Social Dialogue Magazine
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Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1973-010-31 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
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Carola Kuhlmann, Professor at University of Applied Sciences Rhineland- Westphalia-Lippe, Bochum

Social Work in Nazi Germany – why resistance would have been necessary

Social work in Germany - as in many countries - was decisively influenced by the women's movement at the beginning of the 20th century. In their concept of social work all those in need of help were equal, weakness was not a flaw, everyone had the right to help, even if they had allegedly caused their own emergencies. In this understanding, helping each other was part of being human because nobody is so strong that he or she never needed help. Human culture proved itself in the way nature civilized and society deals with the helpless, with minorities and the weak (see the theory of Alice Salomon: Kuhlmann 2008).

In this sense there was no continuity of social work after 1933. But of course there were the same professionals and institutions in the established fields of social work. Public and private welfare continued to exist – apparently business as usual. But the daily work changed in a way that we know today: Resistance would have been necessary.

The change first showed itself through the coining of new terms and soon through new laws. Social Work became a preventive “Volkspflege” ("people's care"), which separated the „worthy“ from the „unworthy“ clients. The National Socialists denied their right to a dignified life and finally denied their right to life at all. Their 12-year rule destroyed long-term moral concerns that could have prevented the mass murder of Jewish, disabled, mentally ill, handicapped, homosexual and other so called “inferior” people.

With a determination that their political opponents lacked in 1933, with a brutality that left no doubt, the National Socialists succeeded right from the start in turning the first German democratic welfare state into a dictatorship based on violent persecution. This functioned almost smoothly, mainly because the measures were approved by a large majority or were underestimated as temporary. Many not only tolerated them, but were enthusiastic about the idea of the “Volksgemeinschaft” and the associated social racist exclusion of the allegedly "inferior" and "foreign peoples". But what would social workers have had to resist between 1933 and 1945 - not only as citizens, but also as professionals? Here is the answer:

1. Exclusion of Jewish and socialist colleagues

No one working in the field of social work was unaware that socialist or Jewish colleagues were dismissed overnight in 1933. First arbitrarily, then secured by the "Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service" of 7.4.1933, "non-Aryan" and persons who did not offer the guarantee "to stand up unreservedly for the national state at all times" lost their position in public authorities. In this way, not only many members of the social democratic party (SPD) lost their jobs in the municipalities, such as Walther Friedländer in Berlin or Hertha Kraus in Cologne, but also many women from the women's movement. Instead of protesting against these measures, many used the vacancies for their own careers. Professional journals and welfare organisations published devotional addresses welcoming the cleansing of the people from alleged popular pests. Advocacy for racially or politically persecuted people only happened on the part of the radical wing of the "Confessing Church", which, however, remained numerically small. In addition to the exclusion from the profession, the new discrimination and exclusion of racially "inferior" and politically unreliable people also concerned the clients of social work.

2. Racist exclusion of client groups from care: Jews, "Gypsies", "Foreign Peoples", "Asocial".

The higher the public support - according to the thesis of the Nationalsozialisten (following Thomas Robert Malthus) - the more those would increase who otherwise would not be able to acquire means in the economic struggle for existence and would die out as a consequence in a "natural" way. It was therefore the new policy of the welfare offices to exclude both "foreign peoples" and "antisocial" from the currency of support. Therefore, from 1933 it was examined whether applicants had to pass on "valuable" or "inferior" hereditary assets. This social racist idea represented a qualitatively new variant of the classic divorce into worthy and unworthy poor. Among the groups that were excluded from welfare were first and foremost the Jews, which led to a mass, "persecution-related", "structural impoverishment process" as early as 1933 (Gruner 2002, p. 11f., p. 47). Later, the "antisocial" and Sinti and Roma were also included in the racist legislation. In the process of the deliberate exclusion of Jews from the welfare system, historian Wolf Gruner found "rare indications of resistance or even opposition" among municipal officials of public welfare (Gruner 2002, p. 33). On the contrary, the welfare officials helped to identify the destitute Jews, who were later the first to be deported (ibid., p. 95).

3. Inhuman coercive measures

3.1 "Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses“

The "Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses (GzVeN)" (Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Ill descendants) passed in 1933 regulated that, in addition to mentally and physically handicapped, mentally ill people, "morally imbecile" persons, so-called "inheritors", prostitutes, delinquents and welfare offenders could also be forcibly sterilized. It had the avowed goal to clean the “Volkskörper” (people body). According to the commentary, the law should ensure the "primacy and authority of the state in the field of life, marriage and the family". Consequently, § 14 prohibited voluntary sterilization. The intervention could take place from the 10th year of life, from 14 years under police compulsion (Kuhlmann 1989, p. 132f.). When we speak of persecution in the Third Reich, we are not only talking about ethnic minorities or political parties, but also about the group of people classified as "inferior" for social reasons. The specific National Socialist racism was not only ethnic but also social. This distinguished this law from many similar laws that existed, for example, in Scandinavia. Social conspicuities were reinterpreted as allegedly genetic "diseases".

Applications for sterilization were also made by social workers before the "hereditary health courts". They were decided on the basis of medical reports, which repeated in many cases word-for-word the expert opinions of Social Workers. For exact registration, the Health Office, which took over the leadership of the welfare and youth welfare offices in the Third Reich, introduced so-called „Sippentafeln” (“clan tables“) on which all relatives and ancestors were recorded, especially their behaviour if it was perceived as problematic.

3.2 Forced admission to concentration camps: "antisocial" and "ineducable" -

There shouldn't be beggars in the streets of the Third Reich anymore. The National Socialists achieved this by sending homeless people, "drunkards", prostitutes, pimps, multiple offenders, the so-called "asocials" to the workhouses that had existed since modern times, and later to "camps for closed welfare". From 1938, "asocial" recipients of aid were no longer subordinated to the municipal welfare offices, but directly to the criminal police and the Gestapo (Ayass 1995, p. 224). As part of the "Arbeitsscheu Reich" action, many of them were transferred to concentration camps, some only for a short time for deterrence, some for longer. The transfer of the "inferior" clientele to the Gestapo historically represents a return to the police "solution" of social problems. In the concentration camps, the "antisocial" had to wear the black triangle. In various concentration camps, prostitutes were also forced to work in a camp brothel for prisoners (Paul 1994). Welfare administrations and employment offices transferred a total of approx. 10,000 persons and used the opportunity to deport their clients mainly for financial reasons (Roth 2015, p. 125). Even "uneducable" youths were imprisoned from 1940 onwards in so-called "youth concentration camps" (Moringen for boys, Uckermark for girls) or regional "work camps" for "young strollers" (Kuhlmann 1989, p. 204). The educational institutions and youth authorities, as well as the welfare associations, did not criticise these "terminal stations" for hopeless cases. On the contrary, they were used again and again and were often threatened with them in everyday educational life.

4. Murders of "incurable" and "useless."

During the planned and later "wild" euthanasia actions, more than 250,000 adults and children of the so-called “Irren- und Idiotenanstalten (insane or idiot institutions were gassed or poisoned. These murders took place on transports as well as in specially equipped killing centres. The killings began in August 1939 with the so-called child euthanasia. Doctors and midwives were obliged to report children with "constitutional severe ailments" and received 2 Reichsmark as a reward for each report. In the children's departments selected for the murders, the nursing staff involved received a 25 Reichsmark surcharge. 10,000 children were murdered here by the end of the war (Roth 2015, p. 199). Only a few doctors refused to carry out the killings. Nothing happened to them. The subsequent T 4- actions carried out by the Reich Ministry of the Interior under the guise of a "transport company" (T 4) were aimed at disabled adults and the mentally ill. Heads of the institutions were asked to report in a "registration form" those residents who were terminally ill, could not even be used for the simplest of jobs and were particularly intensive in care. Until the temporary halt of the measure in August 1941, 70,000 patients were murdered, some of them after multiple transfers. The experiences made with the T 4 - action, especially with the gassing of the sick in groups, served the National Socialists as preparatory work for the construction of the killing facilities in Auschwitz.

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Schönbrunn Psychiatric Hospital, 1934. Bundesarchiv Bild 152-04-28,/ CC-BY-SA 3.0

There is no doubt that the murder of defenceless people entrusted to a social institution was the biggest crime in the field of social work. At this point, at the latest, there had to be resistance and there has been resistance. Unfortunately, it was only individuals who had the courage to do something. The National Socialists did everything they could to silence them. So it is all the more important to remember them today (Amthor 2017).