Gerhard Herbert Kretschmar (20 February 1939 – 25 July 1939), was a German child born with severe disabilities. After receiving a petition from the child's parents, the German Führer Adolf Hitler authorized one of his personal physicians, Karl Brandt, to have the child killed. This marked the beginning of the program in Nazi Germany known as a "euthanasia program" – Aktion T4 – which ultimately resulted in the deliberate killing of about 200,000 people with mental and/or physical disabilities.
Until recently the identity of this child had not been disclosed, although it was known to German medical historians. One German historian, Udo Benzenhöfer, argued that the child's name could not be disclosed because of Germany's privacy laws relating to medical records. In 2007, however, the historian Ulf Schmidt, in his biography of Karl Brandt, published the child's name, the names of his parents, the place of his birth and the dates of his birth and death. Schmidt wrote: "Although this approach [of Benzenhöfer and others] is understandable and sensitive to the feelings of the parents and relatives of the child, it somehow overlooks the child itself and its individual suffering... By calling the child 'Child K', we would not only medicalise the child's history, but also place the justifiable claim of the parents for anonymity above the personality and suffering of the first 'euthanasia' victim." Schmidt did not disclose whether the child's parents were still living.
Gerhard Kretschmar was born in Pomssen, a village south-east of Leipzig. His parents were Richard Kretschmar, a farm labourer, and his wife Lina Kretschmar. Schmidt describes them as "ardent Nazis." Gerhard was born blind, with either no legs or one leg, and with one arm. (The original medical records are lost, and second-hand accounts vary.) He was also subject to convulsions. Brandt later testified that the child was also "an idiot", although how this was determined is not stated.
Richard Kretschmar took the newborn Gerhard to Dr Werner Catel, a pediatrician at the University Children's Clinic in Leipzig, and asked that his son be "put to sleep." Catel told him that this would be illegal. Kretschmar then wrote directly to Hitler, asking that he investigate the case and overrule the law that prevented "This Monster" (as he described his child) from being killed. As was usual with such petitions, it was referred to Hitler's private secretariat (the Kanzlei des Führers), headed by Philipp Bouhler. There it was seen by Hans Hefelman, head of Department IIb, which dealt with petitions. Hefelman and Bouhler showed the petition to Hitler, aware of his frequently expressed support for the "mercy killing" of people with severe disabilities.
Hitler summoned Karl Brandt, one of his personal physicians, and sent him to Leipzig to investigate the Kretschmar case. Hitler told Brandt that if Gerhard Kretschmar's condition was indeed as described in Richard Kretschmar's petition, then he, Hitler, authorised Brandt to have Gerhard killed, in consultation with the local doctors, and if any legal action were taken, it would be thrown out of court. In Leipzig, Brandt examined the child and consulted with Catel and another physician, Dr. Helmut Kohl. He also went to Pomssen and saw the Kretschmars. When Brandt informed the Leipzig doctors of Hitler's instructions, they agreed that Gerhard Kretschmar should be killed, although they knew this was illegal.
The Pomssen church register says that Gerhard Kretschmar died at Pomssen of "heart weakness" on 25 July. He was buried in the Lutheran churchyard three days later. Although no medical records exist, and although the testimony of Brandt and Catel after the war was contradictory and evasive, Schmidt believes that Gerhard was killed in the Leipzig clinic with an injection of a common drug such as luminal, and that the church register was falsified to conceal this fact.
Historians have called this case a "trial balloon", a case deliberately selected to test and trigger the implementation of the euthanasia program that had been being prepared for months. Actually the killing of Gerhard Kretschmar was followed immediately with further actions in that direction, coming as it did shortly before the outbreak of World War II. In October, Hitler provided written authorization, backdated to 1 September, to Brandt and Bouhler to begin the systematic registration of children with severe disabilities, and to assemble a panel of doctors who would decide whether these children should be killed. Registration began on 18 August, only three weeks after Gerhard Kretschmar's death.
- Schmidt (2007), p.118
- In his postwar testimony Catel denied that he was present. Schmidt dismisses this as "scarcely credible." (Schmidt (2007), p.119) Kohl was not related to the German Chancellor of the same name.
- By 1939 a formal instruction from Hitler, a Führerbefehl, was held to have the force of law, although no legislation had ever provided for this. This did not apply, however, to an oral order. Ian Kershaw wrote of this case: "Even according to the legal theories of the time, Hitler's mandate could not be regarded as a formal Führer decree, and did not, therefore, possess the character of law." (Kershaw, Ian (2000) Hitler: 1936-1945: Nemesis London: Allen Lane, p.253; quoted by Schmidt (2007), p.120)
- Schmidt (2007), p.122
- Schmidt and others have raised the possibility that Richard Kretschmar was induced to send his petition to Hitler by officials who wished to ingratiate themselves with Hitler by giving him a pretext to launch such a campaign. This cannot be proved.