The Shift Towards Death

A Comparison of the Nazi Euthanasia Programme and Contemporary Debates on Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide
  • Amy C. Zaro


Euthanasia, the notion of having a good death, is an idea that originated in ancient Greece. Greek discussions about euthanasia illustrate that the human fear of a slow death and the subsequent loss of quality of life are not new issues and have in fact been a major aspect of moral debates throughout the history of Western civilization. Under the Nazi regime, however, euthanasia became a biological solution to a political problem rather than simply a moral debate about ‘a good death’. It grew into a legalized method for mass murder that introduced a certain rhetoric and instituted a tragic softening of conscience that culminated in the Final Solution. Perhaps the most startling aspect of the euthanasia policies of the Third Reich is that some of the rhetoric and reasoning used then are still present in contemporary physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia debates. These contemporary debates tackle the problematic issue of when it is medically, socially, and legally permissible to terminate life. While there are many crucial differences between the euthanasia programme in Nazi Germany and current debates, there are certain continuities which should be explored. These continuities include the pressures of social responsibility, of maintaining of quality of life, and of limits on personal autonomy. This paper will seek to offer background on both the euthanasia programme under the Nazis and the contemporary debates on legalizing physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. This background will be followed by a discussion of how the past horrors of the Nazi regime should be integrated into our current collective conscience in determining the norms of life and death.


Personal Autonomy Contemporary Debate Ethical Choice Mass Murder Nazi Regime 
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2001

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  • Amy C. Zaro

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