Advanced Search Filters

In addition to or instead of a keyword search, use one or more of the following filters when you search.

Skip to main content

1 of 17 items in

Targets of Eugenics

Bookmark this Item

Self-Portrait by Franz Karl Bühler

Self-portrait of Franz Karl Buehler
Prinzhorn Collection, University Hospital Heidelberg

As a young man, Franz Karl Bühler was recognized as one of the most talented metalworkers in Germany. His reputation grew when he won an international competition at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair,1 but he also developed a reputation for being intense and difficult. After being fired from a teaching position for being unreliable, Bühler began experiencing severe paranoia. Believing that pursuers were closing in on him, he jumped into a freezing canal in the city of Hamburg. Pulled from the water, Bühler was taken to a psychiatric hospital in Emmendingen, Germany.2 He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he spent most of the next 42 years living at the Emmendingen hospital. While his symptoms became more pronounced over time, Bühler remained a deeply creative artist and continued to develop his skills.

Bühler’s art ranged from sketches of everyday life to self-portraits and more abstract works. He created the featured self-portrait in September 1918. This piece—along with several other examples of Bühler’s art—appeared in a 1922 book by Hans Prinzhorn called Artistry of the Mentally Ill.3 Prinzhorn was a German doctor and art historian who had assembled a large collection of art created by psychiatric patients.4 He praised Bühler’s work, comparing its intensity and expressiveness to the art of Vincent van Gogh. Prinzhorn’s book was influential and popular among avant-garde artists,5 but conservative critics attacked modern art and its appreciation for the work of psychiatric patients like Bühler. By the mid-1920s, rightwing movements like the Nazi Party were already pushing the idea that modern art was the “obviously crazy” work of “insane and degenerate men." Nazi theories of eugenics claimed that people diagnosed with psychiatric disabilities were threats to the overall health of the so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft"). 

In summer 1937, Nazi authorities organized the first Great German Art Exhibition in Munich to define Nazi-approved German art and culture. To present a contrast to the Great German Art Exhibition and show the public what the regime considered to be “cultural decay,” Nazi Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels decided to stage a “Degenerate Art” exhibition nearby. Nazi officials confiscated thousands of works of art from German museums for the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich. They also confiscated over a hundred works from Prinzhorn’s collection—including several of Bühler’s pieces—for a traveling version of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition that visited other major German cities after the Munich exhibition closed. These artworks were included alongside famous artists’ works in an attempt to show modern art’s supposed “relationship to the art of the mentally ill."7

With the outbreak of World War II, the Nazi regime’s policies targeting people with disabilities and “hereditary illnesses” became more radical and deadly.8 Shortly after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Adolf Hitler authorized a widespread program of mass murder of people with disabilities known as the T4 program.9 In the first phase of this program, Nazi officials created six major killing centers located in medical institutions throughout the Reich. The first of these went into operation in January 1940 at Grafeneck in southwestern Germany. 

Around noon on March 5, 1940, several vehicles arrived at the Emmendingen hospital from Grafeneck. Bühler and dozens of other psychiatric patients were loaded onto two buses by SS men and Nazi nurses.10 They were then driven to Grafeneck, where they were murdered by carbon monoxide gas.11

Bühler won a prestigious international competition with an elaborate wrought-iron gate that he submitted. In 1934, Bühler’s prize-winning gate—the "Salve Tor"—was installed in the Karlsruhe City Gardens, where it can be seen today.

To learn more about Bühler's life, see Charlie English, "The Man Who Jumped in the Canal," in The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Art, and Hitler’s First Mass-Murder Programme (London: William Collins, 2021): 3–11.


Prinzhorn concealed Bühler’s identity by using the pseudonym Franz Pohl. Hans Prinzhorn, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken: Ein Beitrag zur Psychologie und Psychopathologie der Gestaltung (Berlin: Verlag von Julius Springer, 1922).

The Prinzhorn Collection is housed today at the University of Heidelberg. Bühler's prize-winning wrought-iron gate stands in the Karlsruhe City Gardens.

Artistry of the Mentally Ill was especially influential to the Dada and Surrealist movements. 

To learn more about Nazi attitudes about art, psychiatric disabilities, and "cultural decay," see Charlie English, The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Art, and Hitler's First Mass-Murder Programme (London: William Collins, 2021).

Slogans painted on the walls to mock the artworks included "crazy at any price" and "how sick minds viewed nature." To learn more about the "Degenerate Art" exhibition, see Olaf Peters, ed., Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 (Munich: Prestel, 2014). To view film footage of the exhibition, see the Experiencing History item, Film of "Degenerate Art" Exhibition.

The Nazi regime first initiated discriminatory measures against people with disabilities and so-called “hereditary illnesses” through the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases and the Nuremberg Laws about marriage. These laws were based on theories of eugenics and Nazi ideas of race and biology. Roughly 400,000 Germans were forcibly sterilized under this law. To learn more about forced sterilizations in Nazi Germany, see Nina Tripp, Standing on Infertile Ground: An Analysis of the Spectrum of Sterilization Experiences under National Socialism (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, 2019). For more primary sources about forced sterilizations, see the related Experiencing History items, Signed Testimony of Helga Gross and Letter to SS Doctor Gregor Ebner.

The name T4 was taken from the address of the program’s central office in Berlin at Tiergartenstraße 4. To learn more, see the Experiencing History collection, Targets of Eugenics.


For more on the personal motivations of nurses involved in the T4 program, refer to this relevant episode of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum podcast, 12 Years That Shook the World

For more primary sources related to the T4 program, see the related Experiencing History items, Sworn Statement of Karl Willig and Oral History with Robert Wagemann.

Close Window Expand Source Viewer

This browser does not support PDFs. Please download the PDF to view it: .

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Prinzhorn Collection, University Hospital Heidelberg
Source Number N13179
Date Created
September 1918
Photographer / Creator
Franz Karl Bühler
Emmendingen, Germany
Grafeneck, Germany
Still Image Type Artwork
How to Cite Museum Materials

Thank You for Supporting Our Work

We would like to thank The Alexander Grass Foundation for supporting the ongoing work to create content and resources for Experiencing History. View the list of all donors and contributors.


Learn more about sources for your classroom