Fascism and Its Echoes, and the Othering of the Mentally Ill
Holly Müller Examines Her Family's Past, to Understand the Present
My Austrian great uncle passed away this summer. He had a learning disability and autistic traits and was one of my favorite relations. Each summer when I was young, we visited him and other family near Salzburg. He fascinated me: a grown-up who acted like a kid, who wore huge, baggy corduroy trousers with braces and a hand-knit waistcoat. He lived in an old-fashioned timber-clad house in rural Austria and was looked after by his older brother, a sour, unfriendly character. But my great uncle was happy enough. With me, he was always gentle, curious and mischievous. He was obsessed with radios and watches and, like me, adored cats. He spent most of his time with the mangy outdoor felines, kept for mousing in the sheds.
Once, he and I conspired to rescue a litter of kittens, newborn to one of those wiry moggies. Their heads were to be smashed between two stones whenever his brother got around to it—there were too many mouths to feed, and it was cheaper than spaying the cat. So, we sneakily transferred the softly mewing bodies to a new hiding place, coaxing the mother to follow. We carried them to a nearby barn where we secreted them into the torn upholstery of an old car. The mother climbed in to join her young and promptly lay down to feed them. We were both delighted with our plan and fervently hoped the kittens would survive.
Many years passed before I learned from a Holocaust historian I know that my great uncle would once have also been viewed as a “useless mouth,” a “useless feeder,” a “life unworthy of life.” He’d grown up in the Nazi era, when Austria was part of the Third Reich. Under that regime he would have been designated for death as dispassionately as those kittens had been. Up to 250,000 individuals with disabilities, mental illnesses and “asocial” behavior were involuntarily euthanized—aka murdered—in the Nazi health system. My great uncle would have been labeled “subnormal” and as suffering from “idiocy.” I still don’t know quite how he survived those brutal war years. I don’t want to ask my Austrian family about it; it’s far too sensitive a subject because my great uncle’s two brothers—the one he lived with and his other brother, my grandfather—supported the system that would have advocated his death.
My grandfather was a fascist. He was an avid member of the Hitler Youth, and joined the Wehrmacht army as soon as he was old enough, to fight for the Nazi vision. He wasn’t a Nazi Party member, but a “normal” participant in the far right principles of that era—normal for that time and place, I mean to say. I wonder if, like many amongst the population, he drew some kind of line when it came to the killing of “afflicted” members of society. There was significant public outcry amongst German and Austrian citizens against the Nazi euthanasia program later known as “T4,” so much so that the killing clinics were forced into covert activity between 1941-45. Perhaps my grandfather was one of those who objected, or perhaps he was ambivalent, or perhaps he just made an exception for a loved one.
If my great uncle hadn’t been disabled, would my grandfather have been in favor of T4? After all, he dehumanized whole swathes of the population, those who were seen as “other” and labeled “subhuman”—Jews, gypsies, gay people. Decades of propaganda—the malicious use of language to stoke up hatred and fear—had cemented his prejudice and instilled a sense of superiority.
As I grappled with these very unsettling questions about my family, with the knowledge that my grandfather had been not just a complicit observer but a perpetrator, I found myself wanting to write about my great uncle. I wanted to explore the dangerously reductive labels applied to those considered “other.” After much hesitation, due to the disturbing nature of the topic, I decided to research and then write about what happened in the Nazi killing clinics. It would be fiction, but based on real testimony, to try to portray the experiences of those who’d been incarcerated and tortured there, living in fear of death.
I read plenty of history books and wrote to Austrian TV companies to request copies of lesser-known documentaries about the notorious Am Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna. This was a clinic specifically for children and young people who were labeled “mentally deficient” or “asocial,” many of whom were secretly killed there. The footage of the empty hospital was haunting, oppressive, and extremely upsetting: echoing corridors, bare rooms with barred windows, and tall trees shielding the hospital on all sides. The testimonies of survivors recounted brutality I could scarcely bear to hear. I felt grief for those killed, for their terrible suffering. Also for their families, who described receiving a pot of ashes in the post with a note of condolence from the hospital, saying their son or daughter had unfortunately died of pneumonia or appendicitis. Some families knew for sure that this was a lie, as their children’s appendixes had been removed years before. It was unthinkable trauma, and harrowing to imagine my kind and loving great uncle meeting such a fate.
The story of the clinics also resonated on another level with my personal experiences of mental health. If I’d lived in Austria in the 1930s or 40s, I would have been a candidate for T4, too, labeled “asocial,” “incurably sick” or “mentally deranged” and perhaps granted a “mercy death.” Between the ages of 20 and 21, I lived in a mental hospital. Diagnosed with a chronic eating disorder when I was 16, I’d also struggled with associated behavioral problems, such as compulsive theft, self-harm, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and suicidal tendencies; “asocial” traits, for certain. Dangerously thin and self-destructive, I couldn’t study, work, or support myself. Help eventually came in the form of admission to an inpatient facility in St. Georges’s Hospital in London. In stark contrast to the experiences of those during the Nazi era, I was cared for, nurtured, healed and reintroduced into society over the course of a couple of years. The care I received was of an extremely high standard; it cost the state £250 a day to keep me there. I’ve never stopped being grateful for that—my life was saved and my quality of life, after a long fight, was restored to me.
I cannot conceive of the gulf between what was given to me and what was taken from those young people in Nazi Germany. But, as someone with a mental illness whose existence was on hold for many years, I too experienced what it was to be labeled—albeit in a far less extreme sense. I knew that society viewed me as “other” and I carried that feeling with me for a long time: I was “unstable,” “mad,” “crazy” or “disturbed.” I became those labels for a while; I internalized the powerful stigmas attached to them. I felt ashamed of my condition—worthless, like damaged goods. I imagined I’d never be able to access “normal” life, the world of “normal,” healthy-minded people. I feared my illness was too frightening and repellant. I felt utterly separate, corralled into a kind of paddock where I believed I would always have to live with others of my kind.
Many people didn’t understand my illness and were afraid. Or they saw me as a petulant, manipulative or faddy young woman obsessed with dieting, selfishly upsetting her family, messing everyone around, and using up precious resources. I should “snap out of it”—what about those with “real” health issues? Each time I went to queue up at the benefit office, still struggling with profound mental health problems, I imagined accusing stares, or disapproval and suspicion from the person who served me at the counter.
These days, with a thankfully wider lens afforded by the passage of time, confidence in my own wellness, and many years of working with vulnerable adults, I’ve been able to reflect on the social phenomenon of labeling and “othering.” I feel passionately the importance of protecting positive perceptions of those with mental health issues, disabilities, or learning difficulties. It is vital to be vigilant about the words chosen to represent groups of people and to be watchful about how those words are put to use by the media and the government.
Language holds the power to diminish, dehumanize, and destroy—as it did with thousands in Nazi Germany. I’m not suggesting there’ll ever be a repeat of the Nazi killing clinics, but I don’t draw that comparison lightly either. What happened there was an extreme instance of “othering.” The humanity of the murdered individuals was utterly overlooked; the definition of “normal” had been narrowed over time and a negative slur was placed on any who didn’t fit the mold.
On a smaller scale, I see this narrowing and dehumanizing happening now via stigmatized labeling in the media. The disabled or mentally ill are used as societal scapegoats, perceptions become skewed, and the result is the homogenizing, demonizing and persecution of whole sections of the population.
For example, in the US gun control debate, violent gun crimes (such as mass shootings) are again and again attributed to mental illness; in the shocked aftermath of such a tragedy, calls for better mental health screening for gun ownership or better mental health care in general, implies a direct link between mental illness and mass violence. The media deflects attention away from alternative solutions, such as restricting gun access for all. When faced with a horrific, senseless crime like a school shooting, it’s understandable to some extent to immediately consider mental illness as an explanation. But few of those who commit the violence are actually mentally ill. If they’re automatically referred to as “sick” or “insane” killers, then what disservice is being done to those with mental illnesses in general? Alienating labels, used repeatedly, increase negative feeling towards the mentally ill in a very real sense. There is no evidence to suggest a mentally ill person is more prone to violence. But, being “other,” they are an easy group to target. For those struggling with their mental health, the persistent stigma is a powerful barrier between themselves and other people, and might keep them from seeking treatment.
The austerity cuts to disability benefits and mental health provision in the UK is also pertinent, the narrative being that the measures will incentivize this group of people into reentering the workplace. As if all that the claimants lack is incentive! Couple this with the UK media’s continual use of terms like “work-shy,” “scrounger,” “lazy,” “scum,” “benefit cheat” or “fraudster,” and we have a serious distortion of public perception and increased hostility. Those who can’t work due to long-term illnesses, disabilities, or mental health problems have spoken of struggling to cope financially, of feelings of low self-worth. There is anger; they are being misrepresented. There have been suicides. The Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) campaign group, and others, has adopted the inverted black triangle as their symbol, referencing the Nazi era badge sewn onto the concentration camp uniform of a person categorized as “asocial” or “Arbeitsscheu” (“work-shy”). The DPAC hasn’t missed the present-day echoes and is fighting fiercely against the tide.
“They say when trouble comes close ranks” writes Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea. And as things have got tougher economically, followed by the rise of the far right, trouble has indeed come. But, as Rhys’s novel explores, what if you are not in their ranks? What if you’re one of the “others”? Then, there is threat in the air. I’ve found myself feeling thankful to not now be falling ill, to not now be needing help, to not now be queuing at the benefit office, having to battle that much harder to prove my validity and worth. I’m thankful too that my great uncle lived his life when he did, surviving that first great danger, and dying at an old age, accepted in his community, valued as each human deserves to be, and supported. He was contented and independent; he was known, liked and appreciated. He was safe.