Soon after Hans-Joachim was born, it was clear that something was terribly wrong. The infant boy suffered from partial paralysis and spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy. In 1934, when he was 5 years old, his parents admitted him to an asylum in Potsdam, Germany, where clinical records described Hans-Joachim as a “strikingly friendly and cheerful” child. But his condition did not improve. He spent a few years at a clinic in Brandenburg-Görden, Germany, and then, on an early spring day in 1941, he was “transfered to another asylum at the instigation of the commissar for defense of the Reich”—code words meaning that Hans-Joachim, then 12, was gassed at a Nazi “euthanasia” center. His brain was sent to a leading neuropathologist.
During World War II, as part of its racial hygiene program, the Nazi regime systematically killed at least 200,000 people it classified as mentally ill or disabled, historians say. Stories like Hans-Joachim’s have largely been lost to history. Now, a new initiative is seeking to reconstruct the biographies of victims used in brain research. Starting this month,the Max Planck Society (MPG), Germany’s top basic research organization, will open its doors to four independent researchers who will scour its archives and tissue sample collections for material related to the euthanasia program.
The project’s impetus is MPG’s desire to take moral responsibility for unethical research that its forerunner, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG), conducted on euthanasia victims and their remains. “We want to find out who the victims were, uncover their biographies and their fates, and as such give them part of their human dignity back and find an appropriate way of remembrance,” says Heinz Wässle, an emeritus director of the neuroanatomy department at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, and head of an MPG committee overseeing the new investigation.