The Status of Deaf people in Nazi Germany
Prior to the onset of National Socialism the German Deaf were considered the leaders of the European Deaf Community. In 1932 the REGEDE – the German National Deaf Association produced a film Verkannte Menschen (Misjudged People), directed by Wilhelm Ballier who was deaf but a Nazi supporter. The film was designed to show the German hearing world how deaf people lived and how they could contribute to the life of the country.
The film was in two parts, the first, in the world of a child and the second in the adult deaf community. The education system emphasised the insistence on oral education where children were encouraged and taught to talk, although the results could be poor if a child had been born deaf. It showed the “old” days when a person was dependant on charity for support and then the modern situation (1932) where there was compulsory education for the deaf who could learn to speak, lip read and more importantly learn vocational skills necessary for work. The second part of the film takes the now educated children into vocational training where the trainers use sign language rather than the spoken word- this is despite the emphasis on oral education for the young. The film shows the deaf facing discrimination in their work but portrayed them as capable workers in the tasks that they did. They are filmed in the role of good citizens obeying traffic laws and saving lives. They take part in sports and a deaf man gets a medal for saving a victim from drowning. It shows a deaf person driving a motorcycle- the aim of the film was to show the general competence of deaf people.
The film challenges the belief that deafness is hereditary in nearly all cases. In one scene deaf parents speak to their hearing child and in the second scene a deaf father speaks to his child. Its purpose was to reinforce to the German public the knowledge that at least 90 per cent of deaf parents had children who could hear. The closing scenes of the film are of a group of elderly people playing cards, again sociably and happily, the message of the film is clear, don’t five them pity, give them opportunity.
It is useful to the student of Nazi eugenic policy that this film was made just before the advent of National Socialism as it gives a vivid portrait of where the German Deaf thought they were placed in society. In the following year the film was banned as the Law for the Prevention of offspring with Hereditary Diseases was passed which saw deaf people as hereditarily diseased rather than the capable confident people shown in Verkante Menschen.
Schools for the deaf in the Pre Nazi period
The Government policy towards Deaf people seemed to oscillate; shortly after this law was passed they supported the German “Deaf Olympic” team at London in 1935 and Stockholm in 1939 where they were very successful
In the 1920’s there were a large number of schools for deaf children. Using the figures from 1926 they show that there were 73 schools for the deaf with 787 teachers working with 6,149 pupils, with some 68 of these schools being residential. Teachers who worked with the deaf did two years extra training after qualification and had a national professional association even publishing their own journal to share information and skills. When the National Socialists came into power amongst their first actions was to destroy the teacher’s professional organisation and ban their journal, reducing funding for the teaching of the deaf and merging a large number of schools for what the government described as economic reasons.
Annals of the Deaf
In May 1934 Kurt Leitz wrote an article in the American “Annals of the Deaf” which was sponsored by the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf and the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf. In the opening paragraph Lietz explains that National Socialist ideology is the expression of the will of the German People and the individual has no right to ask for anything that will just benefit him. He saw the role of the citizens of the nation as for the men, to fight and lay down their lives for the country and the women to give birth to healthy children to ensure the continuance of the nation. lietz admitted that the majority of deaf children became “self-supporting” but that the speech and language limitation curtails his usefulness as a member of the National Socialist State in that he cannot serve in the army and the women, because they are prevented from bearing children because of sterilisation cannot become full citizens but are just German subjects. He goes on to argue that educationally the achievements of the schools for the deaf have been modest and that the only justification for them was from a social viewpoint. Lietz argued that the deaf school lets the child take part in a community but it is this Christian sentimentality that keeps these schools going at higher rates of public expenditure whilst those children of normal parents suffer perhaps because parents are out of work or have a low wage.
Economics of Education
Leitz considered how the costs of educating the deaf could be reduced as he estimated that it cost more to educate a deaf child than a normal child. His ideas included the removal from school of those deemed uneducable, those that would always require state care and those who were slightly higher achieving and were physically capable of manual work. He concludes that economically it is not worth educating a deaf child unless their chances of success are very high as only this will give a good return on the cost of the education. The deaf should reach a point that they expect to have no right to education, only in exceptional cases will that be given. This is in direct contrast to the 1926 position when education for the Deaf was well provisioned despite the economic difficulties within the country.
Education and training
The two fold aims of education of the deaf were clearly laid down- the first being communication and the second vocational skill. He argued that it was only worth concentrating on speech therapy on those deaf children who were either partially deaf or became deaf during childhood as they might benefit and be able to utter intelligible words- the others, he argued, should be taught in large classes with fewer teachers, not necessarily trained for deaf teaching, and be taught communication purely through the use of writing. Thus schools would be run cheaply and effectively, channelling resources into those who would clearly benefit and it was envisaged that as the Law for the Prevention of offspring with Hereditary Diseases would start to become effective in future generations there would be less deaf children, thereby illustrating the miss held belief that all deafness was hereditary! The steps to be taken were described as “harsh but biologically necessary
Membership of the Nazi party
Socially, life became very different for the German Adult who was deaf. There had been many organisations supporting the deaf in Germany, indeed in 1932 there were 25 organisations in Berlin alone, some to do with work such as the Deaf Labour Union Group and some of a political nature such as the German Deaf communist party. There had been attempts to set up a national deaf society or REGEDE as it was known in Germany. Following the success of National Socialism it was adopted as the only deaf association that people could belong to and was chaired by a hearing man Ludwig Herzog of Munich with the deaf people section headed by the deaf man Fritz Alberghs who was regarded by most deaf people as the head of the organisation. During Easter 1933 the deaf associations in the country were combined into REGEDE amounting to over 13,000 members and the new association was combined with the Nationals Socialist Welfare Association which in turn made them members of the Nazi party! Initially this seems quite a good reward, party members usually received the best jobs, accommodation and food so it may have seemed a stroke of good luck to some deaf German adults. Deaf newspapers started to promote Nazi ideology and anti-Semitic language was used. By 1935 the deaf newspapers were under the control of the REGEDE who effectively controlled the voice of the Deaf as heard by others who could read the paper.
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Deaf SA Stormtroopers
The Nazi private army the SA was used to quash outbursts of anti Nazi feeling. There were deaf units of SA storm troopers by 1933 the deaf unit had 296 members contradicting Lietz opinion that the deaf man could not fight in the army. The unit was led by Fritz Alberghs and had been sanctioned by Goering in 1933 to enrol only those who were deaf or hard of hearing. By 1935 the deaf unit had been disbanded as the deaf members did not fit in with the German ideal, however some units did survive until late into 1937. Deaf children were allowed to take part in the Hitler Youth, wearing the same uniform but their badge denoted that they were deaf. Some children were allowed to attend camps with other Youth or to line up for inspection by a high ranking officer, yet only those able to speak clearly were brought to attention at inspection, the rest just stood still- they were not to be noticed as they could not speak.
The Schools for the deaf provided a ready supply of candidates for sterilisation. Under laws passed all people who were hereditarily deaf were to be sterilised to avoid passing their disability onto further generations. There are accounts of classrooms where lists were pasted on the walls of those who were hereditarily deaf and those who were not. In many cases the teachers were overzealous in their application of the guidance routinely sending many children’s cases to the Hereditary Health courts where there was little evidence that they were deaf for hereditary reasons. Many children were in boarding accommodation at school and parents were advised, sometimes after the operation had taken place.
The changed position of the Deaf
A few years of National Socialism occasioned a major change for deaf people living and working in Germany. Like most Germans they welcomed the rise of the Nazi party as a way out of financial depravation and poverty. They willingly joined organisations such as the SA and sent their children to join the Hitler Youth – exercising the independence of spirit and choice which had been encouraged in schools and illustrated in the film Verkannte Menschen. Their position was radically destabilised with the announcement by the government that they were hereditarily diseased and as such subject to draconian sterilisation laws which affected their children for the rest of their lives.
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