For every answer I found in Dachau, I discovered more questions. One step forward, two steps back. One Saturday, the guides traveled by private bus to visit an old castle near Linz, in Austria that was one of six euthanasia centers established during the Third Reich. It was a three-hour drive from Dachau, first along picturesque country roads, then onto the Autobahn for a stretch, and then more back roads across the Austrian border until we arrived at Hartheim. It was a gorgeous late October day, bright and cold. Soon the foothills would be covered in snow.
The Hartheim castle was originally built in 1600, but during the Nazi time it belonged to Dachau’s satellite camp system. Dachau had 169 subsidiary camps that served specific labor functions, such as armaments factories for the war industry. Hartheim was transformed into a euthanasia center and between May 1940 and August 1944. It is believed that approximately thirty thousand mentally and physically disabled people were murdered under the T-4 program. T-4 is the abbreviation for a street address in Berlin, Tiergartenstrasse 4, where the administration office of the euthanasia program was located. The Nazis believed that mentally and physically disabled people could not contribute anything of value to society; they were a burden and too expensive to keep.
What I saw that day was not a castle. It looked like one from the outside, but on the inside, the former killing center was a newly designed memorial site and educational center. I stood in the gas chamber and looked at possessions that once belonged to the victims – watches, toys and eyeglasses. A guide led us from room to room, explaining Hartheim’s history. I do not remember anyone asking questions, which could mean that either he was an excellent guide and answered all our questions before we could formulate them or his information was so sobering that we followed him around in silent shock.
Of all the atrocities the Nazis committed, the euthanasia program was something German citizens actively opposed. The program began in 1939 and was stopped in 1941 on Hitler’s orders, but by then most of the “work” had been completed. In addition to systematically killing the disabled, the T-4 program served another significant purpose – it was preparation for The Final Solution. Killing methods devised and perfected as part of T-4 ultimately led to the development of the gas chambers.
That evening, on the bus driving back, I sat next to our pastor from the Church of Reconciliation. I had known him for several years and trusted him. He was a true native, born and raised in Bavaria. Could he explain how a deeply religious region could be involved in genocide?
“There are churches on every corner,” I said. “Christmas Eve is the holiest day of the year. How did these people do it? How did they participate? How did they ignore it?”
He understood my question; one he also grappled with. He explained the fear and fascism, and how dictatorships successfully use tools of terror. He touched on the mentality of the Bavarians. They tried to protect their own livelihoods, their way of life, their families. He did not defend them, but he also did not claim to understand them. In a neutral way, he presented the facts, but still the facts did not really answer the question or calm my confusion.
- Official website of the Hartheim Education and Memorial Center;
- USHMM article: Nazi Persecution of the Disabled;
- Into that Darkness by Gitta Sereny (1974) focuses on the life of Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Sobibor and Treblinka who was trained at Hartheim.