Life unworthy of life

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Not to be confused with Wrongful life.

The phrase "life unworthy of life" (in German: "Lebensunwertes Leben") was a Nazi designation for the segments of populace which, according to the Nazi regime of the time, had no right to live. Those individuals were targeted to be euthanized. The term included people with serious medical problems and those considered grossly inferior according to the racial policy of Nazi Germany. This concept formed an important component of the ideology of Nazism and eventually helped lead to the Holocaust.[1]

The euthanasia program was known as Action T4. It was officially adopted in 1939 and came through the personal decision of Adolf Hitler. It grew in extent and scope until 1941 when public protests stopped the programme. However, euthanasia continued more discreetly and the methods used (lethal injection and gassing, mainly) were expanded into the Nazi concentration camps where they were used on such a large scale as to form the basis of the Holocaust.


The expression first occurs in the title of a 1920 book, Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life) by jurist Karl Binding, retired from the University of Leipzig, and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche from the University of Freiburg, both professors.[2] According to Hoche, some living people who were brain damaged, mentally retarded, autistic (though not recognised as such at the time), and psychiatrically ill were "mentally dead", "human ballast" and "empty shells of human beings". Hoche felt killing such people was useful. Some people were simply considered disposable.[3] Later the killing was extended to people considered 'racially impure' or 'racially inferior' according to Nazi thinking.[4]

Nazi categorization[edit]

The concept culminated in Nazi extermination camps, instituted to systematically kill those who were unworthy to live according to Nazi ideologists. It also justified various human experimentation and eugenics programs, as well as Nazi racial policies.

Development of the concept[edit]

This poster (from around 1938) reads: "60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People's community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too. Read '[A] New People', the monthly magazine of the Bureau for Race Politics of the NSDAP."

According to the author of Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, the policy went through a number of iterations and modifications:

Of the five identifiable steps by which the Nazis carried out the principle of "life unworthy of life," coercive sterilization was the first. There followed the killing of "impaired" children in hospitals; and then the killing of "impaired" adults, mostly collected from mental hospitals, in centers especially equipped with carbon monoxide gas. This project was extended (in the same killing centers) to "impaired" inmates of concentration and extermination camps and, finally, to mass killings in the extermination camps themselves.[1]

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