Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Grafeneck Euthanasia Centre
Situated on a hill near Marbach in the Münsingen district, Grafeneck Castle was built between 1556 and 1560. Between1762-1772, Duke Karl Eugen converted the castle to a more contemporary style. In 1929 a Samaritan foundation in Stuttgart took over the building to serve as a hospice for invalids. Early in October 1939, Dr Herbert Linden of the Health Ministry visited Eugen Stähle, the official in the Württemberg Ministry of Interior responsible for health care, and asked for Stähle’s cooperation in finding a relatively small institution "to implement euthanasia"; Stähle offered Grafeneck, and on 14 October 1939 Grafeneck Castle was duly confiscated. 10-15 manual labourers from nearby villages began to convert the castle into a killing centre.
A small window permitted the physician to observe the chamber while he turned the valve. Three buses for the transportation of the victims and an ambulance car stood in a wooden garage. Two mobile oil-fuelled cremation ovens were located in another wooden barrack. Because of the immense heat generated by the round-the-clock cremations, the roof of this barrack was removed, and after a short time the surrounding trees were blackened from the noxious smoke and fumes emitted by the ovens. A former horse stable (circular and 15m in diameter) probably served as a mortuary. At the bottom of the hill, at the access road, a high hoarding and a guardhouse were built. Fences with barbed wire surrounded the whole castle, whilst armed guards with dogs patrolled the perimeter, which bore notices carrying the warning “Danger of Infection.”
In mid-November 1939, SS men, typists and other personnel arrived and were supplemented during early January 1940 by approximately 25 male and female nurses. In mid-January the cremation ovens were delivered. On 18 January 1940 the first transport of 25 handicapped men arrived from Eglfing-Haar near Munich, accompanied by the Grafeneck physician-in-chief, Dr Horst Schumann. He had joined the Nazi Part and SA in 1930, and T4 in early October 1939 after a meeting with Viktor Brack in Hitler's chancellery (KdF).
In early summer of 1940 Schumann was ordered to the Sonnenstein euthanasia centre. His successor at Grafeneck was Dr Ernst Baumhardt, who was succeeded in turn by Dr Günther Hennecke. The chief administrator was the monstrous Christian Wirth, a detective superintendent and SS-Obersturmführer, who supervised the first gassings at Grafeneck and later was to become the organizer of Aktion Reinhard.
A former nurse described a transport from her hospital to Grafeneck:
"The evening before the transport was due, we received a list with the names of the patients who were to be picked up. Early in the morning, the buses drove up; the windows were painted gray up to the top. The patients received a slip of paper with a number. Then they filed by one by one, and we wrote the number on their bare back in ink. Because they thought that we were going to transfer them to another institution, they were generally quite calm. Indeed, they did not know what was going to happen to them. Then they were led into the bus... A few weeks later their clothes were sent back from Grafeneck."
“I don’t know how long the physician let the gas flow and take effect. I only know that it was according to a precise rule which I am not acquainted with. The doors were opened and the ventilation turned on by one of the male nurses who had seen to locking up the interior. After half an hour or an hour perhaps, I can’t say exactly, these male nurses received the order from the physician to open the doors and turn on the ventilation…. In the beginning it was the physician, wearing a gas mask, who opened the doors… The gas chamber would be left open for a certain time to allow fresh air to circulate. I don’t know now if it was one or two hours. The oven crew was also responsible for transporting the corpses from the gas chamber to the oven.”
The killing continued until December 1940, when Grafeneck ceased to operate because of the hostility of local residents. On 25 November 1940, Else von Löwis of Menar, a member of a Swabian aristocratic family, wrote a letter to the wife of Walter Buch, the presiding judge of the Nazi party court. Von Löwis, an old friend of the Buchs, was an ardent Nazi and a leader of the party's women's movement. In her letter, she expressed the hope that the Buchs would transmit to Hitler her concern that the killing of patients was taxing the loyalty of the population toward the Nazi movement: "Surely you know about the measures currently used by us to dispose of incurable mental patients. Still, you may not fully realize how it is accomplished and the vast scope of the undertaking, nor the terrible impression it leaves with the population! Here in Württemberg the tragedy takes place in Grafeneck on the Swabian Jura, and this place has thus acquired an ominous reputation." The events in Grafeneck and elsewhere were widely known and had become a "public secret," producing a "terrible feeling of insecurity"; people were asking, "What can one still believe? Where will this lead us and what will be its limits?" At this time, the people still believed that "the Führer obviously does not know about this," but the party could lose this trust if it continued to mislead the populace.
On 7 December 1940, Walter Buch transmitted this letter to Heinrich Himmler. In his cover letter to the Reichsführer-SS, Buch vouched for von Löwis, pointing out that if the happenings in Grafeneck could not remain hidden and caused such unrest, a different approach must be found. On 19 December, Himmler replied to Buch: "Many thanks for your letter of 7 December 1940. I can inform you in confidence that the events that take place there are authorized by the Führer and are carried out by a panel of physicians.... The SS only assists with trucks, cars, and the like. I agree with you on one point. The process must be faulty if the matter has become as public as it appears.... I will immediately contact the office that has jurisdiction to point out these errors, and advise them to deactivate Grafeneck." Himmler did exactly that. On the same day, he wrote to Viktor Brack, advising the manager of T4 to close Grafeneck : "As I have heard, there is great excitement in the Swabian Jura due to the institution Grafeneck. The populace recognizes the gray automobile of the SS, and thinks it knows what is happening under the constant smoke of the crematorium. What takes place there is a secret, and yet is no longer a secret. Thus the worst public mood has taken hold there, and in my opinion there remains only one option: discontinue the operation of the institution in this locality."
Grafeneck’s operational area had actually extended beyond the Austrian border into Italy. Ostensibly ill ethnic German patients from the Italian provinces of Bolzano and Trentino were brought to Grafeneck from the Pergine Institute in Italy with the cooperation of the Italian authorities, and gassed. Following the closure, some of the personnel were sent on leave, whilst others were ordered to the Hadamar euthanasia centre. A few remained at the castle to cover up all traces of the murders that had happened there. At least 10,654 victims were gassed and cremated at this facility.
Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1995.
Kogon, Eugen; Langbein, Hermann; Rückerl, Adalbert; eds. Nazi Mass Murder, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1993
Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors – Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Papermac, London, 1990.
McFarland-Icke, Bronwyn Rebekah. Nurses in Nazi Germany, Princeton University Press, Chichester, 1999.
Copyright BJF H.E.A.R.T 2007