The new play ‘All Our Children’ evokes the terrible lessons of the Nazi’s Aktion T4 Programme

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One of the UK’s leading theatre directors, Stephen Unwin talks to DAO about the background to his gripping new play All Our Children. Probing one of the darkest episodes in recent history, the play examines a brutal system, which sanctioned mass murder for those who led, what the Nazis called ‘lives unworthy of life’.

All Our Children rehearsal

Stephen Unwin, Colin Tierney, Edward Franklin & David Yelland rehearse All Our Children. Photograph: Alex Harvey-Brown (Savannah Photographic)

The compulsory sterilisation and mass murder of severely disabled people is an often overlooked chapter in the whole ghastly history of the Third Reich. Between 1939 and 1941 as many as 100,000 people with a wide range of impairments were categorised as leading lebensunwertes Leben (‘lives unworthy of life’) and systematically killed in six converted psychiatric hospitals across Austria and Germany. Initially, lethal injections were used but soon, at Hitler’s personal recommendation, carbon monoxide was employed.

This dreadful policy had its roots in the popular and well-established theories of eugenics which swept across Europe and America after the First World War.  Many public figures, including proud liberals such as HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes and Sidney Webb, all supported it. Perhaps most shocking of all—because it’s so surprising from such a progressive—is Virginia Woolf’s diary entry for 9th January 1915 where she writes that she had met ‘a long line of imbeciles’:

The first was a very tall man, just queer enough to look at twice, but no more; the second shuffled, and looked aside; and then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature with no forehead, or no chin, and an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.

Woolf, of course, was simply mirroring the views of the Eugenics Society, whose Chairman, the distinguished biologist Julian Huxley, wrote in 1930:

What are we going to do?  Every defective man, woman and child is a burden. Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe, but produces little or nothing in return.

Vile as this was, it took the radical evil of National Socialism to put this into practice. From 1933 to 1939 thousands of people with supposed ‘congenital’ conditions were compulsorily sterilised. On September 1st 1939 (the day of the outbreak of the war) Hitler signed his notorious Euthanasia Decree which stated that, ‘after a discerning diagnosis’, ‘incurable patients’ should be ‘granted mercy death’.

The policy received popular support on the grounds of cost, with a poster claiming that a man ‘suffering from a hereditary defect cost “the People’s Community” 60,000 Reichmarks during his lifetime’ (approximately £250,000 in modern terms). As a leading Nazi doctor said, ‘the idea is unbearable to me that the best, the flower of our youth, must lose its life at the front in order that feebleminded and irresponsible asocial elements can have a secure existence in the asylum.’

By early 1941, 5,000 children, many only a few months old, with a wide range of conditions—Down syndrome, ‘idiocy’, cerebral palsy, and so on, had been assessed, registered and murdered. Initially, their parents were asked for their consent and a panel of three ‘medical experts’ was convened to agree on the course of action. In due course, however, deception and social pressure were deployed, and children were sent to so-called ‘special sections’, apparently to receive medical treatment, but instead bussed off to their deaths.

Public opposition to the programme was limited. The most striking intervention came from the churches, especially the Catholic Bishop of Münster. Clemens August Graf von Galen (1878-1946) belonged to one of the oldest aristocratic families in Germany. He spent 23 years working as a parish priest in a poor district in Berlin but, as a staunch conservative, had opposed what he perceived to be the immorality of the Weimar Republic. Indeed, the Nazis welcomed his installation as Bishop of Münster in 1933. From the outset, however, he objected to many aspects of the regime, and voiced his disapproval of Nazi racial theories and helped draft Pius XI’s anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (1937).

Galen is best known, however, for his opposition to the murder of disabled people and, in July and August 1941, delivered three sermons which didn’t just criticise the programme, they challenged the entire Nazi value system. His objection was, above all, based on a rejection of the way the Nazis dismissed the profoundly disabled as ‘non-productive’:

Have you or I the right to exist only because we are ‘productive’? If the principle is established that unproductive human beings may be killed, then God help all those invalids who, in order to produce wealth, have given their all and sacrificed their strength of body. If all unproductive people may thus be violently eliminated, then woe betide our brave soldiers who return home, wounded, maimed or sick.

All of our CHildren

Photograph: Alex Harvey-Brown (Savannah Photographic)

Thousands of copies of these sermons were illegally circulated and local protest groups broke the silence that surrounded the programme.

The Nazis were in two minds about how to respond. Some advised Hitler to execute the ‘Lion of Münster’; but others recognised the danger of alienating German Catholics, and Galen—a close friend of the Pope—was subjected to house arrest from late 1941 onwards. Hitler declared ominously in a private conversation that ‘the fact that I remain silent in public over Church affairs is not in the least misunderstood by the sly foxes of the Catholic Church, and I am quite sure that a man like Bishop von Galen knows full well that after the war I shall extract retribution to the last farthing’. But Galen survived Hitler, dying of natural causes in 1946, and was beatified by his fellow German, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2005.

Astonishingly, partly as a result of Galen’s intervention, ‘Aktion T4’ was formally discontinued in August 1941. It would be overstating the case to say that he stopped the murders (a further 100,000 disabled people were killed before the end of the war in less formal settings) and many of the techniques and personnel were employed in the far greater Jewish Holocaust that escalated so dramatically after 1941.  Nevertheless, his denunciation was one of the most courageous and outspoken acts of internal resistance in the Third Reich.

My play All Our Children is very much a work of fiction. There is no evidence that Galen had a meeting of the kind that I have dramatised (though he did talk with senior figures in the SS), nor do we know of a doctor involved in the programme having qualms about what he was doing. What’s clear, however, is that his intervention raised the most profound questions about the innate value of the human being, regardless of cost or productivity, and his voice, for all its stubborn absolutism, deserves to be heard.

All Our Children is a realistic chamber play. There are five three-dimensional and richly contradictory characters, and it’s very much set in its time and place. My aim was to catch the everyday life of ordinary people caught up in something unspeakable. Showing the horrors is easy; much more interesting, and I believe more valuable, is showing how these poisonous ideas could be put into practice, as well as indicating the kind of opposition needed to stop it.

I am the father of a young man, Joey, who has severe learning disabilities, epilepsy and Autism Spectrum Disorder, and in writing this play I was acutely aware that he would not have survived Hitler’s Germany.

It is, of course, grotesque to claim that disabled young people like Joey face anything like this level of discrimination today and we need to be aware of Godwin’s Law, which states that the moment you’ve invoked the Nazis you’ve lost the argument. Nevertheless, there is a huge amount to be done to ensure that they’re given the same opportunities as their able-bodied siblings and are treated equally. What’s more, we need to be on our guard against valuing anyone solely by capacity and reject policies and attitudes which compromise the dignity and intrinsic value of all human beings.  It’s often said that you can judge a society by the way that it treats its most vulnerable. If Nazi Germany failed that test in the most abject way imaginable, we must never forget its terrible lessons.

Tara Finney Productions present All Our Children playing at Jermyn Street Theatre,16b Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6ST from Saturday 26 April – Saturday 3 June.. Click on this link for full details of the production.