Threads of History: The Blessed Bishop, the Murder of ‘Unproductives’ and Tine Nys

By Catia Malaquias

On 3 December, the world celebrates  International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a day that is officially recognised by the United Nations.

But less than 80 years ago – still in living memory for some – one of the then most developed European countries, borrowing heavily from the eugenics movements of the United Kingdom, America and Australia, was systematically murdering people with disability as a matter of ‘secret’ State policy – endorsed by order of Adolf Hitler and backdated to the first day of World War II, 1 September 1939, ostensibly in response to a German couple who wrote seeking permission to kill their disabled baby son.

And so commenced the Nazi forced-euthanasia program for people with disabilities and those with mental illness, which came to be known as the “T4 program”.

An article published in the last few days echoes this dark past – but it relates to a death in 2010 – the “voluntary euthanasia” of Tine Nys, a 38 year old woman with autism, on the basis of “mental suffering”.

Two doctors and a psychiatrist, in failing to comply with Belgium’s euthanasia laws, have been arraigned by a Court for poisoning. The defence lawyer stated that in euthanizing Tine, “The doctors acted according to their consciences.”

The head of Belgium government’s Euthanasia Commission was critical of the Court’s decision, contending that the doctors had complied with all procedures required by the euthanasia laws. But Tine’s sisters who initiated the complaint were horrified by the callousness of the doctors involved and their lack of interest in persuading their sister to live – one doctor reportedly describing her sister’s pending death as:

“a lethal injection administered to a favourite pet to end its suffering”.

Tine (centre) with her sisters.

At a time when governments are debating the introduction of euthanasia laws around Australia, it seems more important than ever for this dark history to be remembered and for society to recognise the vulnerability of people with disabilities wherever prejudice and devaluation might play a part.

This history includes the efforts of the Blessed Clemens August von Galen (16 March 1878 – 22 March 1946), Bishop of Munster, Germany, who lead Catholic protest against involuntary euthanasia of people with disability.

Bishop von Galen

Up until the summer of 1941, the Nazi T4 program had been conducted in ‘secret’, in concert between the Nazi regime, doctors and institutions for disabled people and people with mental illness or psycho-social disabilities. Those determined to be “unworthy of life” or “too burdensome” were sent to various “euthanasia” killing centres in Germany and Austria and killed by lethal injection or gas chambers – their families were told little – but many suspected and others knew.

The T4 program was used to train SS members and the killing techniques were ‘perfected’ and later extended on a mass scale to Jews, Roma people and others.

Following Bishop von Galen’s and the broader German Catholic Church’s courageous denunciation of the ‘secret’ T4 program, Adolf Hitler ordered the end of the T4 program. However, the T4 program continued “unofficially” on a more restricted scale – with estimates of 300,000 to 350,000 babies, children and adults with disabilities being murdered by involuntary euthanasia by the end of the war in 1945.

The following is an extract from Bishop von Galen’s powerful “The Murder of Unproductive Persons” sermon, delivered at St. Lambert’s Church in Munster, Germany on 3 August 1941.


The Murder of Unproductive Persons

“… the joint pastoral letter of the German bishops, which was read in all Catholic churches in Germany on June 26, 1941, includes the following words:

‘It is true that in Catholic ethics there are certain positive commandments which cease to be obligatory if their observance would be attended by unduly great difficulties; but there are also sacred obligations of conscience from which no one can release us, which we must carry out even if it should cost us our life. Never, under any circumstances, may a man, save in war or in legitimate self-defence, kill an innocent person.’

I had occasion on July 6 to add the following comments on this passage in the joint pastoral letter:

‘For some months, we have been hearing reports that inmates of establishments for the care of the mentally ill who have been ill for a long period and perhaps appear incurable have been forcibly removed from these establishments on orders from Berlin.

Regularly the relatives receive soon afterwards an intimation that the patient is dead, that the patient’s body has been cremated and that they can collect the ashes.

There is a general suspicion, verging on certainty, that these numerous unexpected deaths of the mentally ill do not occur naturally but are intentionally brought about, in accordance with the doctrine that it is legitimate to destroy a so-called “worthless life,” in other words to kill innocent men and women, if it is thought that their lives are of no further value to the people and the state.

A terrible doctrine which seeks to justify the murder of innocent people, which legitimizes the violent killing of disabled persons who are no longer capable of work, of cripples, the incurably ill and the aged and infirm!’

I am reliably informed that in hospitals and homes in the province of Westphalia lists are being prepared of inmates who are classified as “unproductive members of the national community” and are to be removed from these establishments and shortly thereafter killed. The first party of patients left the mental hospital at Marienthal, near Münster, in the course of this week.

German men and women! Article 211 of the German Penal Code is still in force, in these terms:

‘Whoever kills a man of deliberate intent is guilty of murder and punishable with death.’

No doubt in order to protect those who kill with intent these poor men and women, members of our families, from this punishment laid down by law, the patients who have been selected for killing are removed from their home area to some distant place. Some illness or other is then given as the cause of death. Since the body is immediately cremated, the relatives and the criminal police are unable to establish whether the patient had in fact been ill or what the cause of death actually was.

I have been assured, however, that in the Ministry of the Interior and the office of the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Conti, no secret is made of the fact that indeed a large number of mentally ill persons in Germany have already been killed with intent and that this will continue.

Article 139 of the Penal Code provides that ‘anyone who has knowledge of an intention to commit a crime against the life of any person … and fails to inform the authorities or the person whose life is threatened in due time … commits a punishable offence’.

When I learned of the intention to remove patients from Marienthal, I reported the matter on July 28 to the State Prosecutor of Münster Provincial Court and to the Münster chief of police by registered letter, in the following terms:

‘According to information I have received, it is planned in the course of this week, the date has been mentioned as July 31, to move a large number of inmates of the provincial hospital at Marienthal, classified as “unproductive members of the national community,” to the mental hospital at Eichberg, where, as is generally believed to have happened in the case of patients removed from other establishments, they are to be killed with intent.

Since such action is not only contrary to the divine and the natural moral law but under article 211 of the German Penal Code ranks as murder and attracts the death penalty, I hereby report the matter in accordance with my obligation under article 139 of the Penal Code and request that steps should at once be taken to protect the patients concerned by proceedings against the authorities planning their removal and murder, and that I may be informed of the action taken.’

I have received no information of any action by the State Prosecutor or the police.’

I had already written on July 26 to the Westphalian provincial authorities, who are responsible for the running of the mental hospital and for the patients entrusted to them for care and for cure, protesting in the strongest terms. It had no effect. The first transport of the innocent victims under sentence of death has left Marienthal. And I am now told that 800 patients have already been removed from the hospital at Warstein.

We must expect, therefore, that the poor defenceless patients are, sooner or later, going to be killed. Why? Not because they have committed any offence justifying their death; not because, for example, they have attacked a nurse or attendant, who would be entitled in legitimate self-defence to meet violence with violence. In such a case the use of violence leading to death is permitted and may be called for, as it is in the case of killing an armed enemy. No, these unfortunate patients are to die, not for some such reason as this but because in the judgment of some official body, on the decision of some committee, they have become “unworthy to live,” because they are classed as “unproductive members of the national community.”

The judgment is that they can no longer produce any goods. They are like an old piece of machinery which no longer works, like an old horse which has become incurably lame, like a cow which no longer gives any milk. What happens to an old piece of machinery? It is thrown on the scrapheap. What happens to a lame horse, an unproductive cow? I will not pursue the comparison to the end — so fearful is its appropriateness and its illuminating power.

But we are not here concerned with pieces of machinery, we are not dealing with horses and cows, whose sole function is to serve mankind, to produce goods for mankind. They may be broken up, they may be slaughtered when they no longer perform this function. No, we are concerned with men and women, our fellow creatures, our brothers and sisters; poor human beings, ill human beings, they are unproductive, if you will. But does that mean that they have lost the right to live? Have you, have I, the right to live only so long as we are productive, so long as we are recognized by others as productive?

If the principle that man is entitled to kill his unproductive fellow-man is established and applied, then woe betide all of us when we become aged and infirm! If it is legitimate to kill unproductive members of the community, woe betide the disabled who have sacrificed their health or their limbs in the productive process! If unproductive men and women can be disposed of by violent means, woe betide our brave soldiers who return home with major disabilities as cripples, as invalids!

If it is once admitted that men have the right to kill “unproductive” fellowmen, even though it is at present applied only to poor and defenceless mentally ill patients, then the way is open for the murder of all unproductive men and women — the incurably ill, the handicapped who are unable to work, those disabled in industry or war. The way is open, indeed, for the murder of all of us when we become old and infirm and therefore unproductive. Then it will require only a secret order to be issued that the procedure which has been tried and tested with the mentally ill should be extended to other “unproductive” persons, that it should also be applied to those suffering from incurable tuberculosis, the aged and infirm, persons disabled in industry, soldiers with disabling injuries.

Then no man will be safe. Some committee or other will be able to put him on the list of “unproductive” persons, who in their judgment have become “unworthy to live”. And there will be no police to protect him, no court to avenge his murder and bring his murderers to justice. Who could then have any confidence in a doctor? He might report a patient as unproductive and then be given instructions to kill him!

It does not bear thinking of, the moral depravity, the universal mistrust which will spread even in the bosom of the family, if this terrible doctrine is tolerated, accepted and put into practice. Woe betide mankind, woe betide our German people, if the divine commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”, which the Lord proclaimed on Sinai amid thunder and lightning, which God our Creator wrote into man’s conscience from the beginning, if this commandment is not merely violated but the violation is tolerated and remains unpunished!

I will give you an example of what is happening.

One of the patients in Marienthal was a man of 55, a farmer from a country parish in the Münster region — I could give you his name — who has suffered for some years from mental disturbance and was therefore admitted to Marienthal hospital. He was not mentally ill in the full sense. He could receive visits and was always happy, when his relatives came to see him. Only a fortnight ago he was visited by his wife and one of his sons, a soldier on home leave from the front. The son is much attached to his father, and the parting was a sad one. No one can tell, whether the soldier will return and see his father again, since he may fall in battle for his country.

The son, the soldier, will certainly never again see his father on earth, for he has since then been put on the list of the “unproductive.” A relative, who wanted to visit the father this week in Marienthal, was turned away with the information that the patient had been transferred elsewhere on the instructions of the Council of State for National Defence. No information could be given about where he had been sent, but the relatives would be informed within a few days. What information will they be given? The same as in other cases of the kind? That the man has died, that his body has been cremated, that the ashes will be handed over on payment of a fee? Then the soldier, risking his life in the field for his fellow-countrymen, will not see his father again on earth, because fellow countrymen at home have killed him.

The facts I have stated are firmly established. I can give the names of the patient, his wife and his son the soldier, and the place where they live. “Thou shalt not kill!” God wrote this commandment in the conscience of man long before any penal code laid down the penalty for murder, long before there was any prosecutor or any court to investigate and avenge a murder. Cain, who killed his brother Abel, was a murderer long before there were any states or any courts of law. And he confessed his deed, driven by his accusing conscience:

‘My punishment is greater than I can bear … and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me the murderer shall slay me.’” (Genesis 4,13-14)


*Bishop von Galen was appointed a Cardinal by Pope Pius XII in 1946, but died a month later.  His sainthood was completed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

More from Starting With Julius:

Usefulness is Not a Measure of Human Worth

Eugenics and Exclusion – History, Rebranding and Societal Attitudes

[Cover photo © Omar Prestwich]

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