When the Nazis used MS to support killing the disabled
By Rachel Horne
More than seventy years after the end of WWII, about forty Nazi propaganda films still remain banned by the Allies in Germany – due to their incendiary nature.
One of the most notorious of these is Ich Klage An or I Accuse, which tells the story of a young woman who gets multiple sclerosis and convinces her husband to kill her before she becomes “blind and deaf, an idiotic cripple.” He gives her a lethal overdose and is put on trial for murder.
But make no mistake; Ich Klage An is no “right to die” film. It is a dangerous piece of cinema created on the orders of Propaganda Chief Josef Goebbels to justify and convince the German people to accept the Nazi’s policy of exterminating disabled people.
By the time the film was released in August 1941, the Nazis had already killed about 70,000 people with mental and physical disabilities. By the war’s end that number had reached about 300,000, historians believe.
How did Nazi Germany end up there? Why use MS in a film? And, most importantly, did it work on the German public?
First, some background. It is worth pointing out that the Nazi’s persecution of the disabled started as soon as they came to power – when they passed a law ordering the involuntary sterilisation of anyone with a “genetic disease.” To the Third Reich, disabled people were considered genetically “impure” and nothing more than “useless eaters” who placed an unfair economic burden on the state.
It is worth pointing out that Nazi Germany was not the only country to sterilise those it considered
“abnormal” – nor was it the first. Starting in 1907, America carried out this procedure on more than 30,000 people. Other countries such as Canada, Scandinavia, Hungary and Turkey also followed suit. But Germany led the way in numbers – forcibly sterilising an estimated 350,000 people.
By October 1939, Adolf Hitler decided to go a step further. He ordered the creation of a secret euthanasia programme to kill those deemed “unworthy of life.” The first victims were children who were starved to death or given a lethal injection.
Soon the programme was expanded to include adults. To make the killing more efficient, six extermination centres were set up. At one of them, Brandenburg, the first “trial killing” by gassing took place in January 1940. About twenty institutionalised patients were ordered to undress, then herded into a chamber – disguised as a shower room – and gassed.
Remember this predated the genocide of the Jews by two years.
The trial was considered such a success that the mass extermination of the disabled began in secret. As the numbers of killings climbed, however, people began to get suspicious. There were murmurings of dissent; Hitler’s inner circle began to get worried.
Their solution was to make a film showing the necessity of “mercy killing.” Their thinking was not as incongruous as you might imagine. Germany had a very strong film tradition – with millions each week flocking to the cinema to be entertained. Plus Goebbels was a master at using cinema – the social media of its day – to manipulate and mould public opinion.
The result was Ich Klage An. In the film Hanna, a beautiful young doctor’s wife is diagnosed with MS. As she becomes progressively more disabled and in pain, she begs her husband Thomas, a promising researcher, to kill her before she becomes a “lump of meat.”
At first he refuses – as he races to find a cure – but eventually, he gives her a fatal overdose as an act of mercy. He is ordered to stand trial for her murder. In the courtroom, the viewer hears arguments for and against assisted dying. The audience is left to decide his fate.
On the face of it, Ich Klage An comes across as a well-made, balanced melodrama. Unlike other propaganda films made during the time, there is little Nazi imagery or rhetoric. Yet dig a little deeper, it soon becomes apparent just how slyly and insidiously it pushes active euthanasia.
Take the carefully chosen language. Words like euthanasia, murder and killing are avoided whereas the word “redeem” is used in ten places, points out the writer Sylke Hachmeister (Kinopropaganda gegen Kranke: Die Instrumentalisierung des Spielfilms „Ich klage an“ für das nationalsozialistische „Euthanasieprogramm). As for the word “help” in the sense of “kill” is utilised thirteen times and if death is addressed directly, it comes as a “gift” – as in “give someone death.”
Also, let’s look at what is unsaid. Hanna’s death/release – in a darkened room with piano music tinkling softly in the background – was vastly different from the forced gassing of thousands of disabled. Also, those who were killed certainly did not give their consent.
Then comes the use of MS in the film. In the opening scenes, we see Hanna – energetic and full of life. Then the MS symptoms start: she tumbles down some stairs, her left-hand goes into spasm while playing the piano.
So far, so accurate. But then comes the MS diagnosis and prognosis. The examining doctor tells Thomas: “First, the legs will be paralysed, so they can not walk anymore. Then the arms will be paralysed… then the tongue will be paralysed so that she can only babble, then the respiratory centre will fail.”
The inference is clear. Getting MS is tantamount to a death sentence – which is not accurate. But by telling the audience this, it allows them to believe that Hanna has only two choices: be a burden to her husband Thomas – who is putting his happiness and career on hold for her – or make the supreme sacrifice and die. Or to sum up the point of Nazi- operated euthanasia – and Ich Klage An – it is all about the well-being of the healthy and not the sick.
Ironically two weeks after Ich Klage An opened in cinemas, Hitler officially announced the end of the euthanasia programme after widespread pressure from the public (though it continued on a smaller scale until the summer of 1945).
As for the film, it was a huge success and was watched by more than 18 million Germans – nearly a quarter of the population. According to secret police reports, the majority accepted the “right to die” argument. Indeed one viewer is supposed to have compared the film to the euthanasia programme and asked how abuses could be avoided.
As we have seen, the Nazi regime was indeed terrible for many – including those with MS as I wrote earlier in a post (https://multiple-sclerosis-research.org/2019/11/useless-lives-the-dark-story-of-ms-and-the-nazis/). However it is worth remembering, a few positives did come out of its aftermath such as the creation of the Nuremberg Code – which established a set of ethical, moral and legal principles for experiments on humans.
And we must not forget the man who wrote them: Neurologist Leo Alexander, who was Chief Medical Officer during the trials, and also a director of the MS Center at Boston State Hospital. Dr Alexander was of Jewish-Austrian descent but decided to leave his country in 1933, in part due to the Nazis, to emigrate to the US.