Social Dialogue Magazine
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Translation: "60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People's community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too. Read '[A] New People', the monthly magazine of the NSDAP Office of Racial Policy."
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Sharlotte Tusasiirwe, assistant lecturer of Social Work, Makerere University, Uganda. PhD candidate, Western Sydney University, Australia.

‘Never again!’
Social work’s darkest episode

Since its beginnings in the asylums of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the contribution of the social work profession to the relief of mental distress has been a complex and contradictory one.

For some commentators, the psychiatric social work which flourished in the post-war period in both Britain and the USA (in the former case, often within Child Guidance Clinics) represented a high point in the profession’s development. Psychiatric social workers in the 1950s and early 1960s were often viewed as an elite group, described by leading social work academic David Brandon as the ‘jewel in the social work crown’. In the current era of neoliberal social work, when front-line practitioners often struggle to find time to build effective working relationships with service users, many would look back enviously at the opportunities these predecessors enjoyed to conduct in-depth, relationship- based work with children and families experiencing emotional distress. At the same time, however, as critics argued in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that work was often conducted within a narrow psychoanalytic framework which reduced emotional distress to individual psychology. It was an approach which ignored the contribution of poverty, inequality and oppression to the problems which people were experiencing. Not surprisingly, then, more radical social workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s sought their understanding of mental distress not in the ideas of Freud but rather looked to thinkers such as R.D. Laing, Franco Basaglia and Michel Foucault to make sense of their clients’ experiences.

Whatever the limitations of that psychiatric social work, at its best it did represent a genuine attempt to get to grips with the complexities of people’s experiences and make sense of their distress, arguably in much greater depth than do currently fashionable cognitive-behavioural approaches . The same cannot be said, however, for mental health social work practice during what is without doubt the darkest episode in the history of social work – the period of National Socialism in Germany.

The facts are these. Between 1939 and 1941 an official programme instituted by the Nazi regime, known as Aktion T4, resulted in the murder of a recorded 70, 000 mentally ill and learning disabled individuals in Germany. The final figure was probably nearer to 200, 000 since the slaughter continued until 1945, including in the occupied territories. One recent mainstream history of psychiatry describes the involvement as psychiatry’s ‘most shameful chapter’, noting that there was no effective opposition by psychiatrists (Burns, 2013: 201). But the role of the German social work profession in this slaughter was scarcely less shameful. As Walter Lorenz has argued:

Sticking to their professional task with the air of value neutrality and scientific detachment (especially after the “non-conforming”, “politically active” social workers had been sacked or imprisoned), they did not feel responsible for the consequences of their assessments and indeed may not have been conscious of the full implications their work had in the national context

Two other writers, Dalton and Barney, also note:

[Social workers and welfare workers also actively participated in social engineering (called “social hygiene”) at a broader level consisting of certification for compulsory sterilization and diagnostic recommendations for euthanizing disabled and infirmed mentally ill, mentally retarded, and aged in institutions such as hospitals, pediatric wards, and prisons.

Political coercion was clearly one important factor in social workers’ participation in these programmes but three other factors were also significant. Firstly, there was the acceptance of a eugenics ideology which saw certain groups, most obviously Jews and Roma but also people with disabilities, as inferior and as diluting the ‘purity’ of the Aryan ‘race’.

Second, there was their adoption of a medical model of social work, a model of diagnosis and intervention which located problems within individuals and ignored or denied the influence of their wider material and political context.

Thirdly, there was the view of social work as a non-political project, resulting as Lorenz says in a blindness to the implications of their actions.

So what lessons can we draw today from this most shameful episode in the profession’s history? The first lesson is a rather depressing one. Until fairly recently, it had seemed safe to assume that, following the Holocaust, eugenics theory, the idea that one ‘race’ is inherently superior to others, had been consigned to the dustbin of history. Sadly that no longer appears to be the case. With the rise of the far right across the globe and with neo-Nazis now sitting in several European Parliaments, race science appears to be making a return. As an example, it emerged in 2018 that the prestigious University College London (UCL) had hosted secret conferences on eugenics for three consecutive years which included white supremacist speakers.

So what lessons can we draw today from this most shameful episode in the profession’s history? The first lesson is a rather depressing one. Until fairly recently, it had seemed safe to assume that, following the Holocaust, eugenics theory, the idea that one ‘race’ is inherently superior to others, had been consigned to the dustbin of history. Sadly that no longer appears to be the case. With the rise of the far right across the globe and with neo-Nazis now sitting in several European Parliaments, race science appears to be making a return. As an example, it emerged in 2018 that the prestigious University College London (UCL) had hosted secret conferences on eugenics for three consecutive years which included white supremacist speakers.

Following pressure from students, UCL management agreed in December 2018 to launch an inquiry into historical links with eugenics and promised to consider demands to rename its Galton Institute. The institute was founded in 1911 as the Galton National Laboratory for Eugenics, along with Britain’s first and only professorial chair in the subject, as part of a bequest by scientist Sir Francis Galton - best known as the father of eugenics. So consideration needs to be given to including a critique of eugenics and race science within social work education.

Secondly, we need to challenge the domination of the biomedical model and the marginalisation of social work in the field of mental distress. The past few decades have seen the emergence of a very powerful body of knowledge which highlights the social and structural roots of much mental distress. That knowledge has emerged from several different sources. They include social epidemiology (such as the influential The Spirit Level by Richard Wikinson and Kate Pickett), critical psychology and psychiatry, and crucially, out of the voices and experiences of service users. So far social work has not taken advantage of this knowledge to develop new forms of practice and models of service at micro, meso and macro levels. Yet there is a rich tradition of relationship-based, community development and networking approaches as well as political campaigning and advocacy work which can be drawn on and developed to offer a real alternative to the current over-medicalisation of trauma and mental distress.

So what lessons can we draw today from this most shameful episode in the profession’s history? The first lesson is a rather depressing one. Until fairly recently, it had seemed safe to assume that, following the Holocaust, eugenics theory, the idea that one ‘race’ is inherently superior to others, had been consigned to the dustbin of history. Sadly that no longer appears to be the case. With the rise of the far right across the globe and with neo-Nazis now sitting in several European Parliaments, race science appears to be making a return. As an example, it emerged in 2018 that the prestigious University College London (UCL) had hosted secret conferences on eugenics for three consecutive years which included white supremacist speakers.

Finally, as noted above, one reason that social workers in Germany in the 1930s were drawn into collusion and active involvement in barbaric practices was their willingness to see themselves as professionals who were ‘above politics’ and their denial of the political role of social work. Although the consequences of that denial were undoubtedly more catastrophic in Nazi Germany than elsewhere, there are many other examples from social work’s history, some discussed elsewhere in this issue of Social Dialogues, of the leadership of the profession either actively colluding with the State in oppressive practices or at least keeping its head down and staying out of the fray, usually in the name of ‘professionalism’.

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There were also social workers who stood up for the core values of social work: Irena Sendlerowa, a Polish social worker, saved 2,500 Jewish Children during World War II in German-occupied Warsaw. Image: wikipedia.org

Fortunately, however, in all of these situations there were also social workers, including in Nazi Germany, who courageously opposed these practices and stood up for the core values of social work. Similarly in our own time, a positive aspect of global social work over the past decade has been the emergence of a new radicalism, with practitioners and academics as far apart as Budapest and Hong Kong challenging the notion that social workers should not involve themselves in wider issues of structural poverty and oppression.

These workers are actively engaged with social movements in the defence of refugees and asylum seekers, in challenging austerity and in fighting for civil and democratic rights. They include the Social Work Action Networks in the UK, Ireland and Greece, the Orange Tide in Spain, the Progressive Social Welfare Alliance in Hong Kong and many more. If their vision of a politically engaged social work profession based on social justice can grow and spread, then there are grounds for hoping that the ‘horrible histories’ of the past need not be repeated and that, at least as far as social work is concerned, the slogan ‘Never again!’ can be a reality.