Abstract | Background | The Children's Euthanasia Program | The Killings | The "T-4" Adult Euthanasia Program | The "Wild" Euthanasia Programs | Why The Nurses Participated | Analytic Framework for Understanding the Nurses' Participation | Conclusion | References

Susan Benedict, CRNA, DSN, FAAN
College of Nursing
Medical University of South Carolina
Charleston, SC 29425

Jochen Kuhla
Krankenpfleger und Lehrer fur Pflegeberufe
Albert-Schneider-Strasse 17
74821 Mosbach

This project is the result of a fellowship for Research on Medical Ethics and the Holocaust granted to Susan Benedict by the Research Institute of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, with funds provided by The Merck Company Foundation.  Copyright, Susan Benedict

Translation by Sabine Baumann.


During the Nazi era, so-called "euthanasia programs" were established for handicapped and mentally ill children and adults. Organized killings of an estimated 70,000 German citizens took place at killing centers and in psychiatric institutions.

Nurses were active participants and killed over 10,000 people in these involuntary "euthanasia programs". After the war was over, most nurses of the nurses were never punished for these crimes against humanity although some nurses were tried along with the physicians they assisted. One such trial was of 14 nurses and was held in Munich in 1965. Although some of these nurses reported that they struggled with a guilty conscience, others did not see anything wrong with their actions and believed that they were releasing these patients from their suffering.

The end of 1996 marked the 50th anniversary of the Doctors' Trial in Nuremberg in which physicians were convicted of crimes against humanity. Although little has been written about the role of nurses in the Nazis' so-called "euthanasia" programs and the subsequent genocide known as the Holocaust, it is important to know of the involvement of nurses and to understand - to the extent possible - how nurses came to be active participants and, in fact, intentionally killed over 10,000 people in the Nazi era (Ebbinghaus, 1987, p. 219).

The German nurse-historian, Hilde Steppe, has written:

...we have a moral obligation to the millions of victims of National Socialism, even if it only means that, through historical research, we assure that they are not forgotten. By taking responsibility for this part of our history, we can become more sensitive for the future, with eyes and ears open for all social injustices (Steppe, 1992, p. 753).

The purpose of this paper is to increase the awareness of the nurses' involvement in these crimes against humanity and, in so doing, present various factors that could have affected the individual nurses' decisions to commitment these actions against patients in their care.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.