, and it is unclear whether this volume was a collective or individual endeavor). As stated in the acknowledgements section, the aim of the Disability Holocaust Project is four-fold: (1) to shatter the silence that has surrounded the fate of people with disabilities during the Holocaust; (2) to heighten public awareness about the current plight of people with disabilities; (3) to utilize the shared history of the Holocaust as a vehicle for building greater cooperation between organizations of people with disabilities; and (4) to relate pre-Holocaust Nazi concepts to pernicious contemporary attitudes and enhance awareness of the existing stigmatization of people with disabilities (p. 5).

Indeed, Evans makes a strong case for why it is important for Holocaust or Disability scholars, amateur and professional, to examine this all-too-often lost history. Evans is very convincing in connecting the systematic slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities to contemporary Holocaust and Disability Studies projects that aim to understand the past better, as well as to frame current scientific and political endeavors within their socio-historical landscapes. Such remembering, Evans states, is “crucial to an understanding of both (1) how and why people with disabilities continue to be marginalized in contemporary society, and (2) the attitudes and moral failures that allowed the Holocaust to happen” (p. 20).

It is important to note that Bengt Lindqvist makes it clear in his preface that the intended audience for Forgotten Crimes extends beyond historians and academics, into the sphere of the general public (p. 10). For this reason, many academic readers may find themselves frustrated while reading Evans’s exploration into the world of the Holocaust. While she provides a good synthesis of English-language material that examines the sterilization and killing programs and their disabled victims (especially that of Henry Friedlander and Michael Burleigh[2]), Evans often resorts to multiple, paragraph-long quotes of her sources, leading the reader to believe that it might be better simply to consult these original works. In effect, Evans succeeds in further emphasizing the connections these authors have already made between racial hygienic policies and programs and those labeled “lives unworthy of life” (lebensunwerten Lebens). In doing so, however, Forgotten Crimes amounts to a book-length literature review of English-language readings on the topic, which may leave the scholarly reader unsatisfied.

Still, if her aim is to introduce the topic of disability and the Holocaust to unfamiliar readers, leaving them yearning for more information, she does just that. By presenting findings of projects already dealing with the sterilization, coerced labor, and murder of people with disabilities during the National Socialist era, readers become quickly familiar with her original sources in a compact format. They can then consult these original sources and others armed with a general overview of many extant English-language materials. Of course, in order to present a more complete picture of the work already done on this topic, it would have been more thorough to consult sources in other languages, at least in German, but that seems to have been out of the scope of her current project. Nevertheless, Forgotten Crimes provides a quick and interesting introduction to the situation of people with disabilities during the Holocaust and surely leaves the reader convinced that the topic warrants more attention for a better understanding of both Holocaust and disability issues.


[1]. Ernst Klee, “Euthanasie” im NS-Staat. Die “Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens” (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 1983), p. 100.

[2]. Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: “Euthanasia” in Germany, 1900-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Citation: Sara Vogt. Review of Evans, Suzanne E., Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and People with Disabilities. H-German, H-Net Reviews. March, 2005.

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 Reviewed by Lisa Ossian, Des Moines Area Community College

“The volkish state must see to it that only the healthy beget children.”

I couldn’t read this book at night. As the mother of a disabled child, I could not bring myself to begin especially the first chapter, “The Children’s Killing Program.” In less than twenty pages, Suzanne Evans details this first Nazi euthanasia program, arguing that these murders were not random or “informal” but a systematic and largely successful attempt beginning in 1938 to exterminate any child with physical or mental differences–those termed “useless eaters.” The author also quotes extensively the condolence letters (always ending with an effective “Heil Hitler!”) which were sent to the parents from the institutions’ medical staff. These “mercy killings” of “malformed children” continued within these “hunger houses” or “starving pavilions.” Other phrases appear, such as “conspiracy of silence” surrounding these “burdens on a nation,” or as the Nazi’s more contemptuously termed them–the “garbage children” or Ausschusskinderer. The number of children killed has been estimated between 5,000 and 25,000. Doctors also profited from the murders through medical experimentation and organ donations to research hospitals. The chapter also includes a list of these children’s killing wards along with a poignant photograph of a tiny disabled boy sitting precariously in a wicker chair outside Auschwitz.

Because of the earlier “success” with the children’s killing program, Adolf Hitler ordered in 1939 an adult euthanasia program to exterminate all institutionalized German adults with disabilities, those deemed “worthless lives.” This second chapter, titled “The T4 Adult Euthanasia,” describes this far more developed and systematic process of killing disabled adults. At the center of operations was the villa at Tiergartenstrasse4–code name Aktion T4–as well as the four official killing centers with special SS units, although no local citizens were to know anything of this operation. Over 275,000 Germans with disabilities were systematically murdered during this initial period. This official euthanasia program ended in August 1941 after many medical and record keeping mistakes caused the secrecy to break down, but the second period called “wild euthanasia”, in which disabled adults were murdered in overwhelming numbers throughout the Nazi death camp system continued until 1945. The Holocaust death toll for disabled men, women, and children–those who threatened the Nazi ideology of “the health and purity of the German race”–has been estimated in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million lives.

As the author clearly notes, the dehumanization of people with disabilities did not begin nor did it end with the Holocaust. The strengths of this book are that it is quite readable, despite its horrific topic, and compelling as it moves throughout the War years. The book is also quite succinct at 169 pages. The eleven photographs–from a frail disabled child to children’s unmarked graves to Nazi doctors and institutions to a concentration camp’s collection of prosthetic pieces–illuminate the era’s terror.

However (and this is the difficult part because this work is an excellent beginning to an extremely difficult topic), this book demands more polish. The text should be more than collected evidence; it lacks the strong thread tying the pieces together in either an effective story or argument. The book also appears unevenly balanced despite its brevity. The first chapter about the children’s killing program is under twenty pages, but the second chapter is well over fifty pages. And the sixth chapter–really a prologue–is only two pages. Other than the long second chapter, the other topics need more depth and development. Evans continuously includes rather long lists not always as tables but within the text as well as extended direct quotations. Although the long lists and quotations can sometimes speak for themselves, the overall quality of the book would have been improved with a stronger author’s voice. The chapter concerning perpetrators is half devoted to short biographies of Holocaust offenders, but little is done to link these perpetrators together into a type of Nazi pattern. The author does not quote many sources as most of the footnotes are drawn from select secondary works rather than primary source exploration. No archival research is cited nor is an extensive bibliography included.

Still, and this is certainly the most important point, Suzanne Evans has created an absolutely compelling piece about a topic–the forgotten crimes of disabled deaths–which has been omitted in much of the Holocaust research.

Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2006, Volume 26, No. 1
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

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