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Targets of Eugenics

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Oral History with Robert Wagemann

Robert Wagemann was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1937. His parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses whose religious views made them political targets of the Nazi regime.1 His father was harassed by his neighbors because he would not support the Nazi Party, and his mother was arrested for distributing leaflets while she was pregnant. She went into labor at home shortly after she was released from custody.2 Robert’s right hip was injured during birth, giving him a physical disability that became more noticeable as he grew. 

In the featured oral history, Wagemann observes that growing up in Nazi Germany as a Jehovah’s Witness with a disability meant that “I had two strikes against me.”3 The Nazi regime targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to conform to Nazi expectations as political opponents, and it targeted people with disabilities as supposed threats to the so-called “genetic health” of the Nazi "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft"). Nazi authorities and German medical professionals tried to keep traits deemed negative from being passed on to future generations of Germans by legalizing forced sterilizations—medical procedures designed to make it biologically impossible for a person to reproduce.4

Nazi persecution of people with disabilities became more radical in the context of World War II. In August 1939—the month before the German invasion of Poland started World War II in Europe—Nazi officials ordered German medical professionals to report all infants and toddlers who showed signs of mental or physical disabilities. Parents were encouraged to surrender these children to state-run residential clinics, where medical staff secretly murdered them by starvation or lethal injection.5

When he was about five years old, Robert’s mother was ordered to bring him to the university clinic at Heidelberg to be examined. Although Robert’s physical disability had been acquired at birth and had not been inherited, the doctors decided that he should still be killed. Such decisions were often based upon perceptions of whether or not a person could provide useful labor for the regime. In the featured interview, Robert says that his mother overheard the doctors’ plans from the next room. When the doctors left for lunch, she grabbed her son and ran from the clinic.

Robert’s family took him to live with his paternal grandfather to avoid authorities. At first, the family was able to be together often. They even met with other Jehovah’s Witnesses at secret religious gatherings held in the woods. But Robert soon attracted attention to himself as the only child in school who would not sing the German national anthem or give the Nazi salute. Local authorities came looking for them, but his mother had already fled with Robert to hide on her parents’ farm. 

Robert and his mother lived secretly on the farm until the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II in Europe in 1945. When he had grown, Wagemann worked making scientific equipment. His disability was never an obstacle to him in his career. Wagemann married and moved to the United States in the 1960s. He and his wife had several children and grandchildren.

The Nazi regime targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to support the Nazi Party and were strongly opposed to war. Authorities found Jehovah’s Witnesses threatening to Nazi visions of a united German nation because of their refusal to serve in the German military, display swastika flags on their homes, or give the Nazi salute. To learn more about the Nazi persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, see Hans Hesse, ed., Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses during the Nazi Regime, 1933-1945 (Bremen, Germany: Edition Temmen, 2001); and M. James Penton, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Third Reich: Sectarian Politics under Persecution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004). 

Many Jehovah's Witnesses who were arrested under Nazi rule were ultimately released—and sometimes rearrested if their behavior continued to defy the Nazi regime's expectations for social and political conformity among German citizens. 

For more on the experiences of Jehovah's Witnesses, see the related Experiencing History items, Decision in the Case of Franz Josef Seitz and Letter from J.L. Published in the Golden Age.

For more primary sources on forced sterilizations, see the Experiencing History collection, Targets of Eugenics.

To learn more, see Michelle Mouton, From Nurturing the Nation to Purifying the Volk: Weimar and Nazi Family Policy, 1918-1945 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2017); and Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: "Euthanasia" in Germany c. 1900-1945 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

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Due to the fact that we had only a midwife and not the proper care. It was a breach birth and uh... My hip was destroyed during the process. And so now I had two strikes against me. Being a son, born to Witnesses and also having a defect. My mom and I were summoned to a part of the university clinic in Heidelberg in Schlierheim, and there I was examined and during the examination my mom was sitting on the outside of the room and she overheard a conversation that the doctors would do away with me, would Abspritz me, which means that it would give me a needle and put me to sleep. My mom overheard the conversation and during lunchtime while the doctors were gone, she grabbed hold of me. We went down to the Naga River, into the high reeds, and there she put my clothes on. And from there on, we really went into hiding because now we knew that they really were after us. So. We went to my father's father's house, where we also stood until I started school. And starting school, school was another encounter because the first day of school was like we were ordered to assemble in front of the schoolhouse and then singing. We were supposed to sing the national anthem and give the Hitlergrüss Hitler salute. And of course, we...uh... My parents myself. We didn't do that. My mom and my father always told me salvation only comes from our Creator, Jehovah, God and Jesus Christ, and we never put trust in any man. So naturally, I did not do the Hitler salute, nor did I sing the national anthem. And it was a small school. There must have been maybe 500 youngsters, and I was the only one not saluting and singing the national anthem. So immediately it was noticed. Oh, Wagemann there. What's going on with him and why isn't he doing like the rest is doing? Oh, don't you know that different... Witnesses, you know, or in those days they called him Bibelforscher, you know, like Bible students. And uh, well, the next day, the priest in the party uniform came. So did the mayor and the policeman. And I forgot who else. And they wanted to pick me up. And I mean, I remember back standing in the courtyard in front of the school and not singing that National Anthem and not giving the Hitler salute. And I could not do it because, for the simple reason I said to myself, What if Jehovah, God and Jesus Christ will look upon me now and I would do that? How would he feel? And so that gave me strength enough to stand up for what I was doing. 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 1992.A.0124.83
RG Number 50.028.0083
Date of Interview
November 29, 1994
Duration 00:03:50
Time Selection 2:36–6:26
Robert Wagemann
Interview Type Oral History
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