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Sterilization in Nazi Germany

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In the 1930's, the Nazis introduced a massive, compulsory sterilization of a large segment of the German population. What could cause the Germans to do this after having already lost a large segment of their population during World War I? Why would the German people let this happen?

The Volk

As social Darwinism and nationalism merged during the early twentieth century, the concept of the Volk was established. Quickly, the idea of the Volk extended to various biological analogies and was shaped by the contemporary beliefs of heredity. Especially in the 1920's, analogies of the German Volk (or German people) began surfacing, describing the German Volk as a biological entity or body. With this concept of the German people as one biological body, many believed that sincere care was needed to keep the body of the Volk healthy. An easy extension of this thought process was if there was something unhealthy within the Volk or something that could harm it, it should be dealt with. Individuals within the biological body became secondary to the needs and importance of the Volk.

Since eugenics and racial categorization were in the forefront of modern science during the early twentieth century, the hereditary needs of the Volk were deemed of significant importance. After the First World War ended, the Germans with the "best" genes were thought to have been killed in the war while those with the "worst" genes did not fight and could now easily propagate.1 Considering the new belief that the body of the Volk was more important than individual rights and needs, the state had the authority to do whatever necessary to help the Volk.

Laws

The Germans were not the creators nor the first to implement governmentally sanctioned forced sterilization. The United States, for instance, had already enacted sterilization laws in half its states by the 1920's which included forced sterilization of the criminally insane as well as others. The first German sterilization law was enacted on July 14, 1933 - only six months after Hitler became Chancellor. The Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring (the "Sterilization" Law) allowed the forced sterilization for anyone suffering from genetic blindness, hereditary deafness, manic depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, congenital feeblemindedness, Huntingtons' chorea (a brain disorder), and alcoholism.

The Process

Doctors were required to register their patients with genetic illness to a health officer as well as petition for the sterilization of their patients who qualified under the Sterilization Law. These petitions were reviewed and decided by a three member panel in the Hereditary Health Courts. The three member panel was made up of two doctors and a judge. In the case of insane asylums, the director or doctor who made the petition also often served on the panels that made the decision whether or not to sterilize them.2

The courts often made their decision solely upon the basis of the petition and perhaps a few testimonies. Usually the appearance of the patient was not required during this process.

Once the decision to sterilize had been made (90 percent of the petitions that made it to the courts in 1934 ended up with the result of sterilization) the doctor that had petitioned for the sterilization was required to inform the patient of the operation.3 The patient was told "that there would be no deleterious consequences."4 Police force was often needed to bring the patient to the operating table. The operation itself consisted of ligation of the fallopian tubes in women and a vasectomy for men.

Klara Nowak was forcibly sterilized in 1941. In a 1991 interview she described what effects the operation still had on her life.

  • Well, I still have many complaints as a result of it. There were complications with every operation I have had since. I had to take early retirement at the age of fifty-two - and the psychological pressure has always remained. When nowadays my neighbors, older ladies, tell me about their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, this hurts bitterly, because I do not have any children or grandchildren, because I am on my own, and I have to cope without anyone's help.5

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