It is well known that the Nazis' "mercy killing" program was a stepping stone to the Final Solution; less known are the doctors who designed and let it. In Karl Brandt: The Nazi Doctor, Ult Schmidt, a professor of modern history at the University of Kent, explores the life and legacy of Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician, who was appointed head of the T-4 Euthanasia program, which forcibly took the lives of seventy to a hundred thousand disabled people from 1939 to 1941. Later, he presided over brutal and horrifying medical experiments on helpless victims, for which he was prosecuted and hanged after the war. His upbringing and education gave no indication he was headed for a life of evil. How such an intelligent and gifted young physician could betray everything that medicine - not to mention Western civilization - stood for, is the main theme of Schmidt's spellbinding book.
Interestingly, Brandt, like many other Nazis, was a man of the left, who was heavily influenced by Friedrich Neumann, a nineteenth century socialist pastor, who had declared: "As politicians we are national socialists, and as Christians we are searching for an evangelism which is true and alive." Brandt's "search" for relevance beyond the traditional gospel ended with his embrace Hitler's murderous Weltanschauung, though, perversely, Brandt always saw himself as a minister of compassion. "I do not feel that I am incriminated," he said defiantly at his post-War trial. "I am convinced that I bear the responsibility for what I did in this connection before my conscience. I was motivated by absolutely humane feelings. I never had any other intention."
Although Schmidt's book is historical and cannot be classified as part of the modern-day "culture wars," its conclusion carries a powerful lesson for medical ethics in our own time: "Whatever may be said by a saturated public, complacent politicians, and a cynical media industry to turn our attention to new and more exciting shores lurking beyond the virtual horizon, we cannot all this history to be ignored, because we cannot survive its repetition."
First Things, Jan. 2009, issue. No. 189
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