[The following article is a translation of a November 26, 2010 article from the German online magazine Focus.de The original article can be seen here.]
65 years after the end of the Third Reich, the German association of psychiatrists faces up to its dark history—at last. Only today it offers an apology for its crimes committed during the period of the National Socialism.
Only now the German association of psychiatrists officially faces up to its gruesome crimes during the period of the Third Reich. In a commemoration for the victims and the expelled Jewish doctors, president Frank Schneider offers an apology for the atrocities committed.
FOCUS: In this commemoration at the congress of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychiatrie, Psychotherapie und Nervenheilkunde (German Association of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Neurology) you are about to offer an apology for the crimes committed by psychiatry during the period of the National Socialism. Why hasn’t this long been done?
Frank Schneider: I don’t know why we talk about this only now. We are at a loss of words why an event like this one can take place only now. It’s almost impossible to explain, there is no justification for it.
In our association DGPPN we refer to 160 years of tradition, and it existed even in the Third Reich. The president at that time was doing research on racial hygiene and propagated it externally. Inconceivable crimes were being done. And still, after 1945, we didn’t support the victims but we had a part in their renewed discrimination and disadvantage. This darkest part of our history has been shunned and repressed much too long. The persistent silence is also a debasement for the victims. We are ashamed of that.
Today we are going to apologize and ask for reconciliation. A lot of the victims are dead by now, and insofar our solicitation is too late. But maybe it isn’t too late for the people still alive and their descendants – and for all mentally ill people today, for today’s psychiatrists and for the association itself.
FOCUS: How exactly does your association face up to the crimes?
Schneider: To begin with, we decided to change the articles of association. Paragraph 1 now firmly states that the association commemorates the victims and is responsible for what happed back then. And that we are responsible that something like this will never ever happen again.
Furthermore an independent international commission of four outstanding science historians is engaged to research our association’s history in the Third Reich. We provided 150,000 Euros (about 200,000 USD) to accomplish that, and we stipulated to announce the results of the study no matter what comes out of it.
Subsequently we plan to do another study in order to clear up the postwar years, i. e. the period of the cover-up and the repression which went on until the 1980s.
FOCUS: What kind of victims do you commemorate?
Schneider: First of all the approximately 2,000 Jewish psychiatrists who were forced to emigrate and therefore lost their home and their belongings. Then also the people who suffered enforced sterilization and those who were killed.
We also commemorate the victims who beared misery due to psychiatric research, who were maimed or murdered.
FOCUS: You, as president, have made the subject of the National Socialism period to the core theme of this congress and your term in office. Why did you do that?
Schneider: The subject of psychiatry’s Nazi history is very important to me personally. I have always been aghast and wondered: How can psychiatrists kill their patients? And this has been done very extensively either by themselves or they have had other people do it.
Including the East European countries there were all in all about 300,000 mentally ill people whose psychiatrists caused their deaths. That’s incredible.
FOCUS: What kind of reactions did you encounter inside your association?
Schneider: I thought nobody liked the subject but the responses have been positive uniformely. I was surprised and happy about that. I just watered the seed. It was long overdue.
FOCUS: Weren’t there admonishers earlier that fought for a clearing-up and a confession?
Schneider: There was Professor Gerhardt Schmidt, head of psychiatry in Lübeck, Germany, who directly after 1945 came to a clinic where patients starved to death, meaning they were killed. He wrote a very outright book about these conditions. I read it as a student and I was highly impressed at the time. This man named Schmidt was not able to publish his book for 20 years because he was facing a Mafia of psychiatrists who didn’t want anybody to foul their nest. In the 1980s it was a moment of glory in our association to award him with a medal for it.
FOCUS: How come psychiatry’s atrocities have been ignored for so long?
Schneider: It was hushed up and repressed. After the war, three renowned psychiatrists, who made medical estimates for enforced sterilizations and who decided upon life or death, became presidents of our association and even honorary members. One of these former presidents, professor Ehrhardt from Marburg, Germany, was also the leading secretary. He wrote a booklet about the history of German psychiatry and its associations. It isn’t thick. It says that psychiatrists of the Third Reich had no knowledge of what was going on and they didn’t have anything to do with it and they found it all really terrible. This is an official document of the association.
What’s even worse: In the 1960s, when the question arose whether people who suffered forced sterilization should get any indemnity, Ehrhardt and also other psychiatrists appeared as an authority on the subject in the Bundestag (Lower House of German Parliament). In an advisory committee they declared that forced sterilization was compliant to the rules at that time and it was all done within the then current scope of science and nothing was to take back. This is once again a debasement for the victims. There was nobody to say anything against that.
FOCUS: How were the conditions in psychiatry after the war was over?
Schneider: It was awful how the mentally ill were kept back then, in the years after the war. People were locked up in big “loony bins” in the countryside. Especially chronically schizophrenic patients lived in these mental institutions for years.
The revolution in psychiatry in Germany emerged later than in other European countries. For one, there were too little psychiatrists due to the enforced emigration, and those who were here continued with the back then normal lock-up psychiatry for the time being. In other countries the social psychiatric movement started earlier. There the chains were opened more quickly.
Source: Jochen Niehaus, “Third Reich: German psychiatry admits to having committed atrocities,” Focus.de, 26 November 2010.
(Used with permission of Citizens Commission on Human Rights International.)