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Hartheim Euthanasia Centre 1940–1944

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Historical photo: Hartheim castle before 1945 

In the spring of 1940, remodelling works to adapt the castle to become a euthanasia centre were finished within a matter of weeks; the residents were subsequently distributed amongst other care facilities in the district of Oberdonau. They were to become the first victims of the Hartheim Euthanasia Centre.


The first transport reached Hartheim on 20 May 1940. Between 1940 and 1944, round 30,000 people with physical and mental disabilities as well as with mental illnesses were murdered. Some of them were patients from mental institutions and residents of homes for the disabled and care facilities, whereas others were prisoners from the concentration camps in Mauthausen, Gusen and Dachau, as well as forced labourers.


The perpetrators


Hartheim Euthanasia Centre was under the medical direction of Dr Rudolf Lonauer, a psychiatrist from Linz. He was responsible for the deaths of victims, determining the causes of death, keeping patient records and representing the Landesanstalt Hartheim (Hartheim State Institution) to third parties. Rudolf Lonauer was also the medical director of the District Sanatorium and Nursing Home Niedernhart in Linz, which served as a holding station for victims on their way to Hartheim. Rudolf Lonauer committed suicide in May 1945.


The deputy medical director was Dr Georg Renno, who managed to disappear after 1945, but was re-captured in 1961. Charges were filed in 1967, but the trial was discontinued in 1970 due to reports of the defendant being in poor health. Georg Renno died a free man in 1997.


The administrative technical director of Hartheim Euthanasia Centre was Christian Wirth, a policeman from Württemberg, who had already worked at the Nazi euthanasia centres in Grafeneck and Hadamar. In his function as the 'office manager', he was the head of the Special Register Office, which had been established in Hartheim. Moreover, he was responsible for keeping records of and sending urns, making local police reports and corresponding with the 'transferring institutions'.


A total of approximately 60 to 70 people were employed at Hartheim Euthanasia Centre. In addition to the nurses, who had the most contact with the victims and normally accompanied them on the busses, employees who were responsible for issuing and sending condolence letters and death certificates and sending urns as part of their administrative duties, represented the majority of the staff. Most of them also lived at the castle. Schoberstein Manor in Weißenbach on Lake Atter was available as an excursion destination for the staff at Hartheim. In addition, evening parties and group outings were organised as compensation for the staff of the castle – often together with their colleagues from the concentration camp in Mauthausen.




The death certificates were issued at Hartheim’s Special Register Office, which was located at the castle. False records were purposefully kept regarding the reason, date and place of death in order to mislead relatives and hamper investigations. Pulmonary tuberculosis was a popular reason of death, since it was a communicable disease that made it necessary to burn the corpse immediately. The system of exchanging files amongst the euthanasia centres contributed to the success of this cover-up action.




Not everyone who knew of the killings of those considered 'unworthy of life' remained silent. One such example is Franz Sitter, who was transferred from Ybbs an der Donau to work as a nurse in Hartheim in October 1940. He demanded to be immediately relieved of his professional duties, which was also the case. Afterwards, Sitter was sent back to Ybbs. On 6 February 1941, Franz Sitter was called to the front. He survived the war and returned to his profession as a nurse. In Alkoven itself, a resistance group centred round brothers Karl and Ignaz Schuhmann and Leopol Hilgarth came together and gave a rallying cry for resistance against the Nazi regime by means of graffiti and flyers. The group was betrayed, and Leopold Hilgarth and Ignaz Schuhmann were executed in Vienna on 9 January 1945.

'Action T4'

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Under the pretence of the 'need for a plan economy-relevant record of the mental health and care facilities', registration forms were sent to every mental health and care facility with questions about the institution and its residents. They had to be filled out by the local physicians or even the administrative staff. Using these registration forms, a record was kept of the 'clinical descriptions' of the patients' conditions as well as information about their 'type of occupation' and 'work performance value' (measured against the average performance of healthy workers, if possible). These registration forms were returned to the headquarters in Berlin, where special T4 experts used the details provided in the registration forms to determine who should and should not 'be added to the action'. The registration forms of those persons who were to 'be added to the action' were marked with a '+' and forwarded to the transport department, where it was organised for the victims to be picked up and transported to a euthanasia centre. Upon their arrival, they were immediately murdered by being asphyxiated with carbon monoxide in specially adapted rooms.

In August 1941, the 'action' came to a halt: Resistance from relatives and the Church, information relayed to the general public by the German-language programme of the BBC and flyers distributed by the Allies contributed to the 'action' being discontinued. Of special interest in this connection are the sermons by Clemens August, Count of Galen, Bishop of Münster, in which he spoke out against the practice of euthanasia. The sermons were copied and made their way into the population, also in the form of illegal flyers.


Eugenics and National Socialist Health Policy

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The health policy-related objective of the National Socialists was the creation of a 'genetically pure', hereditarily healthy and able-bodied German 'people'. This goal was to be attained by eradication – and therefore the exclusion of 'inferior traits' from reproduction – on the one hand, and by targeted measures to foster the production of 'genetically healthy' and 'high-quality' members of the people on the other. Instructions from the National Socialist state in this regard were followed by the health authorities.

On 14 June 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring was passed as one of the first laws of the National Socialist regime. Consequently, forced sterilisation represented one of the most important measures towards negative eugenic selection. As of 1 January 1940, this law also came into effect in the 'Ostmark'. In the opinions of Nazi ideologists, the measures involved in forced sterilisation did not extend far enough, since they would not show results until after generations. The objective was to completely eradicate the so-called 'inferiors'.

Adolf Hitler gave Reichsleiter Bouhler and his personal physician Dr Brandt the 'Gnadentoderlass' (Euthanasia Order), according to which, 'those who are considered terminally ill in light of the possibilities available to mankind can be granted death by euthanasia following a critical assessment of their conditions.' This 'order' represented the basis for formation of the organisation and the execution of the Nazi euthanasia intentions, but no legal legitimisation was ever created.
The headquarters of the organisation was established in Berlin at Tiergartenstrasse 4, whence its nickname 'T4' stems. The term 'Action T4' became popular following the war to refer to the euthanasia campaign.

'Action 14f13'

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From 1941 to 1944, Hartheim Castle was a place where the so-called 'Action 14f13' was carried out. Within the scope of this campaign, prisoners from concentration camps who were sick and no longer able to work were taken to euthanasia centres after being 'assessed' by a board of physicians and gassed.


Prisoners from the concentration camps in Dachau, Mauthausen and Gusen were killed at Hartheim Castle. Some of them were transported using busses from the concentration camps, whereas others were taken in special 'Action T4' busses. The victims were once again presented to a physician in Hartheim, but this was simply a pretence to look for dental gold.


Hartheim Castle only served as the place of execution, but the entire administrative process ran via the administrative offices of the concentration camps.


Approximately 12,000 people were murdered at Hartheim Castle within the scope of this campaign.

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