2009 issue 1


Volume 18, issue 1

Special article

Extermination of people with mental disorders in the occupied Poland: the beginnings of the Nazi genocide

Grażyna Herczyńska1
1. Z Pracowni Historii Psychiatrii Polskiej Instytutu Psychiatrii i Neurologii w Warszawie
Postępy Psychiatrii i Neurologii 2009; 18 (1): 25-30
Keywords: Nazi euthanasia, persons with mental disorders, Holocaust, genocide, World War II


Aim. The Holocaust was preceded by the Nazi programme of euthanasia of the handicapped, including persons with mental disorders. This horrible slaughter, even though incomparable in terms of the number of victims, surpassed other acts of German genocide. However, a purely arithmetical approach leads to an unacceptable, impersonal attitude toward the victims. The paper deals with the extermination of the mentally ill, preceded - with the full sanction of the Nazi law - by a compulsory sterilization of people with physical disabilities, mental disorders, and of those regarded as socially maladjusted.
Review. A closer look at these events allows, at least to some degree, to avoid impersonality, and better understand the fate of victims and intentions of their butchers. An important, specific feature of genocide of the mentally ill was the active participation, and sometimes even initiative of German physicians, scientists and lawyers: while the former were breaking their Hippocratic oath, the latter created a legal system going against all ethical norms. Takeover of mental hospitals by the German administration with the subseąuent murdering of psychiatric inpatients started on the territory of Poland in September 1939, just a few days after the German invasion. All the patients were killed, regardless of their nationality: Poles, Jews, Germans, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Ukrainians. Various methods of killing were used: shooting, gassing, injecting poison, starving to death. The extermination of people with mental disorders was precisely planned, accurately carried out, and, which seems even more important, provided a model for future homicide of otherpopulation groups regarded as unworthy to live or threatening the purity of race according to the German Nazi law. The extermination of the mentally ill in Poland in the years 1939-1945 was the subject of the book edited by Zdzisław Jaroszewski and published in 1993. The issue was continued from a broaderperspective by Tadeusz Nasierowski in his book under the title "Extermination of the mentally ill in the occupied Poland. The beginnings of the Nazi genocide" published in 2008. A critical analysis of this book is the main aim of the paper.

Address for correspondence:
mgr Grażyna Herczyńska
Instytut Psychiatrii i Neurologii,
Zakład Organizacji Ochrony Zdrowia,
Pracownia Historii Psychiatrii Polskiej
al. Sobieskiego 9; 02-957 Warszawa
e-mail: hercz@ipin.edu.pl