Over the course of World War II around 6 million Jews were killed in concentration camps and through mass extermination efforts known within the Nazi regime as the “Final Solution”s. But, this plan for racial “hygiene” also involved getting rid of any groups that were seen as a hinderance to this plan, including the sick, the disabled, Roma and LGBTQ+ people, and political prisoners. A further half million non-Jewish people are estimated to have died in gas chambers and concentration camps. Now, new evidence of secret murders of politcal prisoners under the guise of medical care has been uncovered in the case of a group of Dutch Jews deported early in the war.
Under the Aktion T4 program anyone in German-controlled areas who didn’t meet a set of prescribed physical or mental standards could be subject to death. One such program was carried out at Hartheim Castle in Austria where an estimated 30,000 people were killed during the Aktion T4 program and beyond.
The Nazis referred to these killings as a “euthanasia” program and deaths were initially required to have a doctor sign the euthanasia order, though this practice quickly faded as the operations of Nazi purification became large scale.
At the castle carbon monoxide gas chambers were used to kill the disabled, as well as any concentration camp inmates who were too starved or sick to continue work. The Mauthausen concentration camp was not initially built with gas chambers and so prisoners were bussed over to be murdered at Hartheim Castle, only 25 miles from the camp.
The castle had been the site of a sanitarium since around 1900, which made the murders seem plausible as routine deaths considering that many people had previously been sent there for treatment. Falsified death certificates were common at Hartheim and among the leading causes listed was contagious pneumonia- which conveniently required that the bodies be cremated to avoid risk of further contagion.
In February 1941 an uprising in German-occupied Amsterdam against the unfair destruction of life and property by the Orpo (a contraction of the term Ordnungspolizei or “Order Police” in English) led to the arrest of hundreds. This particular conflict started after the death of a Dutch Nazi collaborator following a scuffle between Jewish locals and the Orpo, at which point the razzia (or “roundup”) of Jews began. More than 400 Jewish shop owners and dissidents were arrested in the sweep.
In the eyes of the Third Reich these prisoners were labelled as terrorists and sent to concentration camps. The inmates were sent first to Camp Schoorl, then to Buchenwald and later Mauthausen -none of which had gas chambers at the time. Some were eventually taken to Hartheim Castle where their deaths were obscured with false documents. More than 100 of those captured in the razzia actions were actually killed via secret gas chambers.
Some of the prisoners died in mobile gas chambers –also known as death vans– and later another more permanent chamber was constructed at Hartheim Castle.
The research into what happened to the prisoners of the razzia was unveiled in a new book by historian, Wally de Lang, who discovered that 108 of the prisoners had likely been gassed at Hartheim. This was more than a year before the first known deportations of Dutch Jews to mass extermination sites began in July of 1942.
It is now clear that through the small-scale killings of the disabled, sick, and political prisoners through the T4 program that Nazi leaders were laying the groundwork for their mass extermination programs on an even larger scale which killed tens thousands of people a day at the height of operation. The Final Solution plans were not active until 1942 – after a year of gathering data on the most efficient forms of mass extermination at places like Hartheim.