Sterilization in Nazi Germany

Eugenics and Racial Categorization in Pre-war Germany

A woman sterilized during the Third Reich.
23-year-old Elizabeth Killiam, the mother of twins, was sterilized at a health care facility in Weilburg before being transferred to the Hadamar Institute. (Photo from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Rosanne Bass Fulton)

In the 1930's, the Nazis introduced a massive, compulsory sterilization of a large segment of the German population. What could cause the Germans to do this after having already lost a large segment of their population during World War I? Why would the German people let this happen?

The Concept of The Volk

As social Darwinism and nationalism merged during the early twentieth century, the concept of the Volk was established.

Quickly, the idea of the Volk extended to various biological analogies and was shaped by the contemporary beliefs of heredity. Especially in the 1920's, analogies of the German Volk (or German people) began surfacing, describing the German Volk as a biological entity or body. With this concept of the German people as one biological body, many believed that sincere care was needed to keep the body of the Volk healthy. An easy extension of this thought process was if there was something unhealthy within the Volk or something that could harm it, it should be dealt with. Individuals within the biological body became secondary to the needs and importance of the Volk.

Eugenics and Racial Categorization

Since eugenics and racial categorization were in the forefront of modern science during the early twentieth century, the hereditary needs of the Volk were deemed of significant importance. After the First World War ended, the Germans with the "best" genes were thought to have been killed in the war while those with the "worst" genes did not fight and could now easily propagate.1 Considering the new belief that the body of the Volk was more important than individual rights and needs, the state had the authority to do whatever necessary to help the Volk.

Sterilization Laws in Pre-war Germany

The Germans were not the creators nor the first to implement governmentally sanctioned forced sterilization. The United States, for instance, had already enacted sterilization laws in half its states by the 1920's which included forced sterilization of the criminally insane as well as others.

The first German sterilization law was enacted on July 14, 1933 - only six months after Hitler became Chancellor. The Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring (the "Sterilization" Law) allowed the forced sterilization for anyone suffering from genetic blindness, hereditary deafness, manic depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, congenital feeblemindedness, Huntington's' chorea (a brain disorder), and alcoholism.

The Process of Sterilization

Doctors were required to register their patients with genetic illness to a health officer as well as petition for the sterilization of their patients who qualified under the Sterilization Law. These petitions were reviewed and decided by a three-member panel in the Hereditary Health Courts. The three-member panel was made up of two doctors and a judge. In the case of insane asylums, the director or doctor who made the petition also often served on the panels that made the decision whether or not to sterilize them.2

The courts often made their decision solely on the basis of the petition and perhaps a few testimonies. Usually, the appearance of the patient was not required during this process.

Once the decision to sterilize had been made (90 percent of the petitions that made it to the courts in 1934 ended up with the result of sterilization) the doctor that had petitioned for the sterilization was required to inform the patient of the operation.3 The patient was told "that there would be no deleterious consequences."4 Police force was often needed to bring the patient to the operating table.

The operation itself consisted of ligation of the fallopian tubes in women and a vasectomy for men.

Klara Nowak was forcibly sterilized in 1941. In a 1991 interview, she described what effects the operation still had on her life.

  • Well, I still have many complaints as a result of it. There were complications with every operation I have had since. I had to take early retirement at the age of fifty-two - and the psychological pressure has always remained. When nowadays my neighbors, older ladies, tell me about their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, this hurts bitterly, because I do not have any children or grandchildren, because I am on my own, and I have to cope without anyone's help.5

Who Was Sterilized?

Asylum inmates consisted of thirty to forty percent of those sterilized. The main reason for sterilization was so that the hereditary illnesses could not be passed on in offspring, thus "contaminating" the Volk's gene pool.

Since asylum inmates were locked away from society, most of them had a relatively small chance of reproducing. The main target of the sterilization program were those people with a slight hereditary illness and who were at an age of being able to reproduce. Since these people were among society, they were deemed the most dangerous.

Since slight hereditary illness is rather ambiguous and the category "feebleminded" is extremely ambiguous, some people were sterilized for their asocial or anti-Nazi beliefs and behavior.

The belief in stopping hereditary illnesses soon expanded to include all the people within the east whom Hitler wanted eliminated. If these people were sterilized, the theory went, they could provide a temporary workforce as well as slowly create Lebensraum (room to live for the German Volk). Since the Nazis were now thinking of sterilizing millions of people, faster, non-surgical ways to sterilize were needed.

Inhuman Nazi Experiments

The usual operation for sterilizing women had a relatively long recovery period - usually between a week and fourteen days. The Nazis wanted a faster and perhaps unnoticeable way to sterilize millions. New ideas emerged and camp prisoners at Auschwitz and at Ravensbrück were used to test the various new methods of sterilization. Drugs were given. Carbon dioxide was injected. Radiation and X-rays were administered.

The Lasting Effects of Nazi Atrocity

By 1945, the Nazis had sterilized an estimated 300,000 to 450,000 people. Some of these people soon after their sterilization also were victims of the Nazi euthanasia program.

While many others were forced to live with this feeling of loss of rights and invasion of their persons as well as a future of knowing that they would never be able to have children.

Notes

1. Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York, 1986) p. 47.
2. Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: 'Euthanasia' in Germany 1900-1945 (New York, 1995) p. 56.
3. Lifton, Nazi Doctors p. 27.
4. Burleigh, Death p. 56.
5. Klara Nowak as cited in Burleigh, Death p. 58.

Bibliography

Annas, George J. and Michael A. Grodin. The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation. New York, 1992.

Burleigh, Michael. Death and Deliverance: 'Euthanasia' in Germany 1900-1945. New York, 1995.

Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York, 1986.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Sterilization in Nazi Germany." ThoughtCo, Apr. 14, 2017, thoughtco.com/sterilization-in-nazi-germany-1779677. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2017, April 14). Sterilization in Nazi Germany. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sterilization-in-nazi-germany-1779677 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Sterilization in Nazi Germany." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sterilization-in-nazi-germany-1779677 (accessed November 23, 2017).