A Review of "Life Unworthy of Life" by Derek Elkins
A Review of Life Unworthy of Life by Derek Elkins by Anthony Horvath
Derek Elkins' Life Unworthy of Life came before my eyes, from his perspective, at the most opportune time. I was immersed in studying the philosophies and ideologies that had led to the Holocaust, and the T4 Project (which the book is about) was explicit foreshadowing of that later horror. I was instantly drawn into the manuscript. From my perspective, however, I could have chosen a better time to read it. Evidently, my plane had been moved to a different gate and they had been calling my name for the better part of twenty minutes... "Argher Heervreth blah blah blah..." ... "Theeny Hurgle, [indecipherable]..."
If it hadn't been for the fact that I suddenly thought it very odd that they had not begun boarding at my gate with just 3 minutes before takeoff and coming to the conclusion that it was unlikely they would fly a plane with just a single passenger, I would not have hurriedly checked the board, and I would not have, in a panic, flung myself in the direction of the gate where my plane actually was waiting for me.
"[indecipherable] Aneeny Gursheth?" the attendant said as I flew by her.
It was the spring of 2012. I was in St. Louis for some pro-life stuff. It was my task to select the winners for my ministry's annual Christian Novel Contest, and Derek's book was one of the finalists. Now, does making the judge nearly miss his plane count for a book, or against it?
The question remains unanswered; nevertheless, it ended up being the grand prize winner. Not long after that, I would extend an offer to publish the book. Derek would accept.
And now we are just two weeks away from its official release, on April 23, 2013.
My how time flies.
Fly, indeed. Today, calling someone a 'Nazi' or a 'fascist' is about the worst thing that you can say about someone, but few people actually have any idea what the terms mean or meant. And that is to be expected, I suppose. Another term similarly deployed is 'zealot,' but who can possibly recall the actual attitudes of such people who lived 2,000 years ago? And that, of course, is when Hitler lived and fascism thrived. People today are only vaguely aware of what happened seventy years ago. They're not going to know the true sentiments of people like the Nazis, who existed only in ancient history, millennia ago.
"Waitasec," you're saying. "I don't know much, but I thought World War 2 was just in the last century."
Thereyago. Right on. It isn't ancient history at all. There are still people alive from that era--you would call them grandma and grandpa or, perhaps, great-grandma and great-grandpa. We would like to think that the belief system that led to the Holocaust was completely dead and buried and covered with the dust of centuries, but in point of fact, it is still alive and kicking.
When one takes the time to identify the actual philosophies and attitudes that led to the Holocaust, some startling conclusions are reached. One of my own was, "Holy cats! This German doctor from 1920 is saying EXACTLY the same things in EXACTLY the same way as that progressive, socialistic, [etc], bioethicist said in that journal, news article, [etc], last week.
Even a quick exercise explains how this could plausibly happen: if we inflate the word 'Nazi' into the full name of its political party, you get National Socialism. It's got the word 'socialism' right in it. Nazism was about as far away from endorsing a 'limited government' as one can get. Communism and Nazism were variants of the same idea. The main difference is that the Communists thought their ideology needed to be applied to the world, and the Nazis thought it should be applied on a nation by nation basis.
The Nazi T4 Project was such an application. Genetically and biologically inferior Germans needed to be rounded up and exterminated for the good of the nation and the race. Or, to put it another way: the Nazis are known for their war against the Jews, but they were actually quite consistent... even 'inferior' Germans were targeted, and they started with them.
The numbers are not known. There could have been hundreds of thousands of physically and mentally disabled people who were gassed and turned to ash. Probably, many others had already been sterilized to prevent the 'defectives' from reproducing and putting a strain on the nation's resources. When Germany went to war, it became even harder to justify feeding unproductive sacks of human flesh when the genetically best were dying on the front.
I found this attitude concisely expressed in the work of a German attorney and doctor, writing in a 1920 book (hence, before there were even Nazis!) called Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life. These were not ideologues. They were academics. Theirs was a dispassionate look at serious social and ethical problems. They didn't mean anything by it! Just brainstorming, man!
This short work nonetheless had significant impact on German thought: there was life unworthy of living, and individuals and society not only had the right, but the duty, to end their suffering. Side benefit--not to be confused as possibly being the real rationale or anything--but ending the suffering of these folks saves the State big bucks. This put doctors on the front lines of effecting positive social change, with science on their side, and ethics prompting them to do the gruesome, but necessary, work. The T4 Project was essentially a medical program. It was conceived by doctors, not Nazis, and implemented by doctors. Many of these same would take their skills and expertise in wiping out tens of thousands of 'defective' Germans to the concentration camps. (See Robert Lifton's The Nazi Doctors)
Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life was written by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, but you may as well swap their names out and replace them with Francisco Minerva and Alberto Giubilini, who wrote in a journal article not too long ago:
Although it is reasonable to predict that living with a very severe condition is against the best interest of the newborn, it is hard to find definitive arguments to the effect that life with certain pathologies is not worth living, ... people affected by many other severe disabilities, are often reported to be happy.
Nonetheless, to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. [emphasis mine]
Hey, don't get upset with these two! They're just academics. Brainstorming. They don't mean anything by it. Reeeeeeeeeeeelax.
Anyway, you can see in the foregoing fruits of my research why Derek's book would have leapt out at me. That whole 'Life unworthy of life' thing I was researching? It's in the title of the book! And as the father of a 'defective' child that the academics blithely chat about 'dealing with,' I was very interested to see how he treated this dark stain on the history of medicine.
As the publisher, I suppose I can be expected to say that I thought he treated it admirably. Well, that's the honest truth. Told from the perspective of a German (non-Nazi) doctor suddenly thrown into a situation where he is being asked to apply his very own ideas, there was great potential for somber, sober, even dull, plot elements where the intricacies of the ethics are pulled apart and examined. The ethics are examined, but with Derek's characteristic biting humor. In other words, the book educated, but it also entertained.
If you are not familiar with Derek's quirky sarcasm, you should check out his short stories at bardandbook.com.
It is not a perfect book. Some of the characters could have been developed more. Also, I think it is possible that people reading this book, properly belonging in the genre of 'historical fiction,' might not be aware of the fact that Derek's backdrop is actual history. At one point, he describes the words of a German poster portraying a disabled person that lists how much that person costs the state, but I don't know if many readers will understand that Derek did not make that up. In another section, he describes the fact that a letter was read in the Catholic churches, simultaneously, condemning the T4 deeds; this really happened. A reader's inability to recognize which parts were real and which parts are author inventions might diminish the potential power of this novel.
To what degree is it the author's responsibility to bridge that gap for the reader? Normally, I'd say low. I'm not sure in this case. However, if the book goads people into researching the T4 project and the ideology that made it possible, that will be enough. It will be fairly easy for an inquisitive reader to determine which parts were history, and which parts are fiction.
Derek writes as a Christian, and his book won a Christian writing contest, but some Christian readers may find their sensibilities affronted. I don't take this to be a flaw in the book, but rather a strength: the Nazi-era medical doctors possessed an ethic completely different than those described in prairie romances. They were Übermensch, after all. We should expect to see some amoral attitudes and behaviors.
Being innocent of evil not only does not entail being ignorant of evil, but being ignorant of evil, historically, brings that evil to one's doorstep.
And some would say that this has happened again, and already, and is presently with us. After all, there are still people who believe that they can properly decide when life is unworthy of life. There is, perhaps, more at stake than merely missing one's flight.
Derek's book will be released in conjunction with my ministry's fourth annual online apologetics conference, coming up this Earth Day, 2013. For all details, and to attend the conference, visit: http://onlineapologeticsconference.com/