Grafeneck : the first site of industrialised mass killing in Germany

This is the former Grafeneck killing facility near Gomadingen in the Reutlingen district of Baden-Württemberg. In 1940, at least 10,654 people with disabilities were systematically killed as part of the medical homicide during the Nazi era, known as Action T4.

Throughout this presentation, I shall show you video of what Grafeneck looks like today.  You will see that it is set in very attractive countryside which was part of disguising what the location was used for, as well as being in a relatively hidden location.

Grafeneck Castle was built around 1560 as a hunting lodge by the dukes of Württemberg and expanded to a baroque castle in the years 1762 to 1772. In 1929 the Samaritan Foundation bought the castle, set up a home for the disabled and in 1930 set up its own cemetery.

At the beginning of WW2, Hitler decided to kill people who were physically and mentally challenged, the excuse being that they were a burden to a war time economy.  This was directed from a central office in Berlin’s Tiergartenstr. 4 and as such became known as Action T4.


In the planning phase of Action T4, the Württemberg Ministry of the Interior in Stuttgart, which worked closely with the Berlin T4 central office, proposed Grafeneck as a suitable location for killing people.  Thus Grafeneck became the first location in Germany for industrialised mass murder. The location was appropriate as the chateau grounds are secluded in the forest and as there are only two roads up, it was relatively easy to hide.  The chateau had sufficient space for administration and for the staff whereas the killing was done in a outbuilding some 400 metres or so from there which kept it out of the view of those in the administration.

On 13 October 1939 Richard Alber, who from 1938 to 1944 was the district administrator of the Münsingen district, ordered the evacuation of Grafeneck Castle.  This was to take place on the following day. On 14 October 1939, it was officially confiscated “for the purposes of the Reich”.  At the time of the requisition, there were around 100 patients and around twelve staff in Grafeneck.  Four days earlier the nunnery at Reute near Bad Waldsee had been informed by the Württemberg Ministry of the Interior that they were to receive these people. Four buses took these people away.  As far as I am aware, all the patients who were transferred out of Grafeneck on 14 October 1939, survived Action T4.

Over the next three months Grafeneck was converted into a murder facility.  The interior of the chateau was converted to administration and living rooms, and a police office was set up.  A wooden barrack with around 100 beds was constructed.  An outbuilding was converted into a gas chamber and a crematorium built.

In addition, staff from Stuttgart and Berlin were recruited which would have included doctors and nurses, police and security, administrators, domestics and of course corpse burners. By the beginning of 1940, there were almost 100 people working there.

As an aside, one of the lessons that the Nazis learned was that such a large staff was unnecessary.  When it came to murdering Jewish people in Poland two years later, the amount of German staff was very small although a larger number of what was called Trawniki men were used.  Nonetheless, none of the death camps of Operation Reinhard had the large staff that Grafeneck had and they were killing far more people.

Killings began on 18 January 1940.  Means of death was via bottled carbon monoxide which came from IG Farbenindustrie at the Ludwigshafen site which is today BASF. The first victims came from the care home at Eglfing-Haar in southern Bavaria.  Eventually, victims came from 48 institutions for the disabled and mentally ill, 40 were in what is today Baden-Württemberg, six from Bavaria and one each from Hesse and North Rhine-Westphalia. 

The T4 organisers, Viktor Brack and Karl Brandt, ordered that the sick should only be killed by the medical staff, since Hitler's letter of authorisation dated 1 September 1939 only referred to doctors. The operation of the gas tap in the killing facilities was thus the job of a doctor. However, sometimes no doctor was available so another member of staff operated the gas.  All Grafeneck doctors only used fake names as camouflage in correspondence with the outside world.

The last killing was on 13 December 1940.

Grafeneck closed because the authorities failed to keep the murders secret and there were increasing protests.  After the closure, the personnel were transferred to Hadamar where the killings continued until August 1941.

After the T4 operation closed down at Grafeneck, the chateau became a home for evacuees.

In 1945 the home was used by the French occupation authorities and returned to the Samaritan Foundation within a couple of years.  The disabled people who left Grafeneck at the beginning of the war and who had survived the war moved back to the castle.

The total number of victims is at least 10,654 people with most killings taking place in the summer of 1940. 

A number of the criminals who worked at Grafeneck took over important positions in the Nazi mass extermination camps in Poland. I will look at them and their post war fate in a separate video.

We can see today a Memorial and Name Book which has been available since October 1998. The names of over 8,000 victims are here. The search for the other unknown names is still in progress. Grafeneck has been home to a documentation centre since October 2005.  It receives between 15,000 and 20,000 people annually.