History and Memory: Action T4

I have a new piece on CNN about Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his views on autism. I end by talking about Action T4, when the Nazis exterminated people with disabilities as a warm-up to the greater Holocaust. I worry that many people haven’t heard of Action T4.

As a Jew, the father of a boy with an intellectual disability, and a historian, it’s vital that we (collectively) remember this piece of the memory of the Nazi murders, as well as all other victims.

Description: Sheet of stained paper with German words (both typed and handwritten)
It’s signed and has a Nazi sigil in the upper left corner.
Hitler’s order for Action T4
From Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the lede to the piece. RFK compared autism to the Holocaust, was criticized for it, then apologized … on behalf of the Holocaust’s memory. I said he’s apologizing for the wrong things.

In a statement, Kennedy said, “I want to apologize to all whom I offended by my use of the word to describe the autism epidemic. I employed the term during an impromptu speech as I struggled to find an expression to convey the catastrophic tragedy of autism, which has now destroyed the lives of over 20 million children and shattered their families.”

Robert Kennedy Jr. has apologized for the wrong things.

First and foremost, vaccines do not cause autism. The two have nothing to do with each other.

Second, he seems to think people with autism are “gone,” their lives “destroyed” and their families “shattered.” Autism is not a death sentence. People with autism are not missing or destroyed. They are everywhere, trying to live their lives in a society that too often demeans them as subhuman, missing or worthless.

Please read and share the whole piece to hear a number of actually autistic people responded to Kennedy.

I end with this:

There is, though, one story from the Holocaust that he might do well to consider. The first group the Nazis systematically exterminated, in the infamous Action T4, were people with intellectual and other kinds of disabilities. Thousands of children, adolescents and adults were sent to gas chambers, laying the groundwork for the later, larger scale acts of genocide. Underlying Action T4 was the belief that people with disabilities were devoid of value.

We fight those beliefs by celebrating neurodiversity, not by fearmongering.

Action T4 represents the extreme of eugenics, and arguments ad extremum are always suspect. But while I hope we don’t see the mechanized state murder of people with disabilities in the future, the eugenic principles behind Action T4 remain extant in the modern world.

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