A final addition to Berlin’s memorial landscape? – Remembering the victims of NS euthanasia killings, by Nina Schmidt

On 2nd September 2014, at Tiergartenstraße 4 in Berlin, the official opening ceremony of a new memorial was held. This new place of commemoration bears the rather long-winded name of ‘Gedenk- und Informationsort für die Opfer der nationalsozialistischen »Euthanasie«-Morde’.[1] It seeks to redress the fact that in German collective memory, the systematic killing of many thousands of patients from hospitals and care homes does not hold the same prominence as the mass murder of Jewish people under National Socialism.[2] The latest addition to the Tiergarten memorials now remembers and, importantly, informs about those who fell prey to the Nazi’s first centrally organised wave of mass murder. These eugenic killings can be said to have laid the foundation of the Nazi mass murders based on ‘race’. Many of those in charge of the ‘euthanasia’ killings in Bernburg, Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Hartheim and Pirna-Sonnenstein later worked in the death camps Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.

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Photo: Nina Schmidt

 

I was in the German capital to learn more about the state of disability studies in German-language academia; a field of study within which I am seeking to situate my literary studies work on personal accounts of illness, disability, and death in contemporary German-language writing. Having arrived only on the 31st of August, it was fortunate that I heard about the opening ceremony when I first switched on the local radio on my second morning there.

After a busy few weeks in the libraries and archives of Berlin, I made my visit on my very last day there. The memorial’s location is in walking distance to the 2,711 stelae forming the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (inaugurated 2005), as well as the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime (public unveiling in 2008) and the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime (2012). Each of these sites underwent a lengthy and thorough approval process, with a number of possible concepts being scrutinised before the winning entry was commissioned. This latest project is no exception.

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Photo: Nina Schmidt

 

After seven years, this new memorial that now finally honours the long forgotten victims of the National Socialists’ eugenic mindset has been built to be easily accessible for people with various impairments – all of whom would have been at danger of being found to lead a life unworthy of life, ‘lebensunwertes Leben’, as was the dark, paradoxical Nazi term. The site accommodates visually impaired and hard of hearing visitors as well as wheelchair users, and provides information in simple German for those with a learning disability.

Over the past decade, the eastern part of the Tiergarten has become a veritable memorial landscape – complete with audio guides and walking tours in several languages. (New York Times journalist Melissa Eddy describes Germany as: ‘a country where commemoration of past crimes holds such a prominent place in the national debate that it can seem to border on obsession.’) This latest addition, however, is the only one to be found in a location of direct historical significance. Not far from Potsdamer Platz, it was in this exact spot where the urban villa of the Jewish family Liebermann stood. After 1933 and with its rightful owners expropriated, the building, address: Tiergartenstraße 4, housed various NS-organisations, among them the ‘Zentraldienststelle T4’. Within these administrative headquarters, the vacuously named ‘T4-Aktion’[3] was sought up and carried out.

With its symbolic, striking blue pane in front of the Berliner Philharmonie being visible from afar, and the elongated information board right next to it, the memorial is a great deal more notable in the physical landscape of the city than its predecessor: a sunken plaque from the late 1980s that can still be found only a few metres away. Captioned ‘Ehre den vergessenen Opfern’ (trans.: ‘Honour to the forgotten victims’), many people will have passed the unobtrusive plaque without taking note of its existence. Klaus Wowereit, acting mayor of Berlin, spoke at the newly extended memorial site on 2nd September. He acknowledged that it was overdue and that its delayed construction represented an omission in [the] post-war recognition of the Nazi crimes, an undeniable disregard for a large group of their victims.

As I explored the site, I was glad to see that the information on the board itself explicitly takes as one of its topics this lack of recognition for the eugenic crimes of the NS regime in the post-war period, elevating this fact to be as important as those parts of the exhibition that expose the historical chronology and detail of the ‘T4’-programme. It makes me pensive to know that survivors of forced sterilisation and relatives of those murdered by gas, poison, or neglect and starvation were never really paid adequate compensation; if, of course, such a thing can ever be ‘adequate’.

For the dead, the memorial comes quite obviously too late, and in recognising this I understand that some may react cynically to the news of it being given this kind of space and attention as late as the year 2014. It is after all impossible for places like this to rectify past wrongs, from both pre- and post-1945. That does not mean, however, that we can do without them. They do not only work against the mentality of wiping the slate clean, but to people who live with illness or identify as disabled today, as well as for the younger relatives of those killed, this particular memorial can still mean a great deal.

Sigrid Falkenstein, the niece of Anna Lehnkering who had a learning disability and was gassed to death in Grafeneck, only learnt about her aunt’s fate as late as 2003 after she conducted genealogical research. She became one of the citizens who lobbied for the realisation of a new memorial from the establishment of round table discussions in 2007 until the recent opening ceremony. Beyond that she feels, as she shared, that it restores her aunt’s and many other’s dignity, telling the true stories that for the longest time have been concealed by falsified death certificates and a willed silence that reached far into post-1945 society, memorials like this express the state of discourse in the present, and bear a message for the future.

My fellow PhD student, CJ Leffler, recently wrote here about the politics of memory that memorials can bring to the fore. In Germany, we seem to be at a point in time in which we can and want to unequivocally condemn past crimes. Mainstream society takes care to finally include those victim groups into our spaces that after 1945 went unregarded. We take care to demonstrate our confrontation with the past in a very public manner. Internationally, this does not go unnoticed. But this is not the time to become complacent. Discrimination is something that many still experience every day – be it for their visible physical difference (for their ‘extraordinary bodies’, to borrow the term from Rosemarie Garland-Thomson), an illness, for their darker than average skin colour, their culture or religion, or for speaking only limited German.

At best, then, the Tiergarten-memorials can be points for return, and be spaces for personal contemplation. They too have the power to anchor our wider discussions of the present, from inclusive schooling (of disabled and non-disabled children together), to welfare spending, to Berlin’s potential bid for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

At worst, the completion of the memorial landscape at the heart of historical and political Berlin initiates a smug satisfaction with ourselves as ‘criminal society made good’ that would not suit us well.

[1] Translation: Memorial and Information Point for the Victims of National Socialist »Euthanasia« Killings

[2] According to present knowledge, it is estimated that c. 300,000 people from all over Europe were killed in accordance with the euthanasia programme. Around 400,000 people were ‘forcibly sterilised’. The official contemporary explanation, which lacked all credibility, was that this was done to prevent the spread of hereditary diseases. Generally, people were assessed on grounds of their usefulness, and those with a disability, deemed disposable, were portrayed in public to be a financial burden to society.

[3] ‘T4’ being the Nazi cover name for the systematic killing of a diverse group of people who were diagnosed to have an illness or disability, with most of the victims having been in the care of medical – often mental – institutions.

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