Aktion T4

Aizenshtat is mining in the history of Action T4 and creating a new documentation of these
events, in which lies shock, pity and anger.

Aizenshtat is mining in the history of Action T4 and creating a new documentation of
these events, in which lies shock, pity
and anger.

The term “Racial Hygiene” was first used by Alfred Ploetz in his 1895 book, The Efficiency of Our Race and the Protection of the Weak. However, the years between 1939 and 1945 were undoubtedly the most barbaric and inhuman in German eugenics. Whilst Germany was fighting a war against countries outside the German Reich, it was also fighting an ‘inner war’ against the mentally handicapped. The health of the German nation was becoming more important than the health of the individual.

In October 1939, Hitler decreed the start to the euthanasia program. Around 40 of Germany and Austria’s most respected physicians and psychiatrists were recruited to assess and select which patients would be granted a ‘mercy killing’. The details of this mass murder were planned in the centre of Berlin, at Tiergartenstraße, number 4 – which is why the operation was subsequently code-named ‘Aktion T4’.

Children from the church sanatorium
Schönbrunn near Dachau, which
cooperated with the Nazis.
February 1934

Children from the church sanatorium Schönbrunn near
Dachau, which cooperated with the Nazis. February 1934

Patients from psychiatric hospitals across the country who suffered from a variety of illnesses were to be registered for a ‘mercy death’. Moreover, a person was in danger of being selected if they did not possess German citizenship or German blood, if they were a criminally detained mental patient, or if they had been in an institution continuously for at least five years. Jewish patients were to be registered, regardless of their clinical status – they did not have any chance for survival. Thousands of these individuals were denied their humanity, monstrously dehumanised by the state because they were seen as ‘inferior’.

On arrival at the killing centres, the victims were ordered to undress, before being photographed, led into the sealed gas chamber disguised as a shower room and murdered with carbon monoxide. The bodies were then removed from the chamber and cremated. The families of the patients would receive ashes that were taken at random from the crematoriums in the killing centres, after receiving a false death certificate, forged by the Aktion T4 doctors. Over 70,000 people were murdered.

Victims of the Aktion T4 program

Victims of the Aktion T4 program

By August 1941, there was growing animosity and protests by representatives of the Christian churches – Aktion T4 was becoming deeply unpopular. Hitler ordered a stop to the program after thousands of people had already been killed, because he didn’t want to further the low morale of the German people. The euthanasia program did not cease, however – the official ‘stop’ was only a tactical move. It continued, quietly, in a more decentralised form. The victims were now being killed, not in the central gassing institutions, but with medication and through systematic starvation.

Between 1939 and 1945, over 200,000 people were killed.

Aizenshtat and Action T4

We asked the artist how he first came up with the idea of starting this series, and he explained that “the reason was very specific. Every artist needs a journey, and then the object on the painting becomes a journey itself. I once heard that people who were killed by the Nazis were mentally and physically disabled, and their craziness attracted me.”

Aizenshtat studied the history of Aktion T4, and decided to dedicate his paintings to all of the victims who suffered under the Nazi regime and have been forgotten by history. Not only does he want to shine light on the tragedy of Aktion T4, Aizenshtat wants to remind our generation, through his art, that being ‘different’ should by no means be regarded as something undesirable.

The stark contrast of red, white and black on each of the paintings is a reminder of the colors of the Nazi flag. This reference to the flag gives us an opportunity to take a look at the paintings from a different perspective – are these disfigured individuals, these deformed bodies, the victims of the Aktion T4 program, or the Nazis themselves? By blurring the line between the murderers and the victims in his paintings, having the patients and the executioners share the same color palette, Aizenshtat is asking us to think who the true monsters really are…

Action T4,2020
70x50 cm (27.55x19.68 in),
oil on canvas

Aizenshtat’s paintings provoke a rather discomforting feeling for the viewers, because the figures, whether they are the Nazis or the victims, are all humans – they act as a reflection of our own capability for wickedness and/or innocence. The subjects are intentionally contorted, the proportions of their bodies are stretched and curved, and their facial features are frightening, providing us with a disturbing vision of a reality which Aizenshtat is urging us not to forget. Despite the bluntness of the work, it is utterly captivating – its honesty robs the viewer of any ability to look away.

The history of Aktion T4, together with the art of Aizenshtat, should serve as a reminder that ignoring the hatred and violence of our past can lead to tragedy on a global scale. We cannot allow individual groups to be excluded from society, just because they are deemed ‘inferior’. The previous work dedicated to Aktion T4 has primarily been of a historical and documentary nature – Aizenshtat’s exhibition will be one of the first complete artistic statements about the Aktion T4 tragedy.