The euthanasia killings were carried out in a secret operation (known as T4) run by officials of Hitler’s Chancellery. Physicians were involved in the selection of victims and sometimes in the act itself. After some physicians requested assurance that this activity was legal, Hitler issued a written authorization in late October 1939, repeating what he had approved earlier in oral form only. This authorization took the form of a letter addressed to Dr. Karl Brandt (1904-1948), Hitler’s personal physician, and Philipp Bouhler (1899-1945), the head of the Führer Chancellery. The letter was typed on Hitler’s personal stationary and signed by the Führer himself. It was also backdated to September 1, 1939, the date of the German invasion of Poland. This change was consistent with Hitler’s view that wartime necessitated drastic new measures. The original letter was kept in a safe at the Führer Chancellery; copies were later shown privately to doctors to persuade them to participate in the program. Only one copy survived the war. This letter is the only known written order signed by Hitler authorizing any type of killing initiative.
Complete secrecy was hard to maintain even in Nazi Germany. In September 1941, Lilly Offenbacher, a German-Jewish refugee in New York, gave the U.S. Coordinator of Information a report on the channels through which information on the carefully camouflaged T4 program flowed to Germans (18). Her second-hand intelligence combined accurate information, such as the fact that Jews in asylums and institutions were early targets of the program, with inaccurate information (e.g., her assertion that severely wounded German soldiers were also euthanized). Offenbacher also assumed that one primary purpose of these killings was to test poison gas – not quite realizing that the action aimed to eliminate a whole class of people entirely. Between September 1939 and late August 1941, the euthanasia authorities murdered at least 70,000 Germans thought to suffer from hereditary defects. Both the nature and scale of the T4 program more than justify one scholar’s assertion that this wave of killings constituted the first Nazi genocide (19).
During the early years of the war, the Nazis relied on propaganda and indoctrination to reintroduce “the Jew” as a figure of absolute evil, thereby laying the groundwork for what would come later. Professional training for the SS and the police provided one of the richest opportunities for ideological indoctrination. The SS-Sturmbannführer Paul Zapp (1904-?) was among those who lectured the SS and the police on the so-called Jewish question. Zapp’s lecture notes from the end of 1940 offer an interesting window into the education he provided. Approved by Himmler, his notes are consistent with the SS belief that the “Jewish question” could only be solved on a worldwide basis. Later, as commander of one of the special mobile killing units known as Einsatzkommandos, Zapp put his theories into practice.
(18) A small American intelligence agency, the Coordinator of Information was the forerunner of the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S).
(19) Henry Friedlander (1995).