Disabled people in the UK versus Nazi Germany
Last week Stephen Sumpter posted an article comparing the situation facing disabled people in the UK today with that facing them in Germany in the 1930s under Hitler. The Nazis ran a programme to kill large numbers of disabled people (particularly those in institutions) which their propaganda portrayed as a drain on society, but they were also motivated by eugenic ideology; he claims that under the present government, people will die because of “starvation, homelessness and neglect” by bureaucracy and the companies contracted to administer a much reduced benefits system, and that the implementation differs but that the outcome will be the same. I think this is an extremely far-fetched comparison.
I posted a comment under that article saying that the two situations are in no way comparable and listed various reasons. Someone on Twitter then said I was very naive about what is facing disabled people now, and that she had been attacked only in the past week. I admit that my comment did not mention violence against disabled people and that I should have mentioned this. However, I still do not believe that the present climate is likely to lead to a massacre anything like the T4 programme, or to a result equivalent to it. He has previously written about Godwin’s Law, the law that states that comparing something to the Nazis or Hitler automatically indicates that one has lost the argument, because the comparison is likely to be so far-fetched as to be ridiculous and morally repugnant. (Supporters of Israel have a particular interest in this principle, as it enables them to assume a position of moral outrage whenever Jews in Israel are compared to their ancestors’ persecutors and killers.) His entry on Godwin’s Law compares the propaganda against disabled people in the 1930s to what is in our tabloids today, which I would say is a fair comparison (although the content is different), but last week compared current government policy to it as well, which I believe is entirely inappropriate.
Nazi Germany was a dictatorship; Britain is a parliamentary democracy. Nazi Germany was a totalitarian regime, which insinuated itself into the lives of ordinary people to such an extent that people were expected to greet each other with “Heil Hitler” rather than a more traditional greeting. The Nazis were explicitly racist and explicitly hostile to disabled people: their propaganda claimed that disabled people in general were a burden, without making a distinction between genuinely disabled people and ‘scroungers’ or cheats; they also did not draw distinctions between good and bad Jews (the poster shown, which Stephen Sumpter also featured, was published by the “racial-political office” of the Nazi party). The mass media was controlled by the Party or subject to censorship; in the UK, the press is privately owned, even though the biggest newspapers are controlled by corporate interests sympathetic to the bigger of the two currently ruling parties. Nazi propaganda was delivered through schools, which is not the case here; it was delivered through public posters such as the one shown; this does not happen here. The BBC is generally much more restrained about delivering politicised messages than the corporate popular press and, needless to say, the Nazi state media (or that of any other dictatorship). Both in BBC and private media output, dissenting views are commonly aired, often very prominently. In a democracy, you can freely and openly disagree with government policy, and many people do. In a dictatorship, you run the risk of being arrested and summarily imprisoned.
Also, in the 1930s, eugenics was still popular across the Western world, not only in Germany but also in the UK, the USA and Sweden among other places. It never made the law books here, but was certainly influential among the intellectual classes of both right and left. In other countries, however, there were laws preventing people with certain conditions (such as epilepsy) from marrying and laws mandating the compulsory sterilisation of supposed ‘idiots’, and the consequences of that law for many entirely innocent people in the USA and Sweden are well-known. Today, the eugenicists have totally lost the argument; some of the attitudes associated with eugenics, such as that disability is akin to criminality in that it runs in the family, are discredited and it is widely accepted that people have the right to have children, even if they are physically (or mildly cognitively) disabled, and have the right to bodily integrity.
In the 1930s, we had also not had the disability rights movement: disability was still considered very much a tragedy and people with both mental and physical disabilities spent decades in institutions (and thus were more rarely seen in the community, certainly as adults), both in Germany and elsewhere, and this had not really been questioned yet, and wouldn’t be for another three decades. Even then, however, the Nazi ‘T4’ programme was one of the few aspects of Nazi policy to attract concerted mass opposition as families pulled disabled relatives out of institutions and prominent clergy, particularly in the Catholic church, protested openly and issued edicts that killing people other than in self-defence and for other necessity was forbidden. The T4 programme was ended in 1941, partly due to these protests but also because some of those involved were transferred to Poland for other well-known murderous purposes. (If this programme attracted popular resistance even in the police state of Nazi Germany, then one can assume that a policy resulting in large-scale death of disabled people would cause an outcry here as well.)
He also draws attention to the modern euthanasia movement which is certainly very voluble and has substantial popular support, and notes that the Nazi euthanasia programme gained traction when the parents of a disabled child, one Gerhard Kretschmar, wrote to them in 1939 seeking to end his life. Baby Gerhard was only five months old when he died; he was born with several limbs missing and blind, and his own father called him “this monster” while seeking to get him killed. The recent cases involving people demanding euthanasia or assisted suicide (with one exception, and the assistance was not given), or actually assisting suicide, involved adults, some of whom were already seriously ill and in great pain (such as Lynn Gilderdale) or had degenerative conditions which they feared might lead to terrible suffering (Terry Pratchett, Debbie Purdy). In the one prominent case where someone intervened and ended the life of someone they assumed was in pain and was hopeless without their consent, that person was jailed for murder, albeit with a shorter than usual tariff (Frances Inglis). The euthanasia lobby pleads persistently that their scheme to facilitate assisted dying for those who are suffering terribly will never lead to involuntary euthanasia, yet although they have secured some concessions and people are rarely if ever jailed, legalising it is not on the table.
There is no doubt that present government policy is going to make life a lot worse for many disabled people, and there have been some fatalities already as well as some incidents of violence possibly influenced by media reports attacking supposed ‘scroungers’ and cheats. However, this is not the same as an organised massacre and the government is not running a programme to kill disabled people in large numbers. A broken window is not Kristallnacht; a fatal racist attack is not the Holocaust; a disabled person dying while contesting an ATOS decision, with stress a possible contributor, is not the T4 programme. There has been one group formed in recent years which has used political violence, namely the English Defence League, but they have never targeted disabled people; they went after a previous media target, the Muslim community, but the anti-fascist community have suggested that even they are in decline only three years after formation.
So, the comparison to Nazi Germany does not stand up. There have been other occasions where governments, including British governments, have been so blinded by ideology that it made them indifferent to the human suffering it caused; a classic case was the doctrine of the “invisible hand”, that the laws of economics were natural (and thus effectively divine) laws and so you simply cannot interfere with them — by such acts, for example, as using crops grown in Ireland to feed starving people when the potato crop failed. This government’s particular obsession is with getting the deficit down, to the exclusion not only of the welfare of disabled people but also the impact their slash and burn policies have on the wider economy, which may have devastating effects on ordinary people’s lives, but is not tantamount to setting out to kill them in large numbers. The distinction may, of course, not matter much to the people who are at the sharp end of it and are facing the loss of what makes their life worthwhile, or their independence, let alone vital personal care, but the distinction still has to be made. What was distinctive about Nazi Germany was not simply human suffering but the Nazis’ pseudo-scientific racist ideology and their willingness to fulfil it through mass murder, and no situation bears comparison to Nazi Germany unless it has those distinctive elements. It underlines the danger of too easily comparing a situation to Nazi Germany, because the moral gulf between that and almost any other modern political regime (with the exceptions of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot) are just too great and the comparison looks ridiculous.
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