Every book has its history, and this one is no exception. I examined the euthanasia killings for the first time during my investigation of postwar German trials of Nazi criminals. In the immediate postwar years, during the late 1940s, the Allies did not permit German courts to judge German crimes against Allied nationals. Early German trials therefore dealt only with crimes committed against German nationals, and, with only one exception, these did not involve systematic mass murder. The euthanasia killings were that exception.
After presenting my findings on the early postwar euthanasia trials at the 1981 annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Los Angeles, I decided to use postwar trial records to construct a history of the Nazi euthanasia program. Although one of the first American war crimes trials in postwar Germany concerned Hadamar, the notorious euthanasia hospital, and the first Nuremberg successor trial, known as the Medical Trial, also dealt in part with the crime of euthanasia, the mass murder of hospital patients had never been adequately treated in histories of the Nazi period. I became convinced that these murders deserve study as a prologue to Nazi genocide.
I soon discovered that a massive documentary record substantiated the nature of these crimes. In addition to the Allied, German, and Austrian trials of the late 1940s, the German judiciary had conducted numerous detailed investigations and long trials during the 1960s and 1970s. I followed the paper trail, which led me to numerous offices of German state attorneys and through archives in the United States, Germany, and Austria.
As I read through the evidence, I realized that the traditional description of the victims of euthanasia as "mental patients [Geisteskranke]" was inaccurate. Of course, I had always known that the use of the term "euthanasia" by the Nazi killers was a euphemism to camouflage their murder of human beings they had designated as "life unworthy of life"; that their aim was not to shorten the lives of persons with painful terminal diseases but to kill human beings they considered inferior, who could otherwise have lived for many years. Although the victims were institutionalized in state hospitals and nursing homes, only some suffered from mental illness. Many were hospitalized only because they were retarded, blind, deaf, or epileptic or because they had a physical deformity. They were handicapped patients, persons who in the United States today are covered by the Act for Disabled Americans. Nor were these patients murdered to free hospital space or to save money; the killers