Snapshot: Steinhof

As part of my Inclusive Education Course over here in Austria, I’ve visited a lot of organisations and sites as part of our ‘excursions.’ They all relate in some way to how people outside ‘mainstream’ society have been treated and educated. I’ll be writing some snapshots of these places to summarize what I have seen and learnt. 

Warning: this post talks about things like Nazis, tortured children and deliberate extermination. If you aren’t up for reading about these things, skip this post.

During my course in Graz, we had a weekend trip to Vienna. On the Saturday afternoon, we went to Steinhof.

When Steinhof opened in 1907, it was a fairly progressive mental health hospital, at least for it’s time. It had a park where patients could walk and a church where they could worship. They were housed and treated in the rows of pavilions that make up the bulk of the hospital.

However, when Austria was annexed just prior to the Second World War, the function of the hospital started to change. Soon, not just the mentally unwell but many types of ‘socially undesirable’ people sent to Steinhof. Communists, the same-sex attracted, women who gave birth outside of marriage, children with autism or other behavioural disorders – anyone who didn’t fit a narrow criteria of ‘normal.’

The Nazi Government did not want to waste food or medicine on these people, so treatment was stopped, which killed many patients, and food was scarce, which killed even more. Then the experiments started. Over half of the hospitals’ patients were children, and a number of the doctors, led by Heinrich Gross, began carrying out experiments on the children’s brains. These experiments often led to agonizing deaths for the patients.

Of course, patients there didn’t just die from starvation, a lack of treatment or experimental torture. Some were very deliberately killed. If their file was reviewed by the head office of T4, the Nazi extermination program, and it was decided they weren’t worthy of life, they would be injected with a cocktail of drugs that would slowly kill them over the next few days.

Obviously, visiting this site was an intense and slightly horrible experience. I think the worst part was knowing that those running this hospital of death were never brought to account for it. Heinrich Gross, the main instigator, didn’t face trial until the early 2000s, and it was never concluded as he died in 2005. After WWII he had a successful career as a psychologist and university lecturer in Vienna.
Visiting was one of the most emotionally intense and awful experiences I have been through, but it feels even worse knowing most of those running these experiments and death hospitals got away with it and never faced a trial. The sense of injustice overwhelmed me.
When we labelled people as ‘other,’ when we begin to think of people as different and not like us, we run into trouble. It’s easy to dehumanize other humans if we’ve already convinced ourselves we don’t have that much in common with them anyway. It’s easy to forget that we are only who we are through God’s grace and luck. If we were the other, the marginalized, the forgotten and despised, how might we view things differently?
I am still figuring out what this experience has taught me, but most of all I think it has served as a warning – that to be human does not always mean we act humanely. That mercy and compassion do not come naturally and can be waylaid easily. That justice does not always happen this side of heaven, and we cannot assume things will work out for the best if we do nothing. That horrors happen, often behind closed doors and with the approval of the state.
How do we react to the things humanity is capable of, both in the past and the present? How do we deal with the darkness in us, collectively and individually? I’m not sure. We look to Jesus, who is light and grace and mercy, the perfect example of humanity. We try to live like him, treating others with compassion and grace, whether or not we think they deserve it or not – for if Jesus loved us at our worst, how can we deem anyone unlovable?
These things help. But they don’t solve the reality of living with the knowledge of what humans do to each other. I don’t know how to reconcile that. I don’t think we are meant to be able to reconcile these horrible misdeeds though. It should hurt. It should make us uncomfortable and angry. It should make us feel awful. Maybe these are the only right reactions to injustice and suffering. Maybe we need to grieve, despair, and then get up, fix our eyes on Jesus, and try to do better.
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