Involuntary Euthanasia

Hannah Arendt, Wesleyan University, c. 1961/62

 

Involuntary Euthanasia. Hannah Arendt’s work has warnings about totalitarianism; sadly, they seem today to apply to democracies also

By Luis Feduchi

 

It is surprising that the Aktion T4 program, forerunner of the plan to exterminate the Jewish people, is unknown to many Germans today. It is surprising because German society is not known for having turned its back on that fatal episode in its history, but also because an embrace of the idea that confronting the past ensures that it will not repeat necessitates the study of the past with as much or more diligence than the horror that it wrought.

The program to which I refer, whose euphemistic name perhaps reflects the difficulty of revealing its objective, was a death sentence exacted without consent upon terminally ill patients –a law whose title should have been that of this article. The ultimate name chosen for the action is an acronym of the Berlin street address where the plan was conceived: Tiergartenstraße 4.

In 1961, 20 years after her exile to the United States and with pride in her American citizenship (not so in her nationality), German-born Hannah Arendt was commissioned by The New Yorker to cover the trial set to take place in Jerusalem against the alleged war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the uncontroversial Nazi civil servant who had been found in Argentina a year earlier. The report would be published in installments in five successive editions of the magazine and later compiled in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem.

In her chronicle, Arendt refers, without mentioning it by name, to the involuntary euthanasia program as such: “There is the well-known fact that Hitler began his mass murders by granting ‘mercy deaths’ to the ‘incurably ill’, and that he intended to wind up his extermination program by doing away with ‘genetically damaged’ Germans (heart and lung patients).” [i]

A month after the Covid-19 pandemic began, while rereading this impeccable reportage, I noticed the parenthetical addendum “(heart and lung patients)”, which Arendt may have inserted to clarify which of her compatriots Aktion T4 targeted. It seems she wanted to make clear that Hitler’s operation extended beyond race and ideology, thus demonstrating that he had little or no compassion for the elderly or for those of weak health, those we have now come to refer to as the vulnerable.

Associating vulnerability with the fact of being explicitly marked to die is something that cannot leave us cold. When vulnerability is not only a product of congenital or unexpected disease, when ethnicity or social conditions become a shortcut to such vulnerability, when opposition to a political regime, as with many refugees, pushes groups into that state of fragility and lack of protection, we read Arendt’s words as an undeniable exhortation to what may be may transpire when the economic and social crisis exacerbated by Covid-19 soon manifests in full.

Whether it’s the kids children shot at by lockdown police in an East African slum, or the elderly who died at home for fear of going to crowded health centers during the peak of the pandemic in Southern Europe; be they the long-term deaths of despair caused by the loss of income that freedom of movement at least guaranteed, or the fatalities of the ongoing civil wars whose desperate conditions further intensify during confinement ­– what we cannot forget is that confinement, a measure that has placated the outbreak of the pandemic, can also be an instrument of dubious protection of citizens when not only in the hands of totalitarian authoritarianism, but also in the face of the social injustice that not even the most progressive countries have eradicated.

There are hardly any countries devoid of well-founded accusations of abusing the power that confinement has allowed. In this climate, it is surprising to see demonstrations fueling conspiracies in Germany or allegations of mismanagement in Spain and Italy, when in India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Burma, the Philippines ­– not to mention the United States and China, where uprisings in the former and unrest silenced are everyday news – the impact that confinement is having on minorities and abuse of power is adding to the daily toll. The risks do not come only from populist and authoritarian leaders, but also from uncontroverted civil servants and the complex state machinery of purportedly democratic regimes.

If, as Jürgen Habermas said, “the task of those who dedicate themselves to the profession of thought is to shed light on the crimes that were committed in the past and to keep awareness of them alive”, then Arendt’s work may suffer spikes of inattention as to the possible repetition of crimes that are difficult to foresee and almost impossible to believe. But what should surely remain in focus is the way in which even a brief passage from her oeuvre is able to shake us alert and inspire our vigilance to prevent such colossal crimes from happening again.

[i] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann and the Holocaust (London, Penguin, 2005), p.116.

 

Luis Feduchi is a practicing architect and academic.
June 23rd, 2020, 02 / Rosa Mercedes
Interface

On the occasion of the film festival “Reconstructing Realities,” the Broadway Cinematheque in Hong Kong will show the film “How to live in FRG” (1990) from Harun Farocki.
The screening will take place on Saturday, July 11, 2:30 pm (local time) at the Goethe Institut Hong Kong.
Online booklet: https://bit.ly/bcXForum50

Reconstructing Realities – A Film Programme to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Berlinale Forum

The screening will be followed by the talk “Harun Farocki’s Imitations of Life” with Doreen Mende, co-founder of the Harun Farocki Institut.
Time: Jul 11, 2020 04:00 pm Hong Kong SAR / 10:00 am Berlin time
Language: English

The talk will be held on Zoom, registration here: https://forms.gle/tyLfKLwBYNUutoLz6
After registration, you will receive an email with the link and the login information to join the talk.

https://www.goethe.de/ins/cn/de/sta/hon/ver.cfm?fuseaction=events.detail&event_id=21884136&

July 8th, 2020, HaFI

Avery F. Gordon, in an interview conducted by Katherine Hite and Daniela Jara in Memory Studies:  “Non-participation is one modality of what I call being in-difference. Being in-difference is a political consciousness and a sensuous knowledge, a standpoint and a mindset for living on better terms than we’re offered, for living as if you had the necessity and the freedom to do so, for living in the acknowledgement that, despite the overwhelming power of all the systems of domination which are trying to kill us, they never quite become us. They are, as Cedric J Robinson used to say, only one condition of our existence or being. Running away, living apart, squatting, communing, feral trading, bartering, self-managed currencies, human, debt, labour, knowledge strikes, boycott, divestment, non-policing, throwing your shoe at an occupying president: the ways of non-participation in the given order of things are many, varied and hard to summarize. And they are taken up for a variety of reasons, including the failure or irrelevance of states and the US–European post–World War II social movement model.”

July 7th, 2020, Tom

Denise Ferreira da Silva via Canadian Art: “Visuality or rather visualizability—being available via social media and accessible through electronic gadgets—seems to have become the main (if not the sole) criterion for reality, which becomes crucial for the ethical-political demands for the protection of black lives, for state accountability and for justice. If that is so, the only way is through these conditions of representation. I mean, the creative move first takes the visualizable as it is, that is, as a twice removed re/composition (at the same time a live streaming, news reporting and documenting) of the scene of violence which only tells us that it happens. It exposes the excess that is the state’s use of total violence, of law enforcement as technique of racial subjugation, while simultaneously removing the black person (the father, the sister, the friend) out of the scene of violence and its visualization. It does so by restoring the dimensions of their existence that the camera cannot capture. That is, the creative move must protect (as an ethical gesture) the black person (keeping her obscurity) in the excess that is the very visualization of the scene of total violence.”

June 28th, 2020, Tom
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