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Reviewed by:
  • Confronting the "Good Death": Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953
  • Rebecca Wittmann
Confronting the "Good Death": Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945–1953, Michael S. Bryant (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005), x+267 pp., $34.95.

In his important new book, Michael Bryant makes it depressingly clear that after the immediate postwar period, bringing Nazi perpetrators to justice was not a priority for either the United States or West Germany. His study chronicles the initially sincere attempt by the US and later the West Germans to prosecute participants in the "T-4" euthanasia program (code-named by the Nazis after the program's office address in Berlin at Tiergartenstrasse 4), as well as the rapid degeneration of these trials. Bryant's is the most comprehensive and nuanced analysis of these trials to date; he outlines not only the history of the trials, but also the legal issues surrounding the prosecution of euthanasia crimes, the history of euthanasia in Germany, and the T-4 program's relationship to the "Final Solution" during the Second World War. Bryant links these interrelated questions seamlessly, drawing for the reader a clear picture of the contingencies that led eventually to the "spectacular failure" of the euthanasia trials.

Bryant aims to show that "despite the sincere desires of many policy-makers, jurists, and politicians to punish the crimes of euthanasia . . . the matrix of power relationships in the immediate postwar era played havoc with the prosecution of euthanasia killers" (p. 2). He argues that the American authorities did not sufficiently address the crime of euthanasia because they "over-identified [the euthanasia program] with military conquest"; prosecuting the euthanasia program without a link to war, they reasoned, would set a dangerous precedent for international law and could ultimately undermine America's own sovereignty. Bryant points out that such concern on the part of the US should not come as a surprise, as the history of American foreign policy in the first half of the twentieth century was one of safeguarding US national interests—especially with regard to international criminal law. [End Page 312]

The Germans, too, were concerned with issues of sovereignty. Serious trials took place in the occupation zones in 1946 and 1947, but as the Cold War began to take shape, there was a shift in legal proceedings against Nazi perpetrators. Judges began to devise innovative interpretations of the law that were beneficial to defendants. In order to strengthen their alliance with the Americans, the West Germans would have to integrate the many hundreds of thousands of former Nazis still living in West Germany into a united front against communism (p. 128); punishing Nazis was no longer a priority. Bryant stresses not the causes but the interconnected factors that shaped the dismal legal record in euthanasia trials: social, geopolitical, and cultural forces such as German disenchantment with denazification; demands for a general amnesty; fears about Soviet encroachment; and US interests in defending principles of national sovereignty (p. 11). The absence of any one of these contingencies might have led to a different outcome.

Among the many important contributions that Bryant makes in this study is the link between the euthanasia program and the death camps in the East. Bryant first fleshes out the genesis of the euthanasia program in Germany in the 1920s. Next, he argues that after it became policy under the Nazis in the 1930s, eugenics quickly evolved into a sophisticated program of murder with a "bureaucratic configuration [that] largely shaped how Nazi mass murder developed between 1939 and 1945" (p. 19). Bryant documents the connections between the gas chambers created at euthanasia facilities such as Hadamar and Grafeneck and the gas chambers that would be built later in the death camps. He notes also that many of the personnel who began as directors and doctors in the euthanasia centers would later appear as commandants in the death camps of Operation Reinhard (p. 60).

The bulk of the book is dedicated to the trials of euthanasia perpetrators, from the first US Army trials—particularly the Hadamar trial held in October 1945—to the Medical Trial, part of the subsequent Nuremberg Trials convened by the US. Bryant shows that while their goal was...


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