TIERGARTENSTRASSE 4 IN BERLIN: THE EUTHANASIA PROGRAM
TIERGARTENSTRASSE 4 IN BERLIN: THE EUTHANASIA PROGRAM

LIFE UNWORTHY OF LIFE: THE NAZI KILLING PROGRAM

The term euthanasia in the context of the Third Reich is considered a complex notion in Historiography and Law and is generally accepted as the combined characteristics of mass crimes against the sick and people with disabilities in Nazi Germany. While it is widely accepted as the crimes within the territory of the so-called old Reich, in its borders before 1939, dozens of thousand of decentrally organized killings on the occupied territories are to be included in the broader list of victims, though many of them were not managed from Berlin villa with harmless address Tiergartenstraße 4. While many sources and first-eye accounts (predominantly of the perpetrators) retrospectively used the terms  “Aktion T4”, it came to a wider use only after 1945, particularly during the Nuremberg Trials. At the same time, the origin of this abbreviation “T4” (Zentral Dienststelle-T4: Central Office T4) comes with no doubt as the short version of “Tiergartenstraße 4”. Up to the end of WWII, the perpetrators themselves used the word “Aktion” instead of “Euthanasia program’’, another Nazi euphemism. The bureaucratically organized mass killings of people with disabilities and mental problems set on in 1939 predated the wider genocidal murdering of European Jewry (the Holocaust) and gypsies on a production scale by two years. 

The “Aktion” aimed at the physical elimination of people with psychiatric, neurological, or physical disabilities was the climax of the widely discussed radical eugenic measures, accepted by the Nazis to restore the national and social ‘integrity’ of the German nation. The idea that a particular part of the population may be a burden for the society of the nation was not the Nazi invention. The concept of  “life unworthy of life” came to German society with new impetus after the humiliating defeat in the Great War (WWI). The point was that the nation had just lost a generation of young men fallen on the battlefields: the best, the color of the nation, leaving hundreds of thousands of disabled persons. The country had not only lost a workforce but was now obliged to pay compensation to thousands of physically and mentally (the mental health of many soldiers was ruined on the battlefields as well as their bodies) handicapped. The second main reason for such a heated debate in post-war Germany was the harsh economic situation, particularly the inflation in the early 1920s. The war-time and later shortages in supplies directly cost high mortality in the asylums in Germany. The ‘Great depression’ which devastated the post-war economy in 1929, resurrected the old talk about eradicating life that was supposedly worthless in hard times and about the ‘reasonable’ expenses for the patients of the mental clinics amid a harsh economic situation. 

Making a genealogical chart, 1935 Nazi Germany
A German special during the work on a genealogical chart, a [photo from 1935
The idea of elimination of allegedly inferior people was not a German invention. Anyway, in the Weimar republic the advocates of the radical measures were in minority, but the Nazi party and Hitler personally masterfully orchestrated the public mood in Germany and as early as 1929 Adolf Hitler made a statement, which would be fully attributed to importance only by historians decades later. In his final word to the audience of the annual Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, three and a half years before his rise to dictator power, the Nazi Party leader declared that the German nation may increase its strength if it eliminates 700,000 to 800,000 weakest children of the supposed one million birth annual increase. Several years before Hitler had already extensively discussed the eugenic measure in his notorious ‘Mein Kampf’ book. In a narrow means, for those who accepted Hitler’s worldview, the elimination of physically or mentally ill people was a protection of the German nation. 

Hitler’s rise to dictatorial power in 1933 left no alternative than the radicalization of the already voiced proclamations. On 14 July 1933, half a year into Hitler’s chancellorship, the government passed the so-called ‘Gesetz Zur Verhütung Erbkranken Nachwuchses’ (Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases). According to this law decree, a person was to be subjected to forced sterilization without his or her permit, if the decision was adopted by the medical commission on the basis of the supposed inheritance of serious physical or mental hereditary defects to inheritors. Starting from the coming into effect on January 1, 1934, in Germany and on January 1, 1940, in annexed Austria, in total more than 300,000 men and women in the Third Reich would be forcibly sterilized by the decrees of the so-called ‘hereditary health courts’. It is estimated that at least 5000 of them, predominantly women, did not survive. In a broader sense, the Nazi ideology was based on the idea that the ‘collective good’ is more important than the fate of the individual, particularly the supposed inferior. 

Nazi propaganda poster from 1935
Nazi propaganda poster from 1935 with a message about the degeneration of the nation if not deal with the ‘inferiors’.

The sterilization of those regarded by the new regime as unworthy of procreation was only one of the steps toward the more ambitious program of eradicating ‘Lebensunwerten Lebens (life unworthy of life). The neglection of such patients in Germany after 1933 resulted in the increased death rate in the asylums. As early as 1935 the government legalized the practice of abortions, notoriously known as the ‘killing of unborn life’, which legalized abortion in the event of supposed genetic disorders. Taking into consideration the radicalization of the Nazi policy in all spheres, the year 1939 was to become a turning point. In early 1939 the parents of a severely disabled infant named Gerhard Kretschmar (born February 20, 1939) from a village near Leipzig appealed to the director of the Leipzig University pediatric clinic for ‘mercy killing’ of their child. Professor Werner Catel (1894-1981) advised the parents to send a letter to ‘Kanzlei des Führers’, or ‘KdF’ (Chancellery of the Führer) for granting a permission. This event is remarkable in historiography by Hitler’s personal involvement. The dictator assigned Karl Brandt, his escort physician since 1934, to examine the issue personally. Brandt visited the infant in July 1939 and permitted Professor Catel to personally kill the child (July 25, 1939). The ‘Gerhard Kretschmar case’, also known as ‘Knauer child’ was to become a notorious precedent, since Hitler empowered both Karl Brandt and Philipp Bouhler, the head of the Chancellery of the Führer, to assemble the same actions on a broader national scale. 

For obvious reasons, the Chancellery of the Führer was not to have any direct link to the program of killing children. For the purpose of concealment, a newly established body responsible for child ‘euthanasia’ program, a cover organization was created: a general practice for Nazi Germany and the practice of mass killings. As in many cases before and later, it had unobious naming: ‘Reichsausschuss zur wissenschaftlichen Erfassung von erb- und anlagebedingten schweren Leiden’ (Reich Committee for the Scientific Assessment of Serious Hereditary and Constitutional Suffering). In fact, it was an heir of the body, which previously had to deal with the problematic cases of sterilization. 

Child euthanasia in the Third Reich
One of the most well-known photos of the disabled children in the Third Reich. It was taken by SS photographer Franz Bauer at the Schönbrunn Psychiatric Hospital near Dachau in 1934

The bureaucratic machine came into action without a delay and on August 18, 1939, the secret document was created, and distributed to the regional governments of the Reich by the Ministry of the Interior. This decree obligated doctors and midwives in maternity hospitals, as well as medical practitioners throughout the country to register newborns and infants up to the age of three, who were suffering from physical and mental disorders. These documents were to be passed to the local public health authority and later sent to the cover address of the ‘Reich Committee’. In wider means, the success of the program of killing children was highly dependent on the cooperation of the regional public health authorities. The decision of sending a child to a so-called ‘Kinderfachabteilungen’ or ‘special children’s ward’ (thus meant further killing), was taken by a special commission of three consultants. The fate of the patient was thus decided on the basis of the initial brief form, filled by the local doctor, and by authorization of the three ‘consultants’, who rarely examined the case of a child thoroughly and, of course, never saw the patient personally. 

Municipal Mental Hospital for Children Wiesengrund 1942
Municipal Mental Hospital for Children at Wiesengrund, to the South of Berlin. The photo was taken in 1942

Pediatrician Ernst Wentzler (1891-1973) from Berlin. Wentzel was an NSDAP member since 1936 and the head of the Association of German Children’s Hospitals since 1938. After the end of WWII, he continued his practice as a pediatrician. He was accused several times in regard to the child-killing program but never prosecuted and sentenced. 

Psychiatrist and eugenicist Hans Heinze (1895-1983) from Brandenburg An Der Havel, notoriously known as ‘Euthanasie-Heinze’. In 1938 he became the director of the mental institution at Brandenburg An Der Havel, which would be later known as  Brandenburg Euthanasia Centre. Heinze personally supervised the training of the specialist for the ‘T4’ program and the killing of thousands of patients. After the war, he was convicted by the Soviets of war crimes (notably for the rejection to work for them) and spent seven years in a special camp at Sachsenhausen until 1952. Later on, he became chief of the psychiatric clinic in the town of Wunstorf. 

Professor of pediatrics Werner Catel (1894-1981) is known as the man, who in some way made the Nazi euthanasia program possible by examining the case of Gerhard Kretschmar in 1939 and personally killing the child in July 1939. After the War Catel was found not guilty during the denazification process in Germany and continued his career as a podiatrist in a child mental institution. 

Euthanasia in Germany: A nazi killing program
An IQ test of Werner B. (1925–1940), was estimated to have an intelligence of a six-year-old. He was considered unfit for education and murdered in Brandenburg in 1940

The inclusion of one or another child on the list of transportation to a ‘special children’s ward’ actually meant death. Starting from the second half of 1939 around thirty such killing centers were set up throughout the Reich. In most cases, they were located in the already active clinics, whose administration was open for cooperation with the ‘Reich Committee for the Scientific Assessment of Serious Hereditary and Constitutional Suffering’. Except for the cases when the child with disabilities had already been under the medical care of the state, the transfer of children to the special wards was possible only with the approval of the parents. It is obvious that the real intentions were not told and the majority of parents were misinformed, some were bullied or even forced. With the ongoing of WWII, when millions of German men were sent to the front, and women had to work, care of the children, especially the disabled became a problem and some mothers agreed to give up their handicapped infants. 

In the course of six years between 1939 and 1945 the so-called ‘special children’s wards’ became a place of centralized killing for more than 5000 children with physical or mental disabilities. This figure does include only the victims of the child ‘euthanasia’ programs killed in the wards. Another 4500 to 5000 infants were later killed in the realm of the further wider euthanasia program, notoriously known as ‘T-4’. To sum up, the total death toll of children, who were killed by gassing, deadly injections, or brought to death by starvation or deliberate neglect amounted to 10 000 victims. More than that, this figure covers the killings of the children on the border of the so-called old Reich in its 1939 borders, particularly in Germany and Austria, and does not include thousands of disabled infants, who were killed in the occupied territories, first of all in Poland and USSR. 

Child euthanasia
Group of children at the Katharinenhof Großhennersdorf hospital near Dresden, 1939-40. The children in this photo were mostly killed as a part of the child euthanasia program

 

FROM CHILDREN TO ADULTS: THE KILLING OPERATION EXPANDED

The physically or mentally disabled children declared as ‘unworthy of life’ were to become not the only victims of the mass killing program set in 1939. In contrast to the children, who were accounted as disabled by the local doctors and then approved by three consultants in Berlin, most parts of the disabled adults were already institutionalized in mental clinics. There was no need for parents’ agreement to pass these people under medical care. Although the majority of the handicapped in Germany was already sterilized, the logic of the Nazi regime made a firm step from exclusion to extermination. In the summer of 1939, probably in late July, there was a meeting between Hitler, Leonardo Conti (the head of the party office for national health in the Nazi Party Chancellery), Hans Heinrich Lammers (the chief of the Reich Chancellery), and Martin Bormann (the chief of the Nazi Party Chancellery). In this meeting, Hitler made it clear to his subordinates that the lives of severely insane patients were to be ended. 

In the following few weeks, the bureaucratic machine of the Third Reich experienced a kind of competition for the administration over the euthanasia killing program: a rivalry for the rule over the mass killings of tens of thousands of people. While children’s euthanasia had a relatively small scale, the killing of adults meant far larger numbers of victims. Philipp Bouhler, who was already in charge of children’s euthanasia, convinced Hitler that the euthanasia program for adults should be administered by KdF (Chancellery of the Führer) as well as the children’s program. The final assignment to Philipp Bouhler and Karl Brandt was given by Hitler in August 1939 to launch the broader program for killing handicapped adults. Similar to the killing of infants, the appointment of men in charge was followed by the attraction of medical expert advisers. Such a meeting was set up in early August by Bouhler to discuss with 15 to 20 experts the legal basis for the killing and the practical means of involvement. One of the reasoning voiced at that meeting and thus for euthanasia in a wider sense was the upcoming war and the necessity of freeing hospital space for the soldiers in the future. 

Philipp Bouhler works at his desk.
Philipp Bouhler, one of the architects of the killing program, was photographed in his office

The bureaucratic machine took another two months to mastermind the strategy of eradicating tens of thousands of people. In particular, one of the meetings of the medical specialists sympathetic to the idea of elimination of disabled adults was run by Viktor Brack on October 9, 1939. Brack was a hardened bureaucrat and ran the so-called Office II of the Führer’s Chancellery under Bouhler. Anyway, the upcoming program, and first of all its perpetrators among the medical specialists, needed a kind of official written authorization. In October 1939 Hitler agreed and signed (probably on October 9) a short decree which once again empowered Philipp Bouhler and Karl Brandt to authorize doctors to grant ‘a mercy death’ to those people suffering from ‘incurable’ illnesses. It is important to note that the decree was dated September 1 retrospectively, the day of the invasion of Poland, thus confirming the link in Hitler’s head between the outbreak of War and the ‘decisive actions’ inside the country. An idea that while millions of healthy young men were fighting and some losing their lives on the battlefield for the Reich, those ‘unworthy of life’ should not be a burden for the country, was convenient for the perpetrators. 

Reich leader Bouhler and Dr Brandt are charged with responsibility to extend the powers of specific doctors in such a way that, after the most careful assessment of their condition, those suffering from illnesses deemed to be incurable may be granted a mercy death. 

Adolf Hitler 

Adolf Hitler's authorization for the Euthanasia Program
Adolf Hitler’s authorization letter for the Euthanasia Program was signed in October 1939 but backdated September 1, 1939

After clearing all the formalities, October 1939 became the starting point of the large-scale euthanasia program for disabled adults in the Third Reich, while thousands of patients had already been killed by the SS in Poland. Starting from this turning point, the administration of the mental institutions throughout the country were obliged to fill in special questionnaires (‘Meldebogen 1’ or ‘Registration Form 1’) regarding the mentally disabled patients and send these reports to the ‘central planning office’ in Berlin, which in April 1940 moved to a villa at Tiergartenstraße 4 in central Berlin. Those special questionnaires made of several pages included questions regarding the patient’s behavior, his perceptivity of the treatment, frequency of communication with the family, and a history of the heredity of the mental illness.  

Einsatzgruppe A murdered thousands of psychiatric patients in Latvia and Russia.
A group photo of the Einsatzgruppe A perpetrators, who murdered thousands of psychiatric patients in the occupied Eastern territories

As time would show, the decisive clause regarding the ability of the patient to work and those marked as productive had a better chance to survive the T4 program, regardless of the prognosis of curability and expenses of care. In this respect, some doctors were concerned that on the basis of those questionnaires some of their patients would be regarded as suitable for work and they intentionally made the disabled seem worse when filling the form. Some rare medical specialists suspected the true intention of such questionnaires and rejected filling the documents or did not send them to Berlin. In contrast to such rare occasions,  tens of thousands of filled forms flew into the Berlin central office. The bureaucrats there created a patient card based on the questionnaires and the original was copied five times, and one copy was stored in the basement. 

Dormitory in the provincial mental hospital of Düren, 1930s
A dormitory in the mental hospital of Düren in the 1930s

If taking all the victims of the euthanasia program, they all could be separated into several categories. The first one is considered a purely medical diagnosis (epilepsy, schizophrenia, dementia, and other chronic psychiatric or neurological disorders). The second category included people who had been under medical care in the mental institution for more than five years, regardless of the diagnosis: this fact was a reason for the perpetrators to regard those patients as a burden for the state that should be eradicated. The third category included the criminally insane or those patients who committed actions on criminal grounds. The fourth category was not concerned with the particular diagnosis and included people of no German origin. The Fall 1939 rough estimate of the potential subjects of the euthanasia program gave bureaucrats a figure of 70 000 to 75 000 people in Germany and Austria. Such a figure was possible due to a rough estimate, based on the following assumption. Ten people in every one thousand population needed psychiatric treatment, every second among them in hospitalization (5 of 1000), and one patient among ten is subjected to euthanasia, thus giving a correlation of 1/1000, which meant up to 75 000 people in regard to the population of the Third Reich at that time. 

The killing of the infants on a far less ambitious scale was possible in the ‘special children’s wards’, but the broader killing of the adults resulted in the need for the creation of special killing centers (Tötungsanstalten). The chiefs of the euthanasia program with medical backgrounds: Karl Brandt, Leonardo Conti, as well as Dr. Albert Widmann, head of the chemistry section at the Forensic Institute of the Security Police, concluded a decision to use gas instead of medication and the T4 technicians advocated the establishment of special centers. Starting from January 1940 six such centers were set up throughout the Reich, though any moment in time until 1945 no more than four operated simultaneously. While there were differences between those six centers, the bureaucratic procedure of mass killings differed little from one euthanasia institution to another. Each of the ‘centers’ was ‘responsible’ for a particular geographic region. 

Nazi euthanazia program
One of the most notorious photos preserved. A transport waiting for patients from the Liebenau institution. The photo was taken on 2 October 1940. The patients were taken to the killing center and murdered.

 

BRANDENBURG

The first euthanasia killing center was set up in the old prison in the city of Brandenburg on the Havel, not far from Berlin. Back in 1933-1934, the former complex of buildings served as one of the first Nazi concentration camps and now in 1939, the abandoned hard labor penitentiary was turned into a euthanasia center. The workers from the SS Central Construction Office turned one of the premises of the complex into a gas chamber. The first testing killing of patients with carbon monoxide took place in the Brandenburg complex on January 4, 1940. Philipp Bouhler, Karl Brandt, and Leonardo Conti personally came to the center to witness the experiment. In the course of only nine months between January and September 1940, 9000 patients were killed in the old prison. Two crematoriums built specifically for the need of the killing failed to deal with the death toll and the locals frequently complained in regard to the smell, which used to spread around the surrounding area. The temporary decision to eliminate the corps in mobile crematoriums outside the town on one of the farms, failed to bring a solution and in October 1940 the Brandenburg complex was closed and its staff transferred elsewhere.  At the T4 program, the Brandenburg killing center was codenamed with the letter ‘B’. 

Brandenburg euthanasia center
One of the few preserved photos of the Brandenburg complex before WWII

GRAFENECK

Another institution known among the T4 perpetrators as object ‘A’ was created in the former castle of the dukes of Württemberg in the small rural village of Grafeneck, south of Stuttgart. The castle has been located atop an isolated hill since 1560. As early as October 13, 1939, the local authorities were ordered to clean up the asylum for disabled people, which had been operating here since 1929,  and then the former hunting lodge for the dukes of Württemberg was remodeled into a killing center. It is worth noting, that the patients of the asylum were not left here waiting for murder, but transferred to the other mental institution, and mostly survived the euthanasia program in later years. The first killings took place here also in January 1940 similar to Brandenburg and were recorded in a gas chamber covered up as a shower room until December 1940. 10,654 disabled and sick people are estimated to be killed here. The center was also closed due to the information about its secret activity, which spread to the outside world and Heinrich Himmler himself advised the T4 administrators to shut down the center. 

Grafeneck Castle on the Swabian Alb
Grafeneck Castle with picturesque panoramas of the Swabian mountains

HARTHEIM

The euthanasia center, which was codenamed ‘Object C’ is probably the most known today. Similar to Grafeneck, it was set up on the territory of the historical castle, not far from the city of Linza in Austria. As early as December 1938 the facility for caring for the disabled (here since 1898) was ordered to be dissolved due to the elimination of the ‘Upper Austrian Provincial Charity Association’ after the annexation of Austria. The turning of the facility into a killing center took place in April 1940. The systematic killings were held here from May 1940 until September 1, 1941, which demanded the lives of 18 000 victims. After the halting of the centralized program in 1941, Hartheim was used until December 1944 for allocating and killing the inmates of the concentration camps, who were unfit for work. This period claimed the lives of another 12 000 people, thus the total death toll of the Hartheim institution is 30 000 victims

View of Hartheim castle.
View of Hartheim castle, which was turned into a killing center
Group portrait of the staff of the Hartheim euthanasia facility relaxing with an accordion.
Group portrait of the T-4 medical staff at the Hartheim euthanasia facility while relaxing from mass killings

SONNENSTEIN

The fourth center, codenamed institution ‘D’ was also set up in a former mental clinic, which had operated since 1811. The systematic killings with the involvement of the staff of more than one hundred employees were initiated in June 1940 and in the course of fifteen months until September 1, 1941, no less than 13 720 patients were killed here. In contrast to the other euthanasia centers, Sonnenstein did not occupy the whole territory of the old medical institution, but only three buildings, while a psychiatric hospital known as Mariaheim continued to work nearby. 

Sonnerstein euthanasia center
A panoramic view over the town of Pirna and Sonnerstein castle on the hill
Sonnenstein Staff Members Heinrich Matthes with friends
Sonnenstein Staff Members

BERNBURG

One of the two killing centers which were established in a later phase of the 1940-1941 centralized program. The first controlled eradication of life took place in Bernburg as late as November 21, 1940, and the total number of victims by September 1941 amounted to 9300.  Located in the town of Bernburg near Weimar, this euthanasia center occupied the former State Sanatorium and Mental Hospital. After the official suspension of the T-4 program, Bernburg was used to ‘operate’ the inmates from concentration camps until its final shutdown in July 1943. 

Bernburg killing center: euthanasia program
A rare panorama over the Bernburg facility
Bernburg euthanasia center
The T-4 staff of the euthanasia center at Bernburg

HADAMAR

The last, if taking into account the date of completion, a euthanasia center in the small town of Hadamar not far from Frankfurt Am Maine, was put into killing operations in January 1941. During the main T-4 phase until September 1, 1941, it became a place of death for more than 10 000 patients, and the total death toll by March 1945 was 14 500. 

View of the Hadamar Institute,
Panoramic view of the Hadamar Mental Institute
Two pages of the death registry at Hadamar listing false causes of death.
Pages of the death registry at Hadamar facility with false causes of death

 

THE PROCEDURE AND NUMBER OF VICTIMS

The procedure of transportation and annihilation of thousands of people differs a little in those six centers and geographical regions. On a designated day, a bus came to the mental institution throughout the Third Reich, mostly a long gray bus similar to those used by the postal service. Though the Nazi regime used to claim the euthanasia victims ‘disabled’ or ‘dysfunctional’, at least a part of the patients suspected the intention of the transportation, and the majority of the handicapped were falsified with a promise of walking outside the clinic. Once the bus delivered the patients to one of the six killing centers, they were taken by the T-4 personnel to a room for a supposed medical observation after taking off their clothes. The medical examination indeed took place, but it was a formal two-minute routine. After that, the patient was given a number and photographed. All of these made a formal impression of legality, first of all, for the involved staff. The taken photographs were to serve as supposed proof of the mental disability of a person and the medical checkup served the doctors as a means to choose the falsified cause of death for the relatives of the patient. After these manipulations, the men and women were weighed, measured, and after this taken by small groups to the gas chambers, generally covered up as a shower room. Roughly twenty minutes of gassing killed all the people inside. The door was not to open for another few hours and then the gas chamber was ventilated with fans. Some of the bodies of the victims were then used for medical teaching by the doctors and the extracted golden teeth were sent to the T-4 central office in Berlin. In the final, the corps was to be cremated inside intentionally created crematoriums. 

victims of the Nazis' 'T4' euthanasia program are transported to killing centers
The victims of the Nazis’ euthanasia program are transported to killing centers. This photo was taken at the mental hospital in Bruckberg

In historical contrast to the meta statistics of the victims of the Holocaust later, the ‘accounting’ of the euthanasia victims was not only conducted in detail but also survived the war. In the course of the main period of the operation between January 1940 and September 1941, 70 273 killings were documented in six euthanasia centers. The figure happened to be dramatically close to the 1939 bureaucratic estimation of 70 000 to 75 000 supposed victims. If we examine the share of the total death toll in regard to the two years, twelve months of 1940 had roughly the same death toll as eight months in 1941. The T-4 bureaucrats not only calculated the total number of their victims but also summed up the sum of money of the supposed savings for the country. The figure meant the amount of money needed for taking care of those 70 000 people for the next ten years. 885,439,800 marks – this was the cost of 70 273 lives, around 12 000 for one live in Nazi Germany. A separate section of that notorious report included the number of eggs, potato, meat, butter, and even marmalade that would be presumably saved. 

Propaganda slide supposing the same cost of 5.50 DM for one German family and a handicapped
Nazi propaganda slide supposing the same expenses of 5.50 DM daily for one German family and a handicapped patient

The 70 000 death toll of the euthanasia program in the Third Reich, it is important to understand, includes neither tens of thousands of patients murdered not just in Germany and Austria but in Nazi-occupied Eastern territories: Poland and the Soviet Union, nor the period after September 1941. The first mass killing of mental patients in Poland took place as early as the Fall of 1939 and it is estimated that at least 7000 patients were killed there toward the end of the year. In contrast to the disabled persons in the old Reich, the criteria of fitting the work demands played no role in selection. The patients were killed for the purpose that they were either Jews or Polish handicapped. When it comes to the Jews, the probability of being killed was the largest among all other groups of victims. At the same time, the mass killings of disabled people in the occupied territories were beyond the operations of the T4 administrators who implemented the Euthanasia Program. The patients were primarily executed by the SS and auxiliary forces. 

Eugenics plate in the Third Reich
Nazi eugenics plate entitled: ‘Ausmerzung des Kranken und Schwachen in der Natur’ (The eradication of the sick and weak in nature)

 

TIERGARTENSTRASSE 4 BEFORE WWII

In the second half of the XVII century, the territory between the Tiergarten park and the drainage ditch known at that time as ‘Schafgraben’ (later Landwehrkanal) was mainly uncultivated. Starting from 1685 some French Huguenots, who had previously come to Berlin, started to digest the area for agricultural purposes. The pioneering farms later gave way to the villas of the plantation owners and as early as the last decade of the XVIII century the area to the south of Grother Tiergarten became a favorite choice of the German bourgeoisie as a place for summer residences next to the former royal hunting grounds. In 1828 a new development plan included an expansion of the area and in 1841 it was finally incorporated into Berlin. During that period, the area to the south of the largest Berlin park was turned into an elite residential area with villas for the local politicians, artists, and musicians. 

Map of Berlin 1809
A map of Berlin from 1809. It reveals the farmlands and the farmhouses to the south of Grother Tiergarten

To speak particularly about the territory, where the T-4 central office was operating since 1940, and today the Berlin Philharmonic is located, the very first villas appeared on this spot of land as far back in time as the 1820s at the height of the construction binge in the suburb of Berlin. In the following half, a century this spot changed several owners until in 1875 it was purchased by banker and art patron Valentin Weisbach (1843-1899). In 1888 he acted as one of the co-founders of the “Association for the Improvement of Small Apartments”, which aimed to reform the building program in the Berlin area. In the same year, Weisbach demolished the old erections on his own plot of land, and toward 1890 a new villa dominated the area. Christian Heidecke (1837-1925) was the architect. His villa designs were at that time in demand in the bourgeois society of Berlin.  

Map of Berlin 1877
Another map of the city from 1877 with the colony of villas
Tiergarten disctrict in Berlin in the 1890s
A picture of how the Tiergarten bourgeois district looked like at the end of the XIX century

On July 31, 1909, a well-known Jewish entrepreneur Georg Liebermann (he had a brother Max, whose villa on Pariser Platz had been constructed according to the design of Christian Heidecke) purchased the land with the villa on Tiergartenstrasse. In the following few years, the new owner reconstructed the villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4 and turned it into an imposing three-story residence with three dozen rooms, an elevator, and even a hall for balls. Along with that, the Liebermann family considered the villa too pompous for living and they gradually spent less and less time here as a primary residence.  After Georg Liebermann’s death in 1926, his heirs used to rent the rooms of the villa, mainly on the first floor, for commercial activity. Over the years, the site was a place of a rented business asset for a picture dealer, a local art auction, and even a pharmacy.  Tiergartenstraße 4 was not a unique case of such a commercial renting as many of the mansions in the area were not occupied by their owners. 

Tiergartenstraße 4 villa in Berlin
The first known photo of the villa at Tiergartenstraße 4, photographed back in 1921

In early 1935 the villa was rented by the foreign organization of the NSDAP (Außenpolitisches Amt der NSDAP), whose main office was at that time at Hotel Adlon in Berlin. Since that time, originates the history of using the Tiergartenstraße 4 for the state purpose, and the mansion was cordoned by a guarding unit. Dozens of rooms inside Liebermann’s residence were partitioned into even greater numbers of offices, the departments, each relating to a particular country, the foreign organization of the NSDAP  had to work with. As early as 1936 Hans Liebermann, the heir and owner of the villa and a Jew transferred ownership to his Aryan German wife in order to save the property from Nazi expropriation. The man had already experienced the antisemitic realias of the new regime when in 1933 he lost his professor position of Organic Chemistry at the Technical University. Two years later the passing of the rights for the villa, in September 1938 Hans Libermann committed suicide incapable of facing the humiliations and the possibility of being taken to a concentration camp. 

Interior of the villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in the 1930s
Interior of the villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in the 1930s. A dining room.

villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in the 1930s

Interior of the villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4
The same series of photos with the library in the focus

 

THE T4 OFFICE AT TIERGARTENSTRASSE

The foreign organization of the NSDAP left the villa as early as April 1939 and moved to Fehrbelliner Platz 4 in Western Berlin. The area to the South of Tiergarten was then turning into a ‘diplomatic district’ with dozens of embassies and the ambitious development plan by Hitler’s architect Albert Speer supposed the reshape the area. The state simply expropriated those estates, whose owners fell under one of the undesirable categories for the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, Clara Liebermann, the widow of the professor, and his sister succeeded in selling the property to the city of Berlin. though the long-time owner had been a Jew. In actual terms, the purchase/sale agreement was signed as late as October 5, 1940, though the villa had been in renting use by the government since 1935. 

The villa at the Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin from where Aktion T4 was run
The villa at the Tiergartenstrasse 4

While the administrative apparatus of the T-4 euthanasia program moved to Tiergartenstraße 4 (initially they were located in the so-called Columbiahaus on Potsdamer Platz) as late as April 1940, the renovation works had been initiated earlier in September 1939. Vollmann and Schmidt construction company was assigned with Erwin Hermann Lambert (1909-1976), a bricklayer and master mason, and also an NSDAP party member since 1933, as the main specialist. After fulfilling his commitments with the villa at Tiergartenstraße 4, in January 1940 he became one of the experts in building up the gas chambers. Initially for the euthanasia centers at Hartheim, Sonnenstein, Bernburg, and Hadamar, and later of the death camps at Sobibór and Treblinka in Poland and minor concentration and work camps on the occupied territories, including Italy. In the post-war years, Erwin Hermann Lambert was a free man until 1962 when he faced ‘The Treblinka trial’ and later ‘Sobibor trial. He was sentenced to only four years in the first case and was acquitted in the second, thus released in 1966. Lambert was never tried directly for involvement in the euthanasia program and died peacefully in 1976. 

Another site of the organisation's headquarters Columbus House at Potsdamer Platz
The initial location of the T-4 headquarters in 1939. The so-called ‘Columbus House’ at Potsdamer Platz

Followed by several months of renovation works and bureaucratic procedures, The central office of the euthanasia program, codenamed Zentralver Rechnung Stellen Heil- und Pflegeanstalten” (Central Accounting Office for Sanatoriums and Care Institutions) finally moved to the premises at Tiergartenstraße 4 in April 1940. Viktor Brack, Nazi and SS member, former Heinrich Himmler’s driver, and since 1934 a senior official in Hitler’s Chancellery after Philipp Bouhler, was now the head of the whole killing program along with his assistant Werner Blankenburg. Brack, similar to many perpetrators of the Nazi killing programs, was a hardened bureaucrat and he managed to create a whole administrative state inside the state to administer ‘Action T-4’, with six departments, each with harmless-sounding naming to cover the nature of the process: administration of the killing process on a production scale. 

Tiergartenstrasse 4in Berlin. Euthanasia program
A modern 3D reconstruction model of the Tiergartenstrasse 4 villa
  1. THE MEDICAL DEPARTMENT (MEDIZINISCHE ABTEILUNG). This section was directly responsible for hiring medical personnel, either consultant in Berlin or medical experts for the killing centers and in minor mental institutions throughout the Third Reich. It was the staff of this department, whose duties included sending the notorious questionnaires (known as ‘Meldebogen 1’), the papers which meant life or in most cases death of the patient, and the staff later accepted it back, analyzed, and stored copies. When the flow of those questionnaires became immoderate, new staff was hired. The department was initially headed by Dr. Werner Heyde (1902-1964), a psychiatrist and professor, and director of a mental hospital. He was replaced in 1941, but continued work in Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen concentration camps and met the end of the war in the rank of SS-Standartenführer (Colonel). In order to avoid being trialed, he was hanged at the prison in 1964 five days before the trial and after years of hiding with fraught documents. Paul Nitsche (1876-1948) was a former director of the Sonnenstein clinic (later one of the killing centers), Heyde’s deputy, and replaced him in December 1941. Condemned to death, he was executed by guillotine on March 25, 1948, in Dresden.
  2. THE PERSONNEL DEPARTMENT (PERSONALABTEILUNG). The personnel of this administrative branch administered all recruitment operations for the T4 staff either for the central office at Tiergartenstraße 4 or for the killing centers. Their duties included the justification of the ‘mercy killings’ for the prospective employees, particularly young ones. Friedrich Haus (1909-1945) was the first chief of this department with Arnold Oels as his deputy and later replacement. 
  3. THE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION (TRANSPORTABTEILUNG). This department administered the transfer of disabled patients to intermediate institutions and killing centers. The staff of this department was led by Reinhold Vorberg (1904-1983), also the administrator of the “Gemeinnützige Krankentransport GmbH” (Charitable Corporation for Patient Transport), a cover-up organization. V0rberg was a party member since 1930 and he was a cousin of Victor Brack. After two decades in hiding, Vorberg finally faced trial in 1967 and was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment for assisting in killing 70 000 people and he was not put into custody due to the previous imprisonment. His deputy was Gerhard Siebert (1905-1992). 
  4. THE BUREAU DEPARTMENT (BUROABTEILUNG). The personnel coordinated all administrative issues in regard to the killing process in the euthanasia killing centers, particularly issuing falsified death certificates. From Autumn 1939 Dr. Gerhard Bohne (1902-1981) was the chief of this section. Bohne was a party member since 1930, an SS member since 1937, and a layer who used to defend the Nazi members in courts before Hitler’s seizure of power, thus an experienced justificator of the Nazi crimes. After the war, he fled to Argentina, came back in 1955, experienced several trials, and was never sentenced for his crimes due to medical reasons (supposed heart attack), which did not bother him to live until 1981. Friedrich Tillmann (1903-1964), an NSDAP member since 1933, replaced Bohne in summer 1940. He was also never sentenced for his crimes and died in 1964 before being trialed. 
  5. THE CENTRAL FINANCE DEPARTMENT (THE MAIN ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICES – ‘HAUPTWIRTSCHAFTSABTEILUNG’). The staff was responsible for financial issues such as payrolls to staff, real estate issues, inventory in the killing centers, and other accounting details of the killing program. The section was initially headed by Willy Schneider, in March 1941 replaced by Fritz Schmiedel (1907-1958), and in January 1942 by Friedrich Lorent (1905-1988)
  6. THE DEPARTMENT OF INSPECTION (INSPEKTIONSABTEILUNG). The personnel of this department managed the initial selection and administration of the six killing centers, and the negotiations with the local authorities. Adolf Gustav Kaufmann (1902-1974), an SA member since 1923, and a party member since 1926 was the administrator. He was free of criminal charges until the mid-1960s when the trial in 1969 was suspended due to health reasons, and Kaufmann managed to live another five years. 
Example of a registration form for a patient at the Bunzlau state medical and nursing facility
A preserved registration form (questionnaire) of a patient at the Bunzlau state medical and nursing facility
Group portrait of T-4 Euthanasia program personnel at a social gathering. One of them plays the accordian.
Group portrait of T-4 Euthanasia program personnel at a social gathering

Apart from the inner administrative structure of the T-4 ‘Central office’, the bureaucrats established several cover-up organizations for the outer world, which used to create an illusion of legitimacy and concealed the actual nature of the mass killings on a production scale. Similar to many other euphemisms in the Third Reich, these cover-up organizations had harmless namings. 

  • “Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaft Heil- und Pflegeanstalten”
    Reich Association for Healing and Nursing Homes
  • “Gemeinnützige Stiftung für Anstaltspflege”
    Charitable Foundation for Institutional Care 
  • “Gemeinnützige Krankentransport GmbH”
    Charitable Corporation for Patient Transport. 
  • “Zentrale Verrechnungsstelle Heil- und Pflegeanstalten”
    Central Accountancy department Healing and Nursing Homes. 

Toward Spring 1940, the central office at Tiergartenstraße 4 and up to sixty of its employees was responsible for the life and death of tens of thousands of people. The staff used to create an individual file for every patient on the basis of the questionnaires from throughout the country. The analysts of the ‘Medizinische Abteilung’ (Medical department) then examined the rough information without, of course, seeing the patient and left a special mark on the file. A rare question mark meant further consideration, a blue minus sign supposed life, and, in most cases, a red plus sign marked death. Then this file was sent to three senior experts, known as ‘Obergutachter’ (senior accessors) of the T-4 program who confirmed or rarely rejected the initial consideration. There was no need for a unanimous decision of the three: at least one red plus meant death. 

A ward in the Am Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna, in the 1940s.jpg
A hospital ward in the ‘Am Spiegelgrund’ clinic in Vienna, in the 1940s
A bus and driver photographed outside Germany's Hartheim killing center in 1940
A bus and driver were photographed next to the notorious bus in 1940. This photo was taken outside the Hartheim killing center

After examination of the files by the senior experts, the files of those patients who fell under the extermination were passed to the ‘Transport department’, which was responsible for transferring the disabled persons to the killing centers. The whole process of mass extermination, which was a common thing for the Nazis, was strictly bureaucratized and the chosen patient had zero to no chances of survival. The copy of the files of those killed, known as ‘A-Akte’ was then sent to the archive in the basement of the villa Tiergartenstraße 4. Despite the nature of the operations, the ‘Central office’ itself attracted poor attention from the outside world. The villa was not cordoned with barbed wire or armed soldiers: the main entrance led visitors to a kind of reception office. Some of the key T-4 administrators, such as Professor Werner Heyde, one of the leading experts, used to live in the villa. 

The recruitment of new staff for the ‘Central office’ was a constant never-ending process from 1940-1941. The chosen medical experts were invited to Tiergartenstraße 4, where they were taught, initially by drawing a veil and later in perfect sincerity, about the euthanasia program and the assignment. Starting from August 1940 the T-4 staff used different means of persuasion to attract respected professors and chiefs of the mental institutions: all to give verification and even respectability to the program. None of the doctors was forced to cooperate and all consultants without exception agreed voluntarily, and sometimes with enthusiasm. There were only a few occasions of refusal, which involved a zero effect on the career of those who rejected the work. While the T-4 office became a place of work for dozens of experienced and recognized psychiatrists, there were also many young doctors, some of them even did not have a certification in psychiatry at the time they decided for the first time on life and death. 

T-4 personnel
Company outing of the T4 staff, around 1940
T4 experts at Lake Starnberg, early September 1941
T4 experts at Lake Starnberg, September 1941. From left to right: driver Erich Bauer and the T4 experts Rudolf Lonauer, Dr. Victor Ratka, Dr. Friedrich Mennecke, Prof. Dr. Paul Nitsche, Dr. Gerhard Wischer

The relatives of those killed, if there were such, received several notifications, all retrospectively, when their close ones had already been dead for some time. The first one informed about the transfer of the disabled person to one of the mental clinics (in fact, euthanasia killing center). The second one stated brief information about the successful arrival to a new destination and asked not to visit the patient for some time for the sake of adaptation. After a while, the relatives received notification of death with fraught reasoning: most frequently it was pneumonia, tuberculosis, or a heart attack. The majority of the T-4 personnel used pseudonyms while signing the documents with a fake date of death. 

 

OPERATIONS AFTER AUGUST 24, 1941

Despite the unprecedented measures of concealment of the euthanasia killing program, the information about the systematic killing of mentally disabled patients spread to the outside world. The rumors became a routine not only in the medical circles but a rising concern for a wide audience. Some percentage of the relatives of those killed were not ‘satisfied’ with the falsified notifications and addressed the police to figure out the issue. The reasoning for this was sometimes more than obvious. For example, when the notification of death included appendix inflammation and the patient had been operated on years before. Apart from this, too many people were involved in the program. The staff of the six killing centers was not always so secretive about their work, especially after taking some alcohol in a local bar, and the local citizens used to complain about the unbearable smell from the crematoriums. More than that, the notorious gray buses, which were used to transfer patients to the killing centers, were attracting a rising suspicion. The leak of the rumor was so widespread, that the information about the euthanasia program even left the Third Reich. Some foreign officials, including those in neutral countries (even the Vatican: On December 2, 1940, the Pope condemned the killing of disabled persons), voiced their concern about the killing of innocent people with physical or mental disabilities. 

Smoke over the Hartheim killing center, secretly photographed, probably 1940
Smoke over the Hartheim killing center, secretly photographed

The official reaction of the Nazi state toward the social concern was at first evasive. Viktor Brack, the actual chief of the T-4 program, even advocated the release of the fiction film called ‘I accuse!’ (Ich Klage an), which discussed the ‘mercy death’ (Gnadentod) for people with defects, aimed at a wide German audience. Nevertheless, on august 24, 1941 Hitler himself ordered in written form to halt the euthanasia program. In narrow means, his decree suspended the centralized killing of the adult handicapped but meant the continuation of child euthanasia. Toward this moment in time, even Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler and his notorious subordinate Reinhard Heydrich criticized the implementation of the program. More than that, the estimated figures of 70 000 for killing were already achieved. 

A scene from the film Ich Klage An (I Accuse), produced in 1941. The film justifies euthanasia for terminally ill patients. In the film, the doctor puts his wife, suffering from multiple sclerosis, to death.
A scene from the ‘Ich Klage An’ (I Accuse) movie, produced in 1941

Hitler’s instruction on August 24, 1941, did not leave the euthanasia killing completely behind. Apart from the disabled children, who would remain a target until the end of the War, thousands of the adults handicapped in the Third Reich were still fated to be exterminated in less centralized ways (‘Dezentrale Anstaltstötungen’). This period is generally known as ‘wild euthanasia’, and it was carried out secretly in many mental institutions throughout the war. Thousands of disabled patients were either killed by drug overdose and lethal injection or by poor treatment, including malnutrition. More than that, four of the six euthanasia killing centers (Hartheim, Sonnenstein, Bernburg, and Hadamar) in one way or another were used for mass killings throughout the war. This phase, known as the ‘second phase’ demanded the lives of more people, that the centralized gassing in six killing centers between January 1940 and September 1941. 

Desperate letter of one of the mothers about the fate of her daughter
A desperate letter from 1941 from one of the mothers about the fate of her disabled daughter

Another dramatic page of the Nazi crimes, which is conventionally attributed to the ‘second phase’ of euthanasia, is known as “Sondertreatment 14f13” or ‘Aktion 14F13’ or simply ‘14F13’, where 14 meant the inspector of the concentration camps, ‘F’ death, and ‘13’ type of death. This practice of mass extermination involved the inmates of the concentration camps who were not able to work, and thus, were subject to annihilation. ‘Aktion 14F13’ overtook elderly people, sick persons and disabled, even invalids of WWI, some soviet prisoners of war, and Jews on the territory of the Reich between 1941 and 1944. In the case of Jews, race could serve as the primary reason for extermination, leaving an ability to work non-parameter. Thus, long after the suspension of the centralized T-4 program, its staff used to make short journeys to the concentration camps to act as consultants. The exact figure of the inmates killed under “Sondertreatment 14f13” is unknown, but the best estimates give the toll up to 20 000 victims until the end of 1943. Summing up, if to take the initial 70 000 victims of the centralized euthanasia, add people killed in 14F13, handicapped children, disabled persons on the occupied territories of Poland and the Soviet Union, and even invalid victims of the air raids, foreign laborers, and general patients, in total it is supposed, that the Nazi euthanasia of those ‘unworthy if life’ demanded the lives of 250 000 to 300 000 people

German civilians exhume the bodies of 44 Polish and Russian forced laborers who were put to death at the Hadamar Institute and buried in a mass grave behind the euthanasia facility. April 1945
The exhumation of the bodies of 44 forced labor inmates at the Hadamar Institute. April 1945
View of the cemetery at the Hadamar Institute, where victims of the Nazi euthanasia program were buried in mass graves. April 1945
Cemetery at the Hadamar Institute, where victims of the ‘Wild’ euthanasia were buried in mass graves. April 1945

When it comes directly to the bureaucratic apparatus of the central office at Tiergartenstraße 4, the suspension of the first centralized phase did not lead to the immediate dismissal of the staff, who had in the eyes of the Nazi leaders, a ‘unique’ experience. Viktor Brack wanted his staff to bring their “expert knowledge” for the ‘good’ of the regime and it comes with no surprise that the extermination of the disabled patients between 1939 and 1941 was the predecessor of the mass murder of Jews starting from 1941. The obvious parallels included not only the transportation of the victims to the killing centers, where they were gassed, the release of the perpetrators from liability and secrecy, but also a bureaucratic practice of the distribution of duties among those involved. The first T-4 consultants were sent to the East to Lublin as early as November 1941 and participated in the establishment of Chelmno and the Aktion Reinhard extermination camps: Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec. Most of them later became members of the SS, got the ranks, and used to wear uniforms. 

Celebrating T4 men during »Operation Reinhardt«, 1942-43
The T-4 staff celebrating during the ‘Operation Reinhard’ extermination of Jews in 1942-1943
Christian Wirth when assigned to Hartheim, with friends
The notorious Christian Wirth at the times when he was assigned to Hartheim, with his friends

It was not directly Hitler’s order from August 1941, but the involvement in the extermination of the Jews which led to the decrease in the staff at Tiergartenstraße 4 on the threshold of 1941-1942. At the same time, in the early months of 1942, the budget for operating the office (particularly the salaries of the staff) still amounted to 500,000 RM monthly. It would decrease gradually in the course of the war to only 10 000 RM in 1945. As some of the killing centers were still in operation, the T-4 personnel were to maintain the continuity of this activity. In 1943 the cover-up organization ‘Reich Association for Healing and Nursing Homes operated a staff of twenty specialists here until in August 1943 the remaining personnel was transferred first to Hartheim and then to other locations. 

Apart from the fate of the chiefs of the T-4 departments after the War, it is important to say a few words about the key architects of the euthanasia program. On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide, yet many of the key nazi functioners were to face the International Trial in Nuremberg. After the primary tribunal against the key war criminals, subsequently, twelve additional trials were held to prosecute the war criminals in different spheres. The first was the so-called ‘Nuremberg Doctors’ case’ officially known as ‘The United States of America v. Karl Brandt’. Among the twenty-three those accused, twenty had been doctors, including Karl Brandt himself. Karl Brandt, Viktor Brack, as well as another five men, were sentenced to death and hanged on June 2, 1948. Apart from these seven, the overwhelming majority of the physicists and psychiatrists involved in the euthanasia program escaped punishment for decades, many at all. Many refused to admit they had done anything wrong and it was generally difficult to find witnesses ready to testify against their colleagues’ doctors. As for Philipp Bouhler, Chief of the Chancellery and not a physician, on May 19, 1945, he committed suicide in American captivity. 

Victor Brack on the first day of his testimony in his own defense during the Doctors Trial.
Victor Brack, the immediate chief of the euthanasia apparatus on the first day of his testimony in his defense during the Doctors Trial in Nuremberg
Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician stands in the defendants dock at the Doctors Trial.
Karl Brandt (in the center standing), Hitler’s physician stands in the defendants’ dock at the Doctors Trial in Nuremberg

 

THE VILLA AFTER THE WAR

The T-4 staff left the office at Tiergartenstraße 4 in the mid-1943, and until the end of the War the Tiergarten area, as well as Berlin in general experienced severe Allied air bombardments: in total, the city suffered 68,285 tonnes of bombs, thus the highest figure among the German cities in WWII. At the same time, despite the devastating damage to the central part of the city and particularly the Tiergarten area to the South of the park, the villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4 was still mainly undamaged until April 1945 and the Battle of Berlin, when it was seriously devastated by the Soviets. The building witnessed the end of the war in ruins, experienced looting, and lay in ruins for another few years until the local authorities examined in detail every building in the area. Thus, in 1949 the former villa of the Libermann family was estimated to be 97% destroyed and dangerous. Apart from the looting since 1945, only a large boiler was taken out of the ruins in a centralized way in 1949 and as early as Spring 1950 the remnants of the front side which had once faced Tiergarten park were blown up and the area leveled. 

Tiergartenstrasse 4 after the WarTiergartenstrasse 4SLIDE me

Klara Liebermann, the widow of the Jewish professor Hans Liebermann, who had committed suicide in 1938, survived the War and left Germany. In 1950, when the villa was leveled, Klara Liebermann and her son, both in immigration, made efforts to regain justice. They sent an appeal to Germany to get back the cost of the former property as the family regarded the purchase price in 1940 as unreasonable and claimed they were forced to sell the villa. Their appeal included the 100,000 RM compensation, a few times higher cost than that they got in 1940 from the state. Though Klara Liebermann was not Jewish herself, and thus did not fall under the category of those who had been racially persecuted during the War, in 1954 the Berlin Regional Court finally settled the dispute in her favor. Five years later, after a few months after Klara’s death in 1959, the city of Berlin refunded the Libermann family money for their share in the property, which allowed the local authorities to finally make use of the empty spot of land in the center of Berlin. 

The ruins of the villat at Tiergartenstrasse 4
The remnants of the villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4 as they looked after WWII

The now undisputed ownership over the land allowed the city of Berlin to initiate the construction of the Berlin Philharmonie, whose project competition had been completed in 1956. It is important to note, that despite numerous mentionings of the former T-4 headquarters in Berlin within the Nuremberg Tribunal (Doctor’s case), the actual nature of the Tiergartenstrasse 4 address during WWII would remain a historical blind spot for decades. In their lawsuit, the Libermann family stated that the villa had been occupied by the foreign organization of the NSDAP (Außenpolitisches Amt der NSDAP) until the end of the War. Despite the traumatizing debate in later years, there is no documented evidence that either the Berlin authorities or Philamonie’s architect Hans Scharoun (1893-1972) had an understanding of the war-time activity of the T-4 central office on the site. The construction took a little more than three years, and the inauguration ceremony took place on October 15, 1963. The total cost of the construction of the Berlin Philharmonie was estimated as 17 million marks, an equivalent of around 40 million euros today. The new magnificent building took the former site of Tiergartenstrasse 4 as well as several other buildings, which had been also demolished after WWII. In fact, St. Matthäuskirche, a Lutheran Church of St. Matthew, and the Bendlerblock complex were at that time one of the only surviving pre-war buildings in the vast desolate area of the former diplomatic district. 

Berlin Philharmonie
The architectural plan of the Berlin Philharmonie
Tiergartenstrasse 4
I took this photo back in September 2019 while it was heavy raining on the site. This informational board reveals the original location of the villa in correlation with the Berlin Philharmonie

 

THE MEMORIAL TO THE VICTIMS

Notwithstanding the scrutinized attention to the centralized killings of disabled persons by the doctors in the Third Reich during the Nuremberg trials, and the subsequent trials in Germany in the 1960s, the victims of the euthanasia program were commemorated as appropriate for decades. Similar to the topic of the Holocaust, the wider understanding of the nazi crimes against humanity became a part of German society as late as the 1980s. More than that, the volunteers and civil enthusiasts were the moving force of this shift of public awareness. After realizing the importance of the area where now the Berlin Philharmonie stood, the proactive Berliners used to organize a series of public campaigns in the 1980s aimed to attract attention to the topic. In 1987 with the help of the Central Council of the Jews in Germany, the activists managed to run an exhibition inside a bus on an empty spot of land next to the Philharmonie.  

Opening of the Mobiles Museum campaign in 1987, left Heinz Galinski, Chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
A Mobile Museum campaign on the site in 1987. To the left is Heinz Galinski, Chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany

In 1987, the authorities decided to put the sculpture of American architect Richard Serra in front of the Philharmonie. The sculpture made of two parallel curved steel plates thirteen meters long, which is now known as the memorial on the site of T-4, had a complex history. It was initially called ‘Berlin curves’ and had no correlation with either of these locations or the victims of the Nazi regime. Serra created it for the ‘Der Unverbrauchte Blick’ (A fresh look) exhibition, which took place between January and April 1987 in Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition hall next to the ‘Topography of Terror’ museum in central Berlin. The dimensions of the sculpture did not meet the space limitations and was placed outside the museum. At the end of the exhibition, the Senate decided to buy Serra’s work and it was the architect’s choice to place it next to the Philharmonie, though it was initially placed next to the Brandenburg Gates. Serra was interested in space and Hans Scharoun’s creation, rather than in the commemoration of WWII victims. The public protested such a decision and only then did the local authorities make up their minds to turn Serra’s sculpture, renamed ‘Berlin junction’ into a memorial. 

Berlin Curves
The Berlin Curved by Serra, at that time near the Brandenburg gates. Someone spraypainted: “560,000 marks for this shit”. The inscription was promptly removed, with no damage to the sculpture.
Richard Serra
An elderly Richard Serra next to one of his works
Tiergartenstrasse euthanasia memorial
My 2019 photo of Serra’s sculpture and the Berlin Philarmonie in the background

Sculptor Volker Bartsch was commissioned to create a memorial plaque embedded in the ground beneath the steel plates. It was a temporary solution for the sensitized public opinion, and the 3.16m x 3.16m bronze plaque, welded together from seven plates, was unveiled on September 1, 1989, in the presence of the Tiergarten District Mayor Wolfgang Naujokat, Senator for Cultural Affairs, Dr. Anke Martiny, and the President of the Berlin Medical Association, Dr. Ellis Huber.

“Honor to the forgotten victims

At this point, at Tiergartenstraße 4, the first National Socialist mass murder was organized from 1940, named ‘Action T4’ after this address.

From 1939 to 1945 almost 200,000 defenseless people were killed. Their lives were regarded as ‘unworthy of life’, their murder was called ‘euthanasia’. They died in the gas chambers of Grafeneck, Brandenburg, Hartheim, Sonnenstein, Bernburg and Hadamar, they died by firing squad, by planned starvation and poison.

The perpetrators were scientists, doctors, nurses, members of the judiciary, the police, health and labor administrations. The victims were poor, desperate, rebellious or in need of help. They came from mental clinics and children’s hospitals, from old people’s homes and welfare institutions and military hospitals, from camps.

The number of victims is large, the number of convicted perpetrators is small.”

For years after Richard Serra’s sculpture was turned into a memorial and the insertion of a plaque in 1989, a such commemoration was criticized for inadequate memorization of the victims of the euthanasia program. While the twelve-meter-long ‘Berlin junction’ is hard to be ignored from a distance, the commemorative plaque is not visible enough. A new phase of discussion was initiated in the XXI century by the still-alive relatives of the euthanasia victims, who had actively appealed to the Federal and Berlin state governments for appropriate commemoration. As late as October 26, 2007, two informational plaques with text in German and English, with brief information about the villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4, the euthanasia program, and Christian Wirth as the notorious perpetrator were placed at the two glass bus stops next to the Philarmonie. The plaques were sponsored by a local entrepreneur and designed by Ronnie Goltz, an author of several ‘bus-shelter’ memorials in Berlin since 1995. In march 2022 after the dismantling of the former bus stops, new informational boards were installed on the sidewalk of Tiergartenstrasse. 

Tiergartenstrasse memorial plaque
A memorial plaque, which was once located at the bus stop and who it looked like in the late 2000s
Grey bus euthanssia program
A photo of the notorious ‘Grey bus’ next to one of the mental clinics: Eichberg in Eltville am Rhein. The photo was taken in 1941 prior to the transportation of the patients to the killing center

Fortunately, the two bus stop plaques were not the final commemoration word to the victims of the euthanasia program and in January 2008 a gey memorial to the bus created by Horst Hoheisel and Andreas Knitz was installed a few dozens of steps behind the ‘Berlin junction’ sculpture. It is a mobile memorial and it was initially installed at Weissenau Psychiatric Center near Ravensburg: it would stand at Tiergartenstrasse for a year until January 2009 to be moved to Brandenburg An Der Havel and to many locations in the following years. A year before, in April 2007, the pupils of Knobelsdorff Upper School Center marked the original location of the Tiergartenstrasse 4 villa with blue tapes on the ground. In 2011 the German Bundestag finally agreed on the necessity of creating a new memorial and the competition of design saw the works of twenty-seven authors. The winning project was by architect Ursula Wilms (born 1963, one of the creators of the ‘Topography of Terror’ memorial), Austrian artist Nikolaus Koliusis (born 1953), and the landscape architect Heinz-Willi Hallmann (born 1940). The new memorial was unveiled on September 2, 2014, at a cost of 600 000 euros. 

Grafeneck 1940
A rare photo of the T-4 bus drivers at the Grafeneck killing facility, 1940
A drawing of the grey bus
A drawing of the notorious grey bus
the 'Grey bus' memorial Berlin 2008
This photo was taken in 2008 when the ‘Grey bus’ memorial was still standing next to the Philarmonie

A new memorial placed next to the ‘Berlin junction’, is a transparent glass wall of blue color 24 meters in length, located in the middle of the brick-layered ground. This glass wall symbolizes the conventional division of the people into those regarded worthy and those unworthy of life in the Third Reich. Not in parallel but next to it is an anthracite-colored concrete panel with informational plaques devoted to the Nazi euthanasia killing program and why it is still an important issue nowadays. 

The new memorial was unveiled on September 2, 2014
The opening ceremony of the new memorial on September 2, 2014
Euthanasia memorial Berlin
The memorial how it looked during my visit in 2019