By Laksiri Fernando –
“Let me sing for your suffering. Compassion is my offering.” – A Theme Song
The victims are mainly orphans, disabled, the sick and old people. They come from marginalized ethnic groups and lower classes in society. Already Jews have been persecuted and exterminated. The turn has come to eradicate the so-called ‘defective’ other sections of society considered to be a barrier in creating a superior and pure German nation to dominate the world.
Above is the background of the German drama-movie released in 2016 named ‘Nebel im August’ meaning ‘Fog in August,’ directed by Kai Wessel. It is based on a life story novel by Robert Domes (2008). It has now come to the international audience with English subtitles. Based on a true story of a 13 year old Yenish boy, Ernst Lossa, the movie depicts the brutality of Nazi ideology and beliefs in dealing with the sick, the disabled and helpless or ‘unfit’ people. This movie is particularly reviewed here because various forms of this ideology and the misuse of the ‘science’ of Eugenics are prevalent in many societies and among many people.
The ideology of Eugenics (not the science) believes that the elimination of undesirable or defective people from society is necessary and desirable. There can be soft and hard forms of this thinking and what the ‘Fog in August’ depicts is the most hardest form under Nazism. It is not a fiction but history. Between 1939 and 1945, an estimated 200,000 patients including 5,000 children in Germany who were considered physically and mentally disabled were systematically murdered through a forced euthanasia program. This was called Aktion T4. They were not just Jews, but mostly Germans.
Voluntary euthanasia is accepted today in many countries under certain conditions. In addition to unbearable pain due to certain illnesses, if someone decides that he/she has lived enough, and should not be a burden to him/herself or to others, then one should have that right to do so. However what is shown in the film is forced euthanasia even on healthy children, on the basis that they are a burden to the society.
This is 1943. Ernst Lossa aged 13 is brought to the Sanitorium Kaufbeuren. The police report says, he is a ‘peddler and anti-social vermin.’ The farther is already in custody and therefore he should be kept until father is released and comes to fetch him up. He should be treated as he has social deviations! But he is just a healthy and an intelligent child. He says, ‘I don’t belong here,’ but no one cares for his claim.
The Director of the Sanitorium, Dr Werner Veithausen, is not necessarily a bad man. But he has to follow orders and need to show his professional competence through new innovations. He also has to run the institute on a restricted budget. Even the disabled children are put on to hard work, and there is only one Mr. Max Witt as a laborer/foreman.
As all children, Ernst dreams that his father would come to fetch him up soon. He tells the other kids that then they would go to America! In his view, and of many others of that time in Germany, America is the free-land and the destination of salvation. His father does come to fetch Ernst and meets Dr. Veithausen. He has several questions to ask as a formality. All are written down. “What is your address?” He asks Mr. Christian Lossa. No answer. “Are you Yenish?” Of course he has to admit. Ernest is not given on that basis. “Your son is safer here,” is the doctor’s answer. Additional reason is that Ernst is a good worker, healthy and active.
Yenish are a historically marginalized group in Europe, still prevalent in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland and France, numbering around 700,000 people. They are similar to Roma people, or Rodiyas in our context. They have their own language or dialect.
When Ernest was admitted to the Sanitorium, his head was given a shave. Nandl says ‘you look like a dupe.’ Nandl is a German girl of more or less the same age as Ernst and they become best of pals at the place. She is orphaned, father died in the war and mother committed suicide in Hamburg. She suffers seizures (of epilepsy) on and off. According to Nazi eugenics, they all should be eliminated, a necessity for the German people. “We are doing it based on verifiable medical facts,” they argue. They were practicing racial hygiene or ‘social Darwinism,’ eliminating hereditary diseases.
Initially under Aktion T4, supposed to be incurable patients were sent to Hadamar Euthanasia Centre. However, the policy was changed and Veithausen was asked to conduct his own euthanasia at the Sanitorium discretely. History says that the change was done after strong protests by the Catholic Bishop of Munster, Clemens August von Galen. His role was similar to Lutheran Pastor, Martin Niemoller against Nazism.
To assist Dr Veithausen in euthanasia, a new nurse Edith Keifer is sent from Hadamar. She is a very pretty young woman in the film. Veithausen did not have any support from Sister Sophia, but opposition, being a strong Catholic. Keifer’s ‘scientific method’ is to administer barbiturate overdoses in raspberry juice particularly to children. Barbiturate is an acid that can put people into sleep. This is what Ernst suspects from the beginning. Sister Sophia knows about it too. She seeks local Priest’s assistance who has unfortunately to administer religious rituals after euthanasia deaths. But he is also helpless. He asks Sister Sophia to “keep a foot in the door for us.”
Dr Veithausen also devices his own method called Starvation Diet or S-Diet. He gets credit for that ‘scientific innovation’ from Nazi authorities. It is just a vegetable soup boiled so long that it has no calories or nutrition. When this diet is given to patients, they die whilst they eat. Doctor selects the chopping list almost daily, striking out names in the hospital list and then giving names to the nurses.
Ernst becomes the main Rebel against the killings. Ernst, Nandl, Sister Sophia and hapless Emili in Sister’s custody try to flee but prevented by Russian bombings. Sister Sophia and Emili get killed and Nandl badly injured. Rebellion starts in the dining room the following day. They throw the food away. “Give them to the Russians, then we will win the war,” Ernst shouts and others repeat. After the funeral of Sister Sophia, Ernst confronts Dr Veithausen.
“Murderer! Sister Sophia helped sick people, you killed them. You are a murderer.”
That evening, Veithausen strikes off Ernst Lossa’s name from the hospital list. The task is given to Nurse Keifer and male nurse Paul Hechtle. Most probably Keifer does the job. She is cool, firm and a strong believer in racial purity and Eugenics. The following morning in the dining room, Nandl declares: “Listen! Ernst Lossa has done it. He is in America!” The crowed repeats.
A Post Mortem: There are debates in many countries how to deal with the disabled, mentally retarded and so-called deviant people. The science of Eugenics may try to prevent them before birth in the future. But politics of Eugenics often try to eliminate or discard them. Prejudices against the old people and hate against drug addicts are part of the same. Those attitudes sometimes extend to capital punishment or in dealing with criminals. Certain groups of migrants are another category. The efforts to create pure or superior ‘country, society, nation or ethnicity’ are often lead to various forms Nazism or political Eugenics. They come not only from one strand of politics, but different strands and various sources.