The first mass murder by means of gassing by the Nazi regime did not happen in the concentration camps The first gassings in Germany took place in January 1940 at the Brandenburg Euthanasia Centre.
However it was the Hartheim Euthanasia centre which was the main centre to carry out the ‘T4 Program’ the mass murder of the physically and mentally disabled. It didn’t take much to be branded ‘Disabled’ Initially it was ‘sold’ under the motto of mercy killings for the ‘incurably ill’ , several rationales for the program had been offered, including eugenics, compassion, reducing suffering, racial hygiene, cost effectiveness and pressure on the welfare budget.
Hartheim castle, situated in the village of Alkoven near Linz in Austria, and close to the Mauthausen concentration camp, originally dated from the ninth century
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.
Hartheim Euthanasia Centre was under the medical direction of Dr Rudolf Lonauer, a psychiatrist from Linz. Pictured below with his family.
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 Leopold 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.
Picture below is of Leopold Hilgarth(sitting down)