A Merciful Genocide: The Violent Role of Medical Empathy in Nazi Euthanasia

David Deutsch


The early Nazi euthanasia project had been executed not only by officials but also by professional medical staffs. In many cases the killers knew their victims quite well. Early 20th century eugenic discourse justified their agenda by claiming that euthanasia and sterilization are in the better interest of the individual as well as the state. However under Nazi rule propaganda they were mainly pointed out as useless people living an unworthy life which fall as a burden to the Germen nation. The academic work that attempted to underline the explicit propaganda neglected to explain some of the later gaps within it. Even new researches that try to offer an integrative theory of the perpetrators discourse that participated in “Euthanasia” do not deal with the inherent ambivalence of the empathic genocidal rhetoric rooted back in early eugenic discourse. For example many doctors and nurses reveal empathy towards their victims and sometimes they legitimize their action with the liberal concept of their concern for the well being of their patients. The empathic genocidal discourse during the murder itself alters the focus away from the mainstream dehumanizing propaganda in Nazi Germany which emphasized the uselessness of the handicapped and the mentally ill.

I offer an ambivalent understanding of the term empathy that can in hold positive and warm feelings with implicit forms of genocidal activity and mass executions. In some constellations empathy, and its ability to blur the harshness of violent conduct, can catalyze and justify mass murder no less and at times even more than economic utilitarian ideas. The paper uses perpetrators testimonies in order to depict modules of socio- linguistic strategies wherein an empathic attitude towards the victims contributes to complex legitimization processes of euthanasia murders by the medical staffs on the ground