NEUE Sonderausstellung//NEW EXHIBITION
Contemporary Artists on Medical Ethics from the Nazi Doctor´s Trial to the Present
MASTERING DEATH: ARTISTIC PERSPECTIVES
Duration of the exhibition: 2nd March - 1st April 2017
Curator: Andrew WEINSTEIN, PhD
Associate Professor of the History of Art at the Fashion Institute of Technology,
State University of New York, USA
Euthanasia became an important question in late-nineteenth-century Germany after medical breakthroughs extended lifespans, leaving increasing numbers of people to meet their ends from painful terminal illnesses. Shouldn’t the terminally ill have a right to avoid suffering by choosing when they wanted to die? And shouldn’t people too sick or injured to choose for themselves have others give them a merciful death, just as suffering animals routinely receive? In 1913 a terminally-ill German patient asked these questions in support of a proposed euthanasia law. The courts rejected the proposal because its vague definition of impairments that warranted mercy killing could lead to a slippery slope.
During World War I, the German government rationed food and medical supplies to support its troops. As a consequence, many of the more than 140,000 patients in government asylums who died between 1914 and 1918 perished of malnutrition and epidemic disease. Understood by some as a necessary sacrifice, the deaths fueled a debate in the economically difficult interwar years that followed. Less concerned with patients’ suffering than with resource allocation for the mentally ill and physically disabled in government asylums, the most extreme writers argued for “the destruction of life unworthy of life.” To bring health to the body of the German state, they believed, useless or harmful parts should be removed. 1
Adopting these arguments, the Nazis created their Aktion T4 program for secretly killing asylum patients, which their propaganda called “worthless eaters.” Officially established on 1 September 1939, the first day of World War II, the T4 program would save money and free hospital beds for wounded soldiers. Eventually utilizing gas chambers and crematorium ovens, T-4 would also serve as a model for the implementation, two years later, of genocidal policy against the Jews. During those years, the term “euthanasia” (or Gnadentod) became a euphemism for mass murder.
Immediately after the war, in 1946 and ’47, the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial held German physician perpetrators accountable for their crimes. It also established the tenets of modern bioethics, above all, that patients and human experimental subjects must understand and consent to medical intervention. Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia today, legal in some countries and some American states, gives patients the control over their lives that early advocates sought more than a century ago. But these new developments have inspired fresh criticism, some of which draws on the knowledge of German history and the fear of another slippery slope.
Mastering Death: Artistic Perspectives presents artwork by eight contemporary artists that explores the history and ethics of induced death. Who decides the worthiness of a life? By which criteria? What, if anything, constitutes a “good death”?
1 Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: ‘Euthanasia’ in Germany c. 1900-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), 11-19.
<- Back to: Current Programme