Psychiatry and the Final Solution
BERLIN - It's a bit jarring to see an exhibition at the Jewish Museum here that indirectly concerns the fate of German Jews but at first glance seems to suggest that the museum is joining the increasingly popular trend of presenting Germans as victims of the Nazi regime, too. It is unusual to witness a demonstration against a Jewish institution in Germany, and against the Jewish Museum, no less. And even stranger than that is that the demonstration is not spearheaded by an anti-Semitic or extreme right-wing group, but by an Israeli. But the most bizarre thing of all is that this individual agrees with most of the points made by the exhibition, a message that he has actually been promoting all his adult life.
Hagai Aviel, 51, one of the founders of the Israeli Association Against Psychiatric Assault, approached the museum to offer his help in organizing the show, entitled "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race." His hope was to convince its curators that the show does not, in fact, address the Nazi regime per se, but rather a particular branch of psychiatry. Aviel argues that it was psychiatrists who paved the way for the Final Solution. He believes the only way to do justice to all concerned - himself, the museum, Germany, Israel and the victims - is for the museum to extend the time frame of the exhibition, which now is 1933-1945, and acknowledge that this "deadly medicine" was in use as late as 1949, claiming the lives of an additional 20,000 people in special psychiatric facilities.
The Nazis were not the first to propose the creation of a "superior race." Indeed, the concept, an integral part of social Darwinism, dates back to the mid-19th century. At the dawn of the 20th century, there was support in several countries (including the United States, Switzerland and Sweden) for policies aimed at creating such a race, which included such measures as castration of the mentally ill and others who were deemed inferior.
The concept was widely embraced in Germany after its devastating loss in World War I. After he first encountered it in 1924, while serving time in jail, Adolf Hitler incorporated discussion of it into "Mein Kampf." Subsequently, the Great Depression spurred a gradual increase in the numbers who believed in the idea of getting rid of nonproductive elements and creating a superior German society. The Nazi party's rise to power gave that idea the official seal of approval.
In 1933, Germany's leading psychiatrists opened so-called genetic-health courts, where people were tried for such "offenses" as manic depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism and the like. Between 1933 and 1939, some 400,000 German men were castrated, after it was determined that they did not contribute to the party, the state or science. A number of them died as a result. Also subject to castration were Germans who suffered from various disorders like depression or addictions. And of course, both Jews and Gypsies were defined as inferior races.
On September 1, 1939, bowing to a request from the psychiatric elite, Hitler signed an order calling for the systematic murder of people "judged incurably sick, by critical medical examination." This was the only document that linked him directly to mass murder, and its codename was T4, for "Tiergartenstrasse 4," the Berlin address where the request from an organization of physicians and other officials had originated. The house there had once belonged to a Jewish family and had been confiscated in the wake of the Nuremberg Laws.
The order resulted in the establishment of six euthanasia centers in psychiatric institutions throughout the Reich, and during the two years in which it was in effect, a total of 70,000 Germans were murdered on the basis of this directive - most of them in gas chambers. When the order was eventually revoked, the murderous staff who worked in these centers went on to the camps in Eastern Europe, where they put their expertise to use in killing Jews.
While Aviel, his colleagues and Jewish Museum officials agree that some 20,000 civilians died or were killed in these institutions between 1945 and 1949, they differ as to the method used. Aviel maintains that the systematic murder outlined under order T4 continued during those years. By contrast, the museum people assert that these people died because of the poor conditions in the facilities.
'The whole truth'Aviel first encountered psychiatric hospitalization as a minor, when his mother hospitalized him. She tried to have him committed again at age 27, and when he resisted, he was arrested and detained for 15 days. He was released after his attorney asked that he be sent for psychiatric observation.
In the wake of his experiences, Aviel decided to help others who came up against the psychiatric establishment and, as part of a joint effort, helped establish the Israeli Association Against Psychiatric Assault. When association members began looking for international partners, they found that only in Germany were there activists who fought against the system's power and campaigned for patients' rights.
Standing outside the museum, since he has been banned from the immediate grounds, Aviel hands out flyers that explain his organization's struggle. He wears a shirt calling for "the whole truth" - referring to the fact that he believes the museum should mention in the exhibition that there were four additional years of killings, and many victims. He is adamant that he supports the exhibition, but demands the museum tell the whole story.
"[Aside from psychiatrists], there is no other civil servant who can arrest a citizen and penetrate his body," Aviel argues. "Everything that may not be done to a regular person may be done to whomever the psychiatrist determines. Nowadays, too, psychiatrists can determine who is eligible to have basic rights and who isn't."
"Every society determines standards under which its citizens' rights may be deprived," maintains Prof. Arieh Shalev, who heads the department of psychiatry at the Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem, Jerusalem, and is a lecturer at the Hebrew University's School of Medicine. "There are many hurdles before someone is hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital. A person could come to me and say he has lost the desire to live, but I see that he is normal and functioning. I cannot hospitalize such people, even if it is clear to me that they are going to commit suicide. It's very tough.
"Psychiatrists engage in critical decisions regarding life and death, which explains the plethora of arguments about whether they should be responsible for such decisions, or whether such responsibility should be handed over to the court system," Shalev continues. "The bottom line, which people must understand, is that psychiatry works, it saves people, it helps many people recover from mental illnesses and rejoin society. We do not want to deny a hospitalized person's freedom. [We just want] to treat him. I am very happy there is supervision. I am happy that I am subject to public scrutiny - that is what makes me the public's emissary. It is good that my powers are limited."
Aviel has a hard time accepting these arguments at face value. He insists that psychiatry and the Final Solution are interlinked - but, he insists, no one dares to mention this connection in Israel.
At the start of the decade, Aviel and his colleagues at the association found out that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington was about to launch the "Deadly Medicine" exhibit. They contacted its curator, Susan Bachrach, offering their help, and tried to explain that she ought to change the time frame of the exhibit. Bachrach refused.
In 2006, the exhibition traveled to the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum (German Museum for Hygiene) in Dresden, one of the most important institutions dealing with German race theory. Aviel's association contacted this museum, too, offering its help. After receiving yet another cool response, they decided to take action. They organized a demonstration in Dresden that not only drew attention, but also resulted in a huge police presence at the site. However, the protesters failed to attain the desired change.
It seems that in Berlin, too, Aviel and his colleagues have not received the attention they sought, and also failed to change the time frame covered by the exhibit. Nevertheless, they continue to stand not far from the entrance, wearing over their clothes the huge white shirt with the "whole truth" motto, handing flyers out to every visitor.
Margret Kampmeyer, who curated the exhibition for the Jewish Museum, says most of the documents and exhibits presented in it are from Berlin and its environs. Kampmeyer and her associates chose to highlight the documents, also adding survivors' testimonies and stories told by psychiatrists after the war. The exhibition will close on July 19.
Aviel realizes people in the U.S. have no interest in accepting his association's position and demands (after all, the Americans liberated Europe and, as far as they are concerned, everything ended in 1945) - and, likewise, most Germans (since it was the the Third Reich that murdered the patients, and it was defeated). However, he has difficulty understanding the Jewish Museum's scornful response.
"It is very important for a Jewish museum to show such an exhibit," he says. "It helps Israel politically, since the moment the Jews become just one group of victims, it robs Holocaust-deniers, who are motivated by anti-Semitism, of their argument's legitimacy. Because the Jewish organizations do not support us, they pave the way for the museum to dismiss our demand. Israel and the Jews want to monopolize the Holocaust, even if it means children won't study the evolution of the Final Solution."
"If I were doing it all over again," concedes Kampmeyer, "I would have added one sign, perhaps the last in the exhibit, noting that after the war, 20,000 more people died."
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Source: Israeli Newspaper By Zeev Avrahami