Thursday, January 19, 2012

Countries that Own Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Rocks

Having just finished the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Dr.Will Meinecke’s book Nazi Ideology and the Holocaust (available for free download by clicking here), I was disturbed, but not surprised, by the Nazi’s plan for euthanasia and sterilization of the "undesirable" European population.

“From 1939 to 1945, an estimated 200,000 Germans deemed ‘unworthy of life’ were killed in the various ‘euthanasia’ programs.” These programs included Operation T-4 and Operation 14 f13. Specific groups were also targeted by the Nazis for sterilization, including the “Rhineland Bastards” or children of African soldiers and German women. The Gestapo actually set up Special Commission #3 and between 1935 to 1937, they found, identified, and sterilized (in secret) some 385 children of these mixed raced couples. In July of 1933, a law was passed by the Nazis called the “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring."

If you were born with certain disorders that German scientists believed were inherited you were to be sterilized. These disorders included mental illness, feeblemindedness, serious physical abnormalities, seizures, blindness and deafness, alcoholism, and Huntington’s Chorea. The law was very specific about the possibility of passing on a congenital disease to an offspring. If there was a chance of this happening the state would have you sterilized. Period. After 1934, the Nazis sterilized between 300,000 to 400,000 disabled people and through this law they were also able to sterilize Roma or gypsies. Mind boggling numbers – yes? However, the Nazis were not the only society culpable of this practice. It was going on in America as well.

In the early 20th century, some 15,000 people were sterilized in over three dozen states on the grounds of eugenics. In 1927, even the Supreme Court upheld the practice in the case of criminal punishment. But Americans were also sterilized for being poor, a prisoner, or feebleminded. Sound familiar? During the Depression over 30,000 were sterilized and most were in mental asylums or state institutions. The justification for this practice was the cost to taxpayers for institutional care. Remember the infamous propaganda poster? “This genetically ill person will cost our people's community 60,000 marks over his lifetime. Citizens, that is your money.” You probably noticed the word “marks” and figured this was German. But it could just have easily been posted on a street corner in Kansas or Missouri. That’s how widespread the practice of sterilization was in our country.

Sterilization ended in Germany when the Nazis were defeated in 1945 and throughout most of the world it began to disappear. So imagine my surprise and dismay when I woke up last week to my NPR news report at 6:00am and heard that North Carolina’s legislature had decided to compensate eugenics victims from their state. Unbelievably North Carolina continued sterilization until the mid-1970s. Some 7,600 men, women and children were seen by the state’s eugenics board and deemed unable to “improve the caliber of the population” or were seen as a welfare burden on the state. Sound familiar? One girl was sterilized at 14 after the birth of her only son. The board decided she was unfit for parenthood, because she was poor and smelled bad. Many of the North Carolinian victims had the procedure unknowingly and weren’t aware until they tried to have a child later in life. If you ever get a chance to see USHMM’s “Deadly Medicine” the end is very telling. Video clips show victims of Nazi sterilization who were having fertility tests for years before they told their doctors what camps they had been in and who had taken care of them. Only to find they were no longer able to have a child.

As a library media specialist in a middle school, I teach propaganda lessons with my 8th grade students in the context of the Nazis and World War II. I added American propaganda this year as well to remind students of our county’s use of fear and euphemisms in persuading our citizens. However, next year when I teach the persuasive technique of “citing statistics” I will show the above information side by side so students can see the alarming parallels. Only in America, sterilization went on for another 30 years and paying the live victims $50,000 now as an apology won’t erase the crime committed on them.


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