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Unknowingly using language employed by the Nazis a reminder of how we can inadvertently dehumanize entire groups of people

by | Oct 6, 2023

By Laura Echevarria, Director of Communications and Press Secretary

A recent errand meant spending a little time in the lobby of a local business. While I waited, I had the opportunity to talk to the owner’s father who is now in his mid-80s and who helped start the business in the late 1970s. I’ve seen him over the years as we have visited the business and he has, by his own admission, slowed down because of his age. This time, he was sleeping when I walked in but woke up in time to have a conversation with me.

But something he said during our conversation disturbed me.

I asked how he was doing, and his answer—as it often is—was “Better than I deserve.” But as we talked more, he expressed his frustration that at his age and ability, he was a “useless eater.” I was stunned that he used the term and it’s one that I loathe because it reflects a philosophy that was prevalent in Nazi Germany regarding persons with disabilities.

In 1920, two university professors, attorney Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche, wrote a tract called “Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living.” In it, they argued for the deaths of persons they considered “lives unworthy of living.” They contended that people with mental or physical disabilities should be put to death as “healing work.”

Their arguments were made before the Nazis came to power but by the time they did, these ideas were foundational in the development of Germany’s T4 program that was designed to classify for killing any people – and children—with disabilities as well as others that Nazis considered “undesirable.” From the early T4 program, the killing methods used in the Holocaust were developed and expanded leading to the deaths of millions of Jews, prisoners of war, and many others that the Nazis wanted to destroy.

“Life unworthy of life” and “useless eater” were terms that came out of the 1920’s tract and the T4 program. But Nazi propaganda went further.

One official publication that was often found in doctor’s offices, libraries, and schools looked at the “cost” of keeping a person with a disability alive. Propaganda films were commissioned to develop sympathy in the population for euthanasia. The films sanitized and/or glorified the deaths of those with disabilities or debilitating conditions.

But for the families of those killed, they were often lied to and told their child or family member died of pneumonia or tuberculosis.

“Useless eater” and “life unworthy of life” are offensive phrases meant to demean and undermine a person’s inherent, God-given right to life.

In the waiting room, I ran into one of the very statements that laid the groundwork for Nazi Germany’s annihilation of so many lives in a way I never imagined hearing in the modern era—bluntly and publicly. As we continued speaking, the gentleman told me that everyone else around him was working but all he did was sit and doze all day. He was forgetful and it bothered him.

I told him that those things didn’t make him “useless” and that he did contribute to the world around him. At his age, he has wisdom that only life experience can give. While it is true that he can’t do everything he could do when he was younger, he can be there for his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in different ways.

More importantly, even if he didn’t “contribute” to society, his very existence means his right to life exists. It’s not based on how much we contribute to the world around us. It just is.