‘Lives Unworthy of Life’: Bishop von Galen and the Nazi persecution of the disabled

The persecution, sterilisation and murder of hundreds of thousands of disabled people is one of the most overlooked chapters in the whole ghastly history of Nazi Germany.

Between 1939 and 1941 as many as 100,000 people with a wide range of disabilities were dismissed as 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.

Aktion T4, as the programme was called after the war, was a logical extension of the eugenics movement, which had attracted support from a wide range of people, many with impeccable liberal credentials, across Europe and the United States.  Few had suggested murder (although Virginia Woolf, confronted by a group of ‘imbeciles’, wrote in 1915 that ‘they should certainly be killed’), but the Nazi programme of compulsory sterilisation of people with ‘congenital conditions’ was widely accepted.

With the outbreak of war, the persecution escalated dramatically and, on September 1st, 1939 (the day of the invasion of Poland), Hitler signed his notorious Euthanasia Decree which stated that, ‘after a discerning diagnosis’, ‘incurable patients’ should be ‘granted mercy death’.  Intellectually justified by Social Darwinism, this 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’.  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 1941, 5000 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.  Probably 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 (1906-29) 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, who saw him as an ally, welcomed his installation as Bishop of Münster in 1933.  From the outset, however, he objected to many aspects of the regime, and took editorial responsibility for a volume of essays criticising the paganism of the philosopher and ideologue Alfred Rosenberg.  He voiced his disapproval of Nazi racial theories and helped draft Pope Pius XI’s anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (1937). 

He is best known, however, for his criticism of the murder of the disabled and, in July and August 1941, delivered three sermons which didn’t just criticise the programme they challenged the entire Nazi value system.   In one of them he asked why these ‘unproductive citizens’ were killed:

'The opinion is that since they can no longer make money, they are obsolete machines, comparable with some old cow that can no longer give milk or some horse that has gone lame.  What is the lot of unproductive machines and cattle?  They are destroyed.  I have no intention of stretching this comparison further.  The case here is not one of machines or cattle which exist to serve men and furnish them with plenty.  They may be legitimately done away with when they can no longer fulfill their function.  Here we are dealing with human beings, with our neighbours, brothers and sisters, the poor and invalids ... unproductive—perhaps!  But have they, therefore, lost the right to live?  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.'

Thousands of copies of the sermons were illegally circulated and local protest groups broke the silence that surrounded the programme.  Copies were also dropped by the RAF and inspired various resistance groups.

The Nazis were in two minds about how to respond to the ‘Lion of Münster’.  Some advised Hitler to execute von Galen or, at least, send him to a concentration camp; but others, especially Goebbels and Bormann, recognised the danger of alienating German Catholics at such a crucial time in the war, and von Galen—a close friend of the new Pope, Pius XII—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 von Galen survived Hitler, dying of natural causes in 1946, and was beatified by his fellow German, Benedict XVI, in 2005.

Astonishingly, partly as a result of von Galen’s intervention, the programme was formally discontinued in August 1941.  It would be overstating the case to say that he stopped the murder (a further 100,000 disabled people were killed before the end of the war), 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 resistance in Third Reich.

All Our Children is very much a work of fiction.  There is no evidence that von 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.

It would be absurd to claim that disabled children face anything like this level of discrimination today.  Nevertheless, there is a huge amount to be done to ensure that they’re given the same opportunities as their able-bodied siblings.  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 should never forget its terrible lessons.                                    

Why I hate Harry Potter

No, of course I don’t.  I’ve neither read the novels nor seen the films and have no right to a view.  What’s more, my older son belongs to the original Harry Potter generation and I loved the sight of a playground full of primary school kids clutching novels the size of War and Peace to their brave little chests.  My eight-year-old daughter has read and reread all the books, and tells me I’m talking nonsense, that I’m a terrible ‘muggle’, and no doubt she’s right.  And—before you point it out—I know that JK Rowling is an articulate and committed champion for many of the things I care about, and has been notably generous with her millions.   Harry Potter is surely a good thing.

So what’s all this about then? 

Well, the fact is I’ve never much liked fantasy fiction.  This may be because I’m cold hearted and literal minded, or possibly something much more sinister.  I don’t know.  But when I was a kid the Mad Hatter scared the life out of me, and Tolkien—with his mixture of medieval religiosity and paganism—gave me the creeps.  I never got Star Wars with its Death Stars and Droids, and have no desire to play the Game of Thrones.   I’m not wild about fantasy in classical literature either: I much prefer the blood and passion of the Iliad to the chimeras of the Odyssey; I can’t stomach the courtly incantations of magical consolation in late Shakespeare, and Ibsen definitely got a lot better when he ditched trolls and Norwegian nationalism and started to write his ‘dramas of everyday life’.   

I’m happy to live in a time when this stuff is no longer meaningful; I’m glad we don’t believe in monsters, in fairies, in knights in shining armour; that we have electric light and aren’t frightened of the dark; that we know that lightning isn’t an expression of divine displeasure and that disabled kids aren’t punishments from God.  And I’m thrilled that most of us don’t expect our leaders to be macho and engage in physical combat, or insist that women have to be fair and beautiful and chaste.  In other words, while I acknowledge the psychological power of the ancient myths, they offer little more to me than the most obscure books in the Old Testament.   ‘Happy the land that has no need of heroes’, cracks Brecht’s Galileo, and I agree with him.  I’m happy to be a modern and am, frankly, suspicious of all claims to cultural universality.

Please don’t misunderstand me: it’s not that I don’t like metaphor or the imagination.  It’s that I want it rooted in the everyday stuff of the world.  So I find As You Like It—which, of course, riffs subtly on various myths—mesmerising until the moment Hymen appears: at which point I want to know who the hell he actually is and what Shakespeare thinks he’s up to.  Yes, I know all the ‘characters’ are just ‘texts’ and, of course, the postmodernists are very clever, but give me Rosalind’s ‘men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love’ over the desperate woodenness of this symbol of marital bliss any day.   I reckon Coleridge’s distinction between the active, creative Imagination on the one hand and Fancy’s mechanical recycling of received ideas on the other, is still useful.

But I’ve still not explained what all this has to do with poor old Harry Potter.

Well, it’s this.  Teaching a group of twelve clever students from a world class American university over the summer I was astonished to discover that the only book they’d all read was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.   Not Hamlet, not Great Expectations, not even Of Mice and Men.  What’s more, they still loved it, and reread it often.  They were desperate to visit the Oxford college where it had been filmed, they wore Harry Potter t-shirts with pride and they loved platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station.  They were amazed when I told them that I had no interest in the whole thing and the sense of outrage was palpable when I explained that in my time at university, liking fantasy fiction was regarded as the sign of an immature mind, with a dangerous proclivity towards mysticism and authoritarianism. 

And it’s this sense of a children’s book taking hold of the adult imagination that bugs me.  I’m not suggesting that Harry Potter is responsible for the twin curses of Brexit and Donald Trump, but in a time when ‘post-truth’ is the new normal, when speculation is instantly rendered real through the alchemy of social media, and when evidence-based policy and scientific expertise are routinely derided, I wonder whether a culture which celebrated the achievements and wonders of the tangible world, and turned its back on wizardry, monsters and fantastical versions of the English public school, wouldn’t make a more helpful contribution. 

I’m a terrible snob, I acknowledge, and I’m agnostic about whether Harry Potter is part of the problem or part of the solution.  But I’m sure we can all agree that it’ll take something more than magic wands to find a way out of this mess.




Long live the NHS. Long live Joey

I’m pretty new to FaceBook so this is all quite strange to me. But thank you to everyone for sending me so many lovely messages on my birthday and supporting me through the various Joey hospital visits over the last week or so. He’s fine today, but God knows what tomorrow will bring. Epilepsy is hell, and for reasons no one quite understands, his has returned like a storm from hell. In the medieval world they interpreted epilepsy as either the devil trying to get out or, amazingly, the spirit of the angels. That’s self-evidently bollocks, and I think a much better explanation is that Joey—who has no speech, no social power of his own—is protesting against the multiple fiascos of 2016, especially, of course, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and the ghastliness that will come in their wake.

Imagine three ambulancemen (actually two men, one woman), gathered in my booklined front room, surrounding Joey and me on my sofa. I’m still in my boxers, having just cleaned Joey’s shit off my leg, terrified that this time the epilepsy is going to get him once and for all: his heart beating at an inane speed, and with tears pouring down my face. And, fucking hell, it’s my birthday too! 

Calm as anything however, utterly professional, totally humane, they put an oxygen mask over his face, inserted a canulla and gave him diazepam on a drip. And slowly, inexorably, the fear passed and Joey came back to life. I cried some more and they let me do that and I had some coffee. We then agreed that Joey should go into hospital and eventually, holding my hand and with his epilepsy helmet firmly on, we walked down the stairs and out the front door to the ambulance. And they helped Joey on to the bed, and we joked about how if this was in America I’d need to get my credit card out. And Joey smiled at the noise when they closed the ambulance door.

And I found myself thinking, as so often, of the existence of a culture which isn’t all about dog eat dog, which isn’t all consumed by who’s the fastest, or the richest, or the most beautiful. Of a culture which is prepared to help the weakest—Joey, certainly, but me too yesterday morning—and work for the best in humanity, not the worst. And so you see Joey’s epilepsy is a howl of protest: against the dark forces out there which are trying to destroy the things that matter. 

But they won’t succeed. Long live the NHS. Long live Joey.

2016: The Year from Hell: Some ramblings on Brexit, Trump and High Culture

If 2016 has shown us anything, it’s that Britain and the States are bitterly divided societies. Demagogues like Farage and Trump, supported by their ‘alt-right’ people’s army, claim that the ‘liberal elite’—along with immigrants and anyone who looks different—has devoured everything in sight, leaving ‘ordinary men and women’ with nothing but bones to gnaw on. They overlook the fact that the actual elite—people of real power and influence—consists of a tiny number of the filthy rich (financiers, media owners, hedge fund managers, as well as the demagogues themselves) and that the ‘liberals’ (people who’ve ‘voluntarily read at least one book’, apparently) aren’t quite as pampered as their propagandists suggest. What’s more, although they defied the polls and won, they did so with small majorities (Hillary Clinton won the popular vote). But this is an alarming development which needs to be taken seriously. 

The American philosopher Richard Rorty predicted it almost twenty years ago when he wrote that one day ‘the nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.’ Not many of us are ‘tricky lawyers’ or ‘overpaid bond salesmen’, but we should, I suggest, ask whether we recognise in ourselves Rorty’s ‘smug bureaucrats’ or ‘postmodernist professors’. They’re deliberately unattractive figures, but useful surrogates for something bigger.

Whatever our answer, what can we do? Well, most importantly, we’re right to be appalled by the racism, resentment and blinkered nationalism that Farage, Trump and their pals have stirred up, which has been picked up by the army of resentful little Englanders and America First fans who lurk threateningly in the wings. Our essential first task is to use our voices, talents and numbers to oppose as forcefully as we can their threats to the hard-fought rights and freedoms of all people in both countries. ‘¡No pasaran!’, we must declare defiantly, and ensure that these vile demagogues fail and are seen to fail. 

At the same time, however, we should acknowledge that beneath this toxic surface lurk real social problems, above all the great divide between the generally well-educated and relatively prosperous inhabitants of the big cities and university towns, and the poorly paid (and often unemployed or retired) people who live in market towns, seaside resorts and the remote countryside. In our righteous hatred of far right politics we can too easily overlook the poverty, under-investment and substandard education which have combined to create it, and which even now are leading people to abandon Labour for UKIP. It’s a problem that was faced by the left in the 1930s, and we face a similar challenge today. 

So what are the implications on culture, especially the little world of ‘art theatre’? Well, first, I think we should acknowledge just how inward looking are the temples of culture that we patronise so eagerly, how sealed off from so many people’s experience is the ‘art theatre’ that we care about so much. Of course, huge efforts have been made to broaden accessibility and no one is deliberately turning people away, but the fact remains that much of the most critically acclaimed work takes place in extraordinarily exclusive places, to a very narrow audience base. Is this the inevitable nature of this antiquated and technologically backward art form? Perhaps. But as of 2016 we should accept, however ruefully, that our heartfelt cries of outrage are hardly heard beyond the echo chamber of social media and the closed circles in which most of us like to live and breathe. 

Of course, we don’t all work in boutique theatres, and many artists are trying to reach out, whether through touring or regional theatre, or the community work that exists, or in higher education and adult learning, and we should give them the attention, support and validation that they need and richly deserve. But this, too, should be questioned, as I know all too well from personal experience. When I set up ETT in 1993 we toured to unfashionable places like Crewe and Harlow, Blackpool, Darlington, Eastbourne and Wolverhampton (all Vote Leave in the referendum). But as we got more successful we decided that our job wasn’t to prop up theatres that were struggling to get an audience, and confined our visits to places that evidently wanted us. And so our social reach narrowed, focussing on university and spa towns like Oxford and Cambridge, Brighton, Bath and Malvern—all solidly Remain and very much homes of the despised ‘liberal elite’. I feel in retrospect that the Arts Council should have held our feet to the fire. But instead the divide just deepened, and we never went back to Crewe. 

And then we should consider the shape of the work itself. The arguments about formalism, realism and the popular go back to the Frankfurt School but the common assumption is that the debate is settled and that the avant-garde has won. But it’s hardly surprising that an audience brought up on soap operas and cop dramas should feel alienated from the icy abstraction of so much contemporary theatre, and I was struck to hear someone ask (of the cinema showing) why none of the characters in Ivo van Hove’s much hailed production of A View from the Bridge were wearing shoes. We can dismiss the question, or engage with it in a meaningful way on its own terms. The choice is ours, but it does reveal something of our deeper allegiances.

Finally, we should examine the nature of the work we create (whether new plays or classical revivals), and ask of it some pretty fundamental questions. Does it help explain the kind of values that we care about or does it, rather, take those for granted, as a condition for an entrance ticket? Does it do anything to describe the divide that so disfigures our countries? Most importantly, perhaps, does it explain the circumstances that have allowed the return of the right, and help us understand how this could have happened. Very little of the work I’ve done has begun to do this, but I suspect that it's only by exploring the contradictions that led to 2016, that the ‘art theatre’ can hope to play a role in helping to heal our traumatized societies. 

The underlying question, I think, is simply put: if we maintain, as most of us do, that culture shows the existence of different ways of thinking about the world, and exposes prejudice, injustice and lies for what they are, how can we ensure that the art that we claim to care about is seen not just by ‘people like us’, but the other half too? If we despise the current turn to intolerance, to prejudice, to fantasy, to simplification and lies, shouldn’t we do everything we can to share our values, insights and ways of thinking with the people who disagree with us? Culture matters, and the demagogues, with their armies of amateur but deadly spin doctors, are using it for their own aims. It's time we took it back.

And here we should, perhaps, go beyond our fastidious concern ‘not to lecture people’, and re-evaluate the great moment of post- war cultural evangelism, which produced the BBC, Penguin Books, Ernst Gombrich and the new Arts Council, as well as the popularisers of the 1960s and early 1970s. If this was, by modern standards, shockingly ‘pale, stale and male’, it did at least believe that everyone should have access to the great art of the past and the most challenging and significant work of the moderns. People like Richard Hoggatt and Raymond Williams may be of their time and almost forgotten but their leftist notions of a society bonded by a common set of values, reinforced by a shared and progressive inheritance and motivated by a united sense of purpose, stand as a rebuke to the current cultural establishment which, like globalisation itself, has, all too often, been content to leave the poor and the uneducated, the unemployed and the troubled, out in the cold. 

The internet offers endless new ways of accessing and shaping culture, and multiculturalism poses both challenges and real opportunities. But if the ‘art theatre’ doesn’t engage with everybody regardless of background, culture or education, and doesn’t test its own practices in the places where most people live, I fear devotees like myself will find ourselves increasingly isolated and irrelevant in our North London attics.

It's a very difficult ask because to pull this off we'll need to find the confidence to assert that challenging art (and a rigorous education and a commitment to science) can have a positive impact on the way that people live their lives and society operates, and we've all become too embarrassed, too cautious and too self-conscious to do so. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that we can do better than this. We have to.

Howard Davies

The deaths this year of Bill Gaskill and now Howard Davies have made me think about the theatre they came to stand for. With its roots in the Royal Court of the 1960s and, before that, the Berliner Ensemble of the 1950s, theirs was sometimes seen as a uniquely English kind of ‘poetic realism’. There are very few of that generation still working and it’s a tradition that is fading fast.

There were, of course, individual differences but some things were fundamental: careful story telling and a sense of change; a commitment to the spoken word and the cadences of the language; above all, scrupulous representation of class, power and society. Good casting was fundamental and respect for human scale in design was essential. It was a theatre which saw everyone on stage as equally interesting, and attended to the realities of privilege and labour, authority and exclusion, culture and background, with wit and affection, but also real seriousness.

Inevitably, it didn’t engage with some of the questions that face us today—above all, race, gender and disability—but it was interested in economic and social injustice, and brought that political commitment to productions of the classics as much as to new work. And so it’s a mistake, I think, to overlook just how progressive the best of this work was, how thoughtful it was, how engaged it was in the possibility of change, and how much it dreamt of a ‘better world than this’.

Brecht was, of course, the biggest influence. Fighting the charge that he was a ‘formalist’, he quipped that the real formalists were those who insisted on only one form; but he also joked that the Nuremberg rallies were ‘impressive theatre,’ and his formal innovations were always tied to his wider concerns. Theatrical fashions change, and new engagements with new kinds of problems—and, especially, new audiences—are inspiring. But we should be careful not to mistake new form for new content, or imagine that stylistic innovations are always accompanied by progressive thinking. History shows us that they don’t necessarily travel in the same direction. Just look at Donald Trump.

Thoughts from Trumpland

I’m writing this from the heart of Trump’s America: South Carolina is as red as they come. I’m shuttling round in a little Democrat bubble but the meat eaters are everywhere and it’s frankly scary. As an English-speaking middle-aged straight white guy I blend in, but the many African Americans, Latinos and gays I’ve met are terrified. And I don’t blame them. 

Rather than venting my rage, however, I thought it might be more useful to try to work out how we can find a way forward. Because the fact is that with Brexit, Trump, Putin and, no doubt, soon Le Pen, Wildeers and AFD in Germany we are faced with very real dangers. 

So what can we do?

Well, one thing is to learn from history, especially the people who went through a version of this darkness before: I mean in the 1930s. In many ways, their fight was bigger, against an even more dangerous enemy. But they did, at least, have a clear ideology—communism—which helped give them structure and a clear alternative. Our problems and our answers are different, but there are some things we can learn.

I was taught by one of that generation, Margot Heinemann, and she used to talk about a popular front, a united front against fascism, both in reference to the 1930s and confronted by the new dangers of the 1980s. These are contested terms (some argue the Popular Front was a cynical ploy by Stalin to control ‘leftist deviation’) and better informed people like Jane Bernal (Margot's daughter) know much more about it than I do. 

For us, however, the useful point is that we need to find a way of moving beyond the 'vanity of small differences' and find a way of working together, of thinking together, of being together. The real danger is the splits that divide us: after all, more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump and the division between the Social Democrats and the Communists let Hitler come into power. And so today - American, British, French, German, whatever - the progressive forces have to work together. And we have to be really bold and think the unthinkable: George W Bush is our friend because he opposed Trump, Blair is our friend because he opposed Brexit. No two people are going to think the same about everything, but the enemy is all too clear in its intentions and we must stand up against him and his rampages.

And in the little world of culture we have to do the same. We need to recognise that we’re all basically on the same side and stop being so sectarian. There’s so much more that unites us than sets us apart, and the differences between classicists and the avant grade, young and middle-aged, subsidised and commercial, 'quality' and 'tat' are minute when compared with the things that are destroying our societies and destroying all the good things that have been built. Fascism, racism and intolerance is a reality and the common enemy to all of us.

We need to remember the intimate relationship between culture and politics. Walter Benjamin wrote brilliantly in the 1930s about the ‘aestheticization of politics’, which, when you think of it, is a perfect description of Donald Trump. We need to respond with the ‘politicisation of aesthetics’ and make work which responds to this poison and, in whatever way it can, helps us demystify the theatrical trick that Trump, and the rest of them, pull off to gain power and control people.

Brecht confessed that he wanted to write about ‘cities by the sea’ but couldn’t while Hitler was rampaging. We’re in a similar position and we need to ask of everything we do: how does this help, in whatever way, in the struggle against this new evil? How does it help us understand what's happened? How does it help build alliances which work? How does it reach out even to people who support the bastards, and how does it indicate to everyone the possibility of a better way? 

In the 1980s Margot wrote,‘we don’t overcome despair by shutting our eyes. If you are of my generation and have never felt it or come near feeling it you are either very lucky or very insensitive.’ 

Her times were very dark. It's our turn now.