In November 1940, just one month before his assignment was due to end and 13 months before Hitler declared war on the United States, William L. Shirer, an American correspondent in Berlin, began to uncover disquieting evidence of one aspect of the Nazi government's then-unknown crimes against humanity. Oddly worded death notices began to appear in German provincial newspapers.
Shirer already suspected that the Nazis were contemplating a policy of the euthanasia of the mentally ill and incapacitated. He looked into the matter further. Shirer concluded that the Nazis were murdering the mentally ill.
It was a secretive and shameful business. Whatever Nazi theory held about the unfit, the Nazis feared the German people would resist the murder of innocent people with mental illnesses. Even in a society hardened by war and brutalized by Nazi propaganda, they took refuge in euphemisms. The official Nazi form letter sent to relatives included this sentence: "In view of the nature of his serious, incurable ailment, his death, which saved him from a lifelong institutional sojourn, is to be regarded merely as a release."
There are echoes in those words of the current advocacy of euthanasia and assisted suicide -- and, inevitably, of the Terri Schiavo case. In most such cases, the welfare of the proposed deceased is always said to be the dominant consideration. Yet the costs of looking after him or her -- social as well as individual -- are surely factors that inevitably push us toward seeing their deaths as necessary or beneficial. Unless there is a strong ethic of life to restrain us, we will always be able to find good reasons as to why a helpless invalid should quietly disappear and leave us in peace.
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