In July 1933, the newly instituted Nazi state passed legislation for compulsory sterilization of the sick and disabled. The law was modelled on Prussian draft legislation of 1932, but added the element of compulsion that characterized earlier American and especially Californian legislation. The German sterilization law drew on Danish and certain Swiss cantonal sterilization measures. The German law came into force on 1 January 1934. The rapidity of its implementation indicated the Nazi enthusiasm for a biological “solution” to social problems and for purifying the race.
The psychiatric geneticist Ernst Rüdin (1874-1952), the Nazi public health official Arthur Gütt and the jurist Falk Ruttke set about drafting the law. The German law imposed sterilization on presumed hereditary schizophrenics, the feeble minded, Huntington’s chorea sufferers, persons deemed to be hereditarily blind and deaf, so-called “mental defectives”, and chronic alcoholics. Schizophrenics, the so-called “schizoid” and epileptics (deemed an indicator of mental sub-normality and thus also included in the sterilization law) were all subject to sterilization. Thus apparently healthy persons could be identified as carriers of recessive genes of schizophrenia and other mental disorders and were deemed a severe threat to collective racial health. Distinguishing presumed conditions was controversial. For the blind it meant using genealogies to distinguish “inherited” from “acquired” blindness.
Tribunals of two doctors and a lawyer decreed sterilization irrespective of the patient’s wishes. A person could appeal to a higher tribunal, but this was mostly unsuccessful. The Nazi onslaught on civil law removed the legal basis for the inviolability of a citizen’s body, so undermining protection against vicarious experimentation. The medically unfit were increasingly vulnerable to invasive sterilization, as racial hygiene posited the need to “cleanse” the German hereditary stream as it flowed from generation to generation – these images need to be understood in terms of emotive propaganda.
The psychiatrist Rüdin was largely responsible for the medical scope of the German legislation. Rüdin had originally proposed sterilization as a means of combatting the hereditary effects of alcoholism in 1903. In 1916 he published a pioneering paper applying Mendelian genetics to what was known as “dementia praecox” or “schizophrenia”. He pioneered large-scale “genealogical-demographic” or hereditary researches into the genetics of schizophrenia and other conditions at the German Institute for Psychiatry (also a Kaiser Wilhelm Institute) established in Munich by the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin. Rüdin advocated systematic screening of populations over generations for psychiatric and physical diseases and defects. The German Institute for Psychiatry saw that the new sterilization law provided opportunities for research on patterns of inheritance. Gütt wanted all records centrally archived and placed at the disposal of researchers. Persons designated schizophrenics became the largest group among those compulsorily sterilized.
The sterilization law was extended by Nazi legislation, such as for castration of criminals and homosexuals of November 1933. In 1938 the law was extended to annexed Austria, where an estimated 6000 persons were sterilized. By 1945 over 200 German ‘Genetic Health Courts’ had mandated the forced sterilization of over 400,000 persons. The operating of the law was regionally uneven, due to the vagaries of the sterilization tribunals and willingness of doctors to refer patients for sterilization. A study by the historian Astrid Ley showed that in the enthusiastically Nazi region of Franconia, general practitioners were reluctant to refer patients for sterilization. Most sterilizations under the 1933 law were carried out prior to 1940.The Nazi Physicians’ League Führer Gerhard Wagner opposed the sterilization law as insufficiently racial, and the outbreak of the war saw a shift to the forced killing of the mentally ill and disabled. This shift was especially marked in Austria. Rüdin saw euthanasia as a research opportunity for studies of “idiocy” at the Heidelberg Psychiatric Institute where children were exhaustively studied and then their brains were dissected.
The method of sterilization was mainly surgical: males underwent vasectomy involving the cutting of sperm ducts. Castration was also possible. Female sterilization was more complex and had a higher rate of fatalities: the recommended method was to sever the oviducts or Fallopian tubes. From 1935 X-ray sterilizations were permitted for older women over the age of 35. Public health authorities identified 145 mixed- race ‘bastard’ children in the Rhineland, whom they associated with idiocy and congenital syphilis. Labelling the children as ‘Rhineland Bastards’ was stigmatizing in the way it used the genetic term for a cross-breed. In July 1933 the KWI anthropologist Wolfgang Abel (an Austrian Nazi) examined thirty- nine children in the district of Wiesbaden. The group included twenty- seven part- Moroccan and six part-‘Annamite’, Vietnamese children. Abel condemned their mental and emotional defects, concluding that nearly all were subnormal. Abel’s findings were publicized by the Racial Political Office in 1934, and its head Walter Gross pressed the case for sterilization at the expert committee for population and race policy.
From 11 March 1935 Nazi race hygienists and civil servants planned the sterilization of the mixed race children. Gross hoped their mothers could give written permission, as the 1933 sterilization law did not allow for such measures. In all 385 out of an estimated 600 to 800 ‘mixed race’ children were rounded up. A hereditary health commission from the KWI for Anthropology, composed of Abel, Eugen Fischer (renowned as a pioneer in study of the genetics of racial crossings over generations), and the assistant of Verschuer, Heinrich Schade, evaluated the children. The sterilizations established a pattern – first, using administrative machinery to identify a group of racial undesirables; then academic study and evaluation; finally their sterilization.
Homosexuals and persons rounded up as “a-social” were vulnerable to sterilization and to castration, particularly in concentration camps. Sterilization could be a precondition for release. The Nazi forced and slave labour force underwent sporadic forced sterilization and forced abortion with East Europeans particularly targeted. Thus a law which was originally limited to hereditary conditions became used against a wide range of groups deemed socially and racially undesirable.
Gisela Bock, Zwangssterilisation im Nationalsozialismus: Studien zur Rassenpolitik und Frauenpolitik (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1986)
Paul Weindling, Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism, 1870-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)