The Hereditary Health Courts in Nazi Germany
Hereditary Diseased Progeny prevention law
On 14th July 1933 the Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Progeny was published. This law provided that people who had hereditary diseases could be forcibly sterilised in order to prevent their disease being passed on to further generations. It is estimated that approximately 375,000 German nationals were sterilised under this law. This figure does not include any Jewish people, Poles or Romany travellers who may have been sterilised in the camps.
The structure of the Courts
Patients were reported, sometimes by family members but mostly be doctors and teachers and their cases considered by the Hereditary Health courts. Doctors were ordered to register every patient who had a genetic illness or face a fine. There were two levels of court. The first layer was the lower court which had a panel with three members, two doctors- at least one with hereditary illness experience and a magistrate. If a person was found to be hereditary ill then they could appeal to the second court which again had two doctors with experience in hereditary diseases and with a circuit judge as the third member. There were at least 181 courts in Germany so it was just a matter of time before all cases were considered. Doctors were required to attend classes for training in genetics at one of the many racial centres that were being established in the country. There was even a journal specifically to discuss racial issues “Der Erhartz” which gave guidance on not only who should be sterilised, but also the latest sterilisation techniques.
Categories of treatment for sterilisation
Once open the courts were busy with cases to consider for sterilisation treatment. It has been estimated that 92.8% of cases put forward to the courts received judgement in favour of sterilisation.
The categories considered were:
- Congenital feebleness- this could accommodate those who were of low intelligence especially if it could be proved that a near relation was also of low intelligence. People with little access to education could easily fall into this category.
- Schizophrenia- despite the sufferer having periods of sanity and normality and no evidence to suggest that it was a hereditary illness.
- . Manic Depression (psychosis) It was not believed that a permanent treatment/ cure, could be found and again despite no evidence as to its hereditary nature, it was included.
- Hereditary epilepsy
- Huntingdon’s Chorea
- . Hereditary Blindness
- . Hereditary Deafness
- . Severe Hereditary Deformity
- . Severe alcoholism by discretionary decision.
The nature and processes of the Hereditary Health courts benefits from further examination. They were not there to hear evidence on both sides or even to inspect the patient to see if the reports on them were correct; they simply made decisions on the evidence in front of them. Unlike other courts they were not impartial often those who were involved in the reporting procedure were also involved in the decision making procedure. The courts rarely saw the patients full medical records, being served only extracts which they would often take without explanation.
Many of the diseases and indeed the name of the Court stated that in many cases they were investigating hereditary illness. The definition of hereditary was open , rather than distinctly laid down scientific explanation it was left to explanation by ill qualified individuals making a leap of faith to follow the policy. The issue was plain when was a disability like blindness or deafness hereditary and when was it not? Some categories like mental illness, schizophrenia and manic depression and even alcoholism did not have the hereditary clause. This enabled patients whose families showed no signs of disease to be sterilised without comment.
The Nazi government adherence to record keeping gave a valuable insight into those who were sterilised in the first year. The majority of patients ( I use this word as I am at a loss to describe their role) were from the first two groups, either congenitally feeble 52.9% or sufferers of Schizophrenia 25.4% Epilepsy sufferers amounted to 14% of the sterilisations whilst Manic depression and alcoholism was combined at 5.6%. The congenital diseases and handicaps such as Blindness and Deafness made up the rest at a small percentage. It was clear that the law was used to take action against the feeble minded and mentally ill before those who were handicapped but able to live in society.
Nurembourg Racial Laws
Further steps were taken to cleanse the German Race. Much is known of the Nuremburg Racial Laws in 1935 which prohibited marriage and sexual relations between Jews and Germans but later in that year (Oct 18th 1935) the law “For the Protection of the Hereditary Health of the German Nation” was passed which prevented marriage if one or both parties to the marriage suffered from disabilities under the sterilisation law. This law was policed by the Public Health Office who issued a certificate of “Marriage Fitness” which was necessary for any couple to possess if they wished to marry.
Early Eugenics models
Racial Hygiene was not a brand new Nazi theory, appearing from nowhere. It was expounded at the end of the nineteenth century by Alfred Ploetz and Wilhelm Schallmayer as a way of controlling the breeding of those deemed to be inferior. Initially not anti Semitic, it simply divided between those who were fit and those who were unfit. It was National Socialism that introduced a racial stand concentrating on the elimination of the Jewish genetic influence. The German model was initially based on the American model where by the late 1920’s almost 15,000 people had been sterilised, mostly inmates of mental institutions and most in the State of California. This is one of the reasons why the perpetrators of sterilisation were not considered as war criminals at Nuremburg as to do so would have meant charging a large number of American officials.
If you want to know more, especially about death in the mental heath wards in Germany 1900-1945 read "Death and Deliverance" by Michael Burleigh.
An easier read is "Deaf People in Hitler's Europe" by Donna F. Ryan and John S Schuchman