Social Dialogue Magazine
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Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0619-506 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
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Heinz Sünker, Heinz Sünker holds a chair in social pedagogics, Department of Education, University Wuppertal

Social Work and Social Care under National Socialism

1. Social care and social policy

Social work and social care in the guise of Volkspflege [national care] and the institutions, areas of activity, organisational forms, practices and programmatic aims associated with them constitute one of the elements of National Socialist society that received attention in West Germany relatively late and that remain insufficiently explored (cf. Otto/Sünker 1986, 1991; Hansen 1991; Sachße/Tennstedt 1992; Sünker/Otto 1997). Social work and social care are key factors in any analysis that seeks to understand more clearly how the social system of National Socialism operated and that does so by examining its social context as a whole, a social context that includes questions of social policy. Social work and social care are important areas where processes of “integration and exclusion“ are organised. To what extent did “Volkspflege“, in its structural conditions and ideological aims as well as its practices, help to secure the regime? In doing so, to what extent did it reinforce supposedly normal standards in everyday life under National Socialism that nevertheless were always also terroristic in nature (cf. Lotfi 2000)?

2. Selection policies

Today, the basic ideological and political factors determining the framework of Volkspflege are understood, whereas our knowledge of its actual practices remains incomplete. A starting point here is the dismantling of the kind of approaches that had developed in the Weimar Republic. These had been rooted in the idea of a welfare state. Their essential feature had been the legal claims of individuals, with a basis in political debates and professional discourse on “welfare” Such welfare-based social care is replaced by Volkspflege, centred around the model of the Volkskörper [the body of the nation, with the latter defined in ethnic-racial terms] and of Volksgesundheit [the health of the nation]. Volkspflege is founded on the ideology of the Volksgemeinschaft [national community] (Sünker 2006), which also formed the basis for the destructive labour policies of National Socialism (Mason 1995). The ideologemes of hereditary biology and racial hygiene embedded in this concept, which find expression in the language of “worthless life“ and of segregating “asocial elements“, in practice lead to a policy of selection that takes the form of choosing and culling. The counterpart to a “systematic policy of racial improvement“, the selection of “Volksgenossen [members of the Volksgemeinschaft] capable of living as members of the community“, is the elimination – by means ranging from exclusion to acts of murder – of those deemed incapable of participating in the community. There is a trajectory from the pseudo-medical diagnostics that form part of a so-called Erbgesundheitslehre (eugenics) to ideas of “social diagnostics“ (Aly/Roth 1984). In the scholarly debate, this has led some to discuss the concept of a “final solution of the social question“ under National Socialism (de Witt 1978, 259f.).

The “chief ideologue“ of the Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt [National Socialist Welfare – NSV], Althaus, explains the policy as follows: "National Socialism does not recognise social care for the sake of taking care of people. .... The point is not the welfare of the individual, but of the Volk [nation in an ethnic-racial sense] as a whole. The individual Volksgenosse is given help in the national interest, and the rights of the individual extend no further than the duties towards the community as a whole which he is willing to accept and fulfil....On the basis of this ideological stance, social care of a National Socialist character is fundamentally guided by considerations of hereditary biology and racial hygiene. It does not acknowledge the principle of the equality of citizens. It proceeds from the knowledge that heredity renders people unequal in their value to the welfare of the community as a whole. ..On the contrary, social care which is aimed at the welfare of the Volk will repress those of inferior value by engaging in a eugenic practice of elimination. In particular, this applies also to those individuals whose status as carriers of hereditary diseases is not certain, but may reasonably be suspected due to their asocial behaviour“ (Althaus 1937, 8).

Ideas such as “racial improvement“, “breeding“, “value scales“ and corresponding “special treatments“ – ranging from selection to murder – play a leading role in the discourse and the reality of the Volksgemeinschaft as a “Leistungsgemeinschaft or ‘performance- oriented community’” (T. Mason 1995, 93). This raises a crucial question as to the differences and similarities between this approach and the discourse of the human sciences at the turn of the 20th century: a discourse whose foundations indeed do include a distinction between those who have “value“ and those who do not, between those who are “superior“ and those who are “inferior“ (Weingart/Kroll/Bayertz 1988). This has led Peukert to postulate that it is from this qualitative classification of human beings that an abstract practice of selection founded on a fictitious, racially defined totality emerges, together with the principle of large-scale industrial “solutions“ based on cost-benefit thinking. According to Peukert, the “Final Solution“, whose largest group of victims were Jewish people, is thus to be understood as a systematic, industrial-scale “culling“ of those without „value“. It is characterised by a merging of “the dichotomies healthy/unhealthy as regards the Volkskörper, normal/deviant as regards the Volksgemeinschaft, and Volk/Volksfremd as regards nation and race” (Peukert 1993, 236).

3. Assistance and control

While the National Socialist ideology and practice of Volkspflege is thus a continuation - in the sense of a negative radicalisation - of a discourse that had wide currency in the human sciences, it constitutes a break with an approach that regards social integration as the function of social policy and social work. Moreover, in its „positive objectives“, it reverses some of the ways in which theoretical questions regarding the professionalisation of social care had been formulated within policy debates. Besides the generalisation of the concept of education within Volkspflege, in the sense of educating individuals for the Volksgemeinschaft in order to enforce their integration and adaption, this particularly regards the description of processes of „assistance“ that demonstrate the functional nature of National Socialist positions. It was not only that even in Volkspflege, certain individuals were to be shown human kindness: those who were defined and selected as healthy, as serviceable from the point of view of hereditary and racial biology, as educable and thus as potentially capable of living as part of the community. They also were to regard themselves not as objects of assistance, but as members of the Volksgemeinschaft, as a part of a larger whole, who were given support in order to enable them to resume their duties as Volksgenossen.

This motivational structure on the part of the recipient corresponds to that of the provider. Processes of assistance are to be detached from individual sensibilities – such as charity or compassion – based on an acknowledgment of a duty to support the Volksgemeinschaft and its – essentially military – strength and preservation into the future. This entails the privatisation of processes of assistance in two ways: the privileging of „self-help“ and „prevention“ corresponds to an understanding of „assistance“ as a matter for everyone.

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The hearts of Germany's children belong to him. From a Nazi propaganda photography book 1935 (Image WL4082)

4. Organisation and practice

The move from a welfare state to a functional, educative state geared towards training people for the Volksgemeinschaft is one essential element of this development. Another element consists in the re- allocation and re-distribution of welfare expenses: in principle, what can be observed is a privatisation of social care resulting from a nationalisation of society, on the basis of the ideology of the Volksgemeinschaft that was to be realised especially in this field. The aim is to reduce the burden on the public purse (de Witt 1978), to cut welfare spending in favour of military spending.

In the end, this invariably leads to inhumane solutions based on cost- benefit calculations. To associate National Socialism with a “welfare state concept“ of any kind (Hansen 1991; Sachße/Tennstedt 1992) is therefore impossible; the only option is to use the term Volkspflege, since the latter entails a repudiation of the claim to universality contained in the idea of welfare, an idea that has the provision of services to all citizens at its core (Sünker 1994). A syncretic mixture of racism, hereditary biology and the search for asocial behaviour, in which eugenics merges into racial hygiene, leads to language such as „worthy of support“ and „culling“ or “weeding out”. This represents an important focus for the practical work of Volkspflege, given that Volkspflege is directly connected with Volksgesundheit and with education as normalisation.

This effectively also entails professional „involvement“ in „selection tasks“: decisions on whether or not to provide developmental or educational support, decisions on sterilisation and, within the context of residential care for children and young people, the especially repressive measures adopted following discussions surrounding the so-called Bewahrungsgesetz (custody law), up to and including the establishment of the youth concentration camps Moringen and Uckermark (Schnurr 1997; Guse/Kohrs/Vahsen 1986).

A crucial instrument in carrying out National Socialist objectives in this area is the NSV, for several reasons. Firstly, it represented the second-largest mass organisation of National Socialism (after the Deutsche Arbeitsfront [German Labour Front]). Secondly, as early as March 1934, it had taken control of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Spitzenverbände der freien Wohlfahrtspflege [The Working Alliance of the Central Associations of Independent Welfare Organisations - AG].

After the banning of the Arbeiterwohlfahrt [Worker’s Welfare Organisation], the exclusion of the Jewish Welfare Association and the dissolution of the Deutsche Paritätische Wohlfahrtsverband [German Association of Welfare Organisations], or rather its take- over by the NSV, the only other remaining members of the AG were the German Red Cross, the Central-Ausschuss für die Innere Mission der Dt. Ev. Kirche [Central Committee for the Internal Mission of the German Protestant Church] and the Deutscher Caritas Verband [German Caritas Association – the welfare organisation of the German Catholic Church] (Kaiser 1989). What is important to note here is that the entire work of this AG was to be carried out in line with the aims of the National Socialist state. Moreover, with 12.5 million members (1938), the NSV was also an important transmission belt between party and population, and, last but not least, a major prerequisite for organising the „complete registration” (Zimmermann 1938/39, 27) of all Volksgenossen.

In line with its “self-perception” and its self-assigned mission, i.e. that of working with “Volksgenossen worthy of support“, the NSV distanced itself from the other organisations within the AG. The ecclesiastical associations were primarily left to work with those defined as “inferior in value“: accordingly, problems in psychiatric institutions, sterilisation programmes and the murder of patients are issues that particularly affect these associations. The NSV occupies an exceptional position within the National Socialist system owing to its organisational link to the NSDAP in the Hauptamt für Volkswohlfahrt [Main Office for National Welfare], its membership fees, its privileges - among other things a monopoly on collections - and its suborganisations, the Winterhilfswerk [Winter Relief Fund] and Mutter und Kind [Mother and Child]. However, it is only recently that academic research has turned its attention to this position of the NSV and its constitutional importance for the National Socialist regime.


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