In spring 1941, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler met with Reichsleiter Philipp Bouhler, head of Hitler's Chancellery to discuss his desire to relieve concentration camps of "excess ballast", sick prisoners and those no longer able to work. Bouhler was Adolf Hitler's agent for implementation of the Action T4 "euthanasia" program for the mentally ill, disabled and inmates of hospitals and nursing homes deemed unworthy of inclusion in Nazi society.
Himmler and Bouhler transferred technology and techniques used in the Aktion T4 programme to the concentration camps, and later to Einsatzgruppen and death camps, in the hopes of efficiently killing the unwanted prisoners and inconspicuously disposing of the bodies. In addition, though Aktion T4 was officially shut down by Hitler on August 24, 1941, it was continued by many of the physicians who had been involved until Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945.
Bouhler instructed Oberdienstleiter Viktor Brack, the head of Hauptamt II ("main office" II) of the Hitler's Chancellery (Kanzlei des Führers) to implement this new order. Brack was already in charge of the various front operations of T4.
The scheme operated under the Concentration Camps Inspector and the Reichsführer-SS under the name "Sonderbehandlung 14f13". The combination of numbers and letters was derived from the SS record-keeping system and consists of the number "14" for the Concentration Camps Inspector, the letter "f" for the German word "deaths" (Todesfälle) and the number "13" for the means of killing, in this case, for gassing in the T4 killing centers. "Sonderbehandlung" ("special action"—literally "special handling") was the euphemistic term for execution or killing.
The operation began in April 1941. A panel of doctors began visiting concentration camps to select sick and incapacitated prisoners for "elimination". This panel included those already experienced from Aktion T4, such as professors Werner Heyde and Hermann Paul Nitsche, and doctors Friedrich Mennecke, Curt Schmalenbach, Horst Schumann, Otto Hebold, Rudolf Lonauer, Robert Müller, Theodor Steinmeyer, Gerhard Wischer, Viktor Ratka and Hans Bodo Gorgaß. To speed up the process, camp commandants made a preliminary selection list, as they had done in the T4 operation. This left just a few questions to be answered, such as personal information, date of admission to the camp, diagnosis of incurable disease, war injuries, criminal referral based on the criminal code of the Third Reich and any previous offenses. Under the operation's guidelines, names of ballastexistenzen ("dead weight" prisoners) were to be compiled and presented to the medical doctors for "withdrawal from service". This included any prisoner who had been unable to work for a long time or was substantially incapacitated and would not be able to return to work.
Prisoners swept up by the commandant in the preliminary selection had to report to the medical panel. There was no proper medical examination carried out; rather, the prisoners were questioned about their participation in World War I and about any war medals they might have received. Based on personnel and medical records, the panel decided how to classify each of the reviewed prisoners. The final assessment of the prisoners was made using the information in the reporting form provided, and was limited to the decision as to whether or not the prisoner would be steered toward "special treatment" 14f13. The report form and results were sent for documentary registration to the T4 central office in Berlin.
Those prisoners being considered for the preliminary selection were sometimes encouraged by the camp administration to come forward if they felt sick or unable to work. They were led to believe they would go to a "recovery camp", where they would have lighter work to do. Thus, many prisoners readily volunteered. But, after the gassings at the killing centers, victims' belongings were sent back to the camp warehouse for sorting. Despite the secrecy, prisoners learned the true reason for the selection, and even prisoners with serious illnesses stopped reporting to the infirmary.
The first known selection took place in April 1941 at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. By summer, at least 400 prisoners from Sachsenhausen were "retired". During the same period, 450 prisoners from Buchenwald and 575 prisoners from Auschwitz were gassed at the Nazi Sonnenstein Euthanasia Centre. 1,000 prisoners from Mauthausen concentration camp were killed at Hartheim Castle. Between September and November 1941, 3,000 prisoners from Dachau, as well as several thousand from Mauthausen and neighboring Gusen concentration camp, were gassed at Hartheim Castle. Prisoners from Flossenbürg, Neuengamme and Ravensbrück concentration camps were also selected and killed. In the ensuing period, another 1,000 prisoners from Buchenwald, 850 from Ravensbrück and 214 from Groß-Rosen concentration camps were gassed at Sonnenstein Castle and Bernburg. In March–April 1942, some 1,600 women were selected at Ravensbrück and gassed at Bernburg.
These "medical reviews" are described in an excerpt from existing letters written by Dr. Friedrich Mennecke. During a selection at Buchenwald, Mennecke wrote to his wife;
Weimar, Nov. 25, '41 8:58 a.m.
Only three Nazi killing centers (NS-Tötungsanstalt) were used for the gassing of the "invalided" prisoners: Bernburg Euthanasia Centre (headed by Irmfried Eberl), Sonnenstein Euthanasia Centre (headed by Horst Schumann) and Hartheim Euthanasia Centre (headed by Rudolf Lonauer and Georg Renno).
After the doctors' commissions had "invalided" the different concentration camps' prisoners, the camp administration had to provide them on request. They were transported either by the "Gekrat" or the Reichsbahn directly to one of the killing centers.
The prisoners were examined for gold teeth by a prison doctor and labeled appropriately before being led into a gas chamber, where they were killed by carbon monoxide. After any gold teeth were removed, which were sent to a central office in Berlin, the corpses were incinerated in the on-site crematorium. Some corpses were examined further before incineration.
The killing was carried out by the same staff, using the same means as used previously with the mentally ill in Aktion T4. A few administrative details were changed in that the deaths were recorded by members of the respective camp administration; they informed relatives of the deaths, claiming illness as the cause. A detailed description was given by Vincent Nohe to the Linz Kriminalpolizei in September 1945, who were then investigating the Nazi war crimes that had taken place near there. Nohe, who had worked as a "burner" in the crematorium at the Hartheim killing center, was convicted at the Dachau-Mauthausen Trial in 1946 and sentenced to death for the murder of sick and incapacitated concentration camp prisoners. He was executed in 1947.
Over time, the selections increasingly included political or other persecuted peoples, Jews and so-called asoziale. Pursuant to the general guidelines of the Bavarian police, August 1, 1936, those to be taken into "protective custody" were "gypsies, vagrants, tramps, the "work shy", idlers, beggars, prostitutes, troublemakers, career criminals, rowdies, traffic violators, psychopaths and the mentally ill."
Due to the increasing need for workers in the war economy, the Concentration Camps Inspectorate issued a decree on March 26, 1942, which was distributed to all camp commandants. (In 1942, the CCI was incorporated into the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt under SS-Obergruppenführer Oswald Pohl as "Amt D" under SS-Brigadeführer Richard Glücks. The decree was signed by Arthur Liebehenschel, acting in Glücks' stead.)
It has been made known via a report from a camp commandant, that of the 51 prisoners retired for Sonderbehandlung 14f13, after a while, 42 of these prisoners again became "capable of work" and consequently didn't need to be sent. From this, it is evident that the selection of prisoners is not proceeding according to the stated regulations. The examinations panel may only choose such prisoners who match the regulations and above all, are no longer able to work.
In order to administer the work set up at concentration camps, the prisoner workforce must be retained at the camp. The camp commandants of the concentration camps are asked to focus particular attention to this.
The Chief of the Central Office
A year later, the intensified war situation required further restrictions on selections to ensure that every able-bodied worker could and would be put to work in the war economy. Thus, on April 27, 1943, Glücks presented a new circular decree with instructions to, in future, "retire" only those prisoners who were mentally ill or disabled.
The Reichsführer-SS and Chief of the German Police has decided that in the future, only mentally ill prisoners may be retired by the doctors' panel assembled for Action 14f13. All other incapacitated prisoners unable to work (those sick with tuberculosis, bed-ridden cripples, etc.) are categorically excluded from this operation. Bed-ridden prisoners shall be groomed for corresponding work that they can perform from bed. In future, the order of the Reichsführer-SS is to be heeded closely. The fuel requirements for this purpose are therefore dropped.
After these guidelines were issued, only the Hartheim killing center was needed. Those at Bernburg and Sonnenstein were closed. The first phase of Aktion 14f13 was over.
According to a command from April 11, 1944, new guidelines launched the second phase of Aktion 14f13. From then on, neither were forms filled out nor selections made by a doctors' panel . The selection of the victims to die became the sole responsibility of the camp administrations, as a general rule, this effectively was the camp doctor. This did not, however, exclude the physically ill who were no longer fit for work from being killed. This was done within the camp or by transferring the prisoners to a camp that had a gas chamber, such as Mauthausen, Sachsenhausen or Auschwitz concentration camps.
By this time, those being gassed at Hartheim included forced laborers from eastern Europe who were no longer able to work, as well as Soviet prisoners of war and Hungarian Jews, in addition to the concentration camp inmates. The last prisoner transport to Hartheim was on December 11, 1944, ending the operation. The gas chambers at Hartheim were dismantled and trace of their use removed, as much as possible. The castle was subsequently used as an orphanage.
The exact number of people killed under the Aktion 14f13 program is not certain. Scholarly literature on the subject puts the figure at between 15,000 and 20,000 for the period ending in 1943.Bernburg Euthanasia Centre
Brandenburg Euthanasia Centre
Grafeneck Euthanasia Centre
Hadamar Euthanasia Centre
Hartheim Euthanasia Centre
Sonnenstein Euthanasia Centre