Ich Klage An

I

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.

About the author

Rachel Horne

15 comments

Leave a Reply to DT Cancel reply

  • Thank you for this informative post and very interesting post Rachel!
    This series of posts related to MS and Nazi propaganda teaches us what happened during the Nazi period and how totalitarianism can use their tools in a insidious way.

  • Thanks Rachel, very interesting post. The Nazi euthanasia programme extended also to the elderly and class from what I’ve read.

    • Yes… I believe you are right.That is one way why, I think, the figure got up to an estimated 300,000 gassed by the end of the war – by increasing the pool. I also think some veteran soldiers who were injured from WWI were also killed. Interestingly, Josef Goebbels had a deformed foot but he – for obvious reasons – was never singled out.

  • Thanks for another great piece.
    I have to say it, because it shouldn’t be ignored. Like we wrongly thought fascism was dead in Europe, it would be wrong to think this attitude is dead too. A sliver of same attitude still persists today, even in Germany. I visit there occasionally and on almost every visit i have encountered someone looking at me with open disgust.
    I have speculated it’s because there is still very little evidence of disability in Germany – people with disabilities are extremely well looked after – but they are mostly looked after in facilities. Which means they’re not seen in public.
    I have to be fair and I must say I’ve encountered some wonderfully empathetic people from Germany too, the bad ones are a tiny tiny minority.

  • Thank you Rachel, This is very interesting.
    If I may add a few points:
    First, the ideological association between eugenism, which aims to improve the human race and nazism- in which case adepts aimed to improve the aryan race. The fact that one man (Hitler) came to the horrific conclusion that his race had been contaminated by weakness of other human beings can be understood and eventualy attributed to some ill thinking process, or mass hypnosis when he talked on TV… But it is noteworthy that there must have been some kind of community acceptance, considering the number of victims of sterilization first, but then the euthanasia program for the sake of the race hygiene; and not just among people with MS, but also epilepsy, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders muscular dystrophy, homosexuals and other “degenerates”.
    Eugenics was indeed more than Hitler’s delusion, there was an international eugenic movement that lasted more than 50 years, just about a hundred years ago. The term is due to a British scientist, Francis Galton and his work on twins and the hereditary nature of features such as intelligence.
    We always need to remain extremely careful in our conclusions, focusing first on our individual and social responsibilities, and protecting those in need.
    To close I will just mention about 2 months ago I was listening on BBC4 radio to one of their radio-novella. It was about a group of people working in politics and they were looking for a project to showcase their dedication to their electorate. The junior staff person proposed to offer people getting to their 80th birthday to die, and incentivise this by a gift of £10k to materialise the contribution of their death to the community.

    • Many, many thanks for pointing this out. In my original piece – which stretched way too long – I did refer to Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin) and how the idea of eugenics started in the UK and was strongly supported by many – including William Beveridge (architect of the welfare state), economist John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes (birth control advocate) and Winston Churchill who advocated the sterilization of the “feeble minded and insane.”
      I also was surprised that eugenics does hover in the background today – and it must be something we are very vigilant as you point out. Remember two years ago when UCL hosted an invitation-only pro-eugenics conference called the “London Conference on Intelligence” and Toby Young attended? At the time, he was a board member of the government higher education watchdog, “Office for Students” after being appointed by then PM Theresa May. After his attendance became public, he was forced to resign. He called himself a “progressive eugenicist.”
      I appreciate everyone adding new info. I should have mentioned that doctors joined the NS party in higher percentages than any other profession – about 45%.

  • Thank you Rachael for emphasising that has nothing to do with Right to Die, despite the film utilising the theme for the purposes of maintaining the public being on side with the Nazis actions.
    This is in fact about mass murder on the grounds of difference that was perceived to be unacceptable, even abhorrent. Jew, gypsy, gay, disabled, diseased etc, all dealt with in the same way.
    What has also shocked me is the sterilisation implemented by the other countries you have listed, that I was not aware of. That oh so vitally important line within any society seems easier to overstep than I’d previously thought.

    • And thanks for this. It turns out eugenic sterilisation was something that was looked at in the UK between 1930-36… however there not enough support to turn it into law. According to Charles Webster, who was official historian of the NHS, some doctors carried out it “with discretion” for the public good. He then adds “The full evidence of the extent of this practice remains to be uncovered.”
      Perhaps one day, someone will undertake to research this and we will find out.

By Rachel Horne

Translate

Categories

Recent Posts

Recent Comments

Archives